The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

This is the second book in Carol McGrath’s She-Wolves trilogy, telling the story of three medieval queens of England who have all been given the label ‘she-wolf’ at various times. I enjoyed the first novel, The Silken Rose, about Henry III’s wife, Eleanor of Provence, so I was looking forward to this one, which moves on to Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I.

I’ve read other books set during Edward I’s reign, so presumably I’ve come across Eleanor of Castile before, but I mustn’t have been paying attention as I couldn’t have told you much about her before reading The Damask Rose (except that she was commemorated by the Eleanor Crosses which were erected in several English towns in her memory). It’s always good when you can learn something new from historical fiction and in this case, almost the entire story was new to me.

The novel begins in 1264 when Henry III is still alive and on the throne of England, but only just – he and his son, Prince Edward, have been captured by the forces of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Lewes. Edward’s wife, Lady Eleanor, is at Windsor Castle awaiting news of her husband when Gilbert de Clare, one of de Montfort’s supporters, arrives and forces her to relinquish the castle. This traumatic incident instils in Eleanor a lifelong hatred of de Clare as well as a determination that she will never put herself in such a vulnerable position again. Once the threat of Simon de Montfort has been removed at the Battle of Evesham, Edward and Eleanor travel to the Holy Land on crusade. It is during this journey that they learn of the death of Henry III and return to England to take their place as king and queen.

I enjoyed learning more about Eleanor, but although I don’t think she deserved to be described as a ‘she-wolf’ (the term seems to have mainly referred to her unpopular methods of acquiring land and properties, which were seen as greedy and ruthless), she’s not a character I liked or managed to warm to either. It seems that the real Eleanor was also accused of being ‘unmaternal’, which McGrath suggests could be due to the fact that she lost so many children she was afraid to get too close to the ones who survived, but it still irritated me that Eleanor complained constantly about her children’s relationships with other adults while at the same time saying she was far too busy to spend time with them herself.

Part of the novel is written from the perspective of Olwen, a herbalist whom Eleanor introduces into the royal household to provide advice on plants and healing. Olwen is a fictional character but her story complements Eleanor’s very well; in fact, I think I preferred her sections of the book as I found her much easier to like and I enjoyed the different point of view she brings to the novel. I cared about Olwen and wanted her to be happy, whereas I felt that some parts of Eleanor’s story, particularly towards the end, became too factual, too concerned with just describing things that had happened rather than providing any real emotional depth.

The third book in the series is going to be about Isabella of France; I am much more familiar with Isabella than with the previous two queens and I think she will be a fascinating subject to bring the trilogy to an end!

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

Book 18/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Renegade by Robyn Young

Renegade One of the reasons I love reading historical fiction is that it gives me an opportunity to learn about historical people and events that I might otherwise have gone through life knowing little or nothing about. I would probably never have thought of picking up a non-fiction book on Robert the Bruce, so I’m pleased to have been introduced to him in fictional form in this trilogy of novels by Robyn Young.

The first book, Insurrection, which I read in 2014 and loved, took us through Robert’s early years, explaining the origins of his claim to the Scottish throne, his family’s rivalries with the other contenders, the Balliols and the Comyns, and how he entered the service of Edward I of England after John Balliol was made King of Scotland. I immediately bought a copy of the second book, Renegade, so that I could find out how Robert’s story would continue, but I struggled to get into it and put the book aside until a few weeks ago, when I felt ready to have another attempt.

Renegade begins in the year 1300 with Robert Bruce in exile in Ireland, having betrayed the English and set his sights on taking the throne of Scotland. He intends to search for the Staff of St Malachy, one of four legendary relics, and use it to bargain with King Edward, but things don’t go according to plan and Robert is forced to take a different approach. Swearing loyalty to Edward again, Robert must convince the English that he has turned his back on Scotland once and for all…while secretly biding his time and waiting for a chance to launch his campaign for the Scottish crown.

I think my initial problem with this book was due to the fact that it opens with the search for the Staff of St Malachy and I tend to find ‘hunting for hidden relics’ stories quite tedious and over-used in historical fiction. However, once I got past the first few chapters this storyline was pushed into the background and I started to find the book much more enjoyable (although I still think Insurrection was the better of the two).

