Captive queen by Alison Weir

Eleanor, duchess of Aquitaine, is stuck in a loveless marriage with the French king. When she meets young and charismatic Henry Plantagenet, she falls in love instantly. After her divorce from Louis, she doesn’t hesitate to marry Henry. When he becomes king of England, the two of them together hold a realm from England all the way to the Spanish border. But Henry is no loyal husband and doesn’t want to share his power. Not with Eleanor, but neither with their sons. And when the cubs shall awake, rebellion looms around the corner.

I heard some rumours that a tv series about Eleanor was in the making based on this book. I’m usually no fan of Weir’s older historical fiction books (‘Innocent traitor‘ about Jane Grey being the exception) and I had heard that Captive queen wasn’t good. But I still wanted to see what kind of Eleanor is represented here, before watching the tv series.

I can already admit that I understand why people don’t like this portrayal. The book opens in the French court where Eleanor is trying to get a divorce since her husband the king doesn’t visit her bed too often, the result being only two daughters and no heir. She meets Henry Plantagenet, son of her former lover Geoffrey, count of Anjou, and instantly wants to bed him. In the first 150 pages there is sex everywhere.

Eleanor is portrayed as a sensual but also human woman. She makes mistakes, a lot of them. She’s too trustful and naively in love with her second husband. This is a refreshing take on her, but also far away from the strong and independent woman we know. We get an Eleanor making decisions based on her lust feelings rather than her wit.

Henry is at first a young and ambitious boy who adores his queen, but soon he grows into a forceful and short tempered man. The novel focuses on their relationship, with all their heights but also heavy arguments. The problem is that when at times Henry and Eleanor are not together, Weir struggles to write a story.

The writing is bad. There’s a lot of bad dialogue, too many sex scenes, strange changes in perspectives and almost no character development apart from the two main characters. During both the conflict with Becket and her imprisonment after the rebellion, Eleanor is too far away from the action and Weir has to turn to the ‘as you know Bob’ tactic.

I can’t help but compare this book to Chadwick excellent’s trilogy about Eleanor and come to the conclusion that ‘Captive queen‘ can’t live up to that. The only thing I did like is that there is no heavy focus on all of her pregnancies and births. Weir is more creative in handling all the children, although we don’t miss their conception ;).

But still, I enjoyed some parts of the story. This book is not as bad as some people say. I can handle some sex and detail. But I just couldn’t sympathize with this Eleanor as much as with Chadwick’s. Weir is not the best fiction writer. However, I did like her book about Catherine of Aragon enough, to continue the Six Tudor queens series.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

What’s your favourite book about Eleanor of Aquitaine?

Plague Land by S.D. Sykes

Oswald De Lacy returns to his elderly home at Somershill manor after the plague killed his father, his two older brothers and half of their tenants. At eighteen, he’s to become lord of the estate. But raised in a monastery, he’s untrained in the many responsibilities such an office holds. When a young girl is found murdered in the woods and the local village priest is talking about dog hounds and the devil, Oswald starts looking for the real murderer. A few days later, a second girl goes missing.

Plague land is the first book in the Somershill Manor Mystery series and introduces us to Oswald the Lacy, the third son of a noble family in Kent. It’s 1350 and the Black Death has been killing peasant and lord alike. The whole estate now turns to Oswald as their lord and after the body of Alison Starvecrow is found, Oswald is charged with finding the culprit (as the constable himself has also died from the plague).

Oswald is inexperienced in many things but gets help from his mentor brother Peter, who has a drinking problem. There’s a wide range of other characters, such as Joan, the local village whore, Oswald’s talkative mother and his sour sister Clemence. Apart from the characters, the medieval atmosphere also comes alive. You can smell the filth and disease from the pages. There’s a lot of superstition and talk of the devil and witches. These really were the Dark Ages.

I had my suspicions regarding the murder mystery but there are enough turns and twists to keep you hooked until the end when everything is revealed. This is not the best historical mystery. Sykes is no Sansom. But it’s entertaining and Oswald has a lot of potential as a main character for the coming books. He will have a lot more mysteries to solve it seems. And I’m looking forward to meet him again in ‘The butcher bird’.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Any other medieval mystery recommendations?

The last daughter by Nicola Cornick

Eleven years ago, Serena’s half sister Caitlin disappeared between the old ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Unfortunately, Serena can’t remember anything from that night. Then suddenly Caitlin’s body is found during archeological research in strange circumstances. Serena travels back to Oxfordshire determined to uncover the truth. In the fifteenth century, Anne Fitzhugh is betrothed to Francis Lovell, a close friend to Richard of Gloucester. She discovers the existence of an ancient old relic, the Lovell lodestar, which is said to have magical powers.

