A Marriage of Fortune by Anne O’Brien

This sequel to The Royal Game continues the story of the Paston family. The Pastons were an influential Norfolk family during the 15th century and left behind a collection of private correspondence, known as the Paston Letters, which are a valuable source of information on life in England at this time. In this novel and her previous one, Anne O’Brien brings the story of the Pastons to life, using their letters to provide the outline of the plot. You could read this book as a standalone if you wanted to, but I would recommend reading both in order if you can.

A Marriage of Fortune is again narrated by several of the Paston women. First there’s Margaret Mautby Paston, now a widow with seven children. Her eldest son, Sir John, is now head of the family following the death of his father, but Margaret still takes an active part in managing the household, arranging the marriages of her younger children and continuing the ongoing feud against the Duke of Norfolk over the ownership of Caister Castle. Margaret’s priority is seeing that the Pastons continue to rise through the ranks of society, so she is furious when her eldest daughter Margery announces that she is in love with the family bailiff, Richard Calle. She refuses to allow a marriage between the two, but is unprepared for the lengths to which Margery is prepared to go.

The relationship between Margaret and Margery is very sad to read about. Margery is another of our narrators, which means we get to know exactly how she feels about her mother’s refusal to accept her love for Richard and the family estrangement that occurs as a result. Margaret believes that a daughter’s first duty should be to her parents and that Margery has no right to consider her own happiness, but there’s always a sense that she might come to regret taking this stance and we are kept wondering whether mother and daughter will be reconciled in the end.

We also hear from Margaret’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Paston Poynings, whose husband has been killed fighting on the Yorkist side at the Second Battle of St Alban’s, leaving her a widow with a young son. Like Margaret, Elizabeth has found herself facing a struggle to hold on to her late husband’s estates, which are being claimed by the powerful Percy family. A fourth narrator is Anne Haute, cousin of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen. Anne is betrothed to Margaret’s son, Sir John Paston, but with the rapidly changing political situation in England – Edward IV on the throne one minute, Henry VI the next – it seems that Sir John is reluctant to either make the marriage official or release her from it. I had a lot of sympathy for poor Anne when she begins to discover that she’s wasted years of her life on a man who clearly doesn’t really love her.

I enjoyed A Marriage of Fortune; this is one of my favourite periods to read about, but I still haven’t read the original Paston Letters or Helen Castor’s non-fiction account of them, Blood and Roses, despite having had the latter on my TBR pile for several years now. This was maybe a good thing as far as this novel was concerned, as it meant that although I was familiar with the historical background – the kings and queens, the battles and rebellions – I didn’t know the personal stories of the individual Paston family members, so I never knew what was going to happen to them next. However, I do think this novel, like the first one, was slightly too long, with a lot of information packed into it. It may have been better to have focused on fewer characters; Elizabeth Poynings’ story, in particular, felt very separate from the others and could possibly have been left out.

I’m not sure whether there will be a third book on the Pastons or whether Anne O’Brien will be moving on to something else now. Either way, she always chooses interesting historical women to write about so I know it will be worth looking forward to.

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

This is book 2/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Hawker and the King’s Jewel by Ethan Bale

The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite periods of history to read about and I’m always looking out for new books, both fiction and non-fiction, that explore the key events, colourful figures and controversial mysteries of this fascinating era.

Ethan Bale’s new novel, Hawker and the King’s Jewel, begins just before the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485 with King Richard III summoning his loyal knight, Sir John Hawker, to send him on one last mission. Richard possesses a valuable jewel, one of the legendary Tears of Byzantium, and he wants Hawker to return it to its previous owner, the Doge of Venice. He also has another request to make of Hawker – to take care of his illegitimate son, Sir Giles Ellingham, who is unaware of his true parentage. Hawker promises to carry out both tasks, but when Richard falls in battle and Henry Tudor takes the crown, the situation becomes much more dangerous. Not only are those who supported Richard now seen as traitors, but Sir Giles could become a focus for both Tudor and Yorkist conspiracies.

