Hawker and the King’s Jewel by Ethan Bale

The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite periods of history to read about and I’m always looking out for new books, both fiction and non-fiction, that explore the key events, colourful figures and controversial mysteries of this fascinating era.

Ethan Bale’s new novel, Hawker and the King’s Jewel, begins just before the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485 with King Richard III summoning his loyal knight, Sir John Hawker, to send him on one last mission. Richard possesses a valuable jewel, one of the legendary Tears of Byzantium, and he wants Hawker to return it to its previous owner, the Doge of Venice. He also has another request to make of Hawker – to take care of his illegitimate son, Sir Giles Ellingham, who is unaware of his true parentage. Hawker promises to carry out both tasks, but when Richard falls in battle and Henry Tudor takes the crown, the situation becomes much more dangerous. Not only are those who supported Richard now seen as traitors, but Sir Giles could become a focus for both Tudor and Yorkist conspiracies.

The action moves from Bosworth to Flanders and then on to Venice, where most of the story unfolds. Hawker is accompanied by his young squire and a small band of mercenary soldiers, so you can expect some battle scenes, as well as smaller-scale fights and skirmishes (including the mock battles known as battagliola, staged on the bridges of medieval Venice). I was concerned at first that there would be too much of this in the book for my taste, but that wasn’t the case and there were plenty of other things to hold my interest – some political intrigue, a fascinating theory to explain the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, and even a touch of romance as we discover that Hawker has been in Venice before and left a lover behind there.

Although Sir John Hawker is the main character, the other men who make up his little band become more fully developed as the book progresses. I found one of them particularly intriguing as his motives for remaining with Hawker’s company seem to change continuously as he reassesses the political situation and tries to decide whether loyalty or betrayal will be more to his advantage. There’s also an interesting female character – a Hungarian noblewoman with her eye on the jewel Hawker is carrying – and her storyline helps to carry the novel through to its conclusion.

It seems that this is the first book in a planned series, Swords of the White Rose. I’ll be looking out for the next one.

Thanks to Canelo Adventure for providing a copy of this book for review.

This is book 48/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

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.

The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien

With a title like The Royal Game, you might expect this novel to be about a king or a queen; in fact, it’s the story of the Pastons, who rose from humble origins to become members of the aristocracy and one of Norfolk’s most influential families during the 15th century. Their collection of personal letters, known as the Paston Letters, is the largest archive of private correspondence surviving from the period and tells us a lot about life in England at that time.

The Pastons’ story is retold by Anne O’Brien in fictional form, using the letters as a guide. She has chosen to focus on three characters in particular: Margaret Mautby Paston, wife of John Paston, who becomes head of the family after the death of his father; John’s sister Elizabeth (known as Eliza); and Anne Haute, a cousin of Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville. There are chapters written from the perspectives of each of these women, mainly Margaret and Eliza at first, with Anne only introduced halfway through and becoming more prominent towards the end of the book.

During the period covered in the novel, the Wars of the Roses are playing out in the background as the House of Lancaster and the House of York fight for control of England’s throne. The Pastons are an ambitious family who see the changing political situation in terms of what it will mean for them and how they can turn things to their own advantage in order to increase their wealth and power. This means that much of the story is concerned with the gaining and losing of properties and land, disputes over wills and controversies surrounding inheritances. In particular, estates left to John Paston by his patron Sir John Fastolf (the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff), become the subject of a long legal battle.

I liked this book much more than Anne O’Brien’s previous one, The Queen’s Rival, partly because this one is written in a more straightforward format – although with the alternating narrators I mentioned above. I felt that the narrative voices of Margaret and Eliza were very similar and sometimes I had to remind myself which one I was reading about, but this was less of a problem as I got further into the book. Margaret is portrayed as a strong, intelligent and resourceful woman working alongside her husband to hold on to the family property, while Eliza is being badly treated by her mother and desperately hoping for marriage as a way of escape. Eventually, both women find themselves with the same focus in life: to protect their children’s titles and inheritances from jealous rivals who are trying to claim them for themselves. Our third narrator, Anne Haute, who is depicted as another young woman with ambition and hopes of an advantageous marriage, seems unconnected to the other two at first, but quickly becomes drawn into the Pastons’ world.

The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite historical periods to read about and it made a nice change to move away from the usual novels set at the royal court or on the battlefields and see what was going on elsewhere in the country at that time. I enjoyed this book but it’s very long and detailed and I was surprised when I reached a cliffhanger ending and discovered that there’s going to be a sequel. I will look out for it, but while I wait maybe this would be a good time to read my copy of Blood & Roses, Helen Castor’s non-fiction book about the Paston family.

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

Book 47/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Last Daughter by Nicola Cornick

I have read several of Nicola Cornick’s time slip novels over the last few years and enjoyed some much more than others, but I think her new one, The Last Daughter, is her best so far. It probably helped that the historical storyline is set during one of my favourite periods of history, the Wars of the Roses, but the modern day narrative interested me too, which isn’t always the case!

