The Star-Touched Queen

queenThe Star-Touched Queen
by Roshani Chokshi
342 pages
Published April, 2016

From Goodreads: Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you’re only seventeen?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.


I’ve seen multiple reviews of this book here and there, always rated very highly, and so I thought I’d give it a try. After a short wait from the library, the eBook showed up on my Nook one day, so off I went into a mythology I am only vaguely acquainted with. I have encountered the Hindu mythos here and there- it’s touched upon in other fantasy novels I’ve read, I’ve heard it spoken about in the various travels shows I’ve watched, and we read a section of the Mahabharata in my Epic Tales class (Classics 389) in college. So Maya’s world wasn’t utterly unfamiliar to me.

But it was still strange. Maya’s horoscope foretold  a dark future of death and destruction for her, and so the women she grew up with and around in her father’s palace treated her terribly, blaming virtually every misfortune and death on a girl who, really, had nothing to do with these things.

And yet, there was something odd about her in the way that she smiled or the fact that sometimes her shadow refused to appear when the sun was high. She would frighten her tutors away and sneak off to watch her father as he ruled his lands, content to learn about politics and perhaps someday become a scholar. One day, though, her father declares that Maya must marry, and she will do so within a few days.

The man that Maya ultimately marries is a mystery to her, and he brings her to a strange realm full of locked doors and distant voices. He treats her as an equal, with his only demand being that she must trust him.

Of course, Maya’s trust falters to her misfortune, her husband’s, and perhaps all the worlds above and below.

One of the comments I kept seeing about The Star-Touched Queen was how beautiful the commentors thought the prose was. I agree to a degree. Compared to many of the YA books I have read or tried to read over the past couple of years, the prose is more poetic. Chokshi’s metaphors didn’t sweep me off my feet, though. What kept me reading was Maya and her characterization, and later on, the mystery of the realm she became the queen of- Akaran.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have my moments of, “Maya, don’t be a dingbat… oh, there you go. Being a dingbat. Go figure”. I had several of those. Fortunately, they weren’t so aggravating that they made me want to put the book down. Amar, the king of Akaran, was mysterious enough to make me want to keep reading, if only to find out what he was all about.

From here, we get a bit spoilery, but I don’t know how to best discuss my thoughts without giving away certain plot elements, so here we go.

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  1. I realize the whole thing with Nritti was set up early on, but somehow it didn’t quite feel like Nritti’s early, unnamed appearances were part of her story. It felt like she appeared out of nowhere in Akaran.
  2. While I’m aware that reincarnation is part of Hindu beliefs and that it was mentioned in various parts of the book, given that Maya’s realization about her own past lives and how they intertwined with Nritti’s, the occasional mentionings of this idea didn’t meld enough into the story to make Maya’s discovery of her past lives feel completely natural.
  3. I know this is a fantasy, and it is based on various Hindu myths and beliefs, but the section where Maya is going through the kingdom as a sadhvi felt a little like it came from a different book altogether- one that was more of a surrealistic or magical realist story.
  4. I’m not sure how the reunification with her sister Gauri was necessary to the overall, and why Maya was helping her to escape. Her conversation with the old harem-wife felt more relevant to Maya’s journey.

Overall, I did enjoy this book. It was a quick read with interesting characters and locations, but I don’t think it will leave a very deep impression when I look back at the list of books I read this year. There is a second book that just came out, A Crown of Wishes, but the synopsis indicates that it’s about Gauri, not Maya. I’m still trying to decide if I’m interested enough to read that one.

Brief Gaudy Hour

51heqn-tWqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn
by Margaret Campbell Barnes
383 pages
originally published in 1949

From Goodreads: The enigmatic Anne Boleyn comes to life in this charming, brilliant portrayal by acclaimed British novelist Margaret Campbell Barnes.
The infamous love of King Henry VIII and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn undertook a rocky journey from innocent courtier to powerful Queen of England. A meticulous researcher, Margaret Campbell Barnes immerses readers in this intrigue and in the lush, glittery world of the Tudor Court. The beauty and charms of Anne Boleyn bewitched the most powerful man in the world, King Henry VIII, but her resourcefulness and cleverness were not enough to stop the malice of her enemies. Her swift rise to power quickly became her own undoing.
The author brings to light Boleyn’s humanity and courage, giving an intimate look at a young woman struggling to find her own way in a world dominated by men and adversaries.


