Joan by Katherine J. Chen

Against all odds, fate has brought us together. You, who are your kingdom’s future, and I who am no one.

It wasn’t until I started reading this impressive new novel by Katherine J. Chen that I realised how little I know about Joan of Arc; she’s someone I’ve always been aware of, obviously, and I knew a few basic facts but apart from where she has appeared in the background in other historical novels, I’ve never read anything where Joan is the main focus of the book.

After a brief description of the political situation in France in the early 15th century, the novel opens in Domrémy, the small French village where Joan was born. It’s 1422 and France is currently engaged in the Hundred Years’ War, a conflict with England over the succession to the French throne. In quiet Domrémy, Joan grows up far away from the fighting, but faces conflict of her own – with her father, Jacques d’Arc, a violent and abusive bully who has never got over his disappointment that Joan was born a girl and not a boy. Then, one day, the village is attacked and burned by the English, Joan’s sister is raped, and Joan is left swearing revenge on the men she now sees as her enemies: the future Henry VI of England, his regent the Duke of Bedford and Philip, Duke of Burgundy.

A lot of time is devoted to these early years of Joan’s life and I did wonder when we would leave the child Joan behind and meet the warrior Joan, leading her troops into battle – but I can see why it was necessary to cover Joan’s childhood in so much detail. Only by reading about her treatment at the hands of her father, the stories told to her by her beloved uncle, her anger at the fate of her sister and her desire for revenge can we understand what made Joan the strong, determined and inspirational young woman she became. And eventually, of course, we do see Joan meeting the Dauphin of France and riding off with his army to lift the siege of Orléans.

What we don’t see at any point in this novel are miracles, visions or any other religious phenomena of any sort. Katherine J. Chen explains in her author’s note that this was a deliberate decision; her portrayal of Joan is a personal one rather than a traditional one and is a ‘reimagining’ of her life. Removing the religious aspects from Joan’s story makes her feel human, flawed and real, but at the same time the 15th century was a period in which religion was an important part of most people’s daily lives and taking this away from the story of a woman who has been declared a saint seems a bit odd.

This is a beautifully written novel and although I wish authors would stop using the present tense, it does work quite well here, as it did in Annie Garthwaite’s Cecily (a book this one is being compared with – and I would definitely agree with that comparison). It was good to have the opportunity to learn a bit more about Joan of Arc, even if this is only one author’s interpretation and a largely fictional one; if anyone has read any other books about her, I would love to hear your recommendations.

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

This is book 33/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.