Beginning in the present day, we meet Serena Warren, a young woman who is still struggling to come to terms with the disappearance of her twin sister, Caitlin, eleven years earlier – an event so traumatic, she has blocked out all memory of it. Serena is staying with an aunt in California when she receives the news she has been dreading: Caitlin’s body has been found during an archaeological dig close to their grandparents’ old home in Oxfordshire, which stands near the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Determined to uncover the truth, Serena returns to England and finds that once she is back in the place where Caitlin vanished all those years ago, she begins to regain her memories.

In the fifteenth century, our narrator is Anne FitzHugh, a niece of the powerful Earl of Warwick. Anne is only five years old when a marriage is arranged for her with eight-year-old Francis Lovell, a ward of Edward IV. Her new husband grows up to become a close friend and supporter of Edward’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III), and he and Anne are drawn into all the conflict and intrigue surrounding Richard’s rise to the throne – including the mystery surrounding the fate of Richard’s two nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

These two narratives are linked in a very intriguing way; I can’t say too much as it would risk spoiling the story, but it involves both a ghost story based on the famous legend of the Mistletoe Bride and the theft of a mysterious relic known as the Lovell Lodestar. Although, as with all time slip novels, there are some elements of the supernatural here, I thought everything felt reasonably convincing in the context of the story and all the different threads of the plot tie together perfectly in the end.

I liked both protagonists, Serena and Anne (and I would love to have Serena’s job, researching and arranging ‘bespoke historical tours’). Serena’s story is probably the more complex; not only is she investigating her sister’s disappearance, she is also trying to uncover the secrets of her family history with the help of her grandfather, who is suffering from dementia. I was surprised to see Lizzie Kingdom, a character from Nicola Cornick’s previous book, make an appearance as an old friend of Serena’s, and I was wary of this at first as the book featuring Lizzie, The Forgotten Sister, is my least favourite novel by Cornick. However, Lizzie fits into this particular story very well and as both books are set in Oxfordshire, it’s believable enough that she and Serena could have known each other.

I also enjoyed reading about Anne and Francis Lovell, who are usually just minor characters in the background of Richard III’s story. Their marriage is portrayed as a loving one, despite it being arranged for them as children, but not without its challenges and its ups and downs. The solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is fascinating and certainly not one I’ve come across before, although I can’t say any more about it than that!

I’m looking forward to Nicola Cornick’s next book and hoping it will be as interesting and entertaining as this one!

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

Book 31/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 2/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

The Rich Earth by Pamela Oldfield

The Rich Earth is the first in a series of four novels following the story of one English family, the Kendals, over the course of more than a hundred years. This particular book, first published in 1980, is set during the Wars of the Roses, one of my favourite periods of history, which is what drew me to it; however, the historical setting is little more than a backdrop as the Kendals spend most of their time on their country estate in rural Devon and only have occasional involvement with the political and military conflict unfolding elsewhere.

The main protagonist of The Rich Earth is Elizabeth Sheldyke who, as the novel opens in 1468, is being married off to Daniel Heron, a much older man who has made his fortune from the tin mines for which Devon is famous. During the journey to her new home and the future that awaits her, Elizabeth briefly meets John Kendal, a young man from Yorkshire who is on his way to London where he is going to be apprenticed to a goldsmith. Time passes and Elizabeth settles into her new life at Heron Manor until, after twelve years of marriage, Daniel dies, leaving her a widow. Shortly afterwards she is reunited with John Kendal who becomes her second husband, but although she loves John, it will be a difficult relationship marred by John’s feelings of inadequacy at living off his wife’s money and by their inability to produce the child and heir they desperately want.

I wasn’t very impressed with this book at first – it seemed like too much of a romance novel with nothing else going on – but it improved as I got further into it and more characters and storylines were introduced. As I’ve said, the Kendals and their neighbours are usually quite detached from events taking place on the battlefield or at court (as far as they are concerned, it makes little difference to them which king wins the war, as either way people like themselves will be taxed to pay for it). However, later in the book, during the Cornish rebellions of 1497, our characters are drawn into the Battle of Deptford Bridge, the siege of Exeter and the invasion by the pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck.

The central relationship at the heart of the book – between Elizabeth and John – was difficult to read at times; Pamela Oldfield doesn’t shy away from portraying the misogyny of the period, which includes domestic abuse and cruelty. I felt that Elizabeth was much more forgiving of John’s faults than I would have been, but I suppose that’s easy enough to say from a modern point of view. On the other hand, Elizabeth does value her independence, involving herself in the running of the Heron mines and making decisions on behalf of the estate and its people.

The second book in the Heron saga is This Ravished Land. I haven’t been left feeling desperate to read it immediately, but I haven’t ruled it out either and will keep it in mind for the future.