I was happy to get the chance to read ‘The last daughter‘ as it was my introduction to Nicola Cornick’s work. She is known for her dual timeline novels with an interesting historical perspective and a bit of magical or science fiction elements woven into the story.

The novels opens in our century when Serena receives a call from the police while on a visit to her aunt Polly in America. The remains of her missing twin sister have been found, close to the place where Caitlin disappeared all those years ago. Minster Lovell Hall is a medieval manor, where her grandparents lived and Serena and her sister spent their holidays. Her grandfather Dick is suffering from dementia and has moved to an elderly home. Their house has been sold and is now a tourist museum. Serena travels to Lovell Hall to see if she can remember anything from that dreadful night.

The historical timeline is told from Anne Fitzhugh whose mother was a Neville, brother to Richard Neville, earl of Warwick and kingmaker. Her parents become involved in the rebellion against Edward IV and Anne is married to Francis Lovell, one of Warwicks wardens. Francis is a close friend to Richard of York, the king’s younger brother. As you can tell, we’re in the middle of the Wars of the Roses so Anne and Francis will be in much trouble.

The whole mystery surrounds around Minster Lovell Hall, Francis’ family home. It is said it contains a so called ‘lodestar’ that can make you fall through time. We learn about the story of the mistletoe bride who disappeared on her wedding night and of course Francis Lovell himself vanishes after the battle of Stoke field.

I did like both perspectives, but I think I enjoyed Anne’s most. It’s set in one of my favorite periods and I believe Francis Lovell is a great main character to depict the events as he was in the midst of it all as Richard’s closest friend and advisor. However, when the story progresses towards the disappearance of the princes in the Tower, I had my doubts about the plot. In one chapter, Anne and Francis are against the princes, proclaiming them as bastards. In the next, they try to protect them together with Elizabeth Woodville. This felt a bit artificial.

I also enjoyed the magical elements and legends surrounding the lodestar. This is a light read and the focus isn’t really on the history but rather on the mystery surrounding all the disappearances and especially Caitlin’s. I’m sure I’ll pick up one of Cornick’s earlier works now.

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

This is book 9 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Nicola Cornick?

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

Cecily Neville is a highbred noblewoman and a distant family member of the weak king Henry VI via her Beaufort mother. She’s married to Richard, earl of York, whose father was executed as a traitor under Henry V because he had a claim to the throne. But the loss of France in the Hundred Years War, the bad choice of his advisors and the inability to provide an heir for the throne makes Henry unpopular with his nobles. Richard and Cecily must choose to stand with him or risk everything (their position, family and life) and start a rebellion.

Cecily Neville is one of those perfect female perspectives to talk about the Wars of the Roses. She experienced the conflict from the beginning to the very end. This makes her a popular main character. I already read about her in ‘Red rose, white rose’ by Joanne Hickson (I loved it!) and recently Anne ‘O Brien published ‘The queen’s rival’ which I haven’t read yet. Annie Garthwaite is a new voice in historical fiction and I was curious to see what she would do with Cecily’s story.

The books opens with the burning of Joan d’Arc. King Henry VI is on the throne and the Wars of the Roses still seem far away. It’s always interesting to discover which starting point an author takes for this complex conflict. It’s certainly so that one of England’s greatest triumphs in the Hundred Years War can be seen as the beginning of the end for England in France.

This also means that two third of the book is set before the first battle and I liked that. I’ve read so many times about the Wars itself that we tend to forget the period before it where the seeds of the conflict are planted. We follow Richard and Cecily to France and Ireland. Learn more about the key advisors around the king that caused unrest. About the different fractions and the difficult family ties. The story really focuses on Henry VI reign and I definitely learned some new things.

We get an insight into the relationship between Cecily and Richard. She bore him twelve children. Seven would survive and make great marriages. Two would become king. Cecily is set as a formidable and highly intelligent woman who is a central character in the political game and a true advisor to her husband. I understand this feministic choice and I do believe that Cecily was a smart and cunning woman. However, this forces Richard into a more passive and weak role. Towards the end, Cecily even loathes him for it. This irritated me a bit.

You also learn about Cecily’s family (her mother, uncle and brother), her relationship with Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Isabel of Burgundy and of course queen Margaret of Anjou. I really appreciated that Garthwaite chose a human Margaret of Anjou which can’t have been easy when you write from the perspective of her enemy. Margaret is so demonized during history, I’m still waiting on a book from her viewpoint (let me know if you know of such a book).