The action moves from Bosworth to Flanders and then on to Venice, where most of the story unfolds. Hawker is accompanied by his young squire and a small band of mercenary soldiers, so you can expect some battle scenes, as well as smaller-scale fights and skirmishes (including the mock battles known as battagliola, staged on the bridges of medieval Venice). I was concerned at first that there would be too much of this in the book for my taste, but that wasn’t the case and there were plenty of other things to hold my interest – some political intrigue, a fascinating theory to explain the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, and even a touch of romance as we discover that Hawker has been in Venice before and left a lover behind there.

Although Sir John Hawker is the main character, the other men who make up his little band become more fully developed as the book progresses. I found one of them particularly intriguing as his motives for remaining with Hawker’s company seem to change continuously as he reassesses the political situation and tries to decide whether loyalty or betrayal will be more to his advantage. There’s also an interesting female character – a Hungarian noblewoman with her eye on the jewel Hawker is carrying – and her storyline helps to carry the novel through to its conclusion.

It seems that this is the first book in a planned series, Swords of the White Rose. I’ll be looking out for the next one.

Thanks to Canelo Adventure for providing a copy of this book for review.

This is book 48/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Weir

When Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series came to an end last year with Katharine Parr: the Sixth Wife, I discovered that she would be moving further back in time for her next novel, The Last White Rose, which would tell the story of Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth lived through – and played a role in – one of my favourite periods of history, the Wars of the Roses, so of course I wanted to read this one!

Born in 1466, Elizabeth of York is the eldest child of King Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville. With plans for a marriage to the Dauphin of France, Elizabeth’s future looks bright – until her father’s sudden death in 1483 sends everything into turmoil. Her younger brother, now Edward V, succeeds him, but before he can be crowned he is deposed by their uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, who reigns in his place as Richard III. Along with Elizabeth’s other brother, Richard of York, Edward soon disappears from public view completely. With marriage to the Dauphin now out of the question, Elizabeth discovers that Richard III is thinking of marrying her himself – something she is prepared to consider, despite the possibility that he may have been responsible for the disappearance of her brothers.

Then comes the Battle of Bosworth and another change of monarch; Richard is dead and Henry Tudor – Henry VII – has taken the throne. Henry is keen to unite his house of Lancaster with Elizabeth’s house of York by taking her as his wife, which means Elizabeth becomes queen at last! The years that follow will continue to be eventful, however, as she and Henry face rebellion from the Yorkist noblemen, the threat of various pretenders to the throne – and the birth of another future king, their son Henry VIII.

I enjoyed this book, with a few reservations which I’ll mention below. It’s very similar, of course, to the non-fiction book Alison Weir wrote several years ago (Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World), which is not surprising as most of the source material will obviously be the same. If you’ve read one you may feel that you don’t need to read the other, but I’m happy to have read both as this is a period of history that particularly interests me. I do think that as factual information on Elizabeth is quite limited, her story perhaps works better in fictional form where it’s more acceptable (in my opinion) for the author to put forward personal theories, interpretations and assumptions.

My main problem with this book was the bias towards Henry VII and against Richard III – although I was expecting that, as Alison Weir hasn’t made any secret of her views on this subject in her previous books! Just to be clear, I’m happy to keep an open mind on the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, in the absence of any real evidence, but I certainly can’t share Weir’s absolute conviction that Richard was definitely the culprit. Loving The Sunne in Splendour as I do makes it hard to think of him in a negative light, I suppose! And to be fair, I was impressed by the way Weir writes about Elizabeth’s feelings towards both Richard and Henry in this novel – her uncertainty over which of them, if either, has killed her brothers and how she reconciles that with the idea of first one, then the other, as a potential husband. I would have preferred the matter to have been left like that, but instead, developments towards the end of the book take away all the doubt and ambiguity.

