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.

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.

Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien

Having enjoyed some of Anne O’Brien’s previous books, I was excited to learn that her latest novel, Queen of the North, was going to tell the story of Elizabeth Mortimer, wife of the famous Harry Hotspur, heir to the Earl of Northumberland in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. So much English historical fiction concentrates on London and the south, it’s always nice to find something set in my part of the country instead.

The novel opens in 1399; King Richard II is still on the throne, but for how much longer? His power is weakening rapidly and the exiled Henry of Lancaster is preparing to return to England and reclaim his lands. Elizabeth Mortimer’s husband, Harry Percy (known as Hotspur), and his father, the Earl of Northumberland, are among the northern Lords who decide to take Lancaster’s side against the King. This worries Elizabeth, who is convinced that Lancaster’s ultimate goal is the throne of England itself – and soon she is proved right.

Although Lancaster is Elizabeth’s cousin, she is disappointed when the Percy family support him in deposing Richard and claiming the crown. She believes that her young nephew, Edmund Mortimer, has a stronger claim and she is determined to do whatever it takes to help him take his rightful place as King. This will bring Elizabeth into conflict not only with the newly crowned Henry IV but also with her husband and she will have to decide where her loyalties truly lie: with the Mortimers or with the Percys?

Elizabeth’s efforts on Edmund’s behalf eventually lead her to Wales, where Owain Glyn Dŵr is planning a rebellion and looking for support from the Mortimers and Percys. Alliances are formed and broken, friends become enemies then friends again in an instant; it’s a dangerous time, but a fascinating one to read about!

I loved Queen of the North; I think it’s my favourite of the five Anne O’Brien novels I’ve read so far. As I’ve said, I really liked the northern setting, which gave me some glimpses of places I know and have visited, such as the Percy stronghold of Warkworth Castle when it was a living, working building rather than the semi-ruin it is today. The Percys were one of the most powerful and influential families in the north of England at that time; they were wardens of the Marches (the area surrounding the border with Scotland) and virtually ruled the north on behalf of the king, but this did not mean they could not be brought down and replaced if they fell out of royal favour. Anne O’Brien does a great job of showing how precarious their position actually was, when an error of judgement, a wrong decision or an act of betrayal could mean their downfall.

The central two characters in the novel are well drawn, strong and convincing. I liked Elizabeth – although her obsession with putting her nephew on the throne becomes frustrating at times (partly because we already know from history that she wouldn’t succeed), but it’s obvious that it means a lot to her and that she is only doing what she believes is right. With her husband reluctant to help and the old Earl completely in opposition, she takes matters into her own hands and although her actions are not always sensible I did admire her courage and persistence. I also liked Harry, nicknamed Hotspur because of his brave, reckless and impulsive nature. His relationship with Elizabeth is very convincingly portrayed – their personalities clash at times and they don’t always see eye to eye, but their love is strong enough to survive these differences of opinion.

Because we are seeing things through Elizabeth’s eyes, a lot of important events – such as battles, rebellions and some of Hotspur’s meetings with Henry IV – take place ‘off the page’. However, this does not mean that Elizabeth’s personal story is boring; she has plenty of adventures of her own as she tries to navigate her way through the various plots and schemes of the shrewd old Earl of Northumberland, the Welsh hero Owain Glyn Dŵr, and her own Mortimer relatives. There’s never a dull moment and in comparison to Anne O’Brien’s last book, on Joan of Kent, I think this is a much more exciting and compelling novel. Speaking of O’Brien’s other books, there is also some overlap here with The Queen’s Choice, which tells the story of Henry IV’s wife, Joanna of Navarre.

I really enjoyed Queen of the North – and have been reminded that I never did look for the final two books in Carol Wensby-Scott’s Lion trilogy, which was my only other encounter in fiction with Elizabeth and Hotspur. Can anyone recommend any more books set in this time and place?

