Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Queen’s Lover by Vanora Bennett — 624 pgs

Book CoverCatherine de Valois is just a disheveled and neglected child in the crumbling French court of her father, the mad King Charles VI, when she first meets Owain Tudor, messenger for the king of England, Henry V. Though the two are very fond of each other, Catherine is still just a child, and of royal blood, while Owain is a disgraced Welshman working off years of servitude in the English court. Soon fate tears them in opposite directions. Through the ruination of her royal family and the fall of France to England’s forces, Catherine is dangled in front of Henry V as a proposed bride to unite both kingdoms. But Catherine’s brother Charles is still fighting against the English crown and will not let France go lightly. With the help of the scheming Queen Isebeau, Catherine makes her move against Charles and becomes Henry’s new bride, Queen of England. But life as a queen of England is not what Catherine thought it would be, and after much grief she finds herself in the middle of a royal uprising when Henry dies, leaving her infant son crowned the King of England. Though Catherine must brave these waters alone, it’s the constant presence of Owain that helps guide Catherine through her most turbulent times, and whose steadfastness and loyalty finally help her consolidate England and France into one kingdom. But it’s Catherine’s journey of the heart from caretaker of the mad King Charles to the queen who holds the heart of Owain Tudor that will leave readers restless for more in this solid and tight historical drama.

In the past few months, I’ve had the very pleasurable opportunity to read two historical novels by Vanora Bennett. The first was called Figures in Silk, and dealt with the War of the Roses, and was actually a very entertaining and thoughtful read, though I do think it suffered a bit from having a rather loose beginning. This book, however, was much more to my tastes, and I grew quickly absorbed within the pages for many reasons. I won’t attempt to compare the two books, as I think they’re totally different vehicles with very different aims, but I’m happy to say that this book was historical fiction at its very best.

Catherine was one of the most interesting characters to have read about in this incarnation, not only because the story of her life was most surprising and interesting, but because this Catherine was written with an emotional core that resonated with me personally and gave the story vivid life. She was no doubt a troubled woman. From her very early childhood, she and her brother Charles were neglected almost to the point of starvation while their wily mother kept to her rooms caught up in schemes against her older sons. Catherine’s father suffered with bouts of mental illness so debilitating that he was often shut up in private quarters, raving and tearing off his clothes. As Catherine grows older, she finally realizes just what her father is going through when she becomes his only protector and caretaker, fully realizing that France is in ruins due to the mismanagement and infighting of the royal family. Though these all sound like horrible and troublesome circumstances, Catherine remains solid, courageous and caring to the people around her. She doesn’t blame her parents for their neglect but does come to resent and accuse Charles when he goes against his royal blood. Though she is frightened, her core beliefs and resoluteness never waver.

When she meets Owain, the attraction is instant and reciprocated, but Owian, the elder of the two and to my mind, the much more pragmatic, knows they will never find themselves together. Because of the care and attention that Owian gives her, he becomes Catherine’s hero, and she doesn’t understand that he is unattainable to her. When the issue comes to a painful head, it’s Owain who turns Catherine away and directly into the path of his master, Henry V, a fact that grieves his spirit mercilessly. Though Owain goes far from her and sets a different path for his life, Catherine is his north star from beginning to end. Eventually he comes to her when she needs him most and covertly rearranges a future for her in which she can be secure and unafraid. The love between Catherine and Owain was, for me, a strong motivating force in the book. Though it was often painful and fraught with tension, there was no doubt in my mind that Owain brought to Catherine the peace and gentleness that she so desperately needed amidst a court filled with danger and trickery.

Much was made about the fall of France, not only to the hands of the dominating English, but their self-ruination at the hands of the vicious Duke of Burgundy and other opposing forces. This comes into play intently when Catherine agrees to marry King Henry V and unite the two kingdoms. It troubles her to no end that the royal blood, which she believes to be sacred and holy, will be tainted and that she will be leading her country to ruin and enslavement by the English. Catherine views the English court as very different than the French court in its heyday. The idea of a French court that was the most holy and sacred in Christendom was interesting to me because I’m mostly a reader of English history and have never really pursued France in my studies. There’s no doubt from Bennett’s descriptions that the court of France was once elegant and urbane, beautiful and blessed, but I came to see that although the English did much to damage the country and bloodline, it really started long ago in the French court’s power plays and political manipulations. It was a very insightful and instructive narrative that fully revealed the weaknesses and the strengths of each side and player.

When historical fiction is this good, it leaves me hungering for more opportunity to relish and revel in it. I think Bennet’s take on this story and her ability to capture all the fragility and strength of each of the major players was not only expert, but damn entertaining as well. This is the kind of book I love to read because it’s not only overtly and tightly suspenseful but tender and touching as well. If you think the very unusual story of Catherine de Valois sounds interesting, I would urge you to give yourself