A King Under Siege by Mercedes Rochelle

I have previously read Mercedes Rochelle’s Heir to a Prophecy, a historical novel inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and her Last Great Saxon Earls trilogy, which tells the story of Godwine, Earl of Wessex, and his children in the period leading up to the Battle of Hastings. With this new novel, A King Under Siege, she moves forward in time to 14th century England and the reign of the young Richard II.

The first part of the book deals with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when a series of rebellions break out across the country, partly in response to the excessive collection of poll taxes. Richard is still only fourteen at this time (having come to the throne at the age of ten) but he shows a maturity and courage beyond his years in riding out to meet the rebels at Smithfield in an attempt to negotiate and bring an end to the violence. Unfortunately, Richard is unable to keep the promises he makes that day and he is left feeling that he has let his people down.

There is more trouble to come for Richard later in the novel as tensions grow between the king and his noblemen, with his uncles – particularly John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester – gaining in power and influence. Richard’s reliance on a small circle of friends and advisors, such as Michael de la Pole and Robert de Vere, also causes conflict and leads to a group of noblemen known as the Lords Appellant seizing control of the government. These events are covered in the final two sections of the book, finishing at a point which sets things up nicely for the next book in the series.

The novel is written from the perspectives of several different characters, allowing us to see both sides of the story. The account of the Peasants’ Revolt is very well balanced, with the viewpoint switching between the king and the rebels, showing us the anger and discontent that led to the rebellion as well as Richard’s response to it. Later, we are given some insights into the thoughts and actions of both the Lords Appellant and Richard’s allies. There are interesting parallels between the way Richard is being treated and the fate of his great-grandfather Edward II, and there is a sense of Richard’s frustration as he feels that power is being taken away from him.

I don’t think this is one of my favourites of Mercedes Rochelle’s novels, but that is entirely due to the fact that I don’t find this particular time period quite as interesting as the one covered in The Last Great Saxon Earls and no reflection on the quality of the book itself. She has clearly carried out a large amount of research for this novel and does a good job of making complicated history easy to follow and understand. A map, character list, author’s note and bibliography are included in the book, providing additional information and ideas for further reading. I think this would be a good introduction to the period for readers who are unfamiliar with the details of Richard II’s reign.

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this book 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.

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

There seem to have been a lot of historical thrillers in recent years that focus on the search for a valuable item – a book, a crown or a manuscript. A Burnable Book is another one, but with enough differences to make it feel refreshing and original. While many authors (CJ Sansom, SJ Parris, Nancy Bilyeau to name a few) set their stories in the Tudor period, this one is set in the 14th century, during the reign of Richard II, a period covered less often in historical fiction. The missing item in question is a book of prophecies which accurately predicts the deaths of the previous twelve Kings of England…and the one who is currently on the throne, King Richard II.

This book – and the embroidered cloth in which it is wrapped – has fallen into the hands of Agnes Fonteyn, a ‘maudlyn’ (or prostitute), who receives it from another girl whom she meets just outside London’s city walls. Minutes later this girl is murdered, leaving Agnes, who is unaware of the book’s contents, wondering what is so special about it that someone was prepared to kill for it.

John Gower, poet and ‘trader in information’, hears about the book from his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, who asks John to find it for him but refuses to explain exactly why he wants it so desperately. When John begins his search for the book he soon discovers that he and Chaucer are not the only ones looking for it and that the prophecies it contains could implicate one of England’s most important noblemen in a plot against the King. As the action moves from one side of London to the other, over the Thames to Southwark, to the libraries of Oxford and then to Florence and back again, the history of this ‘burnable book’ is slowly revealed.

The name of the author, Bruce Holsinger, should be familiar to anyone who took the Coursera course “Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction” last year (Holsinger was the instructor). This is his first novel and after listening to him talk about other works of historical fiction during the course, I was interested to see what his own book would be like. I’m pleased to report that it’s very good! The setting is believable, the historical background feels thoroughly researched, the plot is cleverly constructed and the story is exciting.

I did have a slight problem with the number of characters in the book as I found some of them difficult to distinguish from each other, particularly some of the bishops and noblemen who only played a minor role in the story. After a while, though, several characters began to emerge as stronger and more interesting than the others: John Gower, whose strained relationship with his exiled son, Simon, is tested during the course of his investigations; Millicent Fonteyn, sister of Agnes, who will do anything to avoid returning to life in the brothel where she grew up; and Edgar/Eleanor Rykener, born “a man in body, but in soul a man and woman both”. I liked the fact that the novel shows us the lives of people from all levels of society, from the nobility and clergy of England to London’s lower classes, including butchers’ apprentices and the ‘maudlyns’. Eventually the stories of each of these characters and more begin to come together, connected by the common thread of the burnable book and its treasonous prophecies.

Bruce Holsinger is a medieval scholar and it shows in his portrayal of the 14th century world which feels accurate and authentic. I can’t say the same for the dialogue, which is too modern for the period, but this didn’t irritate me as much as it sometimes does and the slang probably reflected the way some of the characters would have spoken. When reading the author’s note at the end I was interested to find that some of the things I’d assumed were fictional were actually based on fact. The character of Edgar or Eleanor Rykener, for example, was inspired by historical records of a transvestite prostitute. The poet John Gower really existed but not many details of his life are known, so Holsinger was able to use his imagination to fill in the gaps.

I think my favourite aspect of the novel was the concept of the ‘burnable book’ itself and the cryptic messages it contains. It was fascinating to learn more about the process of creating and breaking ciphers and codes and to watch as various characters tried to interpret the meanings of the prophecies. I also enjoyed following Gower’s mission to locate the book and identify its author, and the problems faced by Agnes and the other maudlyns in deciding what to do with such a dangerous possession. I don’t know if Bruce Holsinger is planning to write a sequel to A Burnable Book but I hope so as I would love to meet some of these characters again!