03 June, 2006

Comments on some historical novels

I've been lucky enough to get two new Edward II novels lately, thanks to Susan Higginbotham who kindly sent me photocopies of them. One is The Queen and Mortimer by Brenda Honeyman, which I enjoyed very much and will write about in the near future. The other was The Lord of Misrule by Eve Trevaskis, which both Susan and Sarah Johnson have reviewed recently. It's a refreshingly different look at Piers Gaveston, extremely difficult to find these days and thus hugely expensive. There's one copy available on Amazon UK for 399.81 pounds, and one on Amazon US for 1,009.61 dollars. What a bargain!!

Another novel I picked up lately - and wish I hadn't - is The Wounded Hawk by Sara Douglass. It's a fantasy novel, which is not my genre, but it's set in 14th century England - or a version of it. Richard II and Henry of Bolingbroke - both great-grandsons of Edward II and Isabella - are major characters, although the timeline is historically 'incorrect'. Richard II is murdered in 1380, as an adult - in reality, he was born in 1367 and murdered in 1400 - his friend Robert de Vere is married to 'Philippa Percy' not Philippa de Coucy, the king of France is 'John' and Joan of Arc is active, about half a century before she really was. There are many other differences, which presumably Douglass changed for a reason. Unfortunately, I didn't read enough of the novel to learn why.

I suppose I can't quibble about historical inaccuracies in a novel where Bolingbroke is a shapeshifter, but there was a lot about Wounded Hawk that really disturbed me. There's a particularly nasty scene where Richard and de Vere rape a woman almost to the point of insanity. This vile act is described over a number of pages. De Vere later murders a young prostitute, which is also very graphically described. The violence in the novel is really quite horrific, but perhaps the worst part is the murder of Richard II himself, which is achieved by the 'red-hot poker' method - traditionally associated with his great-grandfather Edward II. [I'm going to write a post on Edward II's 'death' soon....I've just been too lazy to do it yet].

The murder is described in the most excruciating detail, with organs bursting and rupturing and sizzling all over the place, and Richard's suffering lovingly dwelt on. It is absolutely vile - makes me want to throw up just thinking about it. There was a thread on another blog – Carla’s, I think – where we discussed things that would put you off reading any more of an author’s works. That was it for me. No more Sara Douglass, Ever.

Anyway, the main point of this post was to talk about a new novel of Queen Isabella which is due out in November 2006. It's entitled Queen of Shadows: a Novel of Isabella, Wife of Edward II, and the author is a well-known romance writer called Edith Layton. This is her first novel under her real name of Edith Felber. Here's the blurb:

In fourteenth century England, beautiful Queen Isabella – humiliated by her weak, unfaithful husband – is emerging from the shadows to take her revenge. But her newly-arrived, twenty-one-year old Welsh handmaiden, Gwenith de Percy, also seeks vengeance – against the English invaders who crushed her beloved Wales. Isabella’s once-golden marriage is now her penance. Due to his rumoured relations with men, Parliament forced Edward to share his throne – a demeaning arrangement that torments Isabella. With the help of her secret, noble lover, Roger Mortimer – an enemy of her husband, imprisoned in the Tower – the queen plots to take control. Thrilled by this turn of events, Gwenith realises that a king cannot afford to be weak – especially when his formidable, discontented queen seeks his power as her due.

Unfortunately, this sounds as though it's going to be the usual 'same old same old' story of a weak, feeble Edward, but I’m trying not to have too many preconceptions. A novel of Edward and Isabella is always welcome, though I'd love to see one where they're both sympathetic characters. It's difficult to be sure if this blurb is an accurate depiction of the novel, or merely a bad attempt at conveying the events. Some book blurbs are really awful, such as this one from Alison Weir's biography of Isabella: Had it not been for her unfaithfulness, history may have immortalised her as a liberator - the saviour who unshackled England from a weak and vicious monarch and helped put a strong king - her Lover Mortimer - on the throne.
This sounds as though Roger Mortimer became the king of England, which of course he didn't (though he acted like it sometimes!). And why the heck is 'lover' spelt with a capital L?

It’s difficult to know what to make of Queen of Shadows from this. The details chosen are odd – when the blurb writer presumably had only a limited number of words to play with, why choose the detail that the fictitious Gwenith is twenty-one? The idea that Parliament forced Edward to share his throne is odd – I presume that means the earl of Lancaster, but that’s very inaccurate. And it had little to do with Edward’s ‘rumoured relations with men’.

Is Isabella the main character, or this fictitious Gwenith? How does the Welsh lovely get her revenge on the nasty old English? Is this Braveheart set in Wales? Only time will tell. There was another discussion in blogland a while ago, where some of us discussed how much we dislike it when a main character is fictitious, but interacts with real people.

Anyway, roll on November, so I can find out! And roll on 20 July, when this book is finally published. I'm particularly looking forward to numbers 2, 3 and 11!


