Who would be a queen?

I certainly wouldn’t, based on the stories of the two 16th century queens I’ve been reading about recently!

The Last Queen The first of our two queens is Juana of Castile, also known as Juana la Loca (‘the mad’), whose life is retold in fictional form in The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner. I think most of us will have heard of Juana’s younger sister, Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII who was divorced so that the King could marry Anne Boleyn, breaking away from Rome in the process. Juana’s story is less well known (outside Spain, at least) and less often covered in historical fiction, but just as interesting and tragic.

Juana is the third of five children born to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, whose joint rule has brought together the two Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The King and Queen have arranged marriages for all of their children, in the hope of forming political alliances, and Juana finds herself married against her will to Philip, Duke of Burgundy, son of the Holy Roman Emperor. Despite her initial feelings, Juana quickly falls in love with her new husband – but her happiness doesn’t last long. The deaths of her elder brother and sister leave Juana as her parents’ heir and her relationship with Philip changes as a result.

Influenced by the scheming Archbishop Besançon, Philip sets his sights on taking the throne of Spain for himself and Juana finds herself betrayed and accused of insanity. Even as she discovers that the very people she should be able to trust want only to bully and manipulate her, she remains determined to fight for her throne and her country.

This is the first of C.W. Gortner’s books I’ve read and I will definitely consider reading more. I thoroughly enjoyed this moving and dramatic novel which took me through a period of Spanish history of which I previously knew almost nothing. There’s some beautiful descriptive writing which brings each of the various settings to life, from Granada during the Conquest of 1492 to the extravagance of the French court.

Gortner is a male author, if you’re wondering, and he writes very convincingly from the perspective of a young woman in this novel. Whether or not Juana actually suffered from mental illness is debatable; the point of view taken in this book is that the ‘madness’ developed as a result of years of stress and suffering – and branding her mad was a convenient way for her enemies to prevent her from ruling. I don’t know enough about her to say whether this is likely or not, but I did love Gortner’s portrayal of Juana and wished she could have had a little more happiness in her life.

The Taming of the Queen Our second queen is Katherine Parr, sixth and final wife to Henry VIII, whose story is told in The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory. I hadn’t really intended to read this book as I find Katherine one of the less interesting wives and, having read several other fictional accounts of her life (including Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle and The Secret Keeper by Sandra Byrd), I didn’t imagine this one would have anything new to add. When I saw it in the New Books section of the library, however, I couldn’t resist reading it – and I’m pleased I did as I found it to be one of Gregory’s better Tudor court novels.

Katherine Parr (or Kateryn as her name is spelled in this book) could be seen as one of Henry’s luckier wives, outliving the King and managing to avoid both divorce and beheading, but this doesn’t mean that she was happy or that she didn’t fear for her life at times. By this stage of his life Henry is, shall we say, past his prime: Gregory describes (sometimes in too much detail!) his gluttony at banquets, his bodily functions and the smell of his ulcerated leg. Add to this his temper, unpredictable behaviour and obsession with his third wife, Jane Seymour, and you can see how difficult things are for poor Kateryn, especially as she has been forced to give up her secret love for Thomas Seymour.

Kateryn finds some comfort in getting to know her new stepchildren – Mary, Elizabeth and Edward – and restoring them to their places at court, and also in religious study. She welcomes preachers to her rooms (including Anne Askew, who was later burned at the stake) and as a result of this narrowly escapes death herself; she debates religious reform with her ladies and sometimes with the King himself; and she writes several books, becoming the first Queen of England to publish under her own name.

Kateryn is an intelligent and mature woman who has already been widowed twice before her marriage to Henry and she is able to tolerate her situation and handle the King’s whims in a way that a younger, less experienced girl may not have done. I liked her, but I felt that there were times when Gregory attributed words and actions to her that didn’t feel consistent with the way her character was being portrayed. This made me think that maybe she is more comfortable writing from the perspective of younger, livelier narrators.

This is an entertaining read and if you’ve never read about Katherine Parr before, it provides a good overview of her life and of the final years of Henry’s reign (events such as the sinking of the Mary Rose are covered in dramatic detail). I did prefer Elizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit, though, and would recommend that book ahead of this one.

Have you read any other novels about Juana of Castile or Katherine Parr? Which are your favourites?

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote Reading Don Quixote has been a year-long project for me in 2014. After reading Clarissa over a twelve month period as part of a readalong in 2012 and then War and Peace in 2013 I decided to tackle another of the very long, intimidating classics on my Classics Club list, this time on my own. Now that I’ve finished I don’t know why I had ever been intimidated by it. Yes, it’s long (over 1,000 pages in most editions) and old (originally published in two parts in 1605 and 1615) and a translation, but I didn’t find it difficult to read at all. It’s fun and imaginative and entertaining – and I loved it.

