The city of tears by Kate Mosse

Minou Joubert and her family are living in Puivert after the dramatic events of 10 years ago. They take care of Huguenot refugees as the religious wars are still raging across France. When they receive an invitation to the marriage of the Huguenot prince Henri Of Navarra to the catholic Marguerite of Valois, Minou and Piet leave for Paris with their children Martha and Jean-Jacques. In the meantime, their arch enemy bishop Vidal is looking for documents of Piet’s mother in Amsterdam.

The city of tears opens ten years after the events of ‘The burning chambers‘. Minou is now the lady of Puivert and Piet, injured from yet another battle, is harboring refugees in their village. But a royal marriage promises peace and Piet and Minou are invited to Paris. When their five-year-old daughter Martha vanishes on the 22nd of August 1572 and blood is shed in the streets Paris, the family flees to Amsterdam.

Mosse takes you to the bloody events of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. One of the most dark chapters in the history of France. It’s the first time I read about it from another perspective than Catherine De Medici and the royal family (as was the case in ‘The devil’s queen‘ and ‘Queen Jezebel‘). Afterwards, we arrive in Amsterdam during the Eighty Year’s War with Spain. Amsterdam is still a catholic city but protestants are crying in the streets for change. I love how Mosse takes me to the 16th century but without the traditional focus on The Tudors. This is also fascinating European history, but often overlooked.

It’s again a very smartly crafted novel. It blends the lives of two families with real historical events. This of course means that sometimes there are some coincidences to make it work, but that didn’t bother me. As in ‘The burning chambers’, a part of the plot surrounds around the parentage of one of the main characters. Another plot centers around Vidal and his son Louis looking for relics around France. But I still preferred the historical context and the storylines that focused on Minou and her relationship with her husband, children and other relatives.

I believe I enjoyed this book even more than ‘The burning chambers’, as the characters were already familiar to me and the historical setting was even more gripping. I’m really curious to see how the next book will play out as we already got two prologues set almost 300 years later in South-Africa. But as this sequel isn’t out yet, I’ll first start with her other trilogy set in France of which ‘Labyrinth‘ is the first part.

This is book 6 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Kate Mosse? What’s your favourite historical novel set in France?

The burning chambers by Kate Mosse

Minou Joubert receives a strange anonymous letter in her father’s bookshop in Carcasonne. ‘She knows that you live’, it says. A few moments later, she helps the Huguenot Piet Reydon flee the city after he was falsely accused of a murder and the theft of a holy relic. When she and her brother are sent to Toulouse, she meets Piet again. But in Toulouse the strive between Catholics and Huguenots is coming to a climax. And it seems that the lady of Puivert, Blanche, is looking for Minou. But why?

I’ve never been really interested in Mosse’s books because I thought they were more Dan Brown themed books with people looking for the Holy Grail. But still I’ve heard a lot of good things about ‘The burning chambers‘ (which is the first part in a trilogy) and the setting during the Huguenot wars in France drew me in. And now, I’m regretting I didn’t try her books sooner.

I expected entertainment and a historical mystery and that’s more or less what you get. The book opens in Carcasonne where both Piet and Minou have a mystery to solve. Minou receives a strange letter after her father has never recovered from a journey earlier this year. Piet reconnects with an old friend, now a renowned bishop, but he gets himself unwillingly accused of a murder. With Minou’s help, he can flee back to Toulouse where he’s one of the leaders of the Huguenot resistance.

When Minou and her brother Aimeric travel to Toulouse to live with their catholic uncle and aunt, they find themselves trapped in a city full of religious unrest. Already some Huguenots have been killed in other cities in the Midi and also in Toulouse blood will flow. Here, Minou and Piet will meet again and they’ll dependent on each other to make it out of the city alive.

I could relate quickly with Minou, as she is a young and intelligent woman trying to make sense of the world. It took me some more time to connect with Piet but the pair of them make for great main characters. At the same time, there are a lot of side characters that I enjoyed reading about. Such as Minou’s younger sister Alis, the kind madame Noubel, Minou’s troubled aunt Madame Boussay and her cold sister-in-law.

