A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien

One of the things I like about Anne O’Brien’s books is that they tend to be about women who are not usually the subjects of historical fiction. I have read five of her previous novels, all set in the 14th and 15th centuries, which told the stories of Katherine of Valois, Elizabeth of Lancaster, Joanna of Navarre, Joan of Kent and Elizabeth Mortimer. Now, in her latest novel, A Tapestry of Treason, she brings another medieval woman out of obscurity and gives her a voice. She is Constance, Lady Despenser, daughter of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, the fourth surviving son of King Edward III of England.

The novel opens in 1399. Constance’s cousin, Richard II, has reigned for over twenty years but another cousin, Henry of Lancaster, now has his eye on the throne. The York branch of the family – Constance, her father, her brothers Edward and Dickon, and her husband Thomas Despenser – must decide with whom their loyalties lie, knowing that if they give their support to the wrong man they could lose everything, including their lives. History tells us that Henry would be successful, taking the throne as Henry IV when Richard abdicates, but of course Constance and her family don’t know how things will play out and this leaves them with some difficult choices to make.

Cold, ambitious and determined, Constance is not an easy character to like, but the fact that the story is told from her point of view allows us to have a certain amount of sympathy for her. She makes some terrible mistakes and, despite having grown up in a world of shifting politics and court intrigue, she judges the situation wrongly on several occasions and pays the price for it. It’s frustrating to see her at the heart of one plot or conspiracy after another and she never seems to learn from her mistakes, but as we get to know Constance better we understand that she is only trying to look after her family’s interests and help them to advance in any way they can. In this respect she reminded me of Elizabeth Mortimer, heroine of Queen of the North, who is actually involved in some of the same conspiracies.

Constance’s hard and emotionless exterior can probably be explained by the lack of love she has experienced throughout her life. Her parents have shown her very little affection – and although her husband, Thomas Despenser, is not a cruel man, their marriage took place at a very early age and was definitely a political match rather than one based on love. There is a chance of romance for Constance later in the novel, but she makes mistakes here too and risks having her heart broken.

There are two other relationships in this book which interested me more than the romantic one. The first is Constance’s relationship with her elder brother, Edward of York, a man who is as ambitious and ruthless as Constance herself, but unlike his sister, thinks only of himself. He shows no real loyalty to anyone and is ready to betray his family and friends if it means saving his own skin, yet Constance always gives him the benefit of the doubt and it is never quite clear whether he cares for her even a little bit or not at all. The other is the relationship between Constance and her young stepmother, Joan Holland. At first they make no secret of the fact that they dislike each other but as the story progresses they settle into an uneasy friendship.

A Tapestry of Treason is not my favourite Anne O’Brien book; although this is a fascinating period of history, I felt that for a long time Constance was plotting and scheming in the background, watching events unfold from afar rather than taking an active part in her own story. Not the author’s fault, but an indication of the limitations and constraints placed on women at that time. It’s only from the middle of the novel onwards that Constance begins to play a bigger role and becomes more directly involved in carrying out her treasonous plots.

I did still enjoy the book, though, and it was interesting to read about the origins of the conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York which would later intensify and lead to the Wars of the Roses. Now I’m wondering if there are any other fictional portrayals of Constance of York; if you know of any please let me know!

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

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

When The Western Wind was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in March, I decided to read my copy of the book before the shortlist was announced so that I could see whether I agreed with its inclusion or omission. Now that I’ve read it, although I can’t really say that I particularly enjoyed it, I wasn’t surprised to see this morning that it has been shortlisted as I found it a complex, multi-layered novel with an unusual structure and some interesting ideas to explore. The sort of book judges usually like, I think!

The Western Wind is, on the surface, a murder mystery set in a small English village in 1491. Oakham in Somerset is an isolated place, cut off from the rest of the world by a river without a bridge. The wealthy Thomas Newman, who understands the importance of trade, has plans to rebuild the bridge, but before work can begin he disappears, presumed to have been swept away by the river and drowned. But was it an accident or was it murder? Lord Townshend, who has been losing some of his lands to Newman, would seem to have the most obvious motive, but he is not the only suspect…

Under pressure from his dean to discover what really happened, village priest John Reve listens to the confessions of his parishioners and is surprised by how many of them are willing to confess to having some involvement in Newman’s death. It is up to Reve to use his judgement and his knowledge of his friends and neighbours to decide who is telling the truth. The story, however, is told in reverse, beginning on day four and then moving back in time to a point just before Newman’s disappearance – and by the time we reach the end of the novel, it has become clear that Reve himself knows much more than he seemed to at first.

