The vanishing witch by Karen Maitland

Wool merchant Robert is one of the richest men in Lincoln. But trade has become difficult as cargo starts to disappear and Flemish merchants are offering to pay for wool at higher prizes. Still, the beautiful widow Catlin seeks Roberts advice to invest her money and he quickly becomes enthralled by her. In the meantime, one of Robert’s tenants is struggling to make ends meet. When king Richard II imposes a poll tax for every head of the family above 15, they have no idea how to come by the money. Suddenly, peasants are revolting against the king and people start dying of unnatural causes in Lincoln.

I’ve never before read anything by Karen Maitland so The vanishing witch was my first acquaintance with her work. The novels opens around 1380 when king Richard II sits on the throne and times are hard. Especially for Gunther and his family. The unrest with the lower classes at the heavy taxation will lead to the peasant’s revolt. Maitland will even take you to the bloody streets of London during the revolt. The peasant’s revolt is the reason that I picked up this one up, but it isn’t the focus of this book. The storyline around Gunther is only secondary to the main plot.

The main story evolves around merchant Robert, his family and the widow Catlin. Robert falls in love with Catlin but soon his oldest son, Jan, smells there’s something wrong about her. Especially as people start to die in strange circumstances and the word witchcraft is uttered. Also a strange hooded fellow is seeking out Robert, Jan and the rest of the household to warn them about Catlin, but nobody listens until it’s too late. I didn’t really care about Catlin and Robert as I found them both annoying at times but the flip in perspective contributed to understand all that happened. There are a range of other characters such as Catlin’s children Edward and Leonia and Robert’s servants Beata and Tenney, and I found these side characters more of an interest to me.

The novel is told from Catlin, Gunther and a third person perspective who tells the tale of Robert. From the first pages onwards you sense that the narrator is a ghost but it’s only explained at the end who this person is and what his relation is to the rest of the characters.

This dark atmosphere is a big part of the book. Every chapter starts with a real medieval text fragment about witchcraft. I found them very funny to read. I challenge you to find out yourself if there is a real witch in this story or not… It’s up to you ;).

In the end, I can say that this is definitely my type of book. It has an interesting historical background, a great cast of characters and a gothic undertone. But in some ways, I found it slow to read. Something in Maitland’s writing style forces you to to take it all in.

This is book 1 for #20booksofsummer

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Karen Maitland? Do you know of any other books dealing with the peasant’s revolt?

Queen of the north by Anne ‘O Brien

Elizabeth Mortimer has royal Plantagenet blood and is married to Harry Hotspur Percy, the heir to the greatest earldom in the north. She believes her young nephew Edmund Mortimer to be second in line to the throne after the childless and unpopular king Richard II. But many don’t want another child king and support her other cousin Henry Of Lancaster instead. When Henry sets foot in England again after years in exile while Richard has suffered grave defeat in Ireland, the battle for the throne is on. Elizabeth’s husband and stepfather join forces with Lancaster and abandon the Mortimer cause. Will there ever be Mortimer king?

This is the second book I’ve read from Anne O’ Brien after having enjoyed ‘the shadow queen‘ about Joan Of Kent a few years ago. Queen Of The North is one of the books she has written around powerful women during Henry IV’s troubled reign. The novel opens with Henry of Lancaster returning to England to gather support to defy king Richard II. The Percy army in the north is preparing to join him.

We meet Elizabeth Mortimer, the wife of the famous Harry Hotspur. The Mortimers are the heirs of Lionel, second son of Edward III, but through the female line of Elizabeth’s mother Filippa Plantagenet. This weakens the claim of her eight-year-old nephew Edmund should Richard die childless. I’ve never really understood why the Mortimer didn’t try harder to get on the throne. They have a stronger claim (if you ignore the female part of it), but history will be forever talking about Lancaster and York. So I found it really interesting to read this story from a Mortimer point of view.

Elizabeth is also a Percy and thus future ‘queen’ of the north. We meet her ambitious stepfather, the earl of Northumberland, and her husband Harry “Hotspur” as he is referred to by the Scots. The marriage between Elizabeth and Harry is quite happy, although there are some serious clashes between them in this novel, not in the least about the succession. Their relationship is the most compelling part of the book in my opinion. I really could love and hate Harry at the same time.

I had hoped that the rebellion would be the biggest part of the novel, but it happens quite fast and the second half focuses even more on Elizabeth’s development as a traitor to the crown. Near the end of the story, I had more and more sympathy for her feelings.

We also meet Queen Joan Of Navarre and Constance Of York in this novel. About both women O’ Brien has written a separate novel. I have the one about Constance ready on my shelves and am curious if I will like her more than in I did this book.

O’ Brien focuses on the story of women, this also means that the main character is far from the action that happens at the battlefield. There are also some serious time jumps adding to the pace of the novel. All things together, I find O’ Brien’s writing style a bit too dry and distant. She lacks the flair of a Joanna Hickson or Elizabeth Fremantle for example. But she writes about forgotten women with a unique story, so I’ll continue to read her books.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any books set during Henry IV reign?