Mosse brings the historical context of the Huguenots to life flawlessly. You feel the tension growing stronger on the streets of Toulouse. Mosse also tries to incorporate the court politics of Catherine De Medici in the story, but if you don’t know about the real history that might be more difficult to follow. In some way, this all reminded me of the excellent darkness to light trilogy of Golden Keyes Parsons, although that one is set in a different century.

The next book, City of Tears, will bring Piet and Minou to Paris during the st. bartholomew’s day massacre and I’m looking forward to see how their story will continue.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Catherine Of Aragon, the true queen by Alison Weir

Catalina Of Aragon is the youngest daughter of the Catholic kings, Isabella and Ferdinand, and destined to become queen of England. After a rough sea voyage she arrives in Engeland to marry prince Arthur, heir to the throne. But Arthur is shy and sickly. After only four months of marriage Catalina, now Catherine, becomes a widow. At the court of Henry VII, she sets her eyes on Arthur’s younger brother, the charismatic Henry, to become queen once more.

I must admit I had some doubts when starting ‘the true queen’. In the past I enjoyed some of Alison Weir’s books, but I also disliked her two novels about Queen Elizabeth (‘The lady Elizabeth’ and ‘The marriage game’). But I decided to give this series a try.

Catherine Of Aragon is the first of Henry VIII’s wives and a lot is known about her life. She’s a thankful subject to start off this series. And I believe Weir did a relatively great job. This book is 600 pages long and includes much detail. You can follow Catherine’s story from her first marriage to king Arthur, the years of poverty she had to endure afterwards at the court of Henry VII to her marriage with Henry VIII. A happy marriage at first but of course we all know that after some miscarriages Henry moves away from Catherine when he meets Anne Boleyn.

Having read about Catherine many times before, Weir could still hold my interest about these events. She respects the timeline until the moment that I was waiting on the Mary Boleyn affair. But that didn’t come. Weir’s Catherine is stubborn, devout, caring and naive. She dotes on Henry. But this implicates that she doesn’t know about him having affairs. Even when things start to get worse, Henry is still the loving husband. No one tells Catherine of his many affairs. And this bothered me. Because it just seems impossible that Catherine didn’t know. Especially not with Mary Boleyn who possibly bore him two children. But there were others.

This brings us to the characterization of Henry VIII. I didn’t like his portrayal in this novel. At the age of ten Catherine already finds him attractive (which is bit of perverse, don’t you think?). And from the moment they marry, he can’t do anything wrong. This also makes characters as Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell and especially Anne Boleyn the villains. Reading from Catherine’s point of view, I can understand that Anne is demonized. But that Henry was just a meek man wrongly advised by the people around him (and thus a victim himself) goes a bit too far for me.

I’m really curious to see whether this is just the Henry from Catherine’s point of view and that we’ll get a different Henry in each book. If not, I’m not sure how Weir will make from this Henry a wife killer…

This book also gives an insight in Catherine’s relationships with the Spanish ambassadors, her ladies-in-waiting and her daughter Mary whom she loves dearly. Yes, it is a long book with a lot of detail, but that didn’t put me off. I enjoyed this book more than expected. And I’m looking forward to read Weir’s story about Anne Boleyn, hopefully finding a different Henry there.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Which one is your favourite so far?

Sovereign by C.J. Sansom

One year after the dramatic downfall of Thomas Cromwell, Matthew Shardlake is mourning his father. He receives a summons from archbishop Thomas Cranmer to go to York to bring legal petitions before the king during his Progress of the North. Shardlake accepts as this is a chance to settle his father’s debts and he travels to York with Barak. But Cranmer has also another task for Matthew. A dangerous prisoner needs to be brought safe and sound to London for interrogation in the Tower. Once in York, Matthew witnesses a murder on a glazier while at the same time a young girl is determined to form an attachment with his only friend Barak.

I love this series! After some disappointing reads, I was happy to wander again through Tudor England with my favorite crookback lawyer. The setting in Sovereign might be my favorite so far. We are 1941, a few years after the Pilgrimage of The Grace when a new conspiracy is discovered in the north of the country. The aging and obese king Henry VIII decides to go on Progress to the north together with his new teenage queen, Catherine Howard.

