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Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

September 1151. The Loire Valley. The future Henry II and his father, Geoffrey of Anjou, are heading back north after a visit to the French court and decide to strip off for a swim on the way.
Laughing, they splashed each other vigorously, then wrestled in the rippling water.
Reading this, I wasn’t comfortable with where the scene was going.
Henry was surprised to find his father’s muscles iron-hard – not bad for an old man of thirty-eight, he thought. He had glimpsed too Geoffrey’s impressive manhood.
Now I really don’t like where this is going. Glance nervously at the next page to read:
Their horseplay abandoned
THANK GOD.

What made me suspect that an innocent swim might turn into something a little less innocent?

The previous 21 pages.

The Captive Queen begins in August 1151 in Paris as Eleanor and Louis are preparing to receive Geoffrey of Anjou. Something I remembered from When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman. The book opens with Eleanor’s POV in a very sub-Jean Plaidy style:

Thus ran the Queen’s tumultuous thoughts as she sat with the King on their high thrones, waiting for Geoffrey and his son Henry to arrive, so that Louis could exchange with them the kiss of peace and receive Henry’s formal homage. The war was thus to be neatly concluded – except that there could be no neat conclusion to Eleanor’s inner turmoil.
which makes it all the more surprising when the next sentence is:
For this was to be the first time she had set eyes on Geoffrey since that blissful, sinful autumn in Poitou, five years before.
Definitely don’t remember this from Sharon Kay Penman.
It had not been love, and it had not lasted. But she had never been able to erase from her mind the erotic memory of herself and Geoffrey coupling gloriously between silken sheets, the candlelight a golden glow on their entwined bodies. Their coming together had been a revelation after the fumbling embarrassment of the marriage bed and the crude awakening afforded her by Marcabru;
Hold that thought. More about Marcabru coming up (so to speak) very soon.
she had never dreamed that a man could give her such prolonged pleasure. It had surged again and again until she had cried out with the joy of it, and it had made her aware, as never before, of what was lacking in her union with Louis.
Right, so now she’s going to see Geoffrey again and she’s scared she’ll give herself away. But ONE PAGE LATER she loses interest in Geoffrey entirely when:
Eleanor took one look at Henry – and saw Geoffrey no more…Lust knifed through her. She could barely control herself. Never had she reacted so violently to any man.
After Bernard of Clairvaux has interrupted to tell Eleanor the legend of Melusine, which she would already know and he would know she knew, Eleanor and Henry get talking and don’t beat around the bush. So to speak.
‘Madame the Queen, I see that the many reports of your beauty do not lie,’ Henry addressed her, sketching a quick bow. Eleanor felt the lust rising again in her. God, he was beddable! What wouldn’t she give for one night between the sheets with him!
Fortunately Henry feels the same:
‘You need a real man in your bed,’ Henry told her bluntly, his eyes never leaving hers, his lips curling in a suggestive smile.
Henry knows better than to expect a slap in the face – after all, he’s heard all about Eleanor:
‘I have heard one or two things that made me sit up and take notice,’ he grinned. ‘Or stand up and take notice, if you want the bare truth! But I have been no angel myself. We are two of a kind, my queen.’
Later that night, Eleanor gazes at her naked self imagining Henry’s reaction once he cops an eyeful:
The very thought of that steely, knowing gaze upon her nudity made her melt with need, and her fingers crept greedily down to that secret place between her legs, the place that people like Bernard regarded as forbidden to the devout: the place where, five years before, she had learned to feel rushes and crescendos of unutterable pleasure
(Only it was utterable, because we’ve already been told she ‘cried out with the joy of it.’) Anyway. Remember Marcabru?
It was Marcabru the troubadour who had shown her how, the incomparable Marcabru, whom she herself had invited from her native Aquitaine to the court of Paris – where his talents, such as they were, had not been appreciated.
This seems rather surprising when we learn that he has
done what Louis never had to bring her to a climax, one glorious July day in a secluded arbour in the palace gardens.
With Marcabru banished and her interlude with Geoffrey over, Eleanor was flung back on her own resources:
Since then, she had learned to pleasure herself, and she did so now, hungrily, her body alive in anticipation of the joys she would share with Henry of Anjou when they could be together. And, gasping as the shudders of her release convulsed her, she promised herself that it would be soon.

