Six Degrees of Separation: From Wolfe Island to Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the book Kate has chosen as our starting point is Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar. I haven’t read it, but this is what Goodreads tells us it’s about:

“For years Kitty Hawke has lived alone on Wolfe Island, witness to the island’s erosion and clinging to the ghosts of her past. Her work as a sculptor and her wolfdog Girl are enough. News of mainland turmoil is as distant as myth until refugees from that world arrive: her granddaughter Cat, and Luis and Alejandra, a brother and sister escaping persecution. When threats from the mainland draw closer, they are forced to flee for their lives. They travel north through winter, a journey during which Kitty must decide what she will do to protect the people she loves.”

Although I haven’t read that book and I don’t think I’m particularly interested in reading it, I have read another one by Lucy Treloar – Salt Creek (1), which is set in the 19th century and tells the story of a family who move from Adelaide to the Coorong region of South Australia after falling on hard times.

Taking South Australia as my next link, The Boy with Blue Trousers by Carol Jones (2) is a novel divided between two narratives: one following a Chinese girl who is forced to leave her home in the Pearl River Delta and travel to the goldfields of Australia; the other following an Englishwoman working as a governess in Robetown, South Australia.

Thinking of other books with ‘blue’ in the title, the first one that comes to mind is an obvious one: Nancy Bilyeau’s historical thriller The Blue (3). Set during the Seven Years War of 1756 to 1763, a Huguenot woman working at the Derby Porcelain Works becomes caught up in a race to find a rare and beautiful shade of blue.

The idea of searching for a colour reminds me of The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale (4), in which a young woman becomes an apprentice to a fireworks maker and helps him to create new colours for his fireworks. The name of the young woman is Agnes and that leads me to my next book…

Agnes Grey (5) Anne Brontë’s semi-autobiographical novel based on her own experiences as a governess. Anne is often (very unfairly in my opinion) overshadowed by her sisters Emily and Charlotte, but I highly recommend reading her books; The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is particularly good.

Another author in the shadow of a more famous sibling was Angela du Maurier, who when she was mistaken for Daphne would reply, ‘I’m only the sister’. This brings my chain to an end with Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing by Jane Dunn (6) – a biography of Angela, Daphne and the youngest du Maurier sister, Jeanne, who was an artist.

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And that’s my chain for this month! My links included Australia, the word ‘blue’, experiments with colours, heroines called Agnes and sisters who are authors. Next month, we are beginning with Stasiland by Anna Funder.

Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor

In Becoming Belle, Nuala O’Connor (a pseudonym of the Irish author Nuala Ní Chonchúir) brings to life a young woman whose picture hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London but whose name is probably unfamiliar to most of us today. She is Belle Bilton, a star of the Victorian music hall who later became the Countess of Clancarty. O’Connor’s novel tells, in fictional form, the story of Belle’s rise to fame, her marriage and the scandalous court case that follows.

Born Isabel Maud Penrice Bilton, the eldest daughter of an artillery sergeant, Belle grows up in an army garrison watching her mother, an entertainer, perform for the troops. It is while taking her mother’s place on stage one night that Belle decides she also wants a career in entertainment, so at the age of nineteen she leaves the military life behind and heads for London to make her dream come true. Belle’s singing and dancing quickly causes a sensation and when she is joined by one of her younger sisters, Flo, the two form a double act that becomes the star attraction of the London theatres.

Following a performance one day in 1889, Belle meets and falls in love with William, the young Viscount Dunlo, son and heir to the Earl of Clancarty. It’s not long before she and William are standing in the Registrar’s Office in Hampstead taking their marriage vows and looking forward to spending the rest of their lives together. At twenty years old, however, William is still firmly under the thumb of his father, the Earl, who is furious when he hears of the secret wedding and makes it clear that he will do whatever it takes to separate his son from Belle.

