A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir – Book Review

A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House

In less than a century, England saw two rulers who would be recorded in the popular history as usurpers: Richard III and Lady Jane Grey. When Jane Grey is overthrown by Queen Mary Tudor after ruling for only nine days, her younger sister Katherine Grey feels that her life has been torn asunder. Not only is she no longer the sister of the Queen and instead the sister and daughter of traitors, but her marriage to her beloved husband is annulled by his father, who no longer sees their match advantageous. Kate Plantagenet, illegitimate daughter of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, had a happy early life, but after the death of her uncle, King Edward IV, suspicion begins to invade her life as her father’s actions in regards to the kingdom and his nephews seem increasing suspect. As relatives to unsuccessful claimants to the Crown, Katherine and Kate have many parallel experiences and a shared obsession with the fate of Edward IV’s sons, the boys who would become known as the Princes in the Tower.

I have had mixed reactions to Alison Weir’s fiction, but really enjoy her nonfiction, so when I heard she had a new novel coming out I was excited check it out. I was not terribly sure about the idea of dual historical time periods going between the reign of Richard III and the reigns of the three Tudor women; it seemed likely not to flow well, or to be too contrived. As I began reading Kate and Katherine’s stories, though, I realized just how many similarities there were in the broad strokes of their stories, with the ascension and dethroning of their family members with pretensions to the throne. This was even more true as both women underwent these experiences when they were quite young and thus had to deal with the way that these events influenced their matrimonial prospects.

Early on it seems that Kate and Katherine’s shared interest in the Princes in the Tower was going to be unsatisfying and a bit of a loose thread, but a little over halfway through A Dangerous Inheritance the pieces begin to come together and this commonality between the women weaves their narratives together even more coherently than their shared status as the kin of traitors. Ultimately A Dangerous Inheritance is a captivating pair of stories with incredibly appealing and sympathetic main characters and I can definitely recommend it.

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Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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The Queen’s Vow by C.W. Gortner – Book Review

The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castille by C.W. Gortner
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House

As a young woman, Isabella expected that one day she would leave her home country of Castille for a strategic marriage. What she did not expect, particularly as she had two older brothers, was the series of events that would instead make her the Queen of Castille in her own right; the events that would cause her and her husband Fernando of Aragon to authorize the most famous of all Inquisitions, that would have them overtake Grenada from the Moors.

Even for those who know the eventual outcome of Isabella’s story, C.W. Gortner, in his new book The Queen’s Vow, takes his readers so deeply into Isabella’s head that we can almost not believe that she will some day be queen either. Gortner tells Isabella’s story from the time of her father’s desk and her eldest half-brother’s disastrous reign through the successful culmination of her reconquista against the Moors.

I have found Gortner to be a consistently strong author of historical fiction, and The Queen’s Vow is no exception. Isabella is taken from a semi-mythical queen figure to a real, human person with her own strengths and weaknesses, but most important with incredible determination. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher for a Historical Fiction Virtual Tour. Reviews from the rest of the tour hosts can be found here.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers – Book Review

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This is the first book in the His Fair Assassins series.

The scars on Ismae’s body mark her as something different, something to be feared. Leftover from the failed abortifacient taken by her mother before her birth, the scars also mark Ismae as a daughter not of a human man, but instead sired by St. Mortain, otherwise known as Death. The fear induced by her heritage keeps her safe – barely – from her turnip farming father, but enrages the man she is sold to in marriage, a man who promises to see her killed. Luckily, there are many who are still loyal to the old gods of Brittany, gods who must now be called saints to avoid conflict with the Catholic church and these priests and herbwives smuggle Ismae to the convent of St. Mortain. In the convent, Ismae becomes a handmaiden of Death, trained in the art of killing those marked by St. Mortain, those enemies of Brittany.

Brittany has many enemies these days. The Duke is dead, and his daughter the Duchess Anne is only 12, although she is a wise and mature young woman. France is hungry to expand its borders and it seems that she must marry to ensure the safety of her country, but her most ardent suitor is a man not remotely suitable. Ismae, who grew up a peasant, finds herself sent to Anne’s court with a courtier and member of the Privy Council, Duval, to protect the Duchess and Brittany, and to ensure that Mortain’s will be done.

LaFevers has created in Grave Mercy a wonderful and engaging world that is particularly effective for being set against true historical events, such as Anne’s ascension to the Duchy of Brittany, and the ensuing Franco-Breton War. Whether Brittany the veneration of ancient pagan gods as saints continued in 15th century Brittany I do not know, but LaFevers certainly made it ring true, particularly when setting this veneration against the close relationship between Brittany’s enemy France and the Pope. In addition, Ismae is an incredibly captivating heroine, naive and damaged at the same time she is brave and strong. Her reactions and emotions are entirely consistent with her character as LaFevers develops it.

Perhaps best of all is the way that LaFevers ended this, the first book in the series. Although there is a question of what will happen in Anne and Ismae’s futures, the story that is being told is also completely wrapped up. I would be thrilled to read about Ismae’s continuing adventures, or in learning more about some of the other girls from the convent, and yet Grave Mercy completely satisfies in and of itself.

