Cruel as the Grave by Sharon Penman

This is the second book in Sharon Penman’s Justin de Quincy mystery series set in medieval England. I liked but didn’t love the first one, The Queen’s Man, which is why it has taken me a while to get round to continuing, but I’m pleased to report that I found Cruel as the Grave a stronger and more enjoyable book. You could start with this one if you wanted to – there are some recurring characters but it works perfectly well as a standalone mystery.

In this book, set in 1193, Justin de Quincy, illegitimate son of the Bishop of Chester, is investigating the murder of Melangell, a young Welsh girl found dead in a London churchyard. The main suspects are the two sons of a wealthy merchant – the handsome, favoured eldest son, Geoffrey Aston, and his bitter, envious, younger brother Daniel. The Aston family are expecting Justin to clear the boys’ names, but as he delves deeper into the circumstances surrounding Melangell’s death, he is not sure he will be able to do that. The more he learns about the girl, a poor pedlar’s daughter, the more he begins to feel an affinity with her and he becomes determined to bring her killer to justice no matter what.

Meanwhile, two other brothers are also causing problems for Justin. The King of England, Richard I – the Lionheart – has been captured by the Duke of Austria and handed over as a prisoner to the Holy Roman Emperor. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is looking for a way to free him from captivity. In Richard’s absence, his younger brother John is plotting to take the crown for himself and has seized control of Windsor Castle. As Justin has assisted Eleanor in the past, she turns to him again for help.

Justin’s two missions are quite separate – one having implications for the whole country and the other much more intimate, affecting only a small number of people – but there are some parallels, such as the relationship between Geoffrey and Daniel resembling the one between Richard and John. The two storylines alternate throughout the book, but plenty of time is devoted to each one and I found them both interesting. As a murder mystery it is more tightly plotted than the first book in the series and although the culprit turned out to be the person I had suspected almost from the beginning, I still enjoyed watching the truth unfold.

Penman is better known for her long, sweeping historical novels such as Here Be Dragons and The Sunne in Splendour. Her mystery novels are much shorter, quicker reads but they still immerse the reader in the medieval period, giving us enough information to set the story in its historical context without going into a huge amount of detail. Justin himself, although perfectly likeable, continues to be slightly bland and forgettable, but the characters around him are strong and vibrant; his relationship with the queen’s lady, Claudine, is particularly intriguing and develops further in this book. I also loved Penman’s portrayal of the future King John – charismatic, complex and unpredictable:

Unlike Durand, John was not hostile. He seemed curious, almost friendly, as if welcoming a distraction midst the monotony of the siege. The Prince of Darkness. Justin wondered suddenly if John knew about Claudine’s private jest. He suspected that John would have been flattered, not offended. He must not let down his guard with this man. John could as easily doom him with a smile as with a curse.

I’ll think about reading the other two books in the series next time I’m in the mood for a medieval murder mystery, but first I really need to read The Reckoning, the final book in her Welsh Princes Trilogy, which I’ve had on my shelf since finishing the previous one, Falls the Shadow!

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: mystery).

The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick

This is the third part of Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy telling the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine in fictional form. I love Chadwick’s portrayal of Eleanor (or Alienor, as her name is spelled throughout the trilogy) and having enjoyed both The Summer Queen and The Winter Crown, I was hoping that The Autumn Throne would be just as good. As the title suggests, she is entering the ‘autumn’ of her life in this final novel but remains close to the throne in one way or another.

As well as being Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, Alienor was also Queen of France through her first marriage to Louis VII and then Queen of England as the wife of Henry II. Following Henry’s death, she would also be mother to two more kings of England: Richard I (the Lionheart) and John. The Autumn Throne, though, begins while Henry is still very much alive and has had Alienor imprisoned at Sarum in Wiltshire as punishment for supporting their sons in a rebellion against him. It’s 1176 and Alienor will remain in captivity for another thirteen years.

I was surprised to find that during the long years of her imprisonment, Alienor actually spends quite a lot of time visiting various castles and palaces, being brought out of confinement whenever it suits Henry to have her present at court celebrations and rituals. She also manages to have some contact with her sons and daughters and with her good friend, Isabel de Warenne, who is married to Henry’s half-brother Hamelin. This means that Alienor is not as cut off from the world as you might imagine and that, as the years go by, she (and through her, the reader) is kept informed of her children’s marriages, Henry’s plans for his kingdom, and important events taking place in Europe and beyond.

Alienor’s feelings towards Henry are portrayed in a way that feels plausible and realistic. There are times when she hates him for what he has done to her and the way he is treating their sons, but also times when she feels sorrow for the husband she once loved and regret that things have turned out this way. Still, it’s hard not to be relieved for Alienor’s sake when Henry finally dies and she is set free at last. After this, Alienor’s relationships with her two surviving sons, Richard and John, come to the forefront of the novel. I have to say, as far as kings of England go, Richard I has never been one of my favourites, partly due to the fact that he spent very little time actually in England. Alienor, though, makes no secret of the fact that he is the son she loves most. She is shown here to have at least some influence over his decision-making and to be trusted with playing a role in the running of the country while Richard is away taking part in the Third Crusade.