The Revolt by Clara Dupont-Monod

Richard Lionheart is rebelling against his father, the Plantagenet king of England, together with his brothers Henry and Geoffrey. The rebellion unites the heirs to the throne with France, the southern lords and Aquitaine, the country of Richard’s infamous mother: Queen Eleanor Of Aquitaine. After having divorced the king of France, Eleanor remarried the Plantagenet only to be cast aside after having bared him 8 children. Now she’s looking for revenge. One thing is sure: this battle will torn the family apart.

The revolt is a short novel that focuses on the rebellion of Eleanor Of Aquitaine and her sons against Henry II, king of England in 1173. The novel is split up in three parts—before, during and after the revolt—and mainly told by Richard Lionheart. Although there are some chapters Eleanor, Henry and Alys (Richard’s ex-fiancé) are at word.

I’m quite familiar with the story and I loved Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy about Eleanor very much. But still the author managed to surprise me at some parts. Especially the fact that she chooses to tell the story from Richard’s perspective, even the parts before his birth, was surprising. But somehow, it worked for me as long as the story was focusing on the revolt itself.

At the end, it gets a bit messy when Richard leaves for the Holy Land. It feels like the start of a different story because Eleanor wasn’t near Richard at that time. And it’s her figure that really makes this book compelling.

This Eleanor is mysterious, cold and intimidating. Just how I imagine her. I got some new insights on her relationship with Louis, King of France (Eleanor’s first husband) and the role he played in the rebellion. I found Louis’s relationship with Eleanor’s sons one of the most interesting aspects of the story.

This might not be the best fictional retelling of Eleanor’s life because of its shortness. But it’s a well-written account of the revolt and how it tore a whole family apart.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

The silken rose by Carol McGrath

At thirteen, Ailenor Of Provence travels to England to wed king Henry III, who’s a lot older than herself. Against all odds, the couple does find happiness and affection together. But as a foreign queen, Ailenor is not liked at court and is seen as a ‘she wolf’ when her Savoyard relatives get high positions at court and in the clergy. Luckily, she finds friendship with two remarkable women. Rosalind, a young embroideress and Nell, the king’s sister. Nell’s love interest is none other than Simon De Monfort, but she’s not free to wed since she has taken a vow of chastity after her late husband’s death. Ailenor sees her chance to act as a modern Guinevere and decides to aid the lovebirds.

The silken rose is the first part in a trilogy about three of England’s medieval queens who were seen as she wolves in their time. McGrath wants to give them a more human voice. This books tells the story of Eleanor Of Provence, Henry III’s queen, but McGrath uses the spelling ‘Ailenor’ to distinguish her from all the English Eleanor’s (it was quite a popular name back then).

I liked to read about Henry III’s reign, as he’s a forgotten king stuck between his father ‘bad’ king John and his son Edward Longshanks, who have both gotten more attention in popular culture. But Henry’s reign was a long one and during all that time Eleanor sat faithful at his side on the throne, so the two of them certainly deserve more attention. I did know something about Eleanor. In particular that she has three sisters who would also make important marriages. Her eldest sister Marguerite becomes queen of France, thus bringing the sisters to opposite sides of the European power struggle.

The book opens with Ailenor traveling to England during a cold and wet winter. She likes her husband immediately but he finds her yet too young to consummate the marriage. Ailenor quickly makes friendship with the king’s sister Nell, who is widowed and has taken a vow to never marry again. Determined to be a good queen and smitten with tales of king Arthur and Guinevere, Ailenor develops a love for poetry and embroidery. She offers Rosalind, a very talented embroideress, her own workshop at Winchester. At the same time she petitions the king to help Nell, who has fallen in love with Simon De Montfort but needs the Pope’s blessing to wed again.

We discover court life through the eyes of this three different women. Rosalind is the only one not based on a historical character and although she has quite an interesting story herself, I liked the focus on Ailenor and Nell more.

Henry’s relationship with Nell’s husband Simon De Monfort is a complex one. Especially when events in Gascony are escalating. Eventually it will lead to rebellion, but those events are not included in this book. That may look as a strange choice, but I do understand that McGrath wants to focus on Ailenor’s story and not on the quarrel between two men.

There are many more things going on in this novel, such as the third crusade, the struggle between Ailenor’s Savoyards and the English nobles, witchcraft, Henry’s second family the De Lusignans causing unrest… You get a full insight into the politics and royal intrigues of the 13th century.

I really liked how the relationship between Ailenor and Henry was portrayed. They have a strong affection for each other, but Henry is a volatile king and the couple knows many ups and downs. Ailenor dares to stand up to Henry, which is not always appreciated.

I’m looking forward to read more about Eleanor Of Provence, and to continue with McGrath’s Rose trilogy as I know almost nothing about Eleanor Of Castile, the main subject of the next book in the series.

Rating: 4 out of 5.