Despite the mystery at the heart of this novel, I didn’t feel that it was the main focus of the book. The fate of Tom Newman acts as a starting point from which we – through the eyes of John Reve – explore the daily lives of the people of Oakham, their personalities and relationships, the way their community is structured, and the superstitions and traditions that rule their lives. Social and economic change is another theme; even Newman’s name is symbolic, as he is a relevant newcomer to the village, bringing with him new ideas and new ways of looking at the world.

Although we are told that the book is set in February 1491 (at the beginning of Lent) I would otherwise have found it hard to say exactly when the story is taking place. There are very few references to anything happening in the wider world that give us any clues to the precise time period, but maybe that is the point – news from outside would be slow to reach the isolated, insular Oakham after all. I’m not sure how much importance the author places on historical accuracy in any case; she has acknowledged that the confession box which plays such a big part in the story wouldn’t have arrived in English churches until the following century, but she decided to keep John Reve’s box in her novel anyway. I have to admit, I’ve never given any thought to when confession boxes first came into use – but I am fairly sure that fifteenth century men didn’t wear trousers with waistbands as Herry Carter does in the opening chapter of the book. This is the sort of thing that will either bother you or it won’t, I suppose.

I did like Samantha Harvey’s writing but, as well as the points I’ve made above, there was something about the story that left me feeling slightly dissatisfied. I think part of that was due to the fact that, with the exception of John Reve as our narrator, I struggled to connect with any of the characters. This was probably because the way the novel is structured makes it difficult to tell whether we can trust or rely on anything they say or do, especially as we only witness their words and actions from Reve’s perspective. I’m sure that if I’d taken the time to go back and read the whole book again from the beginning, it would have been a very different experience the second time. I didn’t enjoy the book enough to want to do that, but I think it would have helped me to fully understand and appreciate it.

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

Court of Wolves by Robyn Young

Robyn Young’s New World Rising series got off to a promising start in 2016 with Sons of the Blood and now it continues with the second novel, Court of Wolves. I would recommend beginning with the first book if you can as the story is very complex and I’m not sure how easy it would be to follow if you were to jump straight into this one. For the rest of this review, I will assume that you have either already read Sons of the Blood or don’t mind coming across one or two spoilers here.

Court of Wolves begins in 1486 with Jack Wynter arriving in Florence where he plans to seek an audience with Lorenzo de’ Medici. He has reason to believe that Lorenzo will be able to answer some of his questions regarding his father, Sir Thomas Vaughan, who was executed during the recent Wars of the Roses in England. He is also hoping for help in locating his old friend, the priest Amaury de la Croix, who has been taken captive and may be hidden somewhere in the city. As ruler of Florence, however, Lorenzo already has enough worries of his own with his power coming under threat from a secret society known as the Court of Wolves. If Jack can infiltrate the society and report back to Lorenzo, then maybe Lorenzo will help him.

Before he died, Sir Thomas Vaughan had entrusted Jack with a map hinting at undiscovered lands and new sea routes. This map has been stolen by Jack’s half-brother, Harry Vaughan, and is now in the possession of the newly crowned Henry VII. If these lands really exist, then Henry wants England to benefit from discovering them – but with the sailor Christopher Columbus seeking funding from Queen Isabella of Spain to finance his own voyage of exploration, Henry fears that the Spanish could get there first. He sends Harry Vaughan to Isabella’s court to find out what is happening and to ensure that Columbus never sets sail, but once there, Harry becomes drawn into Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand’s war in Granada.

Court of Wolves is set during a fascinating period in Europe’s history and the chapters alternate between Jack in Florence and Harry in Spain. There’s a sense that the world is changing and looking towards the future, with England, Spain, the Italian city states and others all searching for new opportunities to grow, expand and trade. Jack’s sections of the book were my favourites, partly because Jack is our hero while Harry is more of a villain, but also because I loved the descriptions of Florence and the Medici court – always a wonderful setting! I wasn’t very keen on the secret society storyline, but it was only one aspect of the novel and there were plenty of other things to enjoy.