I found Weir’s portrayal of the Woodville family interesting; Elizabeth clearly loves her mother and her Woodville aunts and uncles, but is not blind to their faults, questioning whether some of their actions, such as her mother’s decision to flee to sanctuary immediately that Richard took control of the young king, may have made things worse rather than better. This is such a long book, though! I read the ebook version but the print copy has over 600 pages. It gets off to a slow start with a lot of time spent on Elizabeth’s childhood, but by the middle of the book the pace picks up and it becomes much more compelling.

Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose is the first in a planned trilogy. The second book will be about Henry VIII and the third about Mary I. I’m looking forward to the one on Henry, as it should provide a very different perspective on the stories told in the Six Tudor Queens series!

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

This is book 35/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Catching up: Three mini-reviews

I always try to finish reviewing the current year’s reads before the new year begins (although I don’t always manage it), so today I’m catching up by posting some brief thoughts on three books read in November and December.

I added None But Elizabeth to my TBR a few years ago after reading Rhoda Edwards’ two novels about Richard III, Some Touch of Pity and Fortune’s Wheel, both of which I enjoyed. This one, first published in 1982, is a fictional retelling of the life of Elizabeth I. The book is written in a straightforward, linear style as we follow Elizabeth from childhood to old age.

There are some things Edwards does very well – the depiction of Elizabeth’s feelings for Robert Dudley, the man she loves but never marries; Elizabeth’s internal conflict over how to deal with the threat of Mary, Queen of Scots; the symbolism used to mark the passing of time; the way in which Elizabethan poetry is woven into the text – but as someone who has read about Elizabeth many times before, there was nothing new or different here. I would recommend reading Margaret Irwin’s Young Bess or Margaret George’s Elizabeth I rather than this one.

The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow is a multiple time period novel in which our present day narrator, an aspiring interior designer, finds a beautiful quilt in her mother’s attic with a message embroidered into the lining. She sets out to learn more about the quilt and discovers a connection with a young woman called Maria who spent most of her life in a mental hospital claiming to be a former lover of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII). As Maria’s story unfolds, in the form of taped interviews recorded by a student in the 1970s, we find out whether she was telling the truth and, if so, what secrets are hidden in the quilt’s design.

I wasn’t expecting too much from this book, but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would – and for once, I found the modern day storyline as compelling as the historical one. On one level it’s almost a mystery novel, with the narrator hunting for clues to the quilt’s origins, tracking down people who may have known Maria and piecing fragments of information together to try to discover the truth. However, it also provides some insights into social issues such as living conditions in mental institutions, psychiatric treatment in the early 20th century and the later policy of ‘care in the community’. Some parts of the story were too predictable, but it was an interesting read overall and I will probably look for more of Liz Trenow’s books.

A Princely Knave was the oldest remaining book on my NetGalley shelf (from 2016, I’m ashamed to say). After receiving a copy, I read some negative reviews that put me off it, but in November I finally decided to give it a try. The book was originally published in 1956 as They Have Their Dreams and tells the story of Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne. Warbeck claimed to be Richard of York, one of the two ‘Princes in the Tower’ – the sons of Edward IV who disappeared from the Tower of London, believed to have been murdered. The novel begins with Warbeck landing in Cornwall in 1497, hoping to lead an army to overthrow Henry VII and take his place on the throne.

Philip Lindsay uses flowery and often antiquated language, a style which was common in older historical novels but feels very dated today. However, I’ve read one or two of his other books so was prepared for this. The biggest problem I had with this particular book was that, apart from Warbeck himself, the characters feel underdeveloped – the group of men who accompany Warbeck in his rebellion are almost indistinguishable and the only significant female character, Warbeck’s wife Katherine Gordon, also lacks depth. Lindsay does explore some fascinating ideas, though; for example, he suggests that even Warbeck himself doesn’t know who he really is – having been told by some that he has royal blood and by others that he is the son of Flemish merchants, he has become unsure of his real identity. I thought it was worth reading, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re as interested in this period as I am.