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

The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien

Anne O’Brien’s new novel, The Shadow Queen, tells the story of Joan of Kent, wife of the Black Prince and mother of the future King Richard II of England. Although Joan wasn’t actually a queen, she was never far from the throne – as cousin to Edward III, she had Plantagenet blood, and through her husband, Edward’s eldest son Edward of Woodstock (the name ‘the Black Prince’ was given to him later), she was both Princess of Wales and Princess of Aquitaine. When Richard acceded to the throne at the age of only ten, in her position as the king’s mother she was able to have some influence on the early years of his reign. In some ways, then, she could be considered to be a sort of ‘shadow queen’, as the title suggests.

Despite all of this, however, Joan is probably best known for her beauty – she would later become known to history as the Fair Maid of Kent – and for the scandals caused by her three marriages. The novel opens in 1340, with twelve-year-old Joan learning that a marriage has been arranged for her with Will Montagu, heir to the Earl of Salisbury. Joan doesn’t dislike Will and under different circumstances this would have been a good match. Unfortunately, though, Joan is not free to marry anyone – she has already undergone a secret marriage with Thomas Holland, a minor knight who departed shortly after the wedding to fight for the king. Forced to admit the truth, Joan is horrified when her mother insists that her marriage to Will must go ahead anyway. She faces a long and difficult battle if she is ever to prove the validity of her first marriage and to win the right to live with the man she considers her true husband.

Around half of the novel is devoted to Joan’s relationships with Thomas and Will and the challenges involved in disentangling Joan’s first two marriages and deciding who should be her rightful husband. This seemed to go on for a very long time, but I appreciated that it was necessary to give the reader an understanding of the gossip and rumour that surrounded Joan in the early part of her life and how important it was that, when she eventually married the King’s heir, Edward of Woodstock (Ned, as he is called in the novel), her reputation should be clear of any taint.

The other half of the novel follows the years of Joan’s marriage to Ned, their time as Prince and Princess of Aquitaine and, when back in England, Joan’s efforts to ensure that their son Richard will be named successor to the throne. I don’t think it’s a spoiler – as it’s a well-known historical fact – to say that Ned’s life is cut short by illness and as he is outlived by his father, he never has the opportunity to become king himself. I couldn’t help thinking how different things might have been if he had lived and Edward III had been succeeded by a grown man rather than a ten-year-old boy; what we know of the Black Prince suggests that although he was a good soldier he wouldn’t necessarily have made a good king, but still the whole course of history could have been changed. I liked the way Anne O’Brien portrayed him and I enjoyed reading about his relationship with Joan. There was a lot of love between them, but it wasn’t love at first sight – more a love that developed slowly between two people who had known each other from childhood – and, at least on Joan’s part, there was also a certain amount of ambition involved.

Joan herself is portrayed as a strong, proud and courageous person who does her best to take control of her own life, though always within the confines of what it is possible for a medieval woman to do. I’m not sure that I particularly liked her, as she does sometimes come across as a little bit self-absorbed and lacking in judgement, but I did find her a convincing and well-drawn character. I was intrigued by her prickly, hostile interactions with Edward III’s much maligned mistress, Alice Perrers – I know Alice was the subject of one of Anne O’Brien’s earlier novels, The King’s Concubine, which I haven’t read yet, and now I’m curious to see how she approaches Alice’s character in that book.

The Shadow Queen is an interesting, enjoyable novel, if a bit too long and drawn-out in places. I couldn’t help comparing it to the only other novel I’ve read on Joan of Kent – A Triple Knot by Emma Campion – and I think this is definitely the better of the two books.

My commonplace book: January 2016

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

~

I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)

~

Roger had learned from Mr. Gray that this particular kind of rhododendron was called Ponticum, so the secret hiding-place was called Ponticum House. It was used for all sorts of activities and gradually it was furnished with odds and ends of furniture.

Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson (1955)

~

There was the rub: that Julia, who could get intimate with a trapeze artist after five minutes’ conversation – who was intimate with a salesman after buying a pair of shoes – had talked for an hour to her own daughter, about the girl’s own father and lover, without the least intimacy at all.

