Fire Queen by Joanna Courtney

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This is the second in Joanna Courtney’s series “reclaiming” Shakespearean heroines.  However, whilst Lady Macbeth was a real historical figure, Ophelia, the main character in this book, wasn’t.  The story told here is based partly on the 13th century “Saxo Grammaticus”, an Icelandic telling of the story of the Danish prince “Amleth”, on which Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is *very* loosely based, but there’s no Ophelia in that, only a “temptress” who’s nothing like the rather pathetic Ophelia created by Shakespeare.  So Joanna Courtney’s made her up, as a warrior who fights alongside the men, is Hamlet’s constable, is made a prince by him, and carries on with him and a lot of other men but refuses to marry.

It’s a bit like rewriting “Rebecca” with the second Mrs de Winter giving Mrs Danvers her marching orders.  Or rewriting “Wuthering Heights” with Isabella Linton telling Heathcliff that she wouldn’t look twice at him if he were the last man on earth.  Only even more extreme.  Totally bonkers, but it’s actually very entertaining.  She’s intertwined the story with the real life events of the early 7th century clashes between the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia and the Celtic kingdom of Dalriada/Dal Riata (Hamlet and Ophelia both end up in Britain for part of the book), a part of history which rarely features in novels.  And there are some wonderful depictions of Norse religious ceremonies  … although they all seem to finish early when everyone pairs up with some random partner and heads off into the bushes, someone decides to murder someone else, or, usually, both.

If you’re a big fan of Shakespeare, which I’m not, this book will have you reaching for either a bottle of vodka or a vial of smelling salts.  Otherwise, you will probably find it rather good fun, and quite informative as well.

In the Shakespeare play, Hamlet’s uncle murders his dad and marries his mum.  That’s Hamlet’s mum, not his own mum.  Hamlet and Ophelia may or may not be heading for marriage.  Hamlet accidentally murders Ophelia’s dad.  Ophelia goes mad and dies, possibly accidentally, possibly by suicide.  Ophelia’s brother and Hamlet’s uncle kill Hamlet, but Hamlet manages to kill the uncle at the same time.  Pretty much everyone ends up dead.   And there are a lot of ghosts.  And a skull.

In the “Saxo Grammaticus”, Amleth’s uncle murders his dad and marries his mum.  Amleth pretends to go mad. And resists a temptress.  Then he marries an Anglian princess and a Scottish queen.  That’s two different people, not one person.  And kills his uncle.  But then another relative, who’s ganged up with the Scottish queen, kills Amleth.  Then marries the Scottish queen.  Do keep up.

This version uses a lot of the names from the Amleth legend, although it uses the more familiar “Hamlet” rather than “Amleth”.  The uncle still murders the dad, but no-one pretends to go mad.  And Hamlet has an Anglian wife and a Celtic wife, although, in this version of events, the Celtic wife is a devout Christian who really wanted to be a nun, and only gangs up with the wicked uncle because she genuinely believes that he’ll convert Denmark to Christianity.  Hamlet still meets a sticky end, but, in this version, it’s when he’s cheating on both his wives with Ophelia, and another of Ophelia’s gentlemen friends catches them at it.  In a tomb.  And kills him out of jealousy. The Celtic wife who wanted to be a nun is also there, and comes over even more religious than usual when she sees that a rock’s been rolled away from the entrance to a tomb.

OK, it’s all a bit bonkers, but it’s generally well-written, apart from some annoying slang which just doesn’t work very well in the characters’ mouths; and Ophelia (whose name is spelt here as Ofelia) is very well-depicted.  There’s a whole background story about how she was mentally scarred by her mother’s decision to throw herself on her funeral ship, which comes across well, and there certainly were female warriors – Lagertha in “Vikings”, anyone? – , although the idea of Ophelia as Hamlet’s constable is pushing it.  And the women do all get to be happy in the end – both of Hamlet’s wives remarry, more successfully, and Ophelia gets a happy ending of sorts, too.

I did actually really enjoy this.  Bonkers or no!

Blood Queen by Joanna Courtney

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This is a very entertaining read, with the legendary Lady Macbeth shown here as Cora, a spirited young woman kidnapped on the evening of her wedding to her childhood sweetheart Macbeth, forced to marry another man, and abused by both him and his brother before her eventual rescue by and reunion with Macbeth, after which she becomes a strong queen but certainly not the nasty piece of work depicted by Shakespeare. Meanwhile, Duncan, shown by Shakespeare as an elderly man, is shown here, more accurately, as being about the same age as Macbeth; and his wife Sybill plays a major role in the book.

It’s difficult to comment on the history, partly because it’s not an area with which I’m all that familiar and partly because there are so many gaps in the historical record, and what sources there are contradict each other; but, from what I gather, this is far closer to the known facts than anything Shakespeare wrote about the subject was. Macbeth didn’t murder Duncan, and there was no prominent Macduff in this period. And there were certainly no witches or ghosts: it seems that they were shoved in to please James I and VI, who was a) obsessed with witch-hunting and b) thought to be related to a figure called Banquo who featured heavily in “Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland”, from which Shakespeare got a lot of his historical “information”. It’s a good read in its own right, and it also sets the reader thinking about the many ways in which Shakespeare’s distorted popular views of history. I don’t think Ricardians have a good word to say for the man!

The basis of the book is the rivalry for the throne between two different branches of the royal family of Alba (the word “Scotland” wouldn’t have been used in Alba/Scotland at that time), due to a system in which the succession alternated between the different branches, but it’s more about personalities than politics – although, inevitably, there’s a lot of violence. The characters, including a number of minor but essential characters, are very well fleshed out, with the two main female characters at the heart of the action, there are some wonderful descriptions of homes and landscapes, and everyone seems to be rather obsessed with whisky!

It’s hard to go looking for historical accuracy because there’s so much that we just don’t know, and Scottish readers may well be annoyed that most of the names have been Anglicised, but I did really enjoy it. As for Shakespeare, well, he wasn’t trying to be a history teacher, and he could never have dreamt that his work would become so well-known that it would still be giving people the wrong impression over 400 years after his death! But the role of “Holinshed’s Chronicles” is fascinating: they were the source of a lot of the stuff Shakespeare used, but they’re virtually unknown. Having said which, they aren’t to blame for the liberties that Shakespeare took with Roman history, nor with Danish history!

I love Joanna Courtney’s idea of trying to reclaim the real history behind Shakespeare’s plays.  The Wars of the Roses have received a lot of attention in recent years, but the Macbeth era certainly hasn’t.  And she’s now written a book about Ophelia.  Another one for the Amazon wishlist!