Don Quixote is the story of a gentleman of La Mancha who has spent so many years reading books of chivalry and romance that he has come to believe the tales they tell are true. Inspired by the heroes of his favourite books, he decides to become a knight errant and go out into the world in search of adventures. Renaming himself Don Quixote and his horse Rocinante, he convinces a neighbouring peasant, Sancho Panza, to join him as his squire. With Sancho at his side, Don Quixote sets out to right wrongs, fight duels and rescue damsels in distress, in the hope that his valiant deeds will win him the love of the beautiful (and largely imaginary) Dulcinea del Toboso.

As Don Quixote and Sancho travel across Spain they have one adventure after another, each one headed with a long and intriguing chapter title such as “Of the strange adventure which befell the valiant Don Quixote with the bold Knight of the Mirrors” or “Which deals with the adventure of the enchanted head, together with other trivial matters which cannot be left untold”. As you read on, however, it soon becomes obvious that these ‘adventures’ are not quite as amazing as they sound and usually have a logical explanation.

Many people, even without reading the book, will have heard of the famous ‘tilting at windmills’ episode. There are many, many other similar episodes in the novel but this one appears near the beginning which is probably why it’s the best known. If you’re not familiar with it, on approaching some windmills in a field Don Quixote becomes convinced they are giants and attacks them with his sword:

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.

“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”

“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that, turned by the wind, make the millstone go.”

“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat.”

This is a pattern that is repeated over and over again throughout the novel: Don Quixote mistakes inns for castles and flocks of sheep for armies – and even when Sancho points out the truth he still insists that he is right. The castles and the armies must have been enchanted by great wizards, he says, so that they appear to be inns and sheep. As the story progresses, Don Quixote’s fame spreads and he is thought of as insane and Sancho as an idiot. The response of some of the people they meet can be very cruel and it’s quite sad to see how Don Quixote and Sancho are ridiculed, scorned and made the target of elaborate practical jokes. I wouldn’t describe this as a sad book, though; in fact, it’s a very funny one. The humour doesn’t always work (being four hundred years old and in translation, maybe that’s not surprising) but at times it’s hilarious!

As well as the adventures and the humour, there are lots of songs, poems and ballads interspersed with the prose. There are also lots of stories-within-stories – almost everyone they meet on their journey has a long and tragic story of their own to tell – and many of these have no relevance to the rest of the novel. For example, a lot of time is devoted to the tale of a Christian who was held captive by Moors in Algiers and has escaped back to Spain – nothing to do with Don Quixote, but apparently based on Cervantes’ own experiences. This is why the novel is so long and why you need to have some patience with it! Reading this book over a period of several months was the perfect strategy for me as the episodic nature of the story meant that I could leave it for a few weeks and still get straight back into it when I picked it up again. Breaking it up into small sections kept it feeling fresh and interesting so that I never felt bored or overwhelmed.

A quick note on the translation now. There have been many English translations of Don Quixote over the years but not really having any idea which to choose, I started reading the 1885 John Ormsby translation (in the public domain so free to download from Project Gutenberg and other websites) and I found it perfectly readable so decided just to stick with it. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that translation to everyone as it does use some archaic terms and feels ‘old’ but that’s what I prefer when I’m reading an old book so it wasn’t a problem for me. Whichever may be closest to the literal translation, Ormsby’s description of Don Quixote as “Knight of the Rueful Countenance” just sounds better to me than, for example, Edith Grossman’s “Knight of the Sorrowful Face”. It’s a matter of personal taste, though, so it’s probably a good idea to look at a few different translations and find one that suits you before you embark on such a long novel!

Much as I enjoyed this book it did sometimes feel as if I was never going to finish it, so I was pleased to reach the end. I’m going to miss Don Quixote and Sancho, though, after spending so much time with them this year!

Wolves in Winter by Lisa Hilton

Wolves in Winter Beginning in 1492, Wolves in Winter is the story of Mura Benito, the young daughter of a bookseller from Toledo. Even at the age of five, Mura knows she is not like other children. With her mixture of Moorish blood (from her father) and Nordic blood (from her mother) and her pale, androgynous appearance, she has always looked different. She has also grown up listening to her father read to her from his books and possesses a wealth of arcane knowledge which would be unknown to most little girls.