The writing is bit rational and descriptive. For me, it lacked some emotion to really get me involved in the characters. I also would have liked to read from different perspectives. Cecily was so strong a character, that she needed to stay strong even in times of peril. I wasn’t engaged in this book as I was with First of the Tudors (both books cover more or less the same period but from a total different viewpoint).

Still, I would recommend ‘Cecily‘ to every history buff or to people who want to discover the early days of the Wars of the Roses.

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

This is book 4 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The crimson ribbon by Catherine Clemens

Ruth Flowers is a servant in the household of Oliver Cromwell in Ely when suddenly tragedy strikes and she’s forced to leave. She’s sent to London to work for the Poole family. Once there, she quickly becomes friends with the charismatic and outspoken Elizabeth Poole. Elizabeth writes rebellious manuscripts and mean rumours circulate about her, but Ruth doesn’t believe there’s any truth in them. In the midst of Civil War, Ruth and Elizabeth become entangled in the trial of Charles I. When a king might lose his head, nobody is safe.

I borrowed ‘The crimson ribbon‘ from the library not knowing much about it, except that’s a story about women set during the Civil War. A dark period in English history that no so many authors write about it, so I wasn’t familiar with it.

The story opens with Ruth Flowers attending a childbirth with her mother in the charming village of Ely. As the child is born dead and her mother blames Ruth’s mother, the village turns against the two of them. Ruth’s mother is called a witch and hanged by a tree before anyone can stop the crowd. A cruel start that takes Ruth to London.

On her way to London she meets Josep Oakes, a former soldier in The Civil War. He gives us an insight into the cruelty that soldiers have witnessed during some of the battles. Ruth and Joseph loose sight of each other when they arrive and Ruth goes to live with Elizabeth- Lizzie- Poole. Ruth is immediately taken with her. Even when people in the streets start to call her a whore and a witch, Ruth believes in her mistress’ innocence.

Ruth Flowers is a fictional character, but Elizabeth is a true historical character. She played a role in the trial of Charles I where she testified about her visions given by God. Elizabeth was a highly religious person and it is said she was used by Oliver Cromwell to get what he want. Except from her testimony, we don’t know much about Elizabeth’s real life or death. In this book, Clemens tries to reconstruct a believable story.

I didn’t like Elizabeth’s character at all and I believe this was the author’s meaning 😅. She’s selfish, fickle, vain and highly ambitious. She doesn’t care about Ruth’s feelings and I couldn’t always understand why Ruth is so good and patient with her. However, this characterisation does fit in my opinion to the profile of a seer with a self-declared gift granted by God.

The Crimson Ribbon includes an insight into the personality of Oliver Cromwell. This was a different Cromwell than he’s usually represented. It also talks about the gruesomeness of the war, the unrest in the streets of London and the witch trials on the country. For me, this novel gave a fine introduction into the 1640’s and I hope to read more about the Civil War in the future.

Apart from the historical setting, there’s a heavy sapphic romance in this book which felt unhealthy and a bit forced at times. It’s a big part of the storyline and I would have loved to read more about Joseph and his friends for example than having to discover Lizzie’s next love interest.

This was Catherine Clemens’ debut novel. It isn’t the most unique historical novel I’ve read. Some plot lines felt familiar from other books. But she introduced me to a new period. She created a wel-written and engaging story with intriguing characters.

This book 2 for #20booksofsummer

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Do you have any recommendations on the Civil War?

The king’s evil by Andrew Taylor

In Clarendon house, the home of one of the most important courtiers of king Charles II, the body of Edward Alderley is discovered drowned in a well. Suspicion soon falls onto Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide, now hiding as Jane Hakesby. James Marwood is charged with the investigation of the murder by the king himself. He is determined to prove Cat’s innocence, but is she truly innocent? Since the murder, Cat has fled her home at Henrietta street.

This is the third book of Andrew Taylor’s excellent Marwood and Lovett series. I recommend to start with the first one ‘Ashes of London‘ if you want to fully comprehend everything that is happening. For example the book opens with a conversation between James Marwood and Olivia, lady Quincy whom we met in the first book. They are watching a ceremony of king Charles II where he’s healing people suffering from the king’s evil with his touch. Marwood has always been attracted to Lady Quincy so when she asks him to warn her cousin Cat Lovett that Edward Alderley wants to kill her, he does her bidding.