“I’m a fool,” thought Julia, again. “It’s just because she’s such a perfect lady. And what I need is a good sleep.”

The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp (1937)

~

So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea. A steamer far out at sea had drawn in the air a great scroll of smoke which stayed there curving and circling decoratively, as if the air were a fine gauze which held things and kept them softly in its mesh, only gently swaying them this way and that.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)

~

Come, Joanna. I can wait no longer.

There it was, Henry’s declaration, as clear as my reflection in my mirror. Neither, I decided, could I wait.

I sent for my uncle of Burgundy. I had an urgent negotiation to undertake.

The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien (2016)

~

Meantime, all around me is violence and robbery, coarse delight and savage pain, reckless joke and hopeless death. Is it any wonder that I cannot sink with these, that I cannot so forget my soul, as to live the life of brutes, and die the death more horrible because it dreams of waking? There is none to lead me forward, there is none to teach me right; young as I am, I live beneath a curse that lasts for ever.

Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore (1869)

~

“It is the women who lay clothes to dry on the rooftops of Troy,” I continued. “It is the fishermen who catch the silver fish in the bay,” I gestured out over the plain towards the sea, sparkling blue in the sunlight, “and sell them on the stalls of the marketplace. It is the princes who live in the palaces on the windy heights of the city, and the slaves who draw water from the wells. This, my king – this is Troy. And if we act now, we may still be able to save our city before it is too late.”

For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser (2016)

~

The desolation struck me like a blow, fresh and painful, as if all this destruction had been newly made yesterday, and as if this were my first sight of it. It was grief, I think, nothing more or less. I knew it was absurd. But I had noticed this reaction in others as well as in myself: that we mourned for our ravaged city as if for a mother.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (2016) – Review to follow

~

“And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.”

“My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave. Just as we should travel down if we began our existence fifty miles above the earth’s surface.”

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

~

Favourite books this month: Lorna Doone and Amberwell

The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien

Some queens of England are much better known and have been written about much more often than others; I think it’s fair to say that Joanna of Navarre is not one of them.  As Henry IV’s second wife, Joanna (or Joan as she is sometimes known), doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention as far as historical fiction is concerned.  Anne O’Brien’s new novel, The Queen’s Choice, is the first book I’ve read with Joanna as the main character.

As the novel opens in 1396, Joanna is the wife of John, Duke of Brittany.  While she doesn’t love her husband, who is much older than herself, they have had several children together and their marriage is not an unhappy one.  To the court of Brittany comes Henry Bolingbroke, having been banished from England by his cousin Richard II, and Joanna is given a brief taste of the love and passion which has so far been missing from her life.

Three years later, things have changed.  Henry has returned to England, taken the crown from Richard and imprisoned him in Pontefract Castle, while Joanna herself is now a widow and acting as regent of Brittany on behalf of her young son.  When Henry sends one of his men, Thomas de Camoys, to approach Joanna about the possibility of a marriage alliance, she must make the difficult decision to leave her sons and her regency behind and come to England as Henry’s queen.

I won’t say much more about the plot, because I’m sure future readers will prefer to watch the rest of Joanna’s story unfold for themselves.  What I will say is that the marriage between Joanna and Henry takes place fairly early in the novel; after this, the focus is on their attempts to make their relationship work – which is not always an easy task!  Although their marriage is portrayed as a love match (it seems that there could be some historical evidence to support this), they are both proud people and a lack of communication sometimes causes misunderstandings.  After Henry’s death in 1413, Joanna’s life takes a more dramatic turn during the reign of her stepson, Henry V.

I knew almost nothing about Joanna of Navarre before reading this book, but what little I did know was negative.  It seems that she was greatly disliked by the English people because of her strong connections with France and Brittany at a time when hostilities between England and France were ever present.  Her unpopularity and how she felt about it is covered in the novel – and sometimes her pride and unwillingness to take advice are frustrating – but Joanna is also given lots of good qualities and I liked her overall.  There were times when I felt she reacted to certain situations in the way I would expect a modern day woman to react rather than a medieval one, but otherwise I thought she was a believable and strongly drawn character.