All this by page 14.

In other words, so far this book read almost exactly like an erotic novel. Not as good as say, Portia da Costa, but a fair enough effort at a Plantagenet sex romp. The trouble is, I wasn’t expecting to read a Plantagenet sex romp. I was expecting to read a serious novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The not-particularly-well-written sex was only part of the problem. Eleanor was portrayed as someone who thought with her panties, who only considered Henry as a potential husband after jumping into bed with him. She had the sexual appetite of Judith Krantz’s Billy Ikehorn, but not the ambition. At this point, I really didn’t feel as if I wanted to spend over 450 pages with her. If this was my idea of Eleanor, I’d read Alan Savage.

I decided to look at one of the non-sex scenes (when I could find one) and see what I thought of that before giving up and returning the book to the library. I flipped 15 years ahead to 1166. Eleanor is heavily pregnant with her last child, John, and heading for Oxford when she is diverted to Woodstock by bad weather:

It was cold in the wilds of Oxfordshire, and there was a promise of snow in the leaden air. The sky was lowering, the skeletal trees bending before the icy wind.
So far so good.
Eleanor sat huddled in her litter, her swollen body swathed in furs, aware that she should find some place of shelter soon, for it could not be long now before this babe was ready to greet the world.
I thought this made her sound like a cat who’s planning to give birth in someone’s sock drawer.

At Woodstock, Eleanor notices a new tower has been built…and there’s a light at the top of it.  At the top of the tower she finds:

a pretty domestic scene. The room was warm, heated by the coals in a glowing brazier. An exquisitely beautiful young girl was sitting before a basin of chased silver, humming as she washed herself with a fine holland cloth, by the dancing light of many wax candles. She wore only a white chemise, draped around her waist, exposing her upper body. In the instant before the startled nymph gasped and covered herself, Eleanor’s shrewd eyes took in the small, pink-tipped breasts, the long, straw-coloured tresses, the firm, slender arms and the damp, rose-petal skin.
In this book, I’m not comfortable with Eleanor noticing anybody’s nipples.
This is, of course, Henry’s mistress Rosamund de Clifford. Eleanor has no idea who Rosamund is. Rosamund has no idea who she is. After a round of introductions, Eleanor gets to the point:
‘I will not beat about the bush,’ the Queen said. ‘Tell me the truth. Are you his mistress?’
As Rosamund stutters and begs for mercy, Eleanor feels ‘sick to her stomach’, ‘betrayed.’ She asks if Rosamund realises that she, Eleanor, is pregnant with Henry’s child.

I can see that given the way Eleanor is portrayed in this book, she might feel the paternity of her child requires some clarification. Anyway. While Rosamund weeps, Eleanor threatens her:

‘Do you know what I could do to you?’ Her eyes narrowed as she moved – menacingly, she hoped – closer towards the snivelling creature kneeling before her. She was filled with hatred. She wanted this girl to suffer, as she herself was suffering. ‘I could have you whipped! If I had a mind to, I could call for a dagger and stab you, or have your food poisoned. Yes, Rosamund de Clifford, it would give me great pleasure to think of you, every time they bring you those choice dainties that my husband has no doubt ordered for you, wondering if your next mouthful might be your last!’
Rosamund decides to stand up for herself.
‘My Lady will know that one does not refuse the King,’ Rosamund said in a low, shaking voice. ‘But…’ and now Eleanor could detect a faint note of defiance – ‘I did love him, and what I gave I gave willingly.’
Her words were like knives twisting in the older woman’s heart.
After Rosamund goes on to tell Eleanor that Henry stayed at Woodstock with her ‘all last autumn, winter and spring’, built her the tower and the labyrinth and commanded her to wait there for his return, Eleanor is devastated:
Like an animal with a mortal hurt, she wanted to retreat to a dark place and die…
‘Never let me set eyes on you again!’ she hissed at Rosamund, then turned her back on the girl, glided from the room with as much dignity as she could muster
and announces to her entourage that the place is:
‘…wholly unfit for habitation. Like it or not, we must make for Oxford.’ She knew had to get away from Woodstock as quickly as possible. She could not endure to share a roof with Rosamund de Clifford, or even breathe the same air. She must go somewhere she could lick her wounds in peace.
Fast forward to Oxford where, after her encounter with Rosamund, Eleanor has ‘no heart for this labour’ and ‘turned her face away’ when the child is born. However, she pulls herself together sufficiently to decide on a name for the baby:
‘…I mind me that the Feast of St John the Apostle and St John the Evangelist is in three days’ time. I shall call him John.’
Now we get some heavy foreshadowing as Eleanor’s sister Petronilla thinks that:
what should have been a happy occasion was, for some reason beyond her comprehension, a very sad one.
And sure enough, two years later:
Try as she might, Eleanor still could not bring herself to love him, this child conceived in sorrow and born in betrayal. His existence conjured up too many memories of that terrible Christmas-tide, when she had gone to Woodstock and come face-to-face with catastrophe and ruin, and then endured that bloody, agonising travail at Oxford. No, John was the fruit of a marriage in its death throes, and sometimes she could not bear to look upon him. His nurses had the care of him.

Which is obviously why he turned out as badly as he did. The implication is that if Eleanor hadn’t stopped at Woodstock on that snowy night, Magna Carta might never have happened

Andrew C. Wheeler, ‘The Birth and Childhood of King John: Some Revisions’ (from Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons, 2002**), discussing the placement of Henry and Eleanor’s young children at the abbey of Fontevrault, makes several points. Firstly, ‘there seems no reason to doubt that it was Henry’ who made the decision to send the children to Fontevrault. Secondly, ‘Nothing suggests that [Eleanor’s daughter, also called Eleanor] ever lived at Fontevraud.’ Thirdly, sending John and his sister Joan there would make them more accessible to their parents, not less: ‘the central location of Fontevraud would make it accessible to both Henry and Eleanor, he from Normandy or Anjou, she from Poitou, for such parental functions as they chose to fulfil.’

Weir, however, has Eleanor racked with guilt at her decision to consign her children (including Eleanor) to Fontevrault, despite the fact that John and his sister Joan are so young at this point (1168) they couldn’t possibly travel with the court anyway. Weir’s biography of Eleanor came out before Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady was published, so she couldn’t have taken it into consideration when writing her biography, but, considering the lack of evidence about Eleanor, wouldn’t it have made sense to catch up on recent research before writing her novel? Instead, Weir has chosen to fill the gaps with all the old cliches about Eleanor, many of them based on either medieval misogyny or Victorian ideals of womanhood. Her admirers will perhaps argue that this makes for better fiction. In this case, I found that it didn’t.
***
I borrowed this book from the library.

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Don’t stare too long at that cover, those eyes will give you the willies. Sooooo, I’m going my merry way checking the HF forum at PaperbackSwap and stumble into one about a book on Edward II I’d never heard of – Gaveston – which focuses on his notorious relationship with Piers Gaveston. The only setback is it’s published by the Gay Men’s Press Collection. Yikes!

Anyhoo, one of the gals who’d just read it decided to pass it along to me and I’d heard that Hunt’s historical facts were spot on so I was game to give it a whirl. Although, what was billed as a love story was IMHO more of a lust story, but I only made it to page #101 so what do I know? Maybe it did get serious later on…..

Or maybe not. The book starts when Edward is a young teen and he already has a bent towards his preference to men over women by the time Piers shows up. Edward is instantly smitten and desperately in love – does Piers return his feelings or is he simply in it for lands and titles? After slogging through their *wedding ceremony* as well as Piers taking young Edward out to the stews to give him some experience with a woman (wonder why that encounter was behind closed doors without a scrap of detail but the next one where it’s all young boys we get a full blown no holds bared retelling?). Gross, gross, gross – although the book finally flew when in the midst of a battle campaign surrounded by an army the lads just can’t keep their hands off of each other.