Susan Higginbotham said...

I'm counting the days and saving my $80 for July!

The Douglass sounds truly disgusting. And why turn Richard II into a rapist?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Susan, Douglass' concept is that the the creatures of hell in which Medieaval people believed, have verily returned to earth and want to gain power. More than one 'historical' character is not what (s)he seems in the trilogy. I read it as Fantasy books and as such they're more interesting than some stuff I've come across in the genre.

now you point out the cruel scenes I have to admit they are very strongly painted. I never realised it when I read the books because I have a harder stomach it seems. :) Not that I would describe a torture scene fully as detailed (albeit there is torture and rape in my books), but I don't mind reading the stuff.

But ouch, if you don't like a main fictional character interacting with real historical ones, you won't like my books. *sniff* My main characters are all fictional. Which is less of a problem in the Roman books because we know so little about most historical characters - fe. we don't even know the mere names of the leaders of the insurgents against the Roman occupance in northern Britain 119 AD (heck, there's are still discussion about whether the 9th legion was involved and if part of it indeed perished), let alone any details about them. So even if Hadrian is historical, Talorcan can not be anything but fictional.

12th century Kings and Rebels is another matter.

Kathryn Warner said...

Gabriele: I should have expressed myself much better and avoided making that sweeping generalisation, which isn’t exactly true! I only meant it for ‘my’ period – in yours, I wouldn’t know who was historical and who was fictional, and I’d love to read your novels! ;)

What I meant is that I don't like it when a fictional character is thrown into a novel with real people, *and ends up affecting the plot, or actions of the real historical people*. I think with your novels I would feel differently - if the 'real people' are not known in any detail, I can see that you'd have to invent characters. In 'my' period, I don't at all mind fictional characters who exist merely for the protagonists to confide in, for example - I'm just a little concerned that 'Gwenith' gets too much stage time, and is going to affect events.

Thanks for pointing out Douglass’s concept – I see it much better now! However, I think if she’s going to make a character into a rapist and a murderer, she should create fictional characters, rather than using real people. I’ve seen a few comments online that suggest people believe Douglass’s novels are historically accurate, because she has a PhD in history. And yeah, I am pretty squeamish….;)

Gabriele Campbell said...

People believe Douglass is historically accurate? Some people should not be allowed near books. There's a scene at the beginning of the first book, The Nameless Day, where the demons enter earth because the cleft, open at certain times every hundred years or so, was not closed in time because the one able to do it died. That's history, all right. ;)

What Douglass says is that she got the idea because for Mediaeval people, devils, angels and other such beings were real. Thus she wrote an alternate history where the darker creatures live on earth, right beside the humans, and often indistinguishable from them.

Well, I have some problems to fit the fictional MCs in with the historical characters as seamless as possible in my Mediaeval saga, Kings and Rebels. I'm going to write a post about this soon, after I've written another one triggered of by a discussion at Miss Snark. I said I was peeved by glaring historical inaccuracies in books, and someone replied that in that case I should not like Shakespeare. Well, there's a difference, I'd say. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

LOL! What people mean - I hope! - is that the depiction of the medieval characters, other than their being shapeshifters, demons and such, is historically accurate. Which to a point it is, in that Richard II and Bolingbroke really were cousins, Isabeau was the queen of France, etc. Or maybe I'm being too kind. ;)

I read that thing about historical inaccuracies and Shakespeare on Miss Snark's blog too. That seems to be the standard defence of inaccuracies - if Shakespeare did it, why can't I? Well, hmm.....not exactly the same! ;)

Carla said...

It sounds to me as if Queen of Shadows is going to focus on Gwenith, hence giving the detail of her age, with the Edward II / Isabella story used as a backdrop.

On Wounded Hawk, I haven't read it. Generally I find I don't get on well with mixed historical/fantasy novels, where a historical (or semi-historical) story features monsters/demons/supernatural beings that exist and magic that works. I can never manage to convince myself that demons etc really did exist and influence events, and that spoils the story for me. Though I never have any problem with people's beliefs influencing the story, if that makes any sense? So I'm quite happy with the Pendle witches being hanged because people believed in witchcraft in 16th-C England, but if a story has Alice Nuttall actually summoning a real familiar, it's very likely to lose me.
PS - I sympathise re the brutal scenes; I'm rather squeamish too.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Carla: yes, I also got the impression that it would be more of a 'Gwenith' novel, but presumably it's being marketed more as a 'Queen Isabella' novel.

I'm really not a fan of historical/fantasy novels, either. I picked up the Douglass novel very cheaply, but it will probably be my last attempt to read anything in this genre!

Gabriele Campbell said...

I have very varied but also very eclectic reading tastes. Basically, everything goes as long as it's well written and interesting. Though I do read more historical fiction than other genres.