The Empress by Meg Clothier

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Meg Clothier takes some very different and interesting historical characters to write about – in this case, Agnes of France, one of the daughters of Louis VII, who married two Emperors of Byzantium, both of whom were murdered, and then lived happily ever after (hopefully!) with a Byzantine general. Not too much is known about her, but Meg Clothier fleshes out her story and her character wonderfully, starting with her first marriage and ending with the nightmarish Fourth Crusade when a bunch of Western Crusaders sacked Constantinople instead of doing what they were supposed to be doing.

My one complaint is the use of “crude” language. I hate to sound unduly prudish, but was it really necessary for the characters to say “fuck” and “piss” quite so often?! Other than that, this is a very good book about a person and a place little covered in Western historical fiction.

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Before Versailles by Karleen Koen

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This book covers the period in 1661 when Louis XIV a) assumed full power and b) took up with Louise de la Valliere. It’s very entertaining – complete with a Dumas-esque “man in the iron mask”” plot – although, as with the Sandra Gulland book, I really do have problems with the idea of Louis XIV as a romantic hero! However, unfortunately it’s really not a patch on the author’s three previous books. Taken on its own merits, though, it’s not bad at all.

The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick

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“The Greatest Knight” is William Marshal, who, as Elizabeth Chadwick points out, is one of the neglected figures of medieval English history, rising from a relatively obscure background to become one of the most powerful men in the country. It also features many of the other great figures of early Plantagenet England, including the wonderful Eleanor of Aquitaine, and is historically accurate where it can be and convincing where the facts aren’t really known.

Henry II, Eleanor and those of their “Devil’s Brood” who feature in the book – Henry, Richard and John – are all presented in a way which seems to reflect their characters pretty fairly, and William and his wife Isabelle de Clare come across really well. This book’s one of a trilogy, and I must try to get hold of copies of the other two parts of it ASAP!

Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland

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This book, by the author of the excellent “Josephine” trilogy, is about the life of Louise de la Valliere, the mistress of Louis XIV, up until her decision to enter a convent. For some reason, I always get Louise de la Valliere a bit confused in my head with Louise de Keroualle, which is really stupid because they were very different people – Louise de la Valliere was much nicer!!

Much of this book is imagined/made up, because we don’t know that much about Louise’s early life, but it’s well done and her character comes across well. However, I really do have problems with the idea of Louis XIV as a romantic hero! Maybe the English/British prejudice against him is too deeply ingrained!! Well, he may have been the “Sun King”, but he was still the man who barged into the Netherlands, and who revoked the Edict of Nantes. However, that’s hardly the author’s fault! Good read.

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

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This is a novel, set in the early 1880s, about a rather spoilt but penniless young woman from London who goes out to South Africa to marry a cousin who’s a doctor there, but meets another man along the way. As the story unfolds, she’s forced to realise that she’s got both men completely wrong. It portrays the seamier side of the diamond rush and the difficulties for British and Afrikaner settles in the Karoo very well. She doesn’t use the names of real historical figures, or real diamond companies, when covering the topic of the controversial response to a smallpox epidemic in the mining areas, but the epidemic and the attempts to cover it up for financial reasons are real historical events. It’s not the sort of deep historical fiction that I prefer, but it’s a good read all the same.

Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff

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It must be nearly 30 years since I last read this book. Oh dear, I’m very old! I wanted to re-read it in preparation for a visit later this year to the battlefield of Killiecrankie, where “Bonnie Dundee” was killed in 1689, and Blair Castle, the crucially important stronghold which both the Jacobites and the government forces wanted control of.

The book is narrated by a fictional character, Hugh Herriott, who is living in exile in the Netherlands, having fled Scotland after the collapse of the Jacobite rising, and having earlier served under John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee. It covers a complicated period in Scottish history – the so-called “Killing Times”, when Claverhouse was involved in suppressing the Covenanters, who wanted a Presbyterian rather than an Episcopalian system of church organisation, in SW Scotland in the later years of Charles II’s reign and then Charles II’s reign, and the Jacobite rising which he led in Scotland in 1689. He’s got a mixed reputation in Scotland – “Bloody Claverhouse” but also a Jacobite hero. He hasn’t got much of a reputation at all in England, really – the Covenanter uprisings seem to’ve been regarded as more of a nuisance than anything else, and the rising of 1689 doesn’t have any of the “romance” attached to it that the Fifteen and the Forty-Five have, and tends to be overlooked compared to the events in Ireland the following year.

It’s made clear from the start that the book is intended to be sympathetic to Dundee, but really Dundee is only ever in the background. It’s Hugh who’s the main character, and the book’s about him – Dundee’s main role in it is as the man whom Hugh hero-worships and is prepared to follow anywhere. I’m not sure that that was the idea, but it’s an excellent book – a “young adult” book, but it works for adults too – all the same. There aren’t enough historical novels for children and “young adults”, and without Rosemary Sutcliff there’d be even fewer!

I am very excited about the prospect of seeing Killiecrankie and Blair Castle :-). I’ve never been to the Highlands before.

Young Elizabeth Green by Constance Savery

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Oh dear, LOL. This was meant to be an uplifting tale of an orphan in Regency England who was sent to be a governess in difficult circumstances, and coped due to reading the Bible and preaching at people. Unfortunately, it came across as a spoof of umpteen different genres, which I don’t suppose was the idea!

For a kick off, the orphans were all known by numbers – which rhymed with their names. So they were addressed as “Fifteen, Elizabeth Green,” “Five, Louisa Clive,” “Six, Jane Rix,” etc, which sounded like a bad game of bingo. Then there were the young men of the house – instead of being called, say, George, Henry and Charles, they were called Cosmo, Ughtred and Nelmont! Nelmont, having been suspended from Eton from bad behaviour, completely reformed after reading a psalm written down by Elizabeth Green. One of the orphans was rescued from the orphanage after her grandparents listened to Elizabeth Green’s preaching. I think even Martha Finley might have drawn the line at those two storylines!

So it was entertaining because it kept making me laugh, but I really don’t think that that was the author’s intention :-).