This series shows much promise, and I can’t wait for the next installment in 2013. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys – Book Review

Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks

Five years after the death of Vlad Dracula, the Turks are encroaching more and more on Christian lands. If only the Order of the Dragon had not been discredited when Vlad was, it could still serve as a tool of Crusade for Christendom. In an effort to rehabilitate both Vlad and the Order of the Dragon, the three people who best knew him have been brought to one of his former castles to make confession on his behalf, telling Vlad’s story from his captivity with the Turks through the height of his power and cruelty, on to the time of his discrediting.

Vlad: The Last Confessions is the certainly the story of the ‘real’ Dracula, but more than that, it is a story of how history is written and warped to fit the needs of the victors:

The listeners had been fashioning their own Vlad, according to their needs. For Petru it was simple. he wanted the man who built the castle he commanded to be a hero; more, a Wallachian hero. He had heard of a time of justice, order, strength in his land. Of the smiting of Christ’s foes. He wanted that time again.-p. 69

At one time it was expedient for both the Turks and Hungarians to paint Vlad as a monster, but Vlad: The Last Confession posits a time when it may have been necessary for other European Christians to try to clear his name. The truth will never exonerate Vlad entirely, he was by no means a benevolent ruler, but it does shed a light on his motivations, which may have been more complex than cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

So laughed, the sound harsh. “So I have become a tale to amuse fat burghers over their suppers, and to hush their children with terror when they will not sleep,” He lifted his goblet, drank, set it down. “All I did, all the measures I took for Wallachia, against thieves and traitors and Infidels, come to this.” He jabbed a finger at the pamphlet. “Me, reduced to a blood-sucking monster.” -p. 327

The device of telling Vlad’s story through those who knew him best worked very well. In practice it meant that most of Vlad’s story could be told as a seamless narrative. The impression is that all three confidants are telling the story in an integrated fashion, picking up where another left off, coming back to the scene in the castle only when exposition is needed. Some of the scenes of war and violence got a bit old after awhile, but it would have been difficult to avoid them, as they were a very significant part of Vlad’s life.

Overall, Vlad: The Last Confession was an interesting and engaging look at the life of Vlad Dracula and how history is shaped by political needs. Recommended.

For a more in-depth discussion of the book and Humphreys’s inspiration for it, please check out my interview with him on my podcast, What’s Old is New.

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Source: Publisher, for an episode of What’s Old is New.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Queen of Last Hopes by Susan Higginbotham – Book Review

The Queen of Last Hopes by Susan Higginbotham
Published by Sourcebooks

Along with another French-born woman, Isabella the She-Wolf of France, Margaret of Anjou is probably one of the most hated queens of English history. Frequently referred to as the ‘French bitch’ in practically every War of the Roses book I have ever read, she is finally getting the chance to tell her own side of the story in Susan Higginbotham’s “The Queen of Last Hopes.” Quite a story it is, too, having to defend her mad husband’s throne and her son’s birthright against usurping royal cousins.

Higginbotham has certainly matured in her prose since her first book, “The Traitor’s Wife.” I think that her plotting has improved as well, “The Queen of Last Hopes” kept a good pace over the entire 320 odd pages. I will also say for Higginbotham, that she does a fabulous job presenting her subject in a realistic and sympathetic manner. I have always hated Margaret of Anjou as she appears in works of historical fiction, but Higginbotham made me examine the circumstances surrounding her infamy, which were really very sympathetic. Most of the War of the Roses fiction lately has a decidedly Yorkist slant to it and starts with or after the deaths on the battlefield of Edward IV’s father and older brother, which tends to elicit sympathy for Edward’s cause, but going back farther to examine the events leading up to the war has given me some pause in my own Yorkist leanings. Although, if you’re interested, I’m still not really pro-Lancaster because their reign started with the murder of another anointed ruler. I am not a scholar, though, these are just my personal thoughts.

Of course, any book that makes someone reexamine considered beliefs is, in some senses at least, a good one, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily unequivocally good. The greatest strength of “The Queen of Last Hopes” was the fully fleshed out character of Margaret, which is why it was so disappointing to see Higginbotham weakening the book by letting other characters narrate from time to time. Over the course of the book, four different men, including Henry VI and their son, Edward, were given chapters to narrate. Some of them received but one, some of them narrated multiple chapters. Unfortunately, this was not done with any particularly great style. Perhaps if their chapters had been at more regular intervals and of more regular lengths, and if the transitions from man to man had been done in a way to add to instead of detract from the book’s structure, it could have worked. As it was, however, I found the men’s chapters to be at best a  distraction from Margaret, who was truly at the heart of the book. At worst, they were lazy storytelling, taking chapters where it was simply most convenient to impart events which Margaret did not witness firsthand.

Overall I mostly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to those looking to experience this familiar story from a Lancastrian point of view, but I am disappointed that it was not as strong as it could have been.

Buy this book from:
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A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
Amazon.*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.