The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien

With a title like The Royal Game, you might expect this novel to be about a king or a queen; in fact, it’s the story of the Pastons, who rose from humble origins to become members of the aristocracy and one of Norfolk’s most influential families during the 15th century. Their collection of personal letters, known as the Paston Letters, is the largest archive of private correspondence surviving from the period and tells us a lot about life in England at that time.

The Pastons’ story is retold by Anne O’Brien in fictional form, using the letters as a guide. She has chosen to focus on three characters in particular: Margaret Mautby Paston, wife of John Paston, who becomes head of the family after the death of his father; John’s sister Elizabeth (known as Eliza); and Anne Haute, a cousin of Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville. There are chapters written from the perspectives of each of these women, mainly Margaret and Eliza at first, with Anne only introduced halfway through and becoming more prominent towards the end of the book.

During the period covered in the novel, the Wars of the Roses are playing out in the background as the House of Lancaster and the House of York fight for control of England’s throne. The Pastons are an ambitious family who see the changing political situation in terms of what it will mean for them and how they can turn things to their own advantage in order to increase their wealth and power. This means that much of the story is concerned with the gaining and losing of properties and land, disputes over wills and controversies surrounding inheritances. In particular, estates left to John Paston by his patron Sir John Fastolf (the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff), become the subject of a long legal battle.

I liked this book much more than Anne O’Brien’s previous one, The Queen’s Rival, partly because this one is written in a more straightforward format – although with the alternating narrators I mentioned above. I felt that the narrative voices of Margaret and Eliza were very similar and sometimes I had to remind myself which one I was reading about, but this was less of a problem as I got further into the book. Margaret is portrayed as a strong, intelligent and resourceful woman working alongside her husband to hold on to the family property, while Eliza is being badly treated by her mother and desperately hoping for marriage as a way of escape. Eventually, both women find themselves with the same focus in life: to protect their children’s titles and inheritances from jealous rivals who are trying to claim them for themselves. Our third narrator, Anne Haute, who is depicted as another young woman with ambition and hopes of an advantageous marriage, seems unconnected to the other two at first, but quickly becomes drawn into the Pastons’ world.

The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite historical periods to read about and it made a nice change to move away from the usual novels set at the royal court or on the battlefields and see what was going on elsewhere in the country at that time. I enjoyed this book but it’s very long and detailed and I was surprised when I reached a cliffhanger ending and discovered that there’s going to be a sequel. I will look out for it, but while I wait maybe this would be a good time to read my copy of Blood & Roses, Helen Castor’s non-fiction book about the Paston family.

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

Book 47/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

This impressive first novel by Annie Garthwaite tells the story of one of the women at the heart of the Wars of the Roses. As a member of the powerful Neville family, wife of Richard, Duke of York and mother to two kings, Edward IV and Richard III, Cecily Neville was a strong and intelligent woman who managed to wield some political influence at a time when it was rare for women to do so. This makes her the ideal subject for a book set during this period – and in fact, there have already been several, such as Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson and The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien.

Beginning in 1431 and ending in 1461, Cecily is set during the reign of Henry VI, whose weakness as king and inability to rule effectively leads to political instability and eventually to war. Cecily’s husband, Richard of York, is one of several noblemen trying to gain control of the king and his kingdom, while Henry’s young queen, Margaret of Anjou, does everything she can to hold on to power and keep the throne safe for her son. I won’t describe the plot of the novel in any more detail here; you may already be familiar with the history and if you’re not, it’s far too complex for me to explain in a few paragraphs! If you read the book, you’ll certainly learn all you need to know.

Cecily, as she is portrayed here, is not a very lovable or endearing person. She is driven by ambition and pushes her husband Richard towards first of all trying to displace Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, as the king’s closest adviser, and then to aim at the throne himself. As a medieval noblewoman, Cecily is obviously limited in what she can actually do – battles, for example, are played out in the background of her story and she only learns the outcome afterwards from other people – but she takes any opportunity she can find to shape the future of her family and her country, whether this means securing advantageous marriages for her children (she had twelve, seven of whom lived past infancy) or writing to Margaret of Anjou to try to get her husband restored to the king’s favour. Richard, in comparison, is portrayed as weaker and less decisive and Cecily, who almost plays the role of Lady Macbeth, becomes frustrated by his lack of ruthlessness.