The Harry chapters were interesting too, especially as I haven’t read about Isabella and Ferdinand’s Granada War in as much detail as this before. The war was a series of campaigns by the Spanish monarchs aimed at taking control of Granada, the last remaining Islamic stronghold in Spain, and Harry is at the heart of the action, present at the bombardment of Loja and the siege of Malaga. I can’t say that I liked Harry any more than I did in the first book, but I did care about what happened to him; even in another country, hundreds of miles from England, he seems to be very much under the control of Henry VII and is starting to face the consequences of his earlier actions during the reign of Richard III as well.

Although Jack and Harry are having separate adventures in this novel, there are still some links between them and no doubt their paths will cross again in the future. I haven’t seen any news on a third book yet, but I’m sure there will be one as the final chapter sets everything up perfectly for a continuation of the story.

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

The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson

The Wars of the Roses – the 15th century series of conflicts between the House of York and the House of Lancaster – is one of my favourite periods of history to read about, partly because there are so many different ways in which the people and events of the time can be interpreted. Although I’ve read a few Wars of the Roses novels that take a more objective view of the period, authors – and readers – tend to be biased towards one side or the other. My personal preference is for York, but Joanna Hickson’s new novel The Tudor Crown is written from a decidedly Lancastrian perspective and shows both Henry Tudor and his mother, Margaret Beaufort, in a much more positive light than usual.

The Tudor Crown is a sequel to First of the Tudors and picks up where that book left off, but it does stand alone perfectly well so if you haven’t read the previous novel that shouldn’t be a problem. The story begins in 1471, just after the Lancastrians have been defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury. With both Henry VI and his heir, the Prince of Wales, dead, and the Yorkist king, Edward IV, back on the throne of England, the Lancaster hopes seem to be in ruins. As one of the remaining Lancastrian claimants, young Henry Tudor’s life is now in danger and, accompanied by his Uncle Jasper, the Earl of Pembroke, he flees the country and takes refuge in Brittany. And here he must stay, for almost fourteen years, biding his time and trying to build up the support he will need to one day return to England and take the throne he believes is his.

Meanwhile, Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother, has been left widowed following the death of her husband at the recent Battle of Barnet and has married again, this time to Thomas Stanley. She returns to court where she serves the wives of first Edward IV, then Richard III, but she has still not given up hope of Henry becoming king and continues to work tirelessly on his behalf. If only she could persuade Thomas Stanley to help her…but Stanley has been walking a tightrope between York and Lancaster for years and won’t make a final decision until he is sure victory is within reach.

The Tudor Crown is written partly from Henry’s point of view and partly from Margaret’s, with the chapters alternating between the two. I found the Henry chapters the most interesting because I have never read about his time in exile in so much depth before. I was pleased to read in Joanna Hickson’s Author’s Note that most of the people Henry met during this time really existed. She does invent a romance for him with the fictional Catherine de Belleville, but I didn’t mind that as factual information on Henry’s exile is quite limited and if the author hadn’t used her imagination to fill in some of the gaps this wouldn’t have been much of a story. I loved the descriptions of the various places Henry visited and stayed at in Brittany, such as the Château de l’Hermine in Vannes (again a real place, but which sadly no longer exists in its original form). The Margaret chapters held less appeal for me simply because I am much more familiar with the events taking place in England during that period.

Both characters are portrayed with sympathy and understanding; in fact, I think Joanna Hickson might be the first author who has succeeded in actually making me like Henry (or Harri, as she refers to him, using a Welsh version of his name). He feels very human in this book and I almost found myself supporting him in his attempts to become king – although I still couldn’t bring myself to side with him against Richard at the Battle of Bosworth or to accept that Richard was responsible, beyond doubt, for the deaths of the Princes in the Tower. I think there is plenty of doubt, which is why it is still being discussed and debated more than five hundred years later.

This is Joanna Hickson’s third book about the Wars of the Roses, following Red Rose, White Rose and First of the Tudors (her other two novels, The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride are set in the period just prior to this). She mentioned in her Author’s Note that she is planning to write about Margaret Beaufort again in her next novel, so I will look forward to that one.

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

Court of Lions by Jane Johnson

The Court of the Lions is part of the Alhambra, the magnificent palace and fortress in the Spanish city of Granada which forms the setting for Jane Johnson’s latest novel. Having read and enjoyed one of her previous books (The Sultan’s Wife, set in 17th century Morocco), I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to read Court of Lions as part of a blog tour organised by publisher Head of Zeus. You can see the schedule for the other stops on the tour at the end of this post.

