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
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.

Meeting Katherine de Valois

I have read two historical fiction novels recently both on the subject of the fifteenth century French princess, Katherine of Valois, the wife of King Henry V of England. The Forbidden Queen by Anne O’Brien and The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson both tell Katherine’s story but in very different ways and as I’ve read them so close together, I thought it would be interesting to combine my reviews into one post.

The Forbidden Queen Let’s start with The Forbidden Queen by Anne O’Brien, my favourite of the two books. The novel is narrated by Katherine herself and covers most of the significant events of her life. The youngest daughter of King Charles VI of France and his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, Katherine is married to Henry V several years after the English victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Queen Isabeau has agreed to a settlement with Henry that would make him heir to the throne of France in place of Katherine’s own younger brother, the Dauphin.

When Henry dies just a few years into their marriage, Katherine falls in love with his cousin, Edmund Beaufort – but does Edmund love her in return or is he more interested in the power he would gain as husband of the Queen Dowager? It’s not until Katherine gets to know her Welsh Master of Household, Owen Tudor, that she finally has a chance of true happiness.

This is quite a romance-based novel, but maybe that’s to be expected as Katherine sadly didn’t seem to have much of a part to play in politics or in the reign of her son, the young Henry VI. O’Brien did such a good job of making me see how Katherine was desperate for love and affection and how disappointed she was when she realised that she was going to get neither of these from the King. Henry V was not portrayed as a cruel or deliberately unkind husband, just one who was insensitive and indifferent, and it was so sad when Katherine realised the true nature of the man she was married to. But while I could have a lot of sympathy for the young, naïve Katherine I did start to wish that, as she got older, she would become more mature and independent. It was sad and frustrating to see her making the same mistakes again and again, looking for love where there was obviously none.

Although Katherine sometimes irritated me, I did like her. I also thought O’Brien’s characterisation of the three very different men in Katherine’s life was very well done: the distant, preoccupied King, interested only in battle strategies and military campaigns; the charismatic but ambitious and untrustworthy Edmund Beaufort; and the proud, quiet Welshman Owen Tudor. This is the first Anne O’Brien book I’ve read and I was quite impressed with the overall quality of her writing and her ability to tell a good story.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review.

The Agincourt Bride Now for The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson. In this book, the author has used the alternative spelling, Catherine, rather than Katherine, so I have done the same in this review. This is actually the first of two volumes and covers only the early part of Catherine’s life, from her childhood until shortly after her marriage to Henry. The sequel, The Tudor Bride, is due out later this year.

This novel is narrated by Catherine’s nursemaid, Guillaumette Dupain (known as Mette). Mette, the daughter of a baker, is brought to the royal household to act as wet nurse for the baby Catherine, having recently had a stillborn child of her own. With Catherine neglected and ignored by her parents, Mette becomes almost like a mother to the princess. They are separated during Catherine’s years in the convent at Poissy but are reunited when Catherine is thirteen. Despite the attempts of others to part them again, Mette is devoted to Catherine and manages to stay with her, becoming her Mistress of the Wardrobe and her friend and confidante.

While both this book and the one above are at the lighter end of the historical fiction range (as you would probably expect from the cover designs and titles) this one was a bit too light for me. I also thought it was too long and I’m not sure there was really enough material for a book this length focusing on only the first years of Catherine’s life. Mette’s own personal story didn’t interest me much; her main function in the novel is to provide the perspective of someone close to Catherine, and there have been so many historical fiction novels published in recent years narrated by a conveniently placed servant that I think it’s becoming boring and formulaic. Seeing Catherine only through Mette’s eyes, I couldn’t engage with her the way I did in Anne O’Brien’s book and as a result I didn’t like this version of Catherine very much.

Joanna Hickson does go into a lot of depth in areas of Catherine’s early life that O’Brien didn’t have time to explore. I was intrigued by the storyline involving John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, who is portrayed here as a violent monster and I would be interested to know if there’s any evidence that he really behaved like this. We also get to know Catherine’s brothers and sisters much better than in the O’Brien book. None of them are particularly endearing characters, but Mette, having known them all since they were children, displays an amazing amount of patience and understanding with each of them. Their mother, Isabeau, comes across as completely selfish and heartless, and their father, Charles VI, suffers from a mental illness that causes him to believe he is made of glass and will shatter if anyone touches him. I got a real feeling for the sadness and loneliness Catherine and her siblings may have experienced as children, and could also see how France had been left in a vulnerable position without strong leadership.

The Agincourt Bride ends as Catherine travels to England for her coronation. It’s quite an abrupt ending, but presumably the next book is going to pick up the story from this point.

Having read both of these novels I’m glad to have had the opportunity to learn about a period of history I previously knew very little about. If you only want to read one book about Catherine (or Katherine) of Valois, I would say read The Forbidden Queen as it covers Catherine’s whole life and I enjoyed it a lot more than The Agincourt Bride. I would be happy to read more books by Anne O’Brien but I’m not sure about Joanna Hickson yet and will have to decide whether or not I want to continue with The Tudor Bride.