A few days later Edward Alderley is found murdered in a well and Cat has disappeared. Marwood is charged to go to Clarendon house to inspect the body. Lord Clarendon is the father in law of James, Duke of York, the king’s brother and one of the mightiest courtiers at the moment. Alas, Clarendon house hasn’t survived the wheel of time, otherwise I would have jumped on a train to London to visit it. It’s a great setting for this book.

It’s the first time that James Marwood really becomes entangled in the court intriges and the king’s own affairs. The effects of the Great Fire are still part of the story, but aren’t the focus of the plot this time. His relationship with Cat doesn’t become any easier. She’s still a big part of the story, but we read more chapters from Marwood in this novel.

I had never before heard about ‘the king’s evil’. This is a disease called scrofula, which is a form of tuberculosis that causes swellings in the neck, especially with children. At the time, it was thought only the touch of a sovereign could cure you (which gave it the name ‘the king’s evil’) and public touching ceremonies were organised.

Taylor intertwines real historical events with a gripping murder mystery. In this book there are a lot of different plotlines coming together. I’m always curious to see how everything will fit in at the end. That’s why these books feel slow at times, but you’re also really flying through them in some way 😅. I’m looking forward to see what the future has in store for James and Cat in ‘The last protector’.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Do you recommend a similar one?

Demelza by Winston Graham

Demelza has just given birth to their daughter Julia and wishes to celebrate the occasion with a double baptismal party, one for Ross’ elite relations and one for their friends and Demelza’s family. But when her father pops up during the wrong party, Demelza hides away from shame. Her next undertaking is to bring cousin Verity and captain Blamey together again. For this, she has to go against her husband’s wishes. In the meantime, Ross has established the new Carnermore Copper Company to save the mines in Cornwall. In this he faces the Warleggans as his enemy. At the same time a young girl named Keren arrives with a theater group and the miner Mark Daniel falls in love with her.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read on with this series, after having read the first part ‘Ross Poldark‘. I enjoyed it but I would have liked more action. Still, I started Demelza because I needed a light read and now I can say that I enjoyed it more than the first book. The story felt more mature with different plotlines that all come together at the end. It was also easier to read that way. The book has been written in 1946 but the writing is still compelling.

I loved Demelza’s character development. In this book she turns into a young women who tries to please everyone around her and learns a few hard lessons in that regard. You feel her struggle trying to fit in while comparing herself to the high-bred and beautiful Elizabeth. I knew what would happen at the end of this novel, as I have already seen the BBC series. There is a lot of tragedy which still broke my heart.

Ross is the imperfect hero who I loathed and loved at the same time. In this book, we finally get introduced to Dwight Enys, my favourite from the series. His character still needs to develop further and for that I look forward to reading Jeremy Poldark, the next installment in this series.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any of the Poldark books? Or seen the TV series?

First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson

Jasper and Edmund Tudor are half brothers to king Henry IV, their parents being queen Catherine Of Valois and the Welsh squire Owen Tudor. But Henry is in need of people he can trust and he brings his brothers to court and bestows an earldom on them both. Edmund is also given the wardship of the young heiress Margaret Beaufort and Jasper is tasked with keeping the Welsh border safe. When Edmund marries Margaret, Jasper falls for his Welsh niece Jane (Sian) Hywel. But the death of his brother grants him a lifelong task: keeping his young nephew Henry, with a taint of royal blood, safe. And during the Wars of the Roses that proves quite a challenge.

Joanna Hickson guarantees a solid historical novel with respect for the historical facts. She always intertwines a real historical figure with a fictional perspective. In this book we meet Jasper Tudor and his fictional Welsh niece Jane Hywel. I could immediately relate to Jane, as was the case with Mette in her Catherine of Valois books. I was happily surprised to meet Mette and her family again at the beginning of this book.

This book is about the Wars and the Roses as much as any other set in this time period but it was the first time I read about Jasper Tudor’s involvement. Also, we get a fair insight into the Welsh customs and politics at the time, which I didn’t know a lot about beforehand. It’s weird to think of the Tudors as ‘the winning dynasty’ if you look where they started at the beginning of the conflict.

I in particular liked Jasper’s relationship with his brother the king. The Henry IV in this book felt real. Jasper might be a bit too soft represented at times. He’s the perfect brother, lover, friend…. Betrayed at the battlefield a few times. But he also needed to make hard choices, his allegiance with Warwick is a perfect example of that.

I found the representation of Margaret Beaufort interesting. Compared with other books, were she’s portrayed as a bad and too pious woman, she was more balanced and mysterious in First of the Tudors. I’m curious to see how her character will develop as Hickson’s next novel ‘The Tudor Crown’ will feature Margaret and her son Henry as main characters. But luckily Hickson has promised that we will also see more of Jasper, Jane and their daughters.