Court of Lions is a novel set in two different time periods. First, in the present day, we meet Kate Fordham, who has fled from a troubled marriage in England and is working in a bar in Granada, hoping she has done enough to prevent her husband from finding her. One day, exploring the gardens of the Alhambra, she discovers a scrap of paper pushed into a crack in a wall. Written on it is a message in an unfamiliar language and although Kate is unable to translate it, she senses that it could be important. And she is right, because her discovery leads her to form new relationships and to find the strength she needs to move on.

Alternating with Kate’s story is another story, set in the late 15th century and introducing us to Abu Abdullah Mohammed, the last Sultan of the Emirate of Granada, given the name Boabdil by the Spanish, but referred to in the novel as Momo. We get to know Momo from the point of view of a fictional character, Blessings, a slave child brought from Morocco to be his companion. Growing up together at the Alhambra, Momo and Blessings become close friends – and a loyal friend is what Momo desperately needs as he prepares to face the challenges which await him: a struggle for the throne against his own father and uncle, and war with Catholic Spain, led by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

I found the 15th century storyline completely fascinating and compelling. I have read a little bit about the fall of Granada before, but not from this perspective, so most of it was new to me. The sequence of events leading up to the surrender of the city is described in just the right amount of detail and left me wanting to explore the period further, which is something all good historical fiction should do. Momo’s personal life, his marriage and the fates of his children are also given some attention, all seen through the eyes of Blessings – who is not exactly an unbiased observer as it quickly becomes clear that what he feels for the young Sultan is more than just friendship. Blessings himself is also an interesting character and although I don’t want to say too much here, there are revelations later in the book which answered some of the questions I had about him.

The modern day sections of the novel were slightly less successful. I did like Kate and enjoyed watching as she made new friends in Granada and learned about their culture and lifestyle, but I found the storyline involving her disastrous marriage very melodramatic (again I don’t want to give too much away). Although some of the threads linking the two time periods together are a bit too coincidental to be convincing, I liked the fact that the two share common themes such as religious conflict, prejudice and tolerance – things which were relevant in Momo’s day and are still just as relevant in ours.

The descriptions of Spain and the Alhambra itself are beautifully written. One of my aims for 2018 is to read more fiction set in countries other than my own so I have taken a step towards achieving that aim by reading Court of Lions. Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy for review.

The Vatican Princess by CW Gortner

Since putting together my recent post on historical fiction covers, I seem to be feeling more critical than usual of the covers of the books I read.  I really don’t like this one as not only is it (almost) one of the faceless women covers I highlighted, but there’s nothing about it to suggest the darkness and intrigue usually associated with the Borgias.  Fortunately, though, I did enjoy the book – with a few reservations.  

Set in Renaissance Italy, The Vatican Princess is narrated by Lucrezia Borgia – seductive, manipulative and a well-known poisoner.  Or was she?  Actually, in this version of the Borgia story, she is none of those things.  CW Gortner is very sympathetic to Lucrezia’s situation, portraying her as a vulnerable young woman used by various members of her family to their own advantage and to further their own ambitions.  The novel opens in 1492, with Lucrezia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia, bribing his way to the papal throne as Pope Alexander VI (the second book I’ve read this month featuring a papal conclave).  Lucrezia is only twelve years old but that’s old enough to be useful to her father in securing political alliances and, with this in mind, Rodrigo marries her off to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro.   

Lucrezia’s marriage to Giovanni is not a happy one and although it will eventually be annulled and she will marry again – twice – this period of her life forms the largest portion of The Vatican Princess.  It’s a very eventful period and one with plenty of mysteries and controversies, providing endless possibilities for an author to explore.  Why did Lucrezia enter confinement in the Convent of San Sisto while the annulment of her marriage was negotiated?  Did she have a secret son?  Who murdered her brother, Juan?  And was Lucrezia really involved in an incestuous relationship with her other brother, Cesare?  Gortner offers answers, or at least theories, to all of these questions, while showing Lucrezia in a generally very positive light and suggesting that she had much less control over her own fate than is often thought.    

As our narrator, Lucrezia is engaging and easy to like, but I couldn’t help feeling that she was a little bit too innocent and too good to be true – and this made her less interesting to read about than she should have been.  I thought the ambitious Rodrigo was portrayed well, but Cesare needed more complexity and Juan was purely evil with no nuances to his character at all.  However, I was intrigued by the other main female characters in the book: Lucrezia’s mother, Vannozza; the Pope’s mistress, Giulia Farnese; and Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, Sancia of Aragon.  I would be interested in reading more about all of these women, as they have not featured very heavily in the few other fictional accounts of the Borgias that I’ve read so far.       

