Author: Anne Easter Smith
Genre: Fiction (Historical / English / Medieval)
Publisher/Publication Date: Touchstone (5/3/11)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Did I finish?: Yes!
One-sentence summary: The life of a young noblewoman who witnesses some of the most tumultuous events in medieval Europe, from Jeanne d'Arc to court intrigue around Henry VI to her own family's claim to the English throne.
Reading Challenges: British Books, Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: Yes. While it does have the 'chopped head' figure so common on historical novel covers, the layout is interesting and enjoyably accurate to the novel! The castle featured is Raby Castle, where the heroine Cecily was born, and the falcon on the woman's arm refers directly to a handful of scenes from the novel.
I'm reminded of...: Margaret George, Anya Seton, Alison Weir
First line: A scream pierced Cecily's dreamless sleep.
Did... I find the wealth of extras helpful?: YES. There are thirteen pages to help the reader along: a glossary, maps, genealogies, and a who's who that I found increasingly valuable as the novel went on.
Did... I still go a little cross-eyed at the enormous cast of characters?: YES, not helped that everyone has one of the same five names.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: I think most historical fiction fans will want to give this a try; at nearly 500 pages, it might be worth a splurge to have this meaty beast with you to read at your leisure. (Book Depository has it at about $11US.)
Why did I get this book?: Having loved Pale Rose of England, which had a new-to-me historical setting, I was very eager to go a bit earlier and explore another unfamiliar era. Plus, I've heard how fabulous Smith's other novels were and was excited to see for myself.
Review: When I was growing up, my mom wanted to be a young adult historical novelist but was stymied by history: women were married at a young age or historical costume styles were far racier than we modern folk are comfortable with (her example was something like ancient Egyptian women had their breasts exposed, if I recall correctly). So she never wrote her novel but as a result we both immensely enjoy a historical novelist who wrestles well with historical accuracy and modern reader sentiments.
Anne Easter Smith is really astounding at this. Her novel opens with Cicely as a young girl -- six -- and she manages to convey a child having a childhood rather than living as an object being kept to, essentially, later trade. Even if, in this era, the idea of childhood didn't exist, Smith's articulation of what Cecily's young life could have been like put me as a reader both at ease and unease. Time was spent fleshing out the enormous cast of characters and so, as Cecily ages and her life begins to get more and more complicated, the reader is invited to become embroiled in the drama of the times.
And talk about dramatic times! In addition to the usual kind of court intrigue one expects of this type of historical novel, Smith inventively incorporates other notable events. Cecily's obsession with Joan of Arc and her trial reminded me of myself and the ways I can get hooked on CNN and other news outlets come some disaster or notorious crime trial. It made for a heroine who felt very real and easy to relate to, someone I could imagine as a friend.
At more than 470 pages, this hefty novel allows for detailed exploration of the events in Cecily's life. At times, I confess, I was a little overwhelmed by the amount of people I had to keep track of but Smith tries very hard to make each character memorable if they're significant to the story -- although occasionally I found that made for some flat secondary characters (I found myself often thinking, 'Oh, so this is cranky Anne' more than once.).
Readers familiar with the Lancaster/York Wars of the Roses will likely enjoy this thorough novel and those new to this era will get an education. This is the kind of classic historical novel I think of when I enthuse about the genre, one that places the reader square in the time and makes otherwise shadowy historical figures feel compelling and real. Despite whatever small struggles I had keeping track of people, Cecily's story kept me engaged and when I reached the final page (with its satisfying nod to an event from the beginning of the novel), I felt a pang of bittersweet sadness at having to say goodbye to her and her family.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Queen by Right to a lucky reader! Just leave a comment on this entry to be entered. For another entry, comment on my Q&A with author Anne Easter Smith. Ends 6/10, US readers only.