As this novel counts over 600 pages, some readers may find it slow. But this isn’t your standard murder mystery, this is also a terrific novel about Tudor England. The details about the Progress, the hostile atmosphere towards southrons and reformists in York, the queen’s secret.. it all adds to the drama.

The murder mystery is about a glazier that has been pushed from a ladder. When Shardlake and Barak find a box full of discriminating documents about the king himself, they are in grave danger. But before they can read the papers, someone has already stolen them. Someone within the court in York. The mystery will take us back to the Wars of The Roses and although I guessed what would be the basis of the documents after seeing the royal family tree, I was still curious how it would all play out in the end. There are a few red herrings and for once I was in doubt what to believe and who to suspect.

There is more than the murder alone. Barak and his love interest Tamasin get in trouble with Lady Rochford and the queen. The prisoner Broderick receives help from someone inside. Richard Rich is on war with Shardlake to drop a case in London. As always all the plot lines will come together in the end. I didn’t even miss Cromwell, as Cranmer and Rich fill his shoes perfectly.

This is the best book in the series so far. You can read it as a standalone, but I would suggest to start with ‘Dissolution’ first, as you will understand some relations better. And both ‘Dissolution‘ and ‘Dark fire‘ are great reads too.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The testimony of Alys twist by Suzannah Dunn

Orphan Alys Twist has done well for herself and accepts a position as laundress at the Royal Wardrobe of the new queen Mary Tudor. At court she meets Bel, the tailor’s daughter, and the two girls start an intimate friendship. When the new queen wants a Spanish marriage and a return to the old Catholic ways, rebellion is coming to London and some people speak out in favor of her half-sister, the lady Elizabeth. Alys is sent as a spy to Elizabeth’s household to report back on her.

I previously read two novels of Suzannah Dunn, the first being ‘The queen of subtleties‘ about Anne Boleyn which I disliked and the second was ‘The May bride‘ about a young Jane Seymour that I enjoyed enough to give Dunn another try.

In ‘the testimony of Alys Twist‘ we again travel to Tudor England where the new queen Mary Tudor has just been crowned after the short reign of her cousin Lady Jane Grey. Mary is much beloved by the public and everyone is hoping that this will be the start of a new chapter for England. We meet young laundress Alys who carries a past with her and tries to find her place at the Royal Wardrobe. She befriends Bel and the two of them start to hang around together.

But when the new queen is looking to Spain for a marriage and wants to reinstall the Catholic faith, tensions start to rise with the protestant fractions resulting in the Wyatt Rebellion. Mary’s half-sister and heir to the throne Elizabeth is named as a conspirator. Alys gets charged with going to Ashridge to spy on the princess. As a laundress nobody is taking any notice of her and she can report back on what is said and done within the household.

I loved to read about Mary’s reign, as she is mostly overlooked in favor of her sister Elizabeth. From the Wyatt rebellion, the dramatic marriage with Philip of Spain to the burnings, you can feel how her people are having a hard time to accept that the new queen wants to turn back time.

Alys is a bit of a strange main character. As a laundress she can easily move within a royal household but she isn’t a real part of it. She’s still far from the action. Therefore, there’s a strong focus on her own story and for me Alys’ story was a bit of mess. She has a past she wants to keep secret at any cost, she falls in love with the wrong person and she doesn’t know where her loyalties lie—with the queen or the princess?

Also the whole spying on the princess thing turns out a bit different from what I thought it would be. I had hoped to get more of an insight into Elizabeth’s character and how she copes with her arrest and consequent house arrest at Woodstock. But Alys only comes occasionally into her room to pick up the dirty laundry.

All this results in a sudden ending of the story and too many loose ends. Dunn also uses very modern language, something that already bothered me in her previous works, but it doesn’t really feel like an issue here. I think I’m simply disappointed in the story itself. If you want to read something from Suzannah Dunn, I heartily recommend ‘The May Bride’, as it is still the better novel I’ve read from her.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher to provide me a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Boleyn bride by Emily Purdy

At sixteen Elizabeth Howard hopes to become lady-in-waiting to the new Spanish queen, Catherine Of Aragon. But her ambitious father marries her to Thomas Boleyn, a low-born but rising star at court. Elizabeth loathes him but has no choice than to obey her family. The Howards are after all one of the most powerful noble families. The match will produce three children: beautiful Mary, beloved George and ugly duck Anne. All three of them will play a vital part in Engeland’s future, and Elizabeth herself will also catch king Henry’s eye.

