As an historian, it is no surprise that I love historical fiction. I love how easy it is to learn about the past and the life it gives to well known characters of our past. I particularly enjoy reading about periods I know little about as once I have finished I will go and look up the actual events and learn more. It is safe to say I’m happiest when reading stories set in the past, even when reading fantasy I prefer it to be set in some feudal land. I love Kings and Queens, and battles with swords/axes/arrows, not guns and cannons. Here are a three I have really enjoyed in the past year.
Captive Queen by Alison Weir
Captive Queen has to be one of my favourite historical fiction novels. It follows the story of one of England’s most fascinating Queens, Eleanor of Aquitaine, as she ends her marriage with Louis VII of France and marries the future Henry II of England. Her story is one of power, lust and betrayal. From a young age, Eleanor was the heir of the wealthy Duchy of Aquitaine and when her greatly beloved father died she became the most eligible woman in the Continent. She was intelligent, witty and understood the power of culture and art in court life. As such, she was not an equal match with Louis and their marriage was staid and lifeless. This novel opens with her meeting Geoffrey of Anjou, the patriarch of the Plantagenet dynasty, and his son, Henry FitzEmpress, heir to the English throne. This was a good place to start Eleanor’s story as she lived a long, full life, and to begin at her childhood would merely have served to add unnecessary length to an already hefty book. By starting when she makes her life-changing decision to end her first marriage, Weir ensures that the story covers the most interesting and most controversial aspects and events in her life. I really enjoyed learning more about Eleanor in this format as it is far easier to digest than non-fiction. Especially on rainy days when your brain just wants to escape. Alison Weir is a well-known historian and has written many non-fiction texts on the Medieval/Renaissance periods, including one dedicated to Eleanor, so we are in safe hands in regards to the accuracy of location/certain events in her story. Of course, as it is fiction and very little evidence remains today on Eleanor’s life and thoughts, Weir has to fill the blanks with her own version of events but it is reassuring that she has strong logical reasons to believe what she writes. Expertly written, it really is a joy to read. She really brings these historical figures to life, with scenes set in castles with roaring fires and opulent feasts, it makes a great autumnal read!
Labyrinth, by Kate Mosse
This is a stunning story of Alais Pelletier du Mas and her journey to discover the truth behind the Grail and the Labyrinth. Set in the castle fortress city of Carcassonne and spanning generations, Mosse weaves storylines easily but simply, so the reader never loses sight of the plot. The narrative is slips between Alais’ story in Thirteenth Century France and Alice Tanner, a modern day woman brought to France to receive inheritance gifts from an unknown family member, who is quickly tangled up in a murder investigation after discovering two skeletons in a cave whilst volunteering at an archaeological dig. This story stayed with me a long time after I had finished it and is set during a time I knew little about. Some of the historical events that unfolded in Labyrinth shocked me and I have since made an effort to discover more about what happened. The Fourth Crusade against the Cathars was horrific, and I am ashamed to say that I would not have been aware of extent of the genocide had I not read this. That is the beauty of reading historical fiction though; it introduces you to a period, describes some key events and leaves you wanting more. This fits the bill magnificently. It was heartbreaking and profound; I cannot recommend it enough. I have a full review of Labyrinth here.
Stormbird by Conn Iggulden
Stormbird stylistically is a first person narrative, including chapters from various characters, telling the story of the infamous Wars of the Roses. This type of narrative is particularly effective at drawing readers into the action and immersing them fully contextually and emotionally. By opening the story at Edward III’s deathbed, Iggulden emphasises to the reader the importance of the turbulent and fiery Plantagenet family dynamic. The notorious family temper plays an important role in the breakdown of court politics in Henry VI’s reign, a trait that ultimately led to the battles for power commonly described as the Wars of the Roses. This is a greatly romanticised term for the chaos of cousins fighting cousins, the descendants of Edward III battling it out for the Kingdom. Lancastrians vs Yorkist, Red Rose vs White Roses; that may be true symbolically, but in reality it was a huge family feud. Stormbird follows the story of fictitious Derry Brewer, the King’s spymaster, Margaret of Anjou as she prepares to leave her home country for England and Jack Cade, the leader of a popular Kentish revolt against King Henry VI, among others. The plot lines beautifully intertwine and Iggulden’s writing evokes strong feelings of frustration and sorrow from the reader at the appropriate times. It is easy to see how many became dubious about Henry’s ability to rule and why Cade’s revolt was so successful. It made me see Margaret of Anjou in a new light. She is often portrayed in a rather negative way as a pushy, outspoken wife who did not know her place, yet Iggulden depicted a powerful, in control woman who needed to protect those closest to her, and would do anything to achieve her goal. It was interesting to read Conn Iggulden’s interpretation of her motivations and see the world from her perspective rather than solely from the powerful male characters in the Wars. I was impressed by her forceful nature, and it is such a shame that as a woman she was regarded so disdainfully. I also enjoyed his author’s note which went into more detail of historical events and explained why he included Derry Brewer’s character. I felt this was a clever inclusion as it proves to the reader that the author does know and understand the period his writing is set. I did a full review of Stormbird here. Trinity, the second in the series is out now in paperback and the third and final instalment Bloodline was released in Hardback last month.