Joan by Katherine J. Chen

Against all odds, fate has brought us together. You, who are your kingdom’s future, and I who am no one.

It wasn’t until I started reading this impressive new novel by Katherine J. Chen that I realised how little I know about Joan of Arc; she’s someone I’ve always been aware of, obviously, and I knew a few basic facts but apart from where she has appeared in the background in other historical novels, I’ve never read anything where Joan is the main focus of the book.

After a brief description of the political situation in France in the early 15th century, the novel opens in Domrémy, the small French village where Joan was born. It’s 1422 and France is currently engaged in the Hundred Years’ War, a conflict with England over the succession to the French throne. In quiet Domrémy, Joan grows up far away from the fighting, but faces conflict of her own – with her father, Jacques d’Arc, a violent and abusive bully who has never got over his disappointment that Joan was born a girl and not a boy. Then, one day, the village is attacked and burned by the English, Joan’s sister is raped, and Joan is left swearing revenge on the men she now sees as her enemies: the future Henry VI of England, his regent the Duke of Bedford and Philip, Duke of Burgundy.

A lot of time is devoted to these early years of Joan’s life and I did wonder when we would leave the child Joan behind and meet the warrior Joan, leading her troops into battle – but I can see why it was necessary to cover Joan’s childhood in so much detail. Only by reading about her treatment at the hands of her father, the stories told to her by her beloved uncle, her anger at the fate of her sister and her desire for revenge can we understand what made Joan the strong, determined and inspirational young woman she became. And eventually, of course, we do see Joan meeting the Dauphin of France and riding off with his army to lift the siege of Orléans.

What we don’t see at any point in this novel are miracles, visions or any other religious phenomena of any sort. Katherine J. Chen explains in her author’s note that this was a deliberate decision; her portrayal of Joan is a personal one rather than a traditional one and is a ‘reimagining’ of her life. Removing the religious aspects from Joan’s story makes her feel human, flawed and real, but at the same time the 15th century was a period in which religion was an important part of most people’s daily lives and taking this away from the story of a woman who has been declared a saint seems a bit odd.

This is a beautifully written novel and although I wish authors would stop using the present tense, it does work quite well here, as it did in Annie Garthwaite’s Cecily (a book this one is being compared with – and I would definitely agree with that comparison). It was good to have the opportunity to learn a bit more about Joan of Arc, even if this is only one author’s interpretation and a largely fictional one; if anyone has read any other books about her, I would love to hear your recommendations.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 33/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

30 thoughts on “Joan by Katherine J. Chen

  1. Margaret says:

    I wish authors would stop using the present tense too. It seems really wrong for historical fiction, but it does work well for some authors – such as Hilary Mantel with her Wolf Hall trilogy. I think I’d like to read this book to find out more about Joan. I read Saint Joan, a play by George Bernard Shaw whilst at school, but apart from that I haven’t read anything else.

    • Calmgrove says:

      The Shaw play I remember as being quite thought-provoking and questioning of belief in miracles, especially read in English class when I was at a Catholic all-boys grammar school…

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think the Wolf Hall trilogy is one of the few exceptions! Otherwise I almost always find the present tense annoying, particularly in historical fiction.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    I’m sure I studied a bit of this period in school, because I remember a bit about the to and fro of the Hundred Years War, but we must have moved rapidly onto the Tudors. I approve of “saints’ lives” shorn of the religiosity that too often distorts the reality to the extent that it becomes a false narrative, so it sounds as if might enjoy this – in conjunction with a nonfiction study, of course!

    • Helen says:

      I think we only covered this very briefly at school as well – the Tudors seemed to get most of the attention! I’ll have to look for a good nonfiction book on Joan so I can fill in some of the remaining gaps in my knowledge.

  3. hopewellslibraryoflife says:

    I have not heard of this book so forgive me if this is dead obvious–I’m betting the omission of the miracles etc will make this very controversial to some. It’s an interesting idea to “humanize” a saint even if you are not religious. And, your comment about the present tense has made me stop and think! I don’t really think I’ve noticed this (noticed as in a problem) but I will pay better attention as I read historical fiction and see what I really think. Good comment.

    • Helen says:

      I think it will be controversial – the book was only published a few days ago but I’ve already seen other reviews discussing the omission of the miracles and religious aspects. Some like it and some don’t! Present tense nearly always irritates me, but the author handled it well in this book.

  4. margaret21 says:

    If you’re twinning this book with Cecily, it’s going straight on the list. I loved that book, especially having met Annie Garthwaite when she talked about it here recently, and most engagingly. I seem to be out on a limb in being OK with the present tense. It doesn’t jar, and lends immediacy for me.

    • Helen says:

      I found it quite similar to Cecily, with both books focusing on the life of one historical woman and making her feel real and relatable. I’ve never liked the present tense much, but I think both Annie Garthwaite and Katherine J Chen handle it very well.

  5. Cyberkitten says:

    Interesting…. But the removal of the religious aspects of the story & Joan’s life seems… bizarre. Surely her visions are *central* to the story. Might still be an interesting read though!

    Joan ‘d’Arc is one of my favourite historical characters so I’m interested on those grounds alone. Although not about Joan directly (or at least not exclusively) I can heartily recommend:

    Conquest – The English Kingdom of France in the Hundred Years War by Juliet Barker

    https://cyberkittenspot.blogspot.com/2015/04/just-finished-reading-conquest-english.html

    On Joan herself I have two (inevitably unread at this point):

    Joan of Arc – A History by Helen Castor
    Saint Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I found it a strange decision – religion barely features in this version of Joan’s story at all!

      I’m interested in reading the Helen Castor book you mention, as I enjoyed one of her other historical biographies. The Juliet Barker book you’ve reviewed sounds good too – the Hundred Years War was such a fascinating period!

  6. Lark says:

    How can you write a story about Joan of Arc without including her visions in it, especially when they were so important to her? That’s an odd choice for an author to make imo.
    And I thought Kimberly Cutter’s historical fiction novel called The Maid was really good and very well-written, too. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed this book, but yes, I thought that was an odd choice! Religion didn’t seem to be important to this version of Joan at all. I’ll look out for the Kimberly Cutter book!

  7. Carmen says:

    I agree with all the points you made in your review. I kept asking myself when she would have visions but I understood the decision to “humanize” her a bit. I guess this portrayal seems as likely as the one we know from historical accounts. When it comes to religious figures a lot of myth comes to play.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I was surprised by the lack of visions, but I did like the more human portrayal of Joan. The traditional accounts do seem to include a lot of myth – I suppose the ‘real’ Joan was probably somewhere between the two.

  8. elainethomp says:

    I’ve been interested enough in Joan to read histories, and she’s one of the most well documented figures there is out there, due to the trials. The transcripts still exist, after all. Anyone interested should look into Regine Pernoud’s works on Joan.

    I don’t think it’s possible to do a decent take on Joan and leave out the religion.

    • Helen says:

      I found this book quite enjoyable as a work of fiction, but I felt that the author was writing about the person she wanted Joan to be rather than the person Joan really was – if that makes any sense! I’m sure I’ll look for some non-fiction on Joan eventually and will keep Regine Pernoud in mind.

    • Helen says:

      It was a very different portrayal of Joan than I was expecting! I think a lot of readers will be disappointed that the visions and religion have been left out.

    • Helen says:

      It did remind me of Cecily, in the writing style and the focus on one historical woman who was both strong and flawed. I didn’t mind the lack of religion, but I thought it was a strange decision to leave it out!

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