“Piers stood in his breeches, a sight to be savoured. There was the firmness of his dark-skinned torso, and his muscular arms; the lean slender belly, the little black curls that showed about the navel. But the breeches! The breeches were tight-fitting, hugging arse and thighs to somewhat above the knee,and trimmed with orphrey, as it is called, Phrygian gold, that same rich embroidery that priests use on holy vestments. Luxurious, sybaritic, sensuous….

I licked my lips. “Unpeel, O blessed one.”

And that friends is when the book flew – although at least there wasn’t any volcano of honey :p

Edward was a simpering wimp constantly mooning over Piers (actually more over his “arse”, but you get my drift) and I just couldn’t take anymore. I guess if you are really interested in the period and can tolerate the constant sex go for it, but in the meantime Michele is next on the list, although what payback I’ll get this time has me quaking in my boots.

If you do want to read more about Edward, I highly recommend Susan Higginbotham’s excellent The Traitor’s Wife. I appreciate an author who can take such a controversial topic and handle it with good taste and delicacy and just shut the bedroom door. I hear the author has written several other *historical fiction* books but I think I’ll pass.

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Full disclosure – Egypt is not a period I have much interest in, so my knowledge of it is pretty sparse. I doubt I would never have looked into this book outside of the fact that one of my Amazon friends reviewed it and received a bit of a slap from the author who took umbrage with her thoughts on the amount of sex in the novel:

“William Klein says:
If Tara, from Utah, disliked my novel because of an excess of sexuality, I would urge her to avoid Norman Mailer’s “Ancient Evenings.” If she wants to be a custodian of public morals, intent on policing the world of novels for unseemly references to sexuality, that is her business, but it’s not the best way to flesh out the value of a novel.”

Hmmm, wonder what the significance is for Tarah being from Utah and what that has to do with her opinons (oh I get it). I for one appreciate a reviewer letting me know if the sexual content of a book is OTT or not – all the better to make an informed reading decision. Although I forgot all about it until lo and behold a *review* shows up on Goodreads that instead of reviewing the book attacks some unnamed reviewer:

 

“They really aren’t as bad as she makes them out to be and one wonders what her agenda is. I mean, she has taken a lot of time to write all of her one star reviews.”

Sooo, at this point in time I’m fired up enough to see for myself and since the library (fools they are) had purchased a few copies I placed my hold. Big mistake. Huge. I made it to page 110 and finally had to give up. Yes the sex was bad – frankly I was afraid there was a ménage à trois coming up with the monkey but thankfully that didn’t happen. Whew!

What “done me in” was the most unbelievably bad drivel I have ever come across. Words can’t describe the simplistic silly plot that doesn’t even make sense – there is just no story or character continuity whatsoever. If it weren’t for the sex I’d recommend this for a five year old. On second thought, perhaps not.

As far as I was able to gather, the story is about Princess Ankhesenpaaten who at fifteen is set to marry nine-year-old Pharaoh to be Tutankhamun. I believe eventually when she is widowed there is a big power struggle and lots of nasty deeds and family treachery. In the first pages, The Princess is more interested in men, sex and drinking at the local tavern. She escapes from the Royal Palace and meets up with the young set (I am not kidding) and heads for the local tavern and gets royally soused and does the hurdy gurdy in front of everyone (no, I am not kidding) and incites the men to mad lust. Then there’s some kind of attempt on her life and our intrepid hero saves her and voila (!) they end up at some lake or river and do the nasty and presto-chango they’re madly in love and our snotty child abusing heroine (more on that shortly) is the sweetest thing since honey on bread. And I’ll buy that bridge in Brooklyn…..