Some books grab you from the first page, while others take much longer to settle into – and for me, Becoming Belle was one of the latter rather than the former. The account of Belle’s early life and first days on the stage didn’t interest me much and I came close to abandoning the book after a few chapters. Belle herself seemed as though she would be difficult to like – an ambitious social climber like Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, but with little depth or substance to her character – and the focus on her sexual encounters also put me off. I’m glad I continued, though, because I thought the second half of the book, after Belle meets William, was much more compelling than the first.

I don’t want to say too much about how the story of Belle’s marriage plays out, but it involves a court case which draws in most of the characters we have met in the novel and which was widely reported in the media of the time. I managed to resist looking up the facts about the real Belle Bilton, so I didn’t know what the outcome of the court case would be, but by that stage of the book I was fully invested in Belle’s story and hoped there would be a happy ending for her. I still didn’t like her very much, but I had more sympathy for her than I’d had earlier in the novel because she’d had so much to contend with during her short time in London. However, I couldn’t really see her as a feminist heroine ‘ahead of her time’ as she is described in the book’s blurb; although I admired her for trying to get what she wanted out of life, for working hard at her chosen career and securing financial independence, she seemed too willing to give it all up to become Countess of Clancarty and too ready to forgive William for the appalling way he treats her at times.

I have no idea what the real William, Viscount Dunlo was supposed to be like, but based on the way he is portrayed in this book, I found him immature and pathetic, declaring his love for Belle while at the same time allowing his father to tear them apart. Luckily, there were plenty of other, stronger characters in the novel whom I found more appealing to read about: for example, Belle’s close friend Isidor Wertheimer, the antiques dealer, and her sister, Flo, both of whom support her through her various ordeals.

Despite struggling with the first half of this book, I ended up really enjoying Becoming Belle – although I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of her time at Garbally Court, the Clancarty estate in Ireland. Anyway, I went from thinking Nuala O’Connor was not an author for me to wanting to read more of her books. Miss Emily, her novel about the poet Emily Dickinson sounds like an interesting one.

Although I read this book in February, I have waited until now to post my review because this month Cathy at 746 Books is hosting her annual Reading Ireland event. I hope to have time to write about another book by an Irish author before the end of March.

The Great Matter Monologues by Thomas Crockett

So many novels have been written dealing with ‘the King’s Great Matter’ – Henry VIII’s struggle to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn – that it must be getting very difficult for authors to find new and interesting ways to approach the subject. Thomas Crockett’s solution is to tell the story in the form of alternating monologues written from the perspectives of Henry, Katherine and Anne in an attempt to create a theatrical feel, as if the three main players were standing on a stage sharing their thoughts directly with the audience.

If you’ve read about this period before, there’s nothing very new here; for the most part, the plot follows the known historical facts, except where it’s necessary for the author to make personal choices on how to interpret certain points – for example, the question of whether Katherine’s earlier marriage to Henry’s brother, Prince Arthur, had been consummated (this was the basis for Henry’s claim that his own marriage to Katherine should be declared invalid). The appeal of the book, for me, was not so much what it was about but the way in which it was written, taking us into the minds of Katherine and Anne – and also Henry, as most of the other Tudor novels I’ve read have focused on the women and not really given Henry a chance to tell his side of the story.

Despite them sharing their private thoughts and emotions with us, I didn’t find any of the three narrators at all likeable. It’s certainly easiest to have sympathy for Katherine as she was treated so badly by Henry, blamed for their failure to produce a son and cast off to live the rest of her life under increasingly poor and unhealthy conditions as she is put under pressure to agree to the divorce. However, as she spends most of this period in the confines of the damp, cold castles to which she has been banished, not much actually happens to Katherine over the course of the novel and I felt that her monologues became very repetitive.

Anne Boleyn’s voice and story are stronger and more engaging as she talks about her struggle to be accepted as Henry’s queen and her own failure to give birth to a male heir, before falling out of favour in her turn. She is very much the villain of the book, though, which is often the case in Tudor novels and I would have preferred something more nuanced rather than yet another portrayal of Anne as ruthless, spiteful and consumed by hatred for Katherine and her daughter, Mary. As for Henry, it’s difficult to have much sympathy for him, knowing how he treated his wives, but I did feel his frustration over how long the Great Matter was taking to be resolved and his worries for the future of the kingdom should he die before the succession was secured.