This is the second novel I’ve read by CW Gortner and although I did enjoy it (and always love a Renaissance Italy setting), I preferred the other one, The Last Queen, which was about Juana of Castile.  I would like to read more of his books, but I don’t really feel drawn to his Tudor mystery series – published as Christopher Gortner – or his recent novels on Marlene Dietrich and Coco Chanel, so that would leave either The Queen’s Vow (about Isabella of Castile) or The Confessions of Catherine de’ Medici.  Have you read either of those?  Which should I read first?     

As for the Borgias, maybe I’ll have another attempt at reading Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant soon.  I struggled to get into it the first time but am happy to try again!

Under the Hog by Patrick Carleton

I had been looking forward to reading this book since I first became interested in the Wars of the Roses and decided I wanted to read as much as I could on the subject. First published in 1937, Under the Hog gets good reviews and appears on several lists of recommendations of novels set in this period, so when I settled down to read it I expected something special – and luckily, I wasn’t disappointed.

Under the Hog is a fictional account of the life of Richard III, but along the way we also enter the minds of the other notable men and women of the period, get amongst the action on the battlefield, witness private conferences and murders carried out in secret, and are offered a surprising solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to give a synopsis of the plot here, as it does follow the course of real history very closely – and I’ve already written about this period many times before in previous reviews – so instead I’ll just make some general observations about the novel itself.

The approach Patrick Carleton takes is quite unusual. Rather than writing from the perspective of one character or even a few, he writes from many different viewpoints, switching from character to character as the story requires. These include Thomas Wrangwysh, the Mayor of York; the diplomat Philippe Commynes; the scholar Dr Warkworth; Richard III’s close friend Francis Lovell; Margaret of Burgundy, sister of Richard and Edward IV; and Ralph Miller, a young soldier at the Battle of Barnet. So many different voices and personalities, each one coming forward to tell their own part of the story, however big or small, before retreating into the background, in some cases never to be heard from again.

Richard himself is seen mainly through the eyes of other people. It’s only really his wife, Anne Neville, who sees the warm, sensitive man behind the rather grim and austere exterior. Carleton’s portrayal of Richard is largely sympathetic – not a saint, but a human being who sometimes makes mistakes like the rest of us, ruthless when necessary but not needlessly cruel. I appreciated the fact that Carleton takes the time to show us some of the good things Richard achieved during his reign, which are often overlooked, such as his reforms to law and justice. The only thing I didn’t like was his persistence in drawing attention to Richard’s height – or lack of it. When Richard’s skeleton was discovered in Leicester in 2012, it was found that he suffered from scoliosis which would probably have affected his height, but Carleton’s constant descriptions of him as being unusually tiny still seemed a bit strange. He also has Richard continually biting his lip and playing with the rings on his fingers – presumably inspired by the way he has been pictured in his portraits – but again, it was a bit distracting!

The other characters, including the minor ones, are generally very well written. I particularly loved the portrayal of the spiteful, petulant but strangely tragic George of Clarence (I liked the way Carleton tackles the legend of George being drowned in a butt of malmsey) – and of Anthony Woodville, brother of Edward IV’s queen, quietly scheming to keep control of the power his family wield in England. It’s Anthony who, in one of the most memorable scenes in the book, comes up with the idea of murdering the deposed Henry VI in the Tower of London, which I think might be the first time I’ve seen him blamed for that particular incident.

I loved this book, but I don’t think I would necessarily recommend it as a first introduction to Richard III and the Wars of the Roses. The reader is very much dropped straight into the action and it is assumed that you will have at least some background knowledge; names are given their less familiar old-fashioned spellings – Tydder and Wydvylle for Tudor and Woodville – and there are passages of untranslated French. This is probably one to enjoy after you’ve already gained a bit of familiarity with the period.

If I hadn’t known that this was a book from the 1930s I would probably have assumed it was a lot more recent than that, as it has aged very well. It is witty, unromantic and written with a mixture of darkness and lightness. Although it unfortunately seems to be out of print at the moment, if you share my interest in this fascinating period of history, you could do a lot worse than to find yourself a copy of Under the Hog.