I’ve been on an historical fiction tear lately, what with Conn Igguldsen’s Wars of the Roses series, my attempt at reading Sharon Kay Penman’s Falls the Shadow, and the book about Julius Caesar (also by Conn Iggulden). Once I found Brief Gaudy Hour, it seemed only natural that I would give it a shot, given that Anne Boleyn is one of my favorite historical figures.

The book opens when Anne is eighteen and has been summoned to court for the first time. She ends up in the retinue of Henry VIII’s sister Mary, who soon travels to France to marry the aging French king. It’s not long before Mary is widowed, a new king is crowned, and Anne ends up in the retinue of the new queen, Claude. After learning how to charm men and use her unorthodox beauty to set fashions and catch the eyes of whoever she chooses, Anne is recalled to England to serve in the household of the English queen, Katherine of Aragon.

Initially, Anne’s father betroths her to her cousin, a middle-aged Irishman, but Anne soon falls in love with the dashing Harry Percy and seeks to marry him in defiance of her father’s wishes. Little does she know that she has also caught the eye of King Henry VIII. Before she knows it, her marriage contract to her Irish cousin and her secret engagement to Harry Percy are canceled by Cardinal Wolsey so that Henry can marry her.

Brokenhearted that she cannot marry the man she loves, Anne seeks revenge on Wolsey. In the years that follow, Anne uses her charm on Henry to ensure both Wolsey’s downfall and her own ascension. Why should she settle for being a mere mistress when she could be a queen?

Ultimately, though, the wit and charm that made Anne desirable as a mistress makes her a terrible queen, at least in Henry’s eyes. The people are set against her in favor of the previous queen, Katherine of Aragon, and because Anne is unable to give Henry the son he desires, his wandering eye lands on one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. Anne’s fall is swift and unexpected, and there is nothing she can do to save herself or the men who were condemned with her.

Brief Gaudy Hour is a strange book. It was written in the 1940s and the prose reflects it- almost old fashioned (yet not Victorian in style), and not quite modernist like you’d expect from someone like Virginia Wolfe. And it talks about things that you would expect from a book written in the 1960s or later. There is more than one point, for example, when Anne is thinking about her own sexuality and desirability without viewing either as a shameful thing. And unlike the women around her, Anne doesn’t really want children. She knows she’s expected to have as many as possible- boys especially- but the desire for children isn’t part of her character. What’s more is that Margaret Campbell Barnes doesn’t write about this like it’s something awful or makes Anne somehow less of a woman. It’s simply part of her character. Given that, even now, people often can’t fathom a woman who doesn’t want kids, this is a perspective I did not expect to find in a book written in the 1940s.

Throughout the story, at points where some writers would seek to moralize about Anne’s ‘bad characteristics’ (her sexiness, her quick wit, her desire for the silks and jewels and power that Henry offers her), Barnes regards them as either part of human nature that anyone could fall for (sexuality and the temptations of luxury) or a fine point of Anne’s character (her wit). She is portrayed as a full human being who suffers disappointment and heartbreak, rails against parental and societal expectations, and seeks to make a life for herself on her own terms, in spite of her world’s expectations for women.

While I enjoyed this book, there were a few things that bugged me. Barnes glosses over the religious issues that were at stake. The Boleyn family were secret Protestants at a time where being a Protestant could get you burned at the stake, and yet Barnes treats their beliefs as though it’s a minor thing, and Anne’s beliefs are barely mentioned, though she was a champion of Protestant beliefs and nudged Henry in that direction once it became clear that the Pope was not going to rule in their favor. Another thing that bugs me is how Anne and Henry both seem so content about how long it takes for him to get his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. It took something like six years, but in Brief Gaudy Hour, they’re acting like it took a matter of weeks, so patient are they.