When Mura’s father is arrested by the Inquisition, he leaves his daughter in the care of his friend, Adara, but Mura is eventually sold into slavery and finds herself taken to Florence where she becomes a maid in the household of Piero de’ Medici. Here she continues her education under the eye of the great scholar Marsilio Ficino, learns the arts of healing and fortune telling with the help of the wise woman Margherita, and makes a special friend called Cecco who shows her the sights of Florence. However, Mura’s life is soon to undergo another big change: the downfall of the Medici, the rise to power of the monk Savonarola and the threat of war with the French mean that these are uncertain times in Florence. Fate will take Mura next to Forli and the home of the Countess Caterina Sforza, known as the Lioness of the Romagna.

I picked up Wolves in Winter while browsing the shelves in the library and was intrigued by the promise on the cover of “poison, alchemy and intrigue in the court of the Medici”. I had never heard of either the book or the author but thought I would take it home and give it a try. I did enjoy some aspects of the novel – it’s an entertaining, imaginative story set against a fascinating historical backdrop – but it wasn’t as good as it could have been or as I’d hoped it might be. The positives first: I loved the atmosphere and the richness of Lisa Hilton’s writing (I particularly liked the way she used colour in her descriptions) and the various settings were vividly described. In 350 pages we move from a Spanish bookshop to a Florentine palazzo, from the camp of a travelling circus troupe to a castle under siege!

It was the fictional story of Mura that I had a few problems with. First, she narrates in the first person and although she does age over the course of the novel, she never feels significantly different from the child she is at the beginning. Then there are the supernatural elements of the book – for example, Mura believes she has the ability to communicate with wolves and that she has the gift of the Sight. I just don’t feel that this added very much to the story. Renaissance Italy is always an interesting setting anyway and you would expect any novel featuring both the Medici and the Borgias to be full of intrigue and drama. Add Caterina Sforza, a fascinating character (and one I haven’t read about until now), and there should already have been enough material here to tell a compelling story without the addition of the ‘magical’ elements.

Mura herself is an unusual heroine; I liked her, but I think her strangeness made her a difficult character to fully engage with. I did appreciate, though, that Lisa Hilton was trying to do something a bit different here and that this was not supposed to be your average heroine or your average historical novel! Another way in which Mura’s story is unusual is that it doesn’t involve a lot of romance – she does have a romantic interest but it only forms one small part of the novel. There’s a good reason for this, which I won’t explain here but which will be revealed if you read the book.

Wolves in Winter was an enjoyable, easy read but it lacked the sort of depth I prefer in historical fiction. This edition of the book includes a preview of the author’s next novel, The Stolen Queen, which is about Isabelle of Angoulême. It looks promising but I’m not sure I’ll be reading any more by this author.

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Lions of Al-Rassan Guy Gavriel Kay is only a recent discovery for me, but after reading Tigana in June I knew I wanted to read more of his work. Leander of The Idle Woman mentioned that she had been wanting to re-read The Lions of Al-Rassan, one of her favourite books, so we decided it would be interesting to read it at the same time and exchange our thoughts on it.

I should start by saying that although Kay is known as a fantasy author, this book has few, if any, elements that I would describe as ‘fantasy’ and is much closer to historical fiction. The story is set in a fictitious world very similar to medieval Spain. In the north, we have the sun-worshipping Jaddites – brave warriors and horsemen. The Jaddite lands have become divided and weakened over the years due to rivalries between their three kings but they still hope to one day ride south and reconquer the rest of the peninsula. In the south is Al-Rassan, the land of the Asharites, who worship the stars and who value poetry, music and beauty. After the death of their last Khalif, Al-Rassan has also become divided and is not as strong as it once was. Caught between the two are the wandering Kindath people, who pray to the two moons that shine in the sky, one blue and one white. Even with my very limited (almost non-existent) knowledge of Spanish history I could immediately see that the Jaddites represented Christians, the Asharites Muslims and the Kindath Jews.

As tension builds between the Jaddites and the Asharites and war begins to look inevitable, there are big consequences for the novel’s three central characters. One of these is Rodrigo Belmonte, Captain to a Jaddite king and one of the Jaddites’ greatest soldiers. When Rodrigo is exiled by his king he and his company find themselves in the Asharite city of Ragosa. Here he meets another great man, Ammar ibn Khairan, an Asharite who is also in exile, and the two form an instant connection. Our third protagonist is a woman, Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician who joins Rodrigo’s company and becomes close to both men. With the peninsula heading rapidly towards conflict, will the bonds between Rodrigo, Ammar and Jehane be able to survive?