Robert himself is still not a character I particularly care for, which is maybe not surprising as his path to the throne is built around treachery and betrayal, but I did have sympathy for the position he found himself in and the difficult choices he had to make. I felt sorry for his friend, Humphrey de Bohun – one of the few characters in the trilogy that I do like – when it became obvious that he too was going to be deceived by Robert for a second time. As in the previous novel, the women in Robert’s life have only small roles to play, but I enjoyed the brief glimpses we are given of his wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, and daughter, Marjorie, and I was sorry that Robert seems to have so little time for them both. Isabel Comyn, Countess of Buchan, is another intriguing female character and I’m hoping we’ll find out what happens to her in the final novel – although I suspect it won’t be good.

Also in this book we learn the fate of William Wallace, who has been lying low since the Battle of Falkirk, trying to avoid being captured. Meanwhile, in England, the ageing King Edward is looking to his son – Edward, Prince of Wales – to carry on his work once he is gone, but the prince seems more interested in his friendship with Piers Gaveston and it is already obvious that he is not going to be the ruler or the military leader his father is. The period in which Renegade is set is a time of conflict and conquest, which means Robyn Young devotes a lot of pages to battles, sieges and ambushes. I’m not really a lover of battle scenes but these were easy enough to follow and understand, as well as being detailed and, as far as I could tell, quite accurate. I was interested to find that the trebuchet Warwolf which Edward is having built during the novel really existed and was used in the Siege of Stirling Castle just as Young describes in the book.

I’m now looking forward to reading the final part of the trilogy, Kingdom, and would like to do so as soon as possible, because Robyn Young has a new novel set in Renaissance Europe coming out later this year.

Insurrection by Robyn Young

Insurrection - Robyn Young Insurrection is the first in a trilogy telling the story of Robert the Bruce, who was King of Scotland in the 14th century. The second book, Renegade is available now and the third, Kingdom, will be out this summer. In this first novel, beginning in 1286, we meet Robert as a young boy in a Scotland torn apart by the sudden and unexpected death of King Alexander III. The King has died without a male heir, leaving the succession to the throne undecided. The Bruces believe they have a strong claim, but they face competition from their enemies, John Balliol and the Comyns.

In England, meanwhile, King Edward I is forming his own plans for Scotland. Beginning a search for four ancient relics that will enable Merlin’s Last Prophecy to be fulfilled, Edward enlists the help of a group of young noblemen known as the Knights of the Dragon. When Robert, sent to England to restore his family’s reputation, is approached by the Knights, he must decide exactly where his loyalties and ambitions lie.

Insurrection is exactly the sort of historical fiction I love. As someone who reads a lot of historical novels I often find that they either focus too much on romance and court intrigue or are too action-packed with one long battle scene after another. I had neither problem with this book; I found it to be a fascinating, atmospheric tale of kings and knights, witches and soldiers, treachery, murder and war. The descriptive writing is wonderful and the battles (yes, there are a few) are well written and easy to follow. I admit that my heart sank when I discovered this was yet another book with an ‘ancient prophecy’ storyline, but I needn’t have worried because it is only one small part of the plot and I thought it actually felt quite plausible as it’s true that Edward I really did have a fascination with Arthurian legend.

Robert the Bruce is a name I’ve always been intrigued by without really knowing much about him. I have a memory from years ago of going out with my parents one Sunday afternoon on what my dad always called ‘an aimless drive’ and ending up in Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland where we noticed a sign pointing to ‘Robert the Bruce’s Cave’ – the cave where Robert supposedly went into hiding from Edward I in 1306 and was famously inspired by a spider weaving its web. Not one of the most exciting places I’ve ever visited (there wasn’t even a spider in sight when we went to look inside the cave), but it has stayed in my mind all these years later!

Because I knew so little about Robert and this period of history, I felt that I was really learning a lot from Insurrection. Everything felt accurate and thoroughly researched and although I had to concentrate to keep track of the complex politics and relationships between the characters, I was never bored. At the end of the book there’s a character list, glossary of medieval terms and a chart showing the order of succession to the Scottish throne, all of which I found useful.

Of course, this is a work of fiction rather than non-fiction so there are times when the author doesn’t stick exactly to the known facts. For example, the deaths of Alexander III and his granddaughter Margaret, Maid of Norway may have had more innocent causes than those described in the book. The Knights of the Dragon is also a fictional order, although the men who belong to it really existed. Robyn Young explains some of her choices in her author’s note so that we can see where she has used her imagination to fill in some gaps and provide motivations for the actions of her characters.

I know this book will not suit all tastes in historical fiction (some readers might dislike the inclusion of prophecies and witchcraft or will be disappointed by the lack of significant female characters and the fact that Robert himself is not always easy to like) but I absolutely loved it. I’m looking forward to reading Renegade and Kingdom and also exploring Robyn Young’s earlier trilogy on the Knights Templar.