Overall, though, these issues aren’t enough to make me dislike this book. Anne’s portrayal is wonderfully human and the changes to her character make sense from beginning to end. She has her highs and lows, flaws and fine points, and the history of the era is wonderfully accurate. Barnes’s Anne has all the wit and fire that have made her so intriguing for the past five-hundred years, and despite the passage of more than half a century, the story feels surprisingly modern.

If you’re a fan of Natalie Dormer’s portrayal of Anne on the Showtime series, The Tudors, you’ll notice a lot of similarities between Dormer’s version and Barnes’s. And if you haven’t seen The Tudors but are interested in history (or just in Anne Boleyn) for its own sake, I would definitely recommend this book.

 

Margaret of Anjou

61w-zvQfd+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Margaret of Anjou (The Wars of the Roses #2)
by Conn Iggulden
464 pages
published 2014

From Goodreads: The brilliant retelling of the Wars of the Roses continues with Margaret of Anjou, the second gripping novel in the new series from historical fiction master Conn Iggulden.

As traitors advance . . . a queen defends.
It is 1454 and for more than a year King Henry VI has remained all but exiled in Windsor Castle, struck down by his illness, his eyes vacant, his mind blank. His fiercely loyal wife and queen, Margaret of Anjou, safeguards her husband’s interests, hoping that her son Edward will one day come to know his father.
With each month that Henry is all but absent as king, Richard, the duke of York, protector of the realm, extends his influence throughout the kingdom. A trinity of nobles–York and Salisbury and Warwick–are a formidable trio and together they seek to break the support of those who would raise their colors and their armies in the name of Henry and his queen.
But when the king unexpectedly recovers his senses and returns to London to reclaim his throne, the balance of power is once again thrown into turmoil. The clash of the Houses of Lancaster and York may be the beginning of a war that could tear England apart . . .
Following Stormbird, Margaret of Anjou is the second epic installment in master storyteller Conn Iggulden’s new Wars of the Roses series. Fans of the Game of Thrones and the Tudors series will be gripped from the word “go.”


The synoposis is not wrong. I think fans of Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire, if you’re talking about the books) would like this series. It’s full of political intrigue, battles, and spies, though there aren’t any dragons. I’m okay with the lack of dragons.

I’ve read about the history of the Wars of the Roses, I’ve watched the Shakespearean plays based on this time period, and I even watched the wretched The White Queen tv show that made witchcraft into a thing that actually worked (what…?).

Someone needs to stop turning Philippa Gregory’s books into television shows, and turn to Conn Iggulden instead. It’s one thing to read in the history books about battles and casualty counts, and who wrote what edict and when. It’s quite another to have someone write a vivid novelization of the whole affair, where you come to like and care about a character, only to have them cruelly cut down in battle. I even respected Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York who is presented as something of a villain, but he loves his country and has grown so frustrated with how Queen Margaret and her faction have ruled the country that he rises against them to ‘free his King from the wicked councilors who surround him’.

You have to respect Margaret, too, though. She came to England as a slip of a fourteen year old girl, and now, years later, she has a backbone of steel and is capable of raising an army to defend her husband, King Henry VI and secure her son Edward’s position as heir to the English throne.

There are too many things going on to summarize this book in a couple of paragraphs, and you could check the Wikipedia page if you want a summary of the dynastic wars that spanned generations and ended up giving us the Tudor dynasty.

Suffice it to say that Conn Iggulden has written another fantastic book that is fast-paced and full of action, but isn’t lacking in real human emotion, either. Take the queen, for example: as the years of Henry VI’s illness progress, Margaret’s love for him withers, and her motivation to fight moves away from him to protecting her son’s rights. The various houses are still at each other’s throats, there are betrayals, men who are loyal to the death, and overall brilliant prose that doesn’t let up or let you go.

And I don’t even mind that Iggulden will switch point of view from one character to the next without warning.

I already have to next book waiting for me on my bookshelf, and I look forward to getting started.

** Note, Margaret of Anjou is also titled Trinity, a fact that confused the heck out of me when I was looking through the books at the library.