As if bad writing and storyline wasn’t enough to send the book flying the copulating dwarfs most certainly did – let alone what our Royal Princess did to young Tut (remember now he’s just nine) when she and her handmaidens attacked him in the bedroom and raised his night shirt (Pages 31 and 32),

‘Ankhesenpaaten pulled his covering hands apart, pointed to his little peeper and filled the room with her laughter. “It looks like a toad! A dead toad!”‘
Ankhesenpaaten took hold of his peeper. She held it between her thumb and forefinger as though it was something fished from the Nile. She gave it several quick jerks. “Little toady goes Peep! Peep! Peep!”‘

 

And this is our MC who we’re supposed to care about? You remember the author’s comment I quoted earlier about “unseemly references to sexuality”? Ye gods, if that’s not unseemly I don’t know what is. Fear not, it gets worse for we’re soon introduced to her Aunt’s (auntie she calls her) pet dwarfs Pere and Renehen (pages 81 and 82):

‘His fingernails were allowed to grow long and curved so that his hands resembled the claws of a bird of prey. His cock hung between his legs like a large dark desiccated gourd….. The dwarfs faced each other and gyrated slowly…. The object of interest was the dangling gourd between Pera’s legs…..Menkhara stared at Pera’s extraordinary organ…. The room shook with roars of approval as Renehen amused the guests with one of her favorite tricks called the Kingfisher. It consisted of a running leap onto Pera’s huge scimitar cock, a performance that if improperly executed, could main one or both of the participants.’

Had enough yet? I sure have. My only question is who are those six people giving it glowing five star reviews on Amazon? We’ll probably never know but five of the six have only written one review ever and the last has written three. Get it from the library if you must, I’m glad I did. I’ll now sign off so I can wash my brain out thoroughly with soap and water.

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Despite a cover that has all the appearances of a serious historical novel, well all I can say is don’t judge a book by it’s cover . This is the first of two books Savage has written on the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and is written in the first person as an older Eleanor reflects back on her life. Just a brief run down for those not familiar with her life – heiress to the Duchy of Aquitaine, she is married to the very pious King Louis of France (he was the second son and was intended for the church until the elder brother died), they go on a disastrous crusade and after bearing only two daughters Louis has the marriage annulled and she goes on to marry the future Henry II of England, where this book ends.

Although according to the book jacket this is part of a “colourful romantic series”, I’ve got to tell you – enter at your own risk. Eleanor does it with just about everybody except for the Pope, Abbe Suger, the eunuch and a monk or two, starting from the age of twelve (!!) when her governess leads her into the arts of pleasure:

Albina had been appointed my governess following Mama’s death…….Albina had never married, but she was definitely experienced. She it was who now undertook to instruct me in the business of being a woman and the duties of a wife. Well, I can’t say I much cared for the second half of her schooling…….and proceeded to tell me the facts of life. Well! My first reaction was consternation, that anyone, and particularly any man, should be allowed – and apparently encouraged – to make as free with my body as Albina indicated and was demonstrating.”

“As to the ways of myself or my maidservants, I was not in the least curious. Albina had taught me that our desires were mutual – in fact they were happy to tell me theirs, and their various means of satisfying them, in hopes of pleasing me – but however often we romped together our conversation always returned to the same subject, that of male codpieces and what might lie beneath them and what use may be made of such a remarkable apprutenance. As may be imagined, those of my attendants who actually claimed to possess personal acquaintance with such entrancing objects were in great demand, even if I was always uncertain as to whether they should be whipped for lying or wantonness.”

And then there’s the escapade with a young page (mind you, she’s still 12/13 years old) that leaves a telling stain on her skirt and raises eyebrows in the laundry (think Monica Lewinski):

I will let you put your hand beneath my gown if you will untie your codpiece.”…… “he slipped his hand up my calf, carressed my knee, and moved it higher to my thigh…….I allowed Alfred full freedom, even to reach the silky down he was seeking…….he was full to bursting……”

Oh but we’re not done yet, let’s not forget the female bath attendants at Constantinople:

I would be lying were I to claim that I did not feel a pang, several pangs, of alarm, when these girls began soaping my breasts and buttocks, sending their hands between my legs to arouse the most intense emotions. But I recalled the old saying that when in Rome…and Constantinople was far grander than Rome.”

Her uncle Raymond (ya’ll remember Deep Throat?):

“…my uncle knelt on the bed beside my shoulders, threw his other leg across me, and kneeling astride my breasts, allowed his weapon, huge and poised, to caress my face”

I’ll spare you the rest. Whilst on crusade she encounters the twelve year old Saladin:

Saladin had me on my knees like the veriest bitch. Indeed, had he commanded me, I would have barked. Perhaps I did.”

