A Place Beyond Courage by Elizabeth Chadwick – Book Review

A Place Beyond Courage by Elizabeth Chadwick
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks

Elizabeth Chadwick is perhaps best known for her historical fiction featuring William Marshal. In his A Place Beyond Courage, she returns to his family in order to tell the story of his infamous father, John FitzGilbert.

As the marshal of King Henry I of England, John FitzGilbert knows the court well, and he knows how hollow the vows to support Henry’s daughter Matilda as heir are. God willing the king has many years to live, but Matilda and her estranged husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou have no children and no immediate prospects for one as they refuse to even live together. As such, and because it is doubtful that the men of 12th century England will ever really accept a woman on the throne, the succession of the country is in question should anything happen to Henry. And, all too soon, something does happen to Henry. A batch of bad fish, possibly murder, and suddenly the country is in an uproar. Henry’s nephew Stephen seizes the crown, while Matilda, who by then had three very young sons by her husband, challenged from Normandy.

For John FitzGilbert, life at home is no more peaceful than political life. His wife, Aline, is meek and biddable, but she is also fearful and overly pious, to extents that annoy John terribly. They are quite horrible mismatched and their marriage is not a happy one for either of them.

John FitzGilbert and his famous “hammer and anvils” speech make an appearance in Chadwick’s novels on the lives of William Marshal, John’s fourth son, so having the opportunity to delve deeper into his psyche and discover how he became a man who would say such a thing about his son. By the  time we got to that point in his life, it was completely understandable how and why he could do something that was seemingly so uncaring. It seemed initially that he would be an unsympathetic character, but the more I read, the more I understood him.

The only thing I disliked about A Place Beyond Courage is the way that John’s wives were characterized. Aline is obviously not meant to be a sympathetic character: she is cold in bed, spends too much time and money on the church, and is unable to satisfactorily order her household. If she was more sympathetic, it would be difficult to like John with how he sometimes treats her. Still, at times it seems that Chadwick goes too far in trying to make her weak and unwomanly, because I was all too aware of how I was not meant to like her. His second wife and William’s mother, in comparison, is young, lovely, and beyond competent.

Despite some manipulative characterizations, I did very much enjoy A Place Beyond Courage. It is a good look at the civil war between Stephen and Matilda for the future of the English throne and John FitzGilbert is a fascinating character, if somewhat less sympathetic than his famous son.

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Her Highness, the Traitor by Susan Higginbotham – Book Review

Her Highness, the Traitor by Susan Higginbotham
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks

Although he marries six times, Henry VIII has only three children who were at least arguably born in wedlock, one each by each of his first three wives. The eldest two, his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, are both considered illegitimate at different times according to Henry’s whims and the laws of the land. Only his son Edward, by his third wife Jane Seymour, truly has a clear path to the throne. Unfortunately, Henry dies while Edward was still in his minority, leaving the young king to be ruled by prominent men of the kingdom, including his uncles on his mother’s side. The result is a period of upheaval, as various men succumb to the seduction of power and vastly overstep their boundaries. In the midst of this, Edward is growing increasingly radical in his Protestantism, and when he begins to get sick, he is determined that his eldest sister, the staunchly Catholic Mary, will not succeed him. As both of his sisters have been considered illegitimate at one point or another, disinheriting both of them seems the easiest and wisest course. Henry’s will ensured that if his children died without issue, the crown would go to children of his youngest sister, Mary. Luckily, Edward has an equally Protestant cousin in that branch of the family: the lady Jane Grey.

Jane Grey and Edward VI are perhaps the least written about Tudor rulers, so I am always drawn to books about them, as authors are less likely to be simply rehashing the same old thing. In this case, the only other book I’ve read about Jane Grey is Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor, which I read shortly before I started blogging and so haven’t reviewed. The Jane of Weir’s story is meek and mild, but also very against taking precedence over her cousin Mary, who she believes is the rightful queen after Edward’s death, despite her Catholicism. Higginbotham’s Jane, on the other hand, thinks very highly of herself, her own intelligence, and her religion. Frankly, she’s a bit of a brat and you sense she would be an unmitigated disaster as queen.