Book 24/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Killer of the Princes in the Tower by MJ Trow

The fate of the Princes in the Tower – Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York – remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time. Reportedly last seen in the grounds of the Tower of London in the summer of 1483, the disappearance of the two boys has divided historians ever since. Their uncle, Richard III, is the man most often accused of being responsible for their deaths, while the names of Henry VII and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham have also been suggested as possible culprits. In all three cases there is a logical political motive: to remove rival claimants to the throne. But what if the murder (assuming that it was actually murder) was not politically motivated at all? What if the princes were killed for an entirely different reason, by someone completely unexpected?

MJ Trow’s new book, The Killer of the Princes in the Tower, is subtitled A New Suspect Revealed, and I have to admit, when I first started reading, I was very sceptical about this. The Wars of the Roses and Richard III’s reign in particular is a period of history I’m very interested in and I’ve read a lot of books over the years, both fiction and non-fiction, that deal with the subject of the Princes in the Tower. Could Trow really come up with a ‘new suspect’? Well, yes he does – or at least, one that I can’t remember being suggested in any of the other books I’ve read.

If you have any prior knowledge of the period and the controversy surrounding the princes, it will probably be helpful, but if not Trow does provide plenty of background information, describing the whole sequence of events following the death of the boys’ father, Edward IV, and explaining how Richard III came to take the throne before the young Edward V could be crowned. He spends some time discussing the idea that the princes could have been secretly released from the Tower and not murdered at all – a theory some people believe is supported by the appearance a few years later of a ‘pretender’, Perkin Warbeck, claiming to be the younger of the princes, Richard of York – but (sensibly, in my opinion), he doesn’t consider this as a serious possibility. He then looks at all of the potential suspects one by one, presenting the evidence for each one being the murderer and then dismissing it, until only one name is left…

Trow approaches the mystery like a modern day police investigation, believing that no stone should be left unturned and looking for motive, means and opportunity. Beginning with the three most obvious suspects, he moves on to consider their supporters, servants and family members; even Richard III’s wife, Anne Neville, and the princes’ own mother, Elizabeth Woodville, are discussed – because, as Trow says, they would certainly have been interviewed by the police if the boys had disappeared today. He also examines the reliability of the various sources and what we can learn from them.

The revelation of the new suspect did take me by surprise because it’s not someone who would ever have occurred to me. It’s true that this person certainly had the means and the opportunity, but I wasn’t at all convinced about the motive, even though Trow devotes a whole chapter to drawing comparisons with other people throughout history who have killed for similar reasons. Although what Trow suggests is not impossible, I don’t think it’s very likely either and as far as I’m concerned the mystery remains unsolved! Still, it’s good to read a theory that is neither pro-Ricardian nor anti-Ricardian and that looks at the whole subject from a very different angle. I found this book almost as gripping as fiction, so despite not agreeing with the conclusion I still really enjoyed reading it.

Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien

Having read six of Anne O’Brien’s previous novels, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from this one, but I was wrong. It couldn’t be more different! I’m not sure that every aspect of it really worked for me, but it’s nice to see authors trying something new now and then.

The Queen’s Rival is the story of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, mother of Edward IV and Richard III. As a prominent member of the House of York, Cecily has an important role to play in the Wars of the Roses, yet she is often just a minor character in novels set during this period. Joanna Hickson’s Red Rose, White Rose is the only other book I’ve read which focuses specifically on Cecily, so I was keen to see how O’Brien would choose to tell her story.

The way O’Brien chooses to tell her story is through a series of letters sent between Cecily and various members of her family, as well as diary entries, prayers, recipes and articles from a (fictitious) newspaper called England’s Chronicle. From Cecily’s perspective we see all of the major events of the Wars of the Roses unfold – the attempts of her husband, the Duke of York, to claim the throne of England for himself; the events that lead to the defeat of Henry VI and to Cecily’s eldest son Edward becoming king; the controversy surrounding Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville; and finally, the end of Edward’s reign and the coronation of Cecily’s youngest son, Richard.

The epistolary format gives the story a feeling of immediacy and intimacy, especially where Cecily is exchanging letters with her sisters Anne and Katherine (both of whom also see their fortunes rise and fall several times throughout the novel). However, as all of the other O’Brien novels I’ve read have been written in ordinary prose, this change in style and structure was completely unexpected and, as I’ve said, not completely to my taste. I particularly disliked the excerpts from the Chronicle, which were written in the gossipy style of a modern tabloid newspaper, but I’m sure Anne O’Brien knew that newspapers in this form didn’t exist in the 15th century, so I do appreciate that it was intended as a bit of fun, as well as a way to provide information that might not otherwise have been available to Cecily.

Still, I did find the book entertaining overall. This is such a fascinating period of history with so much still open to debate, so many mysteries and controversies, that it never fails to interest me – although sadly, the novel ends just as Richard III is coming to the throne, so the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is not explored. Cecily herself comes across as an intelligent, politically astute woman who is loyal to her family, but without being blind to their faults. I did wonder about the title: was she a ‘rival’ to Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s queen, or Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen? It could refer to either or both, I think.

Despite this probably being my least favourite Anne O’Brien book so far, I will still look forward to her next novel, The Royal Game, about the 15th century Paston family, which is due to be published later this year.

Book 3/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.