Now that I’ve read two of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels, it’s hard to say which I liked best because both were such great books. I think I found Tigana more fun to read (simply because I read fantasy so rarely these days and it was something a bit different for me to read a book with magic and wizards) but I found the writing in The Lions of Al-Rassan more powerful and the characters more fully developed. Ammar, Rodrigo and Jehane are all characters that I could love and admire, and considering their very different backgrounds and cultures, it’s quite an achievement that Kay could make it possible to identify with and care about all three of them.

Although this novel is set in a fictional land, the parallels with a real period of history made me feel that I was gaining a better understanding of medieval Spain. But as well as the history, there’s also a lot of drama and excitement throughout the novel: among other things, there are battles, assassination attempts (both successful and unsuccessful), and a masked Carnival. What I really loved about this book, though, was the portrayal of the three main characters and the relationships between them. It’s not as simple as Jehane being in love with both men (or them being in love with her) and having to choose between them; although there is a romantic aspect, the relationships are much deeper and more complex than that and encompass not just love but also friendship, loyalty and trust.

There’s a growing sense of sadness too as you start to approach the end of the book and wonder whether all three of Ammar, Jehane and Rodrigo will survive the coming conflict and how they will cope if they find themselves on opposite sides. The final chapter was one of the most tense and emotional I’ve read for some time, though I thought it would have been even more effective without the epilogue that followed (I was pleased to see that Leander felt the same as I was wondering whether I was the only person who would rather not have had the loose ends tied up).

I’m excited about the prospect of working my way through the rest of Kay’s books, but I’m sure I’ll want to re-read this one at some point too – preferably after I’ve had a chance to read up on Spanish history! If you would like to see what Leander thought of The Lions of Al-Rassan, you can read her post here.

The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen

I think most people have probably heard of famous Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. But what about Sofonisba Anguissola? In The Creation of Eve, Lynn Cullen introduces us to this talented female artist who was prevented from reaching her full potential simply because she was a woman. Sofonisba, who spent many years in the Spanish court, was not allowed to sign her paintings with her own initials and some of her works were even credited to other people.

At the beginning of the book, Sofonisba is studying in Rome with Michelangelo. She leaves Rome following an affair with another student and travels to Spain where she joins the royal court as lady-in-waiting and art instructor to the fourteen-year-old Queen, Elizabeth of Valois. Here she becomes caught up in a scandal involving the Queen and the King’s half brother, Don Juan.

This book was not quite what I had thought it would be. I was expecting it to focus on the story of Sofonisba Anguissola and was looking forward to learning about her training as an artist and the challenges she faced as a woman working in a male-dominated field. As it turned out though, the book was as much about the relationship between King Felipe II and his young French wife, Elizabeth, as it was about Sofonisba. For much of the book Sofonisba is little more than a passive observer, a witness to the events that are unfolding in the Spanish court.

I thought The Creation of Eve was an interesting and entertaining read but it lacked any real emotional impact for me. Looking at other reviews of this book (as I usually do after writing my own) opinion seems to be overwhelmingly positive, so if you like reading historical fiction revolving around intrigue in royal courts there’s a good chance that you’ll love this book. The novel does appear to be very well-researched. Cullen manages to incorporate a large amount of historical detail, but this never gets in the way of the plot. I appreciated the author’s note at the end of the book which tells us which parts of the book are historical fact and which are fiction.

I actually won this book in last year’s Readathon (April 2010) and am glad I’ve finally read and enjoyed it, as I was starting to feel very guilty about not reading it sooner!

Some examples of Sofonisba Anguissola’s paintings can be seen on her Wikipedia page.

By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

By Fire, By Water tells the story of an important period in the history of Spain. A time of progress and discovery, as Christopher Columbus prepares to set out on his legendary voyage to the Indies and seeks funding from the Spanish court. But also a time of fear and suffering with Tomas de Torquemada’s New Inquisition designed to root out heresy.

Luis de Santángel, the King’s chancellor, is a converso – his family has recently converted from Judaism to Christianity – and his Jewish heritage means that even he, in his position of great wealth and power, is under suspicion. Santángel wants to understand the differences between the Jewish and Christian faiths but attempting to gain this knowledge could put his life in danger.

Intertwined with Santángel’s story is the story of Judith Migdal, who lives with her nephew and his grandfather in a Jewish community in Muslim-ruled Granada. Following the deaths of her brother and his wife, Judith decides to become a silversmith so that she can take over her brother’s silver workshop and support her family. Eventually Luis and Judith’s paths meet, but can there be any happiness for them?