The ending might come a bit sudden, but I think it was no bad choice to stop at this particular point during the Wars of The Roses. There will be a lot more trouble ahead for Lancaster and Tudor, and I’m looking forward to read about these events in The Tudor crown. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Joanna Hickson? Any other recommendations about Jasper Tudor?

Winter pilgrims by Toby Clemens

After some dramatic events in the cold winter snow, Catherine and Thomas both have to leave their secluded monastery in Lincoln on the run for Giles Riven, a local lord with the power to crush them. They don’t know each other and have no clue about the current wars going on outside between the houses of Lancaster and York. The dukes of York and Warwick have just lost the last battle and Warwick’s army is gathering in Calais. By accident, Catherine and Thomas end up there and they join the retinue of Sir John Fakenham and his son Richard. This new alliance will lead them to the battlefields of Northampton and Towton.

Winter pilgrims is the first book in the kingmaker series about two commoners during the Wars of the Roses. 15th century England always makes for a nice setting, but this book doesn’t focus on the kings, queens and politics. It’s about a young man and woman trying to survive and make sense of all this. In that way, it reminded of me of Ken Follett’s approach in his Kingsbridge series.

There’s also a huge focus on some famous battles, so that you can compare Clemens to Iggulden or Cornwell. His battle scenes are gruesome, bloody and confusing. Just as any soldier would have experienced it. Especially the brutality and confusion of the battle at Towton comes alive at the end of the novel.

Winter pilgrims opens fast, setting the scene for the rest of the story. The cliches of a monk turning into a warrior and a nun into a nurse is something that should be overlooked. Another cliche is the evil arch enemy that haunts them during the book. This is foremost an adventure novel with nice characters that you get used to very quickly (only to see them murdered afterwards :D), the plot comes in second. And I’m ok with that because the story certainly was entertaining.

It’s also a book clearly written as the first part in a series. A lot of plot lines are started, but aren’t yet touched in much detail in this book. The end is abrupt and leaves some questions unanswered. The writing is in first person tense, and although that’s a bit strange, it didn’t bother me that much. I liked the focus on the common men and the battles. So, I believe I’m curious enough to read the next book ‘Broken faith’.

Clemens is no Cornwell and this novel was maybe a bit too heavy in pages with an unbelievable plot at some times. But if you’re up for an adventure during this fascinating period, Winter pilgrims will provide you with exactly that.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Do you have a favourite book set during the Wars of the Roses? Do you like to read an adventure novel?

Rags of Time by Michael Ward

Wool merchant Joseph Venell is strangely murdered on the countryside near London. Spice trader Thomas Tallant, just returned from India, is asked for his opinion on the case by an investigator. Against his will, the suspicion falls on him, even more when Venell’s business partner dies at the house of his parents. How can he prove his innocence? Luckily, Thomas gets some help from the intelligent but mysterious Elizabeth Seymour and his best friend Edmund.

The cover states that the murder was just the beginning of the affair and actually this is a great description. The story has many different plot lines that have nothing to do with the murder mystery. 17th century England under the reign of Charles I comes alive in this new historical mystery series (as I suspect there will be more books with Thomas and Elizabeth as main characters).

The 1630’s isn’t exactly a time period that I know a lot about. There’s a lot of historical context in the other plot lines, such as the religious uproar between the puritans and the Anglican followers of bisshop Laud, the protégé of the queen. We also get some insight in the world of the merchants working for the East-Indian Trading company. I especially loved the description of London, a city full of possibilities by trade. As a result many people move to London and the city is overcrowded, full of disease and with a strong stench of human filth.

There’s an enormous cast of characters. I liked Thomas Tallant, he’s no ordinary detective as in many mystery novels, but a spice trader who becomes involved in a series of strange events. This is quite an original starting point for the whole affair as Thomas doesn’t have any particular skills on how to catch a killer. However, he does have the skill to get himself into trouble 😅.

Elizabeth Seymour has a lot of potential as a character. She’s beautiful and witty, way ahead of her time and interested in science. She also has a gambling problem. But I believe she didn’t get enough ‘screen time’ in this novel to really flower.

At the end, it all comes together. For me the revelations felt a bit messy sometimes, especially the action scenes. I’m not yet sure if I’ll read any sequel though. Rags of time is an entertaining mystery novel with a great cast and an interesting historical setting.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Thanks to Michael Ward for a copy of his book in return for my honest opinion.