The book is written in the third person present tense, which is not a favourite style of mine. I sometimes find it distracting and distancing, but in the hands of some authors it works very well and I think Annie Garthwaite does a good job of using it to give the story a feeling of immediacy, while also giving us access to Cecily’s intimate thoughts and feelings. I was often reminded of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – not just because of the writing style, but also because both books feature a complex, flawed protagonist and focus on political intrigue close to the throne. This is not the light and fluffy kind of historical fiction and it does require some concentration, particularly if this period of history is new to you. The only problem, for me, was a slight lack of emotion; Cecily’s story was fascinating, but I never felt very moved by it.

This novel only covers the early stages of the Wars of the Roses, ending with the Battle of Towton in 1461. As Cecily Neville lived until 1495, I hope there is going to be a sequel telling the rest of her story!

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

Book 34/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Last Daughter by Nicola Cornick

I have read several of Nicola Cornick’s time slip novels over the last few years and enjoyed some much more than others, but I think her new one, The Last Daughter, is her best so far. It probably helped that the historical storyline is set during one of my favourite periods of history, the Wars of the Roses, but the modern day narrative interested me too, which isn’t always the case!

Beginning in the present day, we meet Serena Warren, a young woman who is still struggling to come to terms with the disappearance of her twin sister, Caitlin, eleven years earlier – an event so traumatic, she has blocked out all memory of it. Serena is staying with an aunt in California when she receives the news she has been dreading: Caitlin’s body has been found during an archaeological dig close to their grandparents’ old home in Oxfordshire, which stands near the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Determined to uncover the truth, Serena returns to England and finds that once she is back in the place where Caitlin vanished all those years ago, she begins to regain her memories.

In the fifteenth century, our narrator is Anne FitzHugh, a niece of the powerful Earl of Warwick. Anne is only five years old when a marriage is arranged for her with eight-year-old Francis Lovell, a ward of Edward IV. Her new husband grows up to become a close friend and supporter of Edward’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III), and he and Anne are drawn into all the conflict and intrigue surrounding Richard’s rise to the throne – including the mystery surrounding the fate of Richard’s two nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

These two narratives are linked in a very intriguing way; I can’t say too much as it would risk spoiling the story, but it involves both a ghost story based on the famous legend of the Mistletoe Bride and the theft of a mysterious relic known as the Lovell Lodestar. Although, as with all time slip novels, there are some elements of the supernatural here, I thought everything felt reasonably convincing in the context of the story and all the different threads of the plot tie together perfectly in the end.

I liked both protagonists, Serena and Anne (and I would love to have Serena’s job, researching and arranging ‘bespoke historical tours’). Serena’s story is probably the more complex; not only is she investigating her sister’s disappearance, she is also trying to uncover the secrets of her family history with the help of her grandfather, who is suffering from dementia. I was surprised to see Lizzie Kingdom, a character from Nicola Cornick’s previous book, make an appearance as an old friend of Serena’s, and I was wary of this at first as the book featuring Lizzie, The Forgotten Sister, is my least favourite novel by Cornick. However, Lizzie fits into this particular story very well and as both books are set in Oxfordshire, it’s believable enough that she and Serena could have known each other.

I also enjoyed reading about Anne and Francis Lovell, who are usually just minor characters in the background of Richard III’s story. Their marriage is portrayed as a loving one, despite it being arranged for them as children, but not without its challenges and its ups and downs. The solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is fascinating and certainly not one I’ve come across before, although I can’t say any more about it than that!

I’m looking forward to Nicola Cornick’s next book and hoping it will be as interesting and entertaining as this one!

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

Book 31/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 2/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021