By Fire, By Water was not a light or easy read and I found I had to really concentrate to follow everything that was going on. However, it was worth the effort because I felt that I really learned a lot from this book. I thought it was an excellent portrayal of what it must have felt like to live during the Inquisition, not being sure who could and couldn’t be trusted, knowing that even your own friends and family could betray you at any moment. This book really opened my eyes to the suffering and persecution the Jews faced in Spain. The images of thousands of Jews being driven from their homes and forced to leave the country are unforgettable.

I was also interested in the inclusion of Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) in the plot. Most people are aware of his quest to find the Indies and his subsequent arrival in America, but this book looks at the struggles he faced to obtain the funding he needed for the voyage and to get people to take his ideas seriously.

The author’s attention to detail is incredible, from the colours and fabrics of the clothes people wore, to the sights and sounds of the marketplace. You could never forget that you were in 15th century Spain and I was very impressed with the amount of research that must have gone into this book. Everything felt very realistic and believable.

I read most of this book in one day because I was so desperate to find out what would happen to Santángel, Judith and the other characters. The ending was not what I expected at all, but again, it was probably a realistic outcome. By Fire, By Water should be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates well-written historical fiction or is interested in learning more about 15th century Spain.

I received a review copy of this book from the author.

Review: The Monk by Matthew Lewis

The Monk, published in 1796, is an early gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis, which completely dispels the notion that classics are dull and boring! While I wouldn’t say this was an easy read (due to the 18th century writing style and language you do need to concentrate) it was a real pageturner. I actually started to write this review when I was only halfway through the book and I was going to say that although I was enjoying it, I didn’t think it was a great book. Then, as I continued to read, I changed my mind. It is a great book and the best gothic novel I’ve read so far!

The book cover shown above is the Penguin Classics edition of the book. However, my copy of this novel is actually part of a four books-in-one anthology called Four Gothic Novels, which also includes The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, Vathek by William Beckford and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I’ve been reading the novels in the order that they appear in the book, but The Monk was the one that I had really been looking forward to reading.

The novel is set in a monastery in Spain, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The plot is very complex, but basically there are three main storylines.

The first storyline revolves around Ambrosio, the Monk of the title, who is highly respected within the monastery and attracts large crowds to his sermons. Ambrosio is regarded almost as a saint yet when a beautiful young woman called Matilda tries to seduce him, he is tempted into breaking his vows. After succumbing to this first temptation, Ambrosio goes on to commit one crime after another, each worse than the one before.

We are also given a long account of the adventures of the young Marquis de las Cisternas. When the Marquis rescues a baroness from a gang of bandits, he is invited to accompany her to the Castle Lindenberg in Germany where he meets and falls in love with her niece, Agnes – and learns the legend of the Bleeding Nun. Finally we follow a friend of the Marquis, Lorenzo de Medina, who also happens to be the brother of Agnes. When a young girl from Murcia named Antonia arrives in Madrid, she and Lorenzo fall in love – but things don’t go smoothly for the pair and Antonia soon finds herself in serious danger.

At first it seemed that Agnes and Antonia’s storylines were unrelated to the Ambrosio and Matilda plot, but I soon began to see how cleverly Lewis was weaving the threads of the story together. Ambrosio is a complex character and his downfall was fascinating to read about. Some of my favourite passages were those which gave us an insight into the different facets of his personality.

He pronounced the most severe sentences upon Offenders, which, the moment after, Compassion induced him to mitigate: He undertook the most daring enterprizes, which the fear of their consequences soon obliged him to abandon: His inborn genius darted a brilliant light upon subjects the most obscure; and almost instantaneously his Superstition replunged them in darkness more profound than that from which they had just been rescued…The fact was, that the different sentiments with which Education and Nature had inspired him were combating in his bosom: It remained for his passions, which as yet no opportunity had called into play, to decide the victory.

Some parts of the book are quite gruesome and disturbing, and the passages which describe the sufferings of Agnes and Antonia are horrifying. I thought the final chapter of the book was stunning. There were several different ways the story could have ended, but the ending Lewis chose was absolutely perfect.

This book has almost every element of the gothic novel that you can think of: ghostly apparitions, haunted castles, ancient monasteries, bad weather, fortune telling gypsies, an evil prioress, dark dungeons and shadowy crypts, witchcraft, magic and pacts with the devil. It’s also very daring for the 18th century; with themes of murder, rape, incest, violence and torture, I can see exactly why it was so controversial in its day.

So don’t let the fact that the book was written in the 1700s prevent you from picking it up!


If you enjoy this book you might also like The Italian by Ann Radcliffe which I read a few years ago. It’s very similar to this one in both the setting and the atmosphere (and anyone who was put off Radcliffe by the long scenic descriptions in The Mysteries of Udolpho will be pleased to know there are a lot less of those in The Italian).