Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

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Review: To Die For, by Sandra Byrd

09/09/2011

This review was originally posted on Luxury Reading September 7, 2011. Check it out for a great discussion in the comments, and add your own below!

In the 475 years since the beheading of Queen Anne Boleyn, her story has been told and retold by countless historians and storytellers in attempts to exonerate and vindicate, or to further vilify. Contemporary writers have increasingly posited that the Queen was falsely accused and convicted through political maneuvering by her rivals at court; no matter what one believes, however, her story continues to rivet those who hear it.

But what of those who lived in the Queen’s shadow? While writers have shed light on some of the Queen’s most notorious family and friends, little attention has been devoted to others who lived in her orbit, whose lives were impacted by her triumphs as well as her downfall simply by knowing her. Sandra Byrd’s To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn tells the story of Anne’s rise and fall through the eyes of Meg Wyatt*, her childhood friend and lady-in-waiting whose own life also hangs on Anne’s favor with the king.

Meg Wyatt is in love with Will Ogilvy, the heir of a neighboring family and friend to the Wyatt and Boleyn families. When Will leaves for school with Meg’s brother Thomas and Anne leaves for the French court, Meg is left to care for her ailing mother, at the mercy of a controlling father and her sneering brother Edmund. Meg faces one disappointment after another from that point, including Will’s decision to take holy vows and her own marriage by proxy to the aging Baron Blackston. However, as Anne catches the eye of Henry VIII, she calls Meg to the English court and opens up a world of possibility to her.

All is not well for long, though, and as the reader travels through the familiar tale of Anne’s ill-fated royal romance the connection between her fate and Meg’s is sadly all too easy to see. While Meg visits clandestine reform meetings and struggles to retain her independence, Anne becomes ever more desperate to bear a son and keep the King’s love so that she can avoid the danger looming about them all.

While Anne’s fate is all too familiar, the success of Byrd’s story lies in Meg’s unexpected path to everything she thought she never wanted. Meg is such a vibrant character that she emerges from Anne’s shadow and takes her rightful place as the heroine of the novel; as such, the title could more accurately be “A Novel including Anne Boleyn, but really about Meg Wyatt” – and so much the better.

To Die For is an exciting and heartbreaking journey through one of the most tumultuous periods in the Tudor dynasty. Byrd’s clear and expressive writing style and her steady pace throughout give this book a priority place on the historical fiction shelf.

Rating: 4.5/5

*Meg Wyatt’s real name was Anne, but was changed by the author for the sake of narrative clarity.

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Review: The Borgia Betrayal, by Sara Poole

05/08/2011

Review originally posted at Luxury Reading June 12, 2011. You can navigate directly to the post here.

Francesca Giordano, poisoner to His Holiness Pope Alexander VI, lives a life full of secrets. An independent, passionate woman in late fifteenth-century Rome, she is responsible for protecting the Pope and his family — the infamous Borgias — from outside harm as well as for consolidating Il Papa’s position by eliminating those who could pose a threat to the safety of St. Peter’s Throne. But Francesca has another, deeper purpose: to find and kill the man responsible for her father’s death while in then-Cardinal Borgia’s service.

When the elusive killer allies with the Pope’s enemy, Girolamo Savonarola, to remove the Pope and install Savonarola in that office, a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse ensues in the piazzas and tunnels of Rome, even penetrating the boundaries of the Vatican itself. Can Francesca fulfill her duty to the Pope and avenge her father…or will she give her life in the attempt?

Sara Poole’s second novel about the enigmatic Francesca pulls the reader in from the start. She is a femme fatale, both strong enough to confront the challenges before her (and thwarting the men who would stop her in the process) and attuned enough to her own passions to indulge them. At times Poole expertly draws out Francesca’s deep-seated vulnerability — her wistful denial of love, the gradual recollection of repressed memories, and fear of losing still more people she loves — to create a truly three-dimensional character with whom any reader can relate.

Rome comes alive through Poole’s use of descriptors; it is easy to imagine the sultry heat of the summer and to conjure the bustle of people in the marketplace in ones’ mind. While some descriptions are repetitive, the picture of Rome is no less vivid for it. Skillful narrative makes use of the setting and allows for a few different subplots to intermingle while never losing sight of the main story, or of Francesca’s interactions with the supporting characters. Setting The Borgia Betrayal down often required a few moments to readjust to the real world; to me, that is the mark of an adept storyteller. Also, while this book is a sequel, Poole is careful to explain references to the earlier book well enough to make it a viable stand-alone story.

The Borgia Betrayal is a fast-paced historical narrative that keeps the reader hooked until the unexpected conclusion. Rather than dissatisfying, the loose threads at the end only made me want to read Poole’s next work even more.