The novel goes into a huge amount of detail regarding every aspect of the Great Matter and although the short, rapidly switching monologues made it tempting to keep saying ‘just one more chapter’, I didn’t find it a particularly quick or easy read. As part of the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, there’s an absence of punctuation to indicate when someone is speaking and that made it difficult to follow the dialogue at times. Still, overall I enjoyed reading this book and appreciate Thomas Crockett’s attempt to do something a little bit different. Although I’m not really a fan of audiobooks, I do think this particular novel would work well in audio format, with different narrators expressing the unique voices and personalities of the three characters.

In case it has escaped anyone’s notice, Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light will be published later this week, and I know some readers have been re-reading Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in preparation. I decided not to do that, but The Great Matter Monologues, in which Thomas Cromwell plays an important part, covers the same period of history, so this was the perfect time to read this book!

Thanks to John Hunt Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

My Commonplace Book: February 2020

A selection of words and pictures to represent February’s reading:

commonplace book
noun
a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.

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There were no houses across the way from Miss Beulah’s, only a wall of pines. It was a dark, romantic view, and somehow sad. It made her think of the poor little match girl who froze to death, and the other little girl whose cruel stepmother dressed her in newspapers and sent her out in the storm to find strawberries. Snow always made Miss Beulah think of things like that, pretty, childish things with death and tears in the background. Miss Beulah had the imagination of her century and she had read too many books when she was young.

Blood Upon the Snow by Hilda Lawrence (1944)

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Wivenhoe Park by John Constable, 1816

Now his brother looked up. ‘Is the suggestion disagreeable to you?’

John thought for a moment before he replied. ‘What is not necessary is not always agreeable.’

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd (2020)

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This position was first recorded in the 1340s and by 1471 the description of the role of master of the henchmen was

…to learn them to ride cleanly and surely, to draw them also to jousts, to learn them wear their harness (armour), to have all courtesy in words, deeds, and degrees…to teach them sundry languages and other learnings virtuous, to harping, to pipe, sing, dance, and with other honest and temperate behaving and patience…to have his respects unto their demeaning, how mannerly they eat and drink, and to their communication.

Sir Francis Bryan: Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Ambassador by Sarah-Beth Watkins (2020)

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‘You did not see the need for change because the world you lived in suited you best. And we are all blinded by dogmatics and have become too afraid to trust our own thoughts. We have all been manipulated by the acceptance of tradition, our minds already tainted by the time we learn to speak. It is not our parents’ fault, nor our grandparents’; who as a babe has the knowledge and strength to take on every human that existed before them?’

Requiem for a Knave by Laura Carlin (2020)

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Belle Bilton, Countess of Clancarty

“Do you love to read, Flo, as I do?” he said. “I cannot get your sister to lift a book.” He waved his hand in the direction of the Corinthian’s library, the quietest room in the club.

“Oh, Isabel is not for literary pursuits, Mr Weston. She prefers to live her story.”

Weston laughed. “What a superb notion! And so superbly put.”

Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor (2018)

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The storm comes in like a finger snap. That’s how they’ll speak in the months and years after, when it stops being only an ache behind their eyes and a crushing at the base of their throats. When it finally fits into stories. Even then, it doesn’t tell how it actually was. There are ways words fall down: they give shape too easily, carelessly. And there was no grace, no ease to what Maren saw.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2020)

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‘I’m at the Club. I can be with you in about a quarter of an hour, if that suits you.’

‘Very well indeed, sir. Come along.’

Johnny rang off, and Sally asked, ‘What on earth do you suppose he wants?’

‘I can’t imagine. If this were a detective story, he’d be bumped off before he could tell us. It’s a classic situation’.