The Red Magician

23117749The Red Magician
by Lisa Goldstein
192 pages
Published in 1982

From Goodreads: Winner of the 1983 American Book Award, The Red Magician was an immediate classic.

On the eve of World War II, a wandering magician comes to a small Hungarian village prophesying death and destruction. Eleven-year-old Kicsi believes Vörös, and attempts to aid him in protecting the village.

But the local rabbi, who possesses magical powers, insists that the village is safe, and frustrates Vörös’s attempts to transport them all to safety. Then the Nazis come and the world changes.

Miraculously, Kicsi survives the horrors of the concentration camp and returns to her village to witness the final climactic battle between the rabbi and the Red Magician, the Old World and the New.

The Red Magician is a notable work of Holocaust literature and a distinguished work of fiction, as well as a marvelously entertaining fantasy that is, in the end, wise and transcendent.


I found this book by browsing through my library’s eBook selection during a bit of downtime at work, and I have to admit that the little ‘National Book Award’ medallion on the cover image helped sway my decision to download and read it. The library’s synopsis was interesting, but only described the first few chapters. The Goodreads synopsis better describes the whole story, though it just touches the surface. The Red Magician is much deeper than its synopsis indicates. There’s a good reason it won such a prestigious award.

Life is perfectly normal for Kicsi when the book opens. She goes to school, she puts up with her older sisters, she resents the fact that she never gets to have new clothes (she gets hand me downs from her sisters), and she dreams of the wide world outside her little village. Things start to turn strange, though, when the local rabbi lays a curse on the school because they’ve started teaching Hebrew, a language the rabbi feels is blasphemous.

That’s when Vörös shows up. He is a wanderer who Kicsi immediately likes, and it turns out that he is a magician, just like the rabbi. Vörös removes the curse from the school, and at the rabbi’s daughter’s wedding, making a dire prophecy about the future and advises everyone to leave. When they don’t leave, Vörös tries to build protections for the little town he’s come to love. The rabbi shows up then, and whether out of spite, fear, or a little of both, he destroys the protections that Vörös has built.

Then the Nazis show up.

I won’t go further into the plot, because that would spoil it, and there are a lot of things I’ve left out. But suffice it to say that Kicsi survives the Holocaust and finds Vörös again, and the rabbi finds them, too.

I wouldn’t say that The Red Magician is a coming of age story, thought Kicsi certainly grows up. That label doesn’t tell the whole story of the story, though. The Red Magician is about growing up, learning to appreciate what you have, learning to live with guilt- and indeed, it’s about learning to live again after surviving horrors- and so many other things, too. There is a lot packed into this little book.

The prose is lovely, too. It had a ‘once upon a time…’ feeling to it, like a Brothers Grimm tale, where deep issues are written about so lightly you don’t realize you’ve absorbed the story’s lesson until you look back at it later. Goldstein isn’t a spendthrift when it comes to her words. They are chosen carefully and seem to effortlessly spin a beautiful tale about love, loss, and why we should choose to live after witnessing the worst humanity has to offer.

Sunday Sum-Up

I seem to have spent this week catching up on the number of books I’ve read for the month, because I started and finished three titles, and began reading three more.  Most of these books were eBooks I sent to my forlorn little Nook, after having neglected it for a few weeks. Once I updated all the apps. Again (does it seem to anyone else like you have to update the stupid things every twenty minutes or so?). I feel like I cheated a little on the books I finished. They were relatively short (around 200 pages), and had a lot of pictures and block quotes.

In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton discusses how a secular society can benefit from certain aspects of religious culture, establishments, and art. As modern society moves further from religion, de Botton talks about the various elements of religion- art and architecture, the social acts of charity, rules for behavior, forgiveness of human frailties, etc.- and how they can benefit a secular culture without requiring belief in a god or gods. It’s an interesting read, though sometimes it reads like de Botton assumes that non-religious people have somehow lost the ability to appreciate religious art or traditions, and so he can come off as a little arrogant.