Woof woof. On to Geoffrey of Anjou (oh my).

“Soon enough he was banging away again. Fortunately twice in rapid succession was sufficient even for the Angevin, at least in the short run….”

Although the hands down laugh out loud moments were at the end where she takes up with Henry’s mother the formidable Empress Matilda. Priceless.

Outside of the OTT sex scenes the rest of the novel is rather dry and suffers badly from the use of the first person narrative. Eleanor comes across as quite vain and full of herself and an entirely unsympathetic character. Read this one for the laughs and not for the history. I do have a copy of the second book, Queen of Love and I am curious to see what Savage does with the rest of Eleanor’s life. Wonder what she does with the Lionheart? William Marshal? Rosamund Clifford? Stay tuned….

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“The moaning ceased, and there fell a silence that howled like an
empty wind as it blew through us, changing everything,
binding us together in a massive chain without shape or
substance. Forged of grief eternal, this chain was more
powerful than any steel, for it secured us in its black claws
for all time and was never to be broken.”
p. 223 of Lady of the Roses

Howling silence? And WTF is an empty wind? Chains without shape or substance but with black claws?

The book had the usual cast for this author: angels and devils, with hardly anyone falling in between. I can’t say much more about it because I gave up about a third of the way through.

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Although I understand my ARC was an uncorrected proof, this one was supposedly published in the UK last year so you have to wonder about who on earth let this stuff get past them.

“She nodded back. Avoided Jane’s eye. ‘My lord,’ she answered, with all the poise she could manage; then, neutrally to Jane’s shoulder, aware of Jane’s hand settling on Will Hastings’ arm on Jane’s waist; of the moist, hungry look in her sister’s eyes: … ” (I think this was the day after Edward died)

“When Hastings kept his temper, Dorset, unnervingly, began to stare at him. Jutting his jaw out. Leaning forward over clenched hands. Trying to stare Hastings down; the stare of a man with death in mind; holding the eye-lock for so long Hastings had thought he might pull out a sword then and there.”

“But, quietly but firmly, he moved her back. Turned away. Reached for his buckler, with muscles taut as wire again.”

Our own 15C Superwoman: “The important thing now was to stay calm; avoid getting rattled; take one step at a time. She was managing it all so far. Having Alice and the Prattes see the Italian workers today, for instance. Tomorrow, visiting the princess and sewing in her new laces for the violet silk gown. After that, snatching another hour with Dickon on the way back. Then innocently chatting with Will Caxton at his gate about her time with the princess. It was all possible, if you kept your head. It could all work.” Whew, thank goodness there’s no kids to take to soccer matches.

Here our silk merchant Isabel is having an intimate (!!) conversation with the Princess Elizabeth who has told her she’s going to marry Henry Tudor: “She shook herself. ‘Well, so….what’s he like, your future husband?’ she said, trying to look and sound warmer without saying anything overtly treasonous”

Isabel having a conversation with R3 about the rebellion and looming battle: “She said, doubtfully, thinking of all those armies blundering around different parts of the West Country, trying to meet up. ‘Well, it seems…messy.”

Messy???? Gawd, what a mess of a book.

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Gawd, with a cover like that to start with can it only go downhill from there? I was tipped off about this *fanciful* take on Margaret of Anjou from a couple of authors well researched in all things Wars of the Roses that this book might be worth a laugh or two. Since I didn’t know when I’d get to it, I had a tip off to look at Chapter 13 and here’s what I found when Margaret is making whopee with a French General,

“For Brezé had also served in the East, in his youth, and had long abandoned the Christian way of Love. Thus he made me kneel, my buttocks locked against his groin like some bitch on heat – but this I was, at that moment – while he seemed to impale me to my very stomach. All the while his hands were caressing my breasts until he took them away to grasp my hams until we shared a mutual explosion of joy – my second of the evening – in which I cried out my lubricious happiness and no doubt alarmed my ladies in the next room.”

Queens just have all the fun don’t they? Now do I really want to go back and read the rest of this and see how truly bad it all is? Even for fun?

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