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.

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

This was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and for once, I have managed to read it and post my review by the deadline, which is today!

I have had mixed results with Robert Louis Stevenson in the past: I loved The Master of Ballantrae, liked Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, couldn’t finish Kidnapped and can hardly remember Treasure Island, which I read as a child. I hoped The Black Arrow would be another good one; it sounded as though it should be fun, at least, and the setting – 15th century England, during the Wars of the Roses – appealed to me. Originally published as a serial in 1883, then as a novel in 1888, it is often labelled a ‘children’s novel’, but apart from the fact that the hero and heroine are in their teens, I think it’s a book that could be equally enjoyed by older and younger readers. It’s probably too old fashioned for a lot of children today, but any who do like reading classic adventure stories should find this one entertaining.

The Black Arrow tells the story of seventeen-year-old Dick Shelton, an orphan who comes to believe that his guardian, Sir Daniel Brackley, was responsible for the murder of his father. Setting out to discover the truth and obtain justice for his father, Dick joins a company of outlaws known as the fellowship of The Black Arrow who also have reasons for wanting to take revenge on Sir Daniel. Meanwhile Dick falls in love with Joanna Sedley, a young heiress kidnapped by Sir Daniel so that he can arrange a marriage for her to his own advantage. And while all of this is taking place, the Wars of the Roses plays out in the background and Dick must decide whether his loyalties lie with York or Lancaster.

The novel is written in a sort of pseudo-medieval style, with archaic words and phrases like ‘ye’, ‘methinks’, ‘forsooth’, ‘cometh’ and ‘goeth’ – common in older historical fiction, but not usually used today, so could take a while to get used to if you don’t read a lot of books like this. In many ways it reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, particularly once the band of Robin Hood-like outlaws appeared, and I think readers who enjoy one book will probably enjoy the other.

Despite the historical setting, you won’t really learn a lot of accurate history from this book. Throughout the first half, at least, the focus is on Dick’s mission to avenge his father’s death and rescue Joanna from Sir Daniel’s clutches. We hear of battles taking place but don’t see much of the action until the second half of the novel when Dick is drawn into the fictitious Battle of Shoreby and meets Richard ‘Crookback’, Duke of Gloucester – the future Richard III. As the events of the novel are taking place in 1460-61, Richard would actually have been about eight years old at that time (not the adult man we see in the story) and not yet Duke of Gloucester, but Stevenson does admit to this in a footnote!

I can’t really say that I loved this book – although I was entertained at first by the spying and intrigue, the disguises and daring escapes, the shipwrecks and secret passages, I felt that the story and the characters lacked depth and eventually it all started to become slightly tedious. Apparently Stevenson himself didn’t rate The Black Arrow very highly and described it as “a whole tale of tushery” (tushery referring to the archaic language). I still think it was worth reading and I preferred it to Kidnapped – although, to be fair, I should probably try Kidnapped again as I didn’t get very far with it. For now, I’m just pleased to have finally read another book from my Classics Club list as I’ve been making very little progress with it this year!

This is book 18/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse

“Doesn’t it seem to you that we have, all of us – the King and I and our good friends – wandered off into a forest of the night, filled with wolves and sly foxes? The darkness holds endless danger, we are stranded with no torch to protect us…We are lost in the Forest of Long Awaiting, a wilderness without prospect.”

Hella S Haasse’s In a Dark Wood Wandering was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin just before Christmas, a result I was very happy with as I’d wanted to read this book for years. The deadline for finishing our Spin books was the end of January, but I knew I would need longer as I could tell when I started reading that this was the sort of book that required concentration and couldn’t be rushed.

First published in Dutch in 1949, an English translation by Lewis C Kaplan appeared in 1989 and although, sadly, I am unable to read the book in its original language, it doesn’t feel as though anything has been lost in translation – certainly not the beauty of the writing.

Set during the Hundred Years War, mainly in France but later in England, the novel begins in 1394 with the birth of a son to Louis, Duke d’Orléans and his wife, Valentina Visconti. Louis’ brother, Charles VI of France, suffers episodes of madness which leave him unfit to rule and Louis, at this time, is one of the most powerful men in France. However, there are others who are also able to wield influence over the king and Louis seems to be locked in never-ending conflict with the royal houses of Burgundy, Bourbon and Berry. It is into this world of power struggles, political intrigue and shifting alliances that little Charles d’Orléans is born.

Charles is still in his teens when his father, Louis, is murdered by Jean of Burgundy and, as the eldest son, the responsibility for the future of the House of Orléans falls on his young shoulders. Charles and his brothers swear to seek revenge against Burgundy, but then comes 1415, the Battle of Agincourt and a French defeat. Charles is captured by the victorious English and taken to England as a prisoner of war, where he will remain for decades. During this time, he occupies himself by writing the poetry for which he will become famous, but he never loses hope that one day France and England will be at peace and that he will be ransomed and allowed to return home.

In a Dark Wood Wandering is an amazing achievement. As readers of my blog will know, I enjoy reading historical fiction of all types, but my favourites tend to be older books like this one as I find that they are often better at immersing the reader in a bygone time without using inappropriately modern slang or projecting modern attitudes onto historical characters. That is certainly true of this book; both Hella S Haasse’s recreation of early 15th century France and her portrayal of the key historical figures of the period feel completely real and believable. This might be a problem for some readers as it means that the women – with the exceptions of Joan of Arc and, at times, Isabeau of Bavaria – are not particularly strong characters and, after the prologue, are kept largely in the background. Having said that, Charles himself is a passive, introspective character, often no more than an observer of things going on around him, a personality much more suited to writing poetry than to leading armies. Not everyone can be a hero or a heroine, after all.

Telling the story from Charles of Orléans’ perspective has its limitations as the parts of the Hundred Years War in which Charles plays a more active part, such as Agincourt, are vividly described while others, particularly events taking place in France during his time of exile, have to be either related to Charles from a distance or seen through the eyes of other characters. One of these is Dunois, Charles’ younger half-brother, known as the Bastard of Orléans; I have to admit, I found him a much more interesting and engaging character than Charles and wished we had seen more of him.

I loved the imagery Haasse uses in her writing; her descriptions of poppies glowing in green fields, sunlight sparkling on clear water and reflections of clouds in the river unfold like medieval tapestries while the idea of being lost en la forêt de longue attente or in ‘the Forest of Long Awaiting’ (a better title for the book in my opinion) is used very effectively throughout the novel. It forms the subject of the poetry Charles writes during his imprisonment in England and is also a metaphor for his state of mind and for the state of the Orléans family and France as a whole. By the time the novel draws to a close, France is beginning to head out of the dark forest of the Middle Ages towards the light of the Renaissance. As for Charles himself, although his life may seem to have been a story of missed opportunities and wasted potential, history tells us that the fortunes of the House of Orléans would soon start to rise again.

Now I want to read more of Hella S Haasse’s novels. Not all of them have been translated into English, but of those that have I particularly like the sound of The Scarlet City, a novel about Rome and the Borgias. Has anyone read that one – or any of her other books?

This is book 15/50 read from my Second Classics Club list.

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.