The Book of Hygge discusses the Danish notion of hygge, which roughly translates to the quality of coziness. It’s a trend that blew up, as far as I can tell, last fall and winter and had people curling up with fluffy blankets and hot chocolate while reading books by candlelight. At its core, its a notion of living that helped (and helps) the Danes survive their long, dark, freezing winters. The Book of Hygge isn’t really a how-to book for the lifestyle. It’s more of an extended definition as it relates to things like wellness and the home. I almost think that you could check out a few blog posts (like this one), apply those concepts to whatever seems clever to apply it to, and just skip the book unless you’re really into photographs of fluffy towels and bread.

The Architecture of Happiness is another title from Alain de Botton in which he discusses how the architecture of our homes, offices, and cities as wholes affects our well-being. Unified, beautiful architecture helps makes us happy. He provides examples like London’s Bedford Square, Parisian residential streets, and places where modernist architecture was designed to seamlessly fit in with centuries’ old structures without losing out on the features of either old or new buildings. At the other end of the spectrum, ill-planned structures such as the giant apartment blocks favored by slumlords and Soviet city planners incite despair and destroy communities. I liked this book more than Religion for Atheists– there was more wit and fewer pretensions- but de Botton still seems to be looking down from his (arguably well-conceived) tower as he explains to us little folk down below what the Grand Architectural Concepts are all about.

My current reads:


Margaret of Anjou,
aka, Trinity (because it apparently needs two titles, just to be confusing) is the second book of Conn Iggulden’s ‘Wars of the Roses’ books. It picks up about a year and a half after Stormbird leaves off. I was initially confused at the start of the book, as it introduces a bunch of new characters, families, and conflicts. I think, though, that I might have been less confused had I not started reading it while waiting at a mechanic’s shop for one of my car’s tires to get fixed with the movie Bridesmaids blaring on the TV. Maybe I caught it at the wrong part, but I didn’t think ti was a very funny movie..

The Red Magician is about a little Jewish girl named Kicsi who lives in a Hungarian village, just before the outbreak of WWII. A magician comes to town with a prophesy of doom and seeks to protect the village, but is thwarted by the town’s rabbi. Then the Nazis arrive and change Kicsi’s world, and she must learn to survive as the battles between good and evil and the Old World and the New World rage around her.

Brief Gaudy Hour is a book I discovered while looking for historical fiction titles about Anne Boleyn for Danielle over at Books, Vertigo and Tea. I’d never heard of it or the author, Margaret Campbell Barnes before. Fortunately my public library had a copy available for download, and I dove right in. The prose is a bit old-fashioned (it was originally published in 1949), but once I got used to it, I was taken in by young Anne’s charms. It opens when she is eighteen and just starting out in the world of court intrigue in both England and France. She’s only a little naive and learns quickly, taking youthful pleasure in her ability to charm men. Margaret Campbell Barnes did not add any portentious elements to her story, but simply let events unfold through Anne’s eyes.

I don’t know how much time I’ll have to read this weekend. My plans changed overnight, so I’ll be doing a lot more driving than I anticipated. If the weather stays nice and everyone stays healthy, though, it should be a fun few days!

Stormbird (The Wars of the Roses #1)

17830079Stormbird (The Wars of the Roses #1)
by Conn Iggulden
Historical Fiction
482 pages

From Goodreads: King Henry V – the great Lion of England – is long dead.

In 1437, after years of regency, the pious and gentle Henry VI, the Lamb, comes of age and accedes to the English throne. His poor health and frailty of mind render him a weakling king -Henry depends on his closest men, Spymaster Derry Brewer and William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, to run his kingdom.

Yet there are those, such as the Plantagenet Richard, Duke of York, who believe England must be led by a strong king if she is to survive. With England’s territories in France under threat, and rumours of revolt at home, fears grow that Henry and his advisers will see the country slide into ruin. With a secret deal struck for Henry to marry a young French noblewoman, Margaret of Anjou, those fears become all too real.

As storm clouds gather over England, King Henry and his supporters find themselves besieged abroad and at home. Who, or what can save the kingdom before it is too late?