Answer in the Negative by Henrietta Hamilton (1959)

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Giardini Iblei, Ragusa

We climbed to the top of the city, where the formal gardens, the Giardini Iblei, were laid out: green, shady and quiet. We entered through an avenue of huge old palm trees throwing deep shade across the hot, bright path. Starlings sang in the trees; cats stretched in patches of sunlight. The gardens were flanked by churches; one even stood inside its boundary – an arched door painted green and a saint standing up high beside its tower, one hand raised in benediction, baking in the glare.

The House by the Sea by Louise Douglas (2020)

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“I see the past as it actually was,” Maeve said. She was looking at the trees.

“But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (2019)

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“In case this turns out to be a high-powered mystery, which I don’t suppose for a moment that it will, remember that an elderly unmarried woman who knits and gardens is streets ahead of any detective sergeant. She can tell you what might have happened and what ought to have happened and even what actually did happen! And she can tell you why it happened!”

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (1950)

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We make decisions based on what’s best for the realm, not to appease our feelings. The same is true for us. You want to speak of love for eighteen years, but it has never been about love, only promise and property, power and position, and after eighteen years the promise has been unfulfilled, the property has not been possessed, our power is less than it should be, and our position is fragile without an heir.

Thus, do not speak to me of love. I am a king.

The Great Matter Monologues by Thomas Crockett (2020)

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Imprisonment of Charles of Orleans in the Tower of London

My mother sought and found solace in reading what wise men and poets had written to direct us to a path in the impenetrable forest which life is. It is an image which was familiar to me when I was a child. My mother said once: Life is a long awaiting of God’s peace. And I know that my father considered himself to be one who had irretrievably lost his way in the forest of long awaiting. We too seek a path in the wilderness, ma mie. Perhaps we shall wander inaccessible to each other, each in a different place. But shouldn’t we try to find each other? Trust and sharing of views, these could bring us together.’

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse (1949)

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‘I understand better than you know, sister,’ said Diana, turning her grip into a hug as Molly’s tears began again. ‘We are women. We lose all that we love. We give everything, we give life, and all around us it is being taken away. I know. It was ever thus. It will ever be thus.’

Killing Beauties by Pete Langman (2020)

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Favourite books read in February:

A Murder is Announced, In a Dark Wood Wandering and The Dutch House.

New authors read in February:

Sarah-Beth Watkins, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Henrietta Hamilton, Nuala O’Connor, Thomas Crockett, Pete Langman, Hella S Haasse and Ann Patchett.

Countries visited in my February reading:

USA, England, Indonesia, Switzerland, Norway, Italy and France.

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Have you read any of these books? Which books did you enjoy reading in February?

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

I am always drawn to books with pretty covers like this one, even though I know that the story inside doesn’t always live up to the promise of the cover. This one, set in 17th century Norway, did sound fascinating, though, so I hoped that in this case it would be as good as it looked!

The novel opens in December 1617 in the remote island town of Vardø, in the far northeast of Norway. It is Christmas Eve but the men of the island have gone out to sea as usual in search of the fish on which their livelihood depends. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter watches from her window as she sits by the fire with her mother and sister-in-law mending torn sails. Suddenly there’s a flash of lightning and Maren and her mother run to the window…

And then maybe both of them are screaming but there is no sound save the sea and the sky and all the boat lights swallowed and the boats flashing and the boats spinning, the boats flying, turning, gone.

The effects of that Christmas Eve storm are disastrous both for Maren, who loses her father and brother, and for the town of Vardø as a whole. Where the male population of the town used to be fifty-three, now only thirteen remain – and those thirteen consist of babies, young boys and elderly men. Now the women of Vardø have two choices: abandon the island and start a new life somewhere else – or stay and do the work of the men themselves, so that their community can survive.