I’ve set myself a goal to still write reviews of all the books I’ve read in the first half of 2020 (thus before I started this blog), with the exception of some last parts in a series. The Boleyn Bride was one of the oldest unread books sitting on my shelves. I bought it maybe 10 years ago at a book fair for 2 euros. There’s another edition of this book where the author’s name is Brandy Purdy instead of Emily by the way – it confused me also.

I had no high expectations of this book, knowing it would be another story about the dramatic rise and downfall of the Boleyn family. But I had hoped that the perspective of their mother Elizabeth Howard would provide an original point of view. Historians are still in doubt whether Elizabeth encouraged her daughters to enter the king’s bed or whether she was against it.

This is hard review to write because actually there is little I liked about ‘the Boleyn bride‘. The biggest problem is the characterization of Elizabeth herself. She’s a total bitch. Vain, selfish, ambitious and annoying. She has no love for her family or husband, not even for her children. Her constant hate of Thomas, whom she refers to as ‘Bullen, oh no Boleyn’ bored me to pieces.

The book covers her story all the way from her marriage to Thomas until Anne’s downfall, but the most important events are told in a few pages, a few lines even. The author finds it more interesting to talk about her love affair with Remi, a fictional character, or how Elizabeth tries to hide her wrinkles. Elizabeth complains about almost everything, except herself. She’s a very passive character and has no influence on what happens to first Mary, than Anne. As their mother she’s more a silent observer who just tells the reader what happens to her children. I found that most unconvincing.

I can see past a horrible main character, but the other characters are even worse. Thomas Boleyn is a devil, Anne ugly from the day she’s born, Mary is beautiful but stupid… There was nobody I cared for in this book. Only Catherine Of Aragon seems a good person, which is a bit strange as she and Elizabeth will not have been best friends if you know what happens…

Purdy also makes some serious historical errors or bad choices, especially with the timeline (Anne’s romance with Henry Percy for example is set wrong) or the whole thing about Anne having six fingers (for which there is no evidence whatsoever). I can understand why authors of historical fiction sometimes make changes to the timeline or choose to go with a certain story or legend, but in this novel it serves no purpose at all except making it more unbelievable.

I’m quite picky when it comes to Tudor fiction, since I’ve read a lot of novels about this period already and I am familiar with the historical facts. Especially with the Boleyns, I find it important to do them justice and I cringe with how some authors chose to represent them. So maybe you will enjoy a lighter story such as these and this book might work for you. But I won’t take up a next book from Emily/Brandy Purdy.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Which book disappointed you most in 2020 so far?

Historical novels set in a monastery

Today I want to talk about one of my favorite settings of a historical novel: a monastery. I’m no religious person whatsoever, but I find it really interesting to read about life in religious houses. I don’t know exactly what attracts me to this setting. I believe the fact that inhabitants are isolated from the rest of the world and limited to a certain amount of space contributes to the story, especially when a mystery is involved. The killer needs to be someone from inside—making it all the more exciting. Do you get me?

Also the role that monasteries played during the reformation and especially the dissolution by the likes of Thomas Cromwell is a topic that I have read about a few times. It gives a nice insight in why people would want to live a solitary and contemplated life. Religion was (and still is for some people) an important aspect of everyday life. Most people took their vows willingly, or went to a convent or abbey to repent for their sins, or to seek sanctuary.

Here’s my list of books that I’ve read where a monastery or religious life is involved and plays a key part in the novel.

The name of the rose by Umberto Eco

Probably the most famous novel of the list. It tells the story of Brother William of Baskerville who, together with the novice Adso, arrives at an Italian monastery for a religious debate. But a monk was murdered and William and Adso are charged to find the murderer before the delegates of the pope arrive.