I’ve been searching for an historical fiction author whose books I can sink my metaphorical teeth into (as opposed to literally throwing them at the wall) for some time now, and have mostly come up short. Sharon Kay Penman started out great, but Falls the Shadow got so choppy I abandoned it just under two-hundred pages from the end, Helen Hollick’s The Forever Queen suffered from too many POVs crammed into the opening few chapters, and don’t even get me started on Philippa Gregory. There have been others through the years, but I don’t remember authors’ names or book titles, as they were largely forgettable tales. Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon stories are well-written and memorable (I read The Last Kingdom earlier this year), but I haven’t felt like I need to sit down and devour the series asap to find out what happens.

So I was starting to despair of ever finding an historical fiction author whose books didn’t annoy me in one way or another. Enter Conn Iggulden.

Who hasn’t heard of the Wars of the Roses, whether it’s because that’s a darned catchy name for a decades long series of civil wars, or because you’re a history nut who can name every little political player in the whole conflict? I tend toward the latter, because history is awesome.

Stormbird begins early in the reign of Henry VI, who ascended the throne in infancy after the death of his martially-minded father, Henry V. Sadly for England, the younger Henry is hardly like his father. Weak in both mind and body, Henry VI (just Henry from here on) prefers to spend his days in prayer, leaving the ruling of the kingdom to other men- specifically to his spymaster, Derihew Brewer, and William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. The two men walk a delicate line, as the Duke of York leads a power faction, and it takes very little effort to sway Henry’s opinion one way or another. So to try to wrest all control away from the Yorkist faction, Derry and Suffolk put together a plan to marry Henry to Margaret of Anjou, a French princess who is related to King Charles of France.

There is little room for error, though, and once it is discovered that lands held by the English will go back to French rule upon Margaret’s marriage, chaos ensues. Thousands of English families are forced off their lands in France. Many rebel, and King Charles’s response is to raise an army that will sweep every Englishman away from French soil.

Meanwhile, back in England, the treaty that turned over those initial territories has proven to be politically disastrous for Suffolk, though Margaret herself has suffered little from xenophobia, and indeed cares greatly for her new country, and especially for her husband, Henry, whose mental and physical health are still in decline. Though she is only fifteen when she’s crowned Queen of England, she quickly learns how to navigate the intricacies of politics and proves to be a fierce defender of her husband’s crown.

Her strength- and the crown’s- is put to the test, though, when Jack Cade leads a peasant rebellion to London itself. Stoked by widespread anger from rampant injustice, poverty, and the loss of the French territories, Cade’s army threatens to shake England apart.

This is, of course, a simplification of the events of Stormbird, and if you’re a fan of Shakespeare, English history, or both, the plot will sound very familiar, as the dynastic struggle is the subject of this historical plays, Henry VI, pts. I and II (beautifully executed in the Hollow Crown series produced by the BBC). There are, of course, a lot of differences, one of the primary points regarding the relationship between Suffolk and Margaret of Anjou. Shakespeare casts Margaret as a villainous, scheming, adulterous woman seeking power for herself and eventually for her son. In the plays, she has an ongoing affair with Suffolk, who is also a villainous figure.

Iggulden’s depiction of Margaret, I think, is more true to history. While it’s true that Henry was not in France for the initial marriage ceremony, and that Suffolk stood in his place, that alone doesn’t mean that he and Margaret were lovers. It just means that Margaret’s wedding was a little weird, and not where she expected it to be. Iggulden portrays the relationship as friendly, as they traveled together back to England, and I would daresay that she would have been inclined to favor Suffolk, given that he was a close adviser to her husband-to-be.

Above all, Iggulden’s portrayals of all the characters, whether they’re royal or lowborn, treat them like human beings, with a range of thoughts, feelings, and desires. No one here is specifically written as a villain, except perhaps the Duke of York (though he generally comes off as frustrated as to what is happening to his country), or even as specifically good. Everyone has nuances and even moral people can do bad things.