Rating: 4/5

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by St. Martin’s Griffin. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, by C.W. Gortner

06/06/2011

(Originally posted June 1, 2011 on Luxury Reading)

“You’ll fare better without love. We Medici always do.”

The story of sixteenth-century Europe cannot be told without telling of Catherine de Medici, the last legitimate descendant of the illustrious Medici family of Florence. Hers is not an easy story, for her reign as Queen of France and Queen Mother during the reigns of three sons was fraught with conflict and tragedy. In The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, author C.W. Gortner digs beneath historical canon to reveal a woman both pragmatic and passionate, who devoted her life to defending the country she came to call home and the last branches of the Valois line who would rule it.

Ten-year-old Caterina de’ Medici has visions, portents of the future she can neither control nor understand. When her aunt takes her to a trusted seer for guidance, he shares with her that she is to fulfill a grand destiny – “It may not be the destiny you want, Caterina de’ Medici, but fulfill it you will.” (p. 15)

Four years later, Catherine is married to the Duc d’Orleans, second son of King Francois I of France, and as she acclimates to the French court she must overcome the rumors surrounding her marriage and bear a son to secure the succession. As the story progresses through years and decades, Catherine recounts the end of the Valois dynasty that claims the lives of her husband, two of her sons, and countless thousands of French citizens who engaged in civil war, Catholic against Huguenot. Her own inexperience in statecraft and her single-minded focus on protecting her children provide hard and often tragic lessons; despite all, however, Catherine rises to every challenge and sees her many visions come to pass.

The Confessions is a heartfelt look into the life of one of history’s more enigmatic royal figures. Catherine is alternately revered and reviled, feared by those who fail to understand the motivations behind her actions. Gortner transports the reader back to sixteenth-century France and surrounds her with such dynamic characters that she comes out of the reading a bit shocked to be sitting on a couch rather than traveling in a royal convoy. Through his excellent writing the Valois and their countrymen become far more than footnotes in a history book; they come alive once more.

Any lover of historical fiction will have a hard time putting this down, and anybody looking for a well-written and moving narrative need look no further.

Rating: 5/5

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Ballantine Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain by Margaret Irwin

22/04/2011

A truncated version of this review appeared on Luxury Reading April 21, 2011. For that version, click here.

Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain is the third in Margaret Irwin’s trilogy about young Elizabeth Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn who would become Elizabeth I. It is 1554: Elizabeth is under house arrest at the order of her half-sister, Queen Mary I, and faces the constant threat of execution. When Mary weds Prince Philip of Spain, he becomes central to Elizabeth’s struggle for survival.

England is still reeling from religious reformation begun in the 1520s and carried on through the short reign of the Protestant King Edward VI. Mary is determined to bring England back into the Catholic Church at any cost and believes an alliance with Spain will help her do that — and, at 42 years old, she desperately hopes to conceive a son and to remove Elizabeth from the line of succession once and for all.

Philip, meanwhile, is an unhappy bridegroom fifteen years his bride’s junior and cautiously disdainful of her love for him, which borders on obsession. His curiosity is piqued by rumors surrounding the Lady Elizabeth. Is she truly loyal to her sister and to the Catholic Church, or is she playing an elaborate game to mask an intent to inherit her father’s throne? Is she more of a threat to Philip dead…or alive? When the two meet face to face Philip is entranced by Elizabeth’s wit and strength, and he finds he must balance his royal convictions with a growing and inconvenient desire for the younger Tudor sister.

Irwin’s story stayed true to Tudor history, which I appreciated; however, her overlong descriptions detract from a story that needs little help to be extraordinary. Her characterizations, likewise, were hit and miss. The fragile and paranoid Mary evokes simultaneous empathy and horror through her obsequious devotion to her husband and her zeal for religious reform. She is ill-equipped to handle the vast responsibility of ruling, and she fades before the reader’s eyes even as Elizabeth is poised to blind England with her radiance. Elizabeth is eternally regal and so expertly calculating that even the canniest reader cannot be sure what is genuine, and what is an act.

The problem with Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain, unfortunately, is the Prince of Spain. Irwin’s Philip is whiny, brooding, spiteful and unbearable. He is burdened by his own feelings of inadequacy, and a distaste bordering on contempt for both his father and his son. Even when it was warranted, I was unable to muster any sympathy for him or to feel anything but vague discomfort during the exchanges between him and Elizabeth. Moreover, Irwin devotes far more attention to Philip than she does to her titular heroine, who doesn’t appear until Chapter Seven. It often felt like I was reading Philip and the Tudors.

Overall, devotees of Tudor history will find the story compelling and a decent read, and will excuse Irwin’s writing as the product of a bygone age (Elizabeth was first released in 1953). I didn’t read Irwin’s first two books, Young Bess: The Girl Who Would Be Queen and Elizabeth, Captive Princess, but I will likely pick this one up again once I have.

Rating: 3/5