I do want to include this book, but I need to say that I didn’t like reading it at all. I didn’t understand the whole religious conflict thing. The murder mystery was what kept me reading, but I was as lost in the story as William and Adso were in the monastery’s mysterious library.

I gave the story a second chance by watching the excellent Italian mini series (also named The name of the rose). I did enjoy it a lot but I didn’t recognize anything from the book :D. So, I do recommend to give this book a try, as so many love it. But I won’t reread it.

Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake #1) by S.J. Sansom

We move on to what might be my favorite story of this list. One of Thomas Cromwell’s men is murdered at the monastery of Scarnsea. Lawyer Matthew Shardlake is sent to catch the murderer.

This is the start of a historical mystery series about Shardlake during the Tudor era. I’m quite new to this genre of historical novels, but I love this series and I love Matthew. The murder mystery is quite good, although I found out halfway who the killer was, there were still a lot of elements that surprised me.

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Joanna Stafford is a novice in the monastery of Dartford. During the dissolution of the monasteries, she get’s involved in the quest for an ancient relic on behalf of bishop Stephen Gardiner.

What I liked about this book is the fact that you get an insight in how a monastery reacted to the dissolution by Cromwell. You feel their fears and doubts. What I didn’t like was the search for the relic, this gave the story some kind of Dan Brown vibe (and coming from me, I don’t mean that as a compliment). Also the flashback to Joanna’s previous court life didn’t contribute to the story, I would have liked to just stay between the walls of the monastery. I still don’t know if I want to read the second book in the series. Is it getting better?

Sacred hearts by Sarah Dunant

This story is set in 15th century Italy in the convent of Santa Catherina. In that time a lot of noble girls where forced to enter a convent for the sake of their family. And not all of them go willingly. We meet young novice Serafina who is such a girl. With the help of Suora Zuana, the convent’s apothecary, she starts to feel at home a bit.

This is a different story, no murder mystery, but a novel about love and friendship during challenging times. Every nun has its own story and burdens to bare. I enjoyed this book a lot and I definitely want to reread it.

The pillars of the earth by Ken Folett

Everyone will know this book and yes, it’s not only set within a monastery. It’s an epic medieval tale set during the Anarchy in England. But thanks to prior Philip, you get an insight in the workings of an abbey and how a new prior could get selected and the power that it gave him.

Also the building and funding of the new church is an important topic and convinced me to add this must-read novel on this list.

Have you read any of these? Do you know of any other good story about a monastery, convent or abbey? I’m happy to add it to my list!

In the company of the courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Bucino is an ugly dwarf living and working together with Fiametta, Rome’s most beautiful courtesan. When the papal city is attacked the pair flees to Venice where they need to build their reputation anew. They receive help from La Draga, a blind healer whom Bucino distrusts immediately and Arentino, a satirical poet looking for a patron.

Sarah Dunant is one of my favorite authors because she brings renaissance Italy vividly to life. In ‘In the company of the courtisan‘ she takes us to the sack of Rome in 1527. The cruel fate that the Spanish, with the help of German protestants, inflict upon the city’s inhabitants is reported by Bucino, a dwarf who tries to protect his misstress Fiametta. As a courtesan she is subject to ugly humiliations during the night. Then the story switches to Venice, a city rich by trade with the Ottomans and Jews. A city of promise where the pair tries to rebuild their life.

I have never been to Venice, but this story makes we want to jump on the plane immediately. You experience the small dark streets and smelly water alleys through Bucino’s eyes and his special rational view on the world. I liked Bucino from the beginning, as he can be both invisible and attracting attention by his looks.

This may not be Dunant’s best book. The plot is a bit slow and not so much happens. But it’s an atmospheric novel with interesting characters. The book is full of outcasts. A dwarf and a courtesan, a converted Jew, a Turk and a blind widow to name just a few. Towards the end, you want to know if Bucino and Fiametta will make it together or not.

And for the art lovers, you get a behind-the-scenes look of the painter Titian creating his ‘Venus of Urbino’. I loved these parts!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

What’s your favorite Sarah Dunant novel? I believe mine is ‘sacred hearts‘.