I may have had very little prior knowledge of Joanna, but I didn’t know much about Henry IV either and it was good to have the opportunity to learn more about him from this book.  Henry only ruled England for fourteen years but his reign was an unsettled one: as well as the threat from overseas, he faced rebellions in Wales and in Northumberland, and rumours surrounding the death of his cousin Richard II, said to have been starved to death in captivity.  Although The Queen’s Choice is set several decades before the conflict we know as the Wars of the Roses, we can see how it has its beginnings here, with tensions between rival branches of the family of the late King Edward III (Henry’s claim to the throne coming through the Lancaster line).

This is the third book I’ve read by O’Brien – the other two are The Forbidden Queen (the story of Katherine of Valois) and The King’s Sister (Elizabeth of Lancaster) – and I have enjoyed them all.  I’ll look forward to finding out who will be the subject of her next novel.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review.

The King’s Sister by Anne O’Brien

The Kings Sister The King’s Sister is a light but enjoyable historical novel set in the 14th century and telling the story of Elizabeth of Lancaster. As the daughter of John of Gaunt, uncle to the young King Richard II, Elizabeth does not have the freedom to marry as she chooses. At seventeen, an age when she is hoping for romantic love, she is forced into marriage with the eight-year-old Earl of Pembroke who is more interested in parrots and dogs than in his new wife.

As she waits impatiently for her husband to grow up, Elizabeth meets the King’s half-brother, John Holland. Holland is charming and charismatic, a man where Pembroke is a boy, and despite the warnings of her friends and family, Elizabeth soon finds herself breaking her marriage vows. An annulment follows and Elizabeth weds again, this time to the man she loves. But when King Richard is deposed and replaced on the throne by Elizabeth’s own brother, now Henry IV, she finds herself in an impossible position. With her husband still loyal to his half-brother, the former king, Elizabeth must decide where her own loyalties lie: with John Holland or with Henry?

I’ve read other novels set in this time period but I’ve never read one that focuses on Elizabeth of Lancaster as a main character. The King’s Sister is narrated by Elizabeth herself so we are able to get very close to her, accompanying her through all the ups and downs of her life, sharing her agony as she is forced to make a decision nobody should ever have to make. She is portrayed as a headstrong, defiant young woman used to getting her own way, who gives little thought to the consequences of her actions. While I understood Elizabeth’s disappointment with her first marriage, I did feel sorry for the little Earl of Pembroke who couldn’t help being young, after all – and I often felt frustrated with her for refusing to heed anyone’s advice and ignoring the warnings she was given against John Holland. However, Elizabeth is aware that she has flaws and that she can be selfish, and she does develop as a person over the course of the novel, which made it possible for me to have some sympathy for her.

Although I didn’t like Elizabeth very much (or John Holland either – I agreed with the general opinion of Elizabeth’s friends that he was untrustworthy and self-centred) there were some great secondary characters. I particularly liked Joan of Kent, mother of both John Holland and Richard II, and Katherine Swynford, the Duke of Lancaster’s wife. These are both women I have read about before, Joan in A Triple Knot by Emma Campion and Katherine in the wonderful Katherine by Anya Seton, and Anne O’Brien draws parallels between their stories and Elizabeth’s. All three are women who had to fight to be with the man they loved, despite the disapproval of everyone around them.

Like the other Anne O’Brien book I’ve read (The Forbidden Queen), this is a novel which concentrates on love and romance, feelings and emotions rather than on politics or battles. However, the author still manages to make the 14th century come alive with descriptions of jousts and tournaments, balls and court gatherings. We are given just enough information on the historical background, the political situation and the ever-changing alliances at court that I came away from this novel with a better understanding of the time period and a feeling that I’d learned something new. With over 500 pages The King’s Sister is a long book and really felt like a long book – even while I was absorbed in the story – but I did enjoy it and look forward to exploring O’Brien’s earlier novels which I haven’t read yet.