The prose is strong, as well. At points where some authors are prone to sweeping descriptions or over-the-top sentimentality, Iggulden keeps it simple and direct with elegantly crafted writing that keeps you in the story without becoming distracting in itself. He also manages to give the book a sense of history without lecturing the reader (or having one character ramble on to another about things they should both already know). King Charles might mention the ‘disaster at Agincourt’, or an English Duke might look at a cardinal and think, ‘he’s also the one who sent Joan of Arc to the pyre’, but that’s it. If you don’t know what Agincourt or Joan of Arc are about, you’re going to have to look them up, because the characters aren’t going to tell you.

And I suppose that’s one of the strengths of Stormbird– the fact that, while the characters have a place in our history, they didn’t know what their eventual fates were going to be during their lifetimes. Maybe they knew they would have a place in great events, but they did not know the effects their actions would have on history. There is, I think, a propensity for authors and filmmakers to place a great emphasis on a character’s destiny, as though the fall of Richard III or the ascension of Elizabeth I were fated to happen, and nothing could stop them. But at the time, those outcomes were not guaranteed. A minor twist of fate could have had Richard III winning the Battle of Bosworth, not Henry Tudor, and Elizabeth I would never have existed. Iggulden does not fall for that, though, and Stormbird makes you feel like anything could happen, even if you already know what happened.

I will definitely be looking for the rest of the books in the Wars of the Roses series. If they’re anything like Stormbird, they’ll be fantastic reads, too.

Falls the Shadow

falls the shadow coverFalls the Shadow
Sharon Kay Penman
580 pages

From Goodreads: This is Simon de Montfort’s story—and the story of King Henry III, as weak and changeable as Montfort was brash and unbending. It is a saga of two opposing wills that would later clash in a storm of violence and betrayal, a story straight from the pages of history that brings the world of the thirteenth century completely, provocatively, and magnificently alive. Above all, this is a story of conflict and treachery, of human frailty and broken legends, a tale of pageantry and grandeur that is as unforgettable as it is real….

 


I was honestly excited to start this book. As I am an incurable Anglophile and history nut, historical fiction appeals to me at pretty much every level, and as I’ve heard nothing but good things about Sharon Kay Penman’s writing, I thought this would be a match made in book heaven.

It started out that way, with beautifully written character studies and the historical facts laid out clearly, without resorting to one person reciting facts to another (that the second person should have already known to begin with, making said person look entirely stupid. I’m looking at you, Philippa Gregory). The first half of the story progressed at a good pace, where historical facts and figures were explained in a clear fashion that didn’t leave me confused as to who did what and, even better, in an age where everyone seemed to have the same name, Penman gives them all nicknames based on their actual names so I wasn’t left wondering, ‘which of the five Eleanors are we talking about now?’.

So it was a great start and I raced through the first half. The problems started about halfway through. Because about twenty years had passed in the story, the orignal characters’ children became players in their own right and greatly increased the book’s cast, leaving less and less space for each one to assert his/her own point of view, as Penman switches from perspective to perspective, finding it necessary to cover virtually everyone at one point or another, pointing out their strengths or flaws and what they felt about siblings or spouses. This was, sadly, often to the detriment of the plot.

The story is based on real events, and I know that there was a lot going on during the thirteenth century, and that fans of historical fiction set in England will likely know what was going on, but the fact that Penman often glosses over major events is extremely annoying to me. For example, there is one point where Simon de Montfort spends a lot of time arranging a delicate and clever political maneuver, which Penman discusses in detail, only to undo it all in the course of a couple of sentences when another character arranges to have those knights meet with the king in another town altogether, forcing them into an awkward choice which, unable to choose between the factions, meant they all just stayed home. That’s how much effort was put into undoing a delicate plot point that Penman herself had spent many, many words putting together.

Ultimately, reading Falls the Shadow started to feel like I was watching a video that keeps skipping. You’re watching along, then it buffers and skips, and then proceeds to do so every ten seconds so that, while you can get a sense of the story, it feels disjointed and jars the senses.

I read 400 out of the 580 pages, but ultimately decided that the narrative was too scattered, and that I had lost too much interest to put up with it for the last 180 pages. I will certainly give Penman another try, but Falls the Shadow goes to the Did Not Finish list.