Thankfully, with a Jane like this, Higginbotham does not tell her story from Jane’s own point of view, which might well be insufferable. Instead, we see the events from Edward’s ascension to Mary’s through the eyes of her mother Frances Grey and her future mother-in-law Jane Dudley. In addition to saving us from some of Jane’s high opinion of herself, these women are better placed to let the reader experience more of the drama of Edward’s reign and death first hand, which makes for a more interesting and informative book than we might have had from Jane’s eyes alone.

Her Highness, the Traitor is perhaps the strongest of Higginbotham’s books thus far. It is well-edited and the story flows smoothly and quickly. It also may have the broadest appeal because, although Jane Grey and Edward VI are scarce topics as far as the Tudors go, they are still Tudors and thus more familiar to many readers than some of Higginbotham’s other subjects. Recommended.

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The Last Romanov by Dora Levy Mossanen – Book Review

The Last Romanov by Dora Levy Mossanen
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks

Communism has fallen in Russia, but the new power structure is not all that much better, at least to Darya Spiridova’s way of thinking. A former member of the imperial household, the 104 year old Darya has been waiting for decades to restore her beloved Alexei, who she believes survived the assassination of the royal family, to his rightful throne. Now she may get her wish. Darya has received a letter from the Russian Nobility Association about the existence of a Romanov heir they hope for her examine and approve.

Darya’s trip to see the Romanov heir is largely a frame for her remembrances of life in the last days of imperial Russia, starting around the time of Alexei’s conception and birth. Blessed with an opal eye, Darya has a reputation as a healer and is engaged by the Tsarina as Alexei’s nurse once his hemophilia becomes obvious. Darya is a woman with fingers in many pies, not only is she the tsarevich’s nurse, she is also a patron of the arts, and the woman who introduces Rasputin to the Romanovs.

The Last Romanov is an interesting account of the end of Imperial Russia. Intriguingly, the book is based around the story of a woman with a strong connection, much as is Kathryn Harrison’s Enchantments, another recent book about the same period. Here, the similarities stop, however. Despite the contemporary frame, Mossanen’s book employs a much more straight-forward style of storytelling, It is also, though, much more focused on Darya than on the royal family. There is a a bit of a strange semi-supernatural subplot, revealed to Darya by Rasputin, but it does not detract from the rest of the story, and in fact supports Darya’s obsession with Alexei regaining his rightful throne.

With engaging writing and an interesting, if at times slightly strange, plot, The Last Romanov is a great read for those interested in the time period.

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Making Waves by Tawna Fenske

Making Waves by Tawna Fenske
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks

They were married within five minutes of meeting. Or, at least, they pretended to be married, in order to win a newlywed game and split the prize money. Alex and Juli are on St. Johns for two very different reasons: Juli to scatter her uncle’s ashes, Alex to play pirate and raid his ex-boss’s ship with a gang of fellow former employees. Although their paths really shouldn’t keep crossing, they do, to sexy and hilarious results.

I am not a habitual reader of romance, so I’m a bit hard-pressed (I’m sure Fenske would find this phrase hilarious) to give Making Waves the review it deserves. There were some things that absolutely made me roll my eyes, like Juli’s ultra-convenient shocking secret, but I have no idea how accepted this sort of thing is in the realm of romance, particularly Fenske’s subgenre of humorous romance. After giving it some thought, I decided that this was meant to be a fun, somewhat escapist read, and so I wouldn’t let those sorts of coincidences bother me, whatever the genre conventions.

And really, fun and escapist describes Making Waves perfectly. After following Fenke for the last year on The Debutante Ball and occasionally on her personal blog Don’t Pet Me, I’m Writing, I was pretty confident that Making Waves would be hilarious and a little bit dirty, and it lived up to my expectations 100%. This is an enjoyable frolic with a fun, flirty romance, great for reliving your memories of the warm summer sun this fall.

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Source: Publisher.
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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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