The most interesting character in the novel, apart from Alienor herself, is probably John. I have read several fictional portrayals of John, some which cast him as a villain and others which give a more balanced view – this one falls into the second category. He begins the book as an ambitious, calculating boy who does as he pleases without thinking of the consequences; he is much the same as he grows into a man, but his relationships with Alienor and his illegitimate son Richard show he is more complex than that and has enough good qualities to make people care about him.

I have had a lot of sympathy for Alienor throughout this series, but more than ever in this final book as she suffers the loss of one adult son or daughter after another. Of the eight children Alienor has with Henry, only two are still alive by the time of her death. Alienor herself lives into her eighties and it’s sad that she doesn’t have much time to relax in her old age. She is in her seventies when John sends her on the long journey to Castile to select one of his nieces as a bride for the King of France’s heir – and just two or three years before her death, she is being besieged in her castle of Mirebeau by one of her own grandsons!

With this novel covering the last thirty years of Alienor’s life, ending with her death at Fontevraud in April 1204, it does feel very long and drawn out at times. I kept wondering whether there were things that could have been left out to make it a bit shorter, though it’s hard to say which scenes could be omitted without disturbing the course of Alienor’s story. I did enjoy this book just as much as the first two in the trilogy, but I’m glad it’s been a while since I read the last one – I think if I’d read the three books one after the other it would have been too much for me!

In Elizabeth Chadwick’s next book, Templar Silks, she is returning to the story of William Marshal, hero of The Greatest Knight. William made a few appearances in The Autumn Throne where his story overlapped with Alienor’s and I’m looking forward to meeting him again. Templar Silks will be published in 2018, but I also have some of Chadwick’s earlier novels still unread on my TBR.

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

The Devil and King John by Philip Lindsay

The Devil and King John King John, who reigned from 1199 to 1216, has the unenviable reputation of being one of England’s ‘worst’ kings. Although historians are constantly revising their opinion and adding to what we know of John, people still tend to have a negative impression of him. His portrayal as the villain of Robin Hood must be at least partly responsible for that! This 1943 novel by the Australian author Philip Lindsay attempts to give a more balanced view of John, based around the idea that many of his actions were the result of an uncontrollable temper rather than simply cruelty.

The novel begins with John’s early years when he is known as Lackland because his father, Henry II, has divided his lands between his three eldest sons, leaving no substantial territories for John to inherit (despite John being his favourite son). On Henry’s death, John’s brother, Richard, takes the throne but spends much of his reign overseas fighting in the crusades and neglects the very important task of producing an heir. When Richard dies in 1199, John becomes king…but his own reign will be a very troubled one.

The Devil and King John is a straightforward fictional biography, taking us through the key moments of John’s life and career: his military defeats in northern France and subsequent attempts to win back lost lands; his dispute with Pope Innocent III and his excommunication; the death of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, widely believed to have been murdered by John; and the rebellion by his barons which led to the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. Lindsay’s portrayal of John throughout all of this is generally quite sympathetic, but not excessively so and I certainly can’t say that I came away from the book liking the character!

In the opening chapter of the novel we are told that the Angevins (the royal house to which John belongs) were descended from a witch and that “from the devil they had sprung and to the devil they would go”. After this, there are references to the devil on almost every page (at least, it seemed that way). I can understand that the author wanted to keep the theme going throughout the story, but constantly being told that “the devil is in John” or “John rides with the devil” is too much!

When I wrote about the other Lindsay novel I read earlier this year – Here Comes the King, the story of Catherine Howard and Thomas Culpeper – I complained that there was too much focus on the romance and I said I thought I’d enjoy one of his other books more. I did prefer this one and thought there was a good balance of romance, battles and politics. However, I was disappointed with the way in which the female characters were depicted in this book, particularly John’s second wife, Isabella of Angoulême, who had the potential to have been a great character. I also felt slightly uncomfortable reading about the relationship between John, in his thirties, and Isabella, aged thirteen, even though I know that an age difference of this size wasn’t unusual by the standards of medieval nobility.

John’s first wife, Hadwisa (also known as Isabella of Gloucester), is portrayed as a witch who encourages John to follow the ‘Old Religion’. Lindsay states in his author’s note that there is no historical evidence for this, but he wanted to find a way to connect John with witchcraft and to explain the king’s lifetime of conflict with the church over issues such as his reluctance to take communion.

Although there were some aspects of this book that I didn’t like very much, overall I thought The Devil and King John was an interesting read. If you’ve read any of Philip Lindsay’s novels – or any good books about King John – I’d love to hear about them!