Meanwhile, far away in Bergen, a young woman called Ursa is marrying a man chosen for her by her father. The man’s name is Absalom Cornet and he has been summoned from Scotland to take up a position as Commissioner of Vardø. When they arrive in Vardø, Ursa is struck by the strength and independence of the women she meets there and the resilience they have shown in coping with such a terrible tragedy. Commissioner Cornet, though, views the women differently – and when Ursa discovers the true nature of the work her husband has carried out in Scotland and why he has been brought to Norway, she becomes afraid for her new friends.

The Mercies is based on real historical events – the 1617 storm which almost wiped out all the men of Vardø really happened, and so did some of the things that take place later in the novel. I loved the descriptions of the island and the portrayal of a small, superstitious society where outsiders and anyone deemed to be different – such as Maren’s sister-in-law, an indigenous Sámi woman – are regarded with suspicion. It was particularly interesting to see things from two such different perspectives: Maren, who has lived in Vardø all her life, and Ursa, to whom everything is strange and unfamiliar. However, despite the drama and tragedy of Maren’s storyline, she never really came to life for me and I couldn’t quite warm to her; I found Ursa more sympathetic as she struggled to fit into her new community and to come to terms with her knowledge of the sort of man she had married.

This is the first book I’ve read by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (she has previously written YA novels and this is her first one aimed at adults) and I thought her writing was beautiful at times, but I really wish authors would stop writing in present tense; I find it so distracting and distancing! Still, there’s a lot of atmosphere – I think books set in countries like Norway and Iceland do tend to have a certain atmosphere – but apart from those vivid opening scenes describing the storm and its aftermath, I felt that the rest of the story was one I’d read several times before. As soon as I found out who and what Absalom Cornet was, I could predict what was going to happen and I was right.

If you read The Mercies and enjoy it, I would recommend reading The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea too; I thought the two books had a very similar feel and if you like one you will probably like the other.

Thanks to Picador for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

February’s book of the month for the Read Christie 2020 Challenge is A Murder is Announced, a Miss Marple novel from 1950. This month’s theme for the challenge is ‘a story Christie loved’ and apparently this is one that she mentioned in a 1972 letter to a fan as being a current favourite. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why she liked it so much.

A Murder is Announced is set in the quiet little village of Chipping Cleghorn where, as the novel opens, the residents are waking up to an unusual notice in their local newspaper:

A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.

The villagers are intrigued and, believing it must be an invitation to a party game of some sort, they all make their way to Little Paddocks, the home of Miss Letitia Blacklock, at the stated time. Miss Blacklock herself denies having anything to do with the announcement – as do the other members of her household – but she makes her neighbours welcome anyway. They are all gathered together inside when the clock strikes 6.30, the lights go out and shots are fired. When the lights are turned back on, a man is found dead on the floor. It seems it wasn’t a game after all…

Of all the Christie novels I’ve read, this has one of the best openings: first an introduction to each character in turn as we jump from house to house as newspapers are opened and the announcement is read; then the murder scene itself – a wonderful set piece with all of the suspects together in one place. We are given many of the clues we need in that scene and the rest in the chapters that follow, so that the reader has at least a chance of solving the mystery before the truth is revealed. I managed to work out parts of it, but not the whole thing and the eventual solution came as a surprise to me.

What really makes this book stand out, though, is the excellent characterisation, with characters drawn from a range of different social backgrounds. There’s Bunny – Miss Bunner – an old school friend of Miss Blacklock’s who has fallen on hard times and has been invited to stay at Little Paddocks; there are Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd, two unmarried women who live together and whose relationship is portrayed with warmth and affection; Phillipa Haymes, a young mother left to raise her son alone in the aftermath of the Second World War; Colonel Easterbrook, who thinks he knows all there is to know about India; and the Reverend Julian Harmon and his cheerful, tactless wife ‘Bunch’, who happens to be the goddaughter of Jane Marple.

It is through her connection with Bunch that Miss Marple comes into the story (surprisingly late – the murder has been committed and an investigation by the police is well under way before she makes her first appearance). Miss Marple solves the mystery both through the usual methods of observing, deducting and asking questions, and through her knowledge of small villages like Chipping Cleghorn and how they have changed since the war. ‘Fifteen years ago, one knew who everybody was,’ she says, ‘but now the big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.’

The one aspect of this book that I didn’t like was the portrayal of Mitzi, the cook at Little Paddocks who is a refugee from an unspecified Central European country. We are told that Mitzi has had some traumatic experiences during the war, yet the other characters seem to treat her with an unusual level of unkindness and insensitivity, ridiculing her for her screaming and crying and fear of the police. That was the only thing that slightly spoiled my enjoyment of what was otherwise a perfect murder mystery.

This year’s Read Christie challenge is only two months old and already I’ve read two great books that I’ve loved – this one and Murder on the Orient Express. I’m looking forward to next month’s selection!

Blood Queen by Joanna Courtney

The fictional story of Macbeth, complete with witches, ghosts and prophecies, is well known thanks to Shakespeare’s play, but how many of us know the story of the real historical figure – King of Alba (Scotland) from 1040 until 1057 – on whom the play was based? I have read one version, Dorothy Dunnett’s wonderful King Hereafter, but it’s always interesting to see how different authors approach the same subject so when I came across Blood Queen, Joanna Courtney’s recent novel about ‘the real Lady Macbeth’, I decided to give it a try.

I remember reading one of Courtney’s previous books, The Chosen Queen, several years ago and my impression at that time was that she was a good storyteller but spoiled things by replacing the names of her historical characters with modern equivalents. She does the same in this book and again I found it annoying and unnecessary. She explains in her author’s note that some of the historical names sound unnatural to ‘the modern ear’, so Gruoch and Suthen become Cora and Sibyll, Lulach becomes Lachlan and Gillacomghain becomes Gillespie. I don’t really understand that decision at all; it’s a story set in the 11th century and readers will understand that, so why not just leave the names as they are?

Anyway, we first meet the sixteen-year-old Cora MacDuff on the eve of her wedding to Macbeth, son of the Mormaer of Moray. Cora fled to Moray several months earlier following an attack on her home in Fife by the men of King Malcolm, her father’s cousin. She swears to ‘make of myself a sword to avenge the wrong done to my father by his own blood’ and she is driven by this desire for the rest of her life. Cora believes that if she marries Macbeth, part of the royal bloodline of Aed, their heir would be able to challenge King Malcolm, or at least his son, Prince Duncan. Before the wedding can take place, however, Cora is abducted during a raid and forced into marriage with another man – Macbeth’s rival, Gillespie, who also believes he has a claim to the throne.

Cora’s story alternates with the story of Sibyll, the Danish-born wife of Prince Duncan. Sibyll, sister of Ward (or Siward), the Earl of Northumbria, is also no stranger to violence, having lost both parents when their small fishing community in Denmark was attacked by the Wend tribe. Her marriage to Duncan, which takes place early in the novel, means that their son, if they have one, will be king one day…but not if Cora’s son gets to the throne first.

In this novel, Joanna Courtney has chosen to focus on the parallel lives of Cora and Sibyll, showing how, although circumstances make them rivals, both women have the same hopes and ambitions, both just wanting the best for their children. A lot of care seems to have gone into the writing of the book; there are maps of Alba, descriptions of the system of alternate inheritance used in Alba at that time, genealogy charts showing the royal lines of Aed and Constantin, and a very extensive set of notes at the end. This is why I was surprised to come across a description in the third chapter of Gillespie as a ‘wide, cumbersome young man with a belly that already hung ponderously over his kilt’. Kilts in the 11th century? I don’t think so, though I’m happy to be corrected.

Blood Queen is the first book in a Shakespeare-inspired trilogy; the second, Fire Queen, is about Ophelia from Hamlet and the third, the upcoming Iron Queen, will be about Cordelia from King Lear. After trying two Joanna Courtney books I probably won’t read any more, but I have to admit that I know absolutely nothing about the inspiration for Ophelia or Cordelia and would have been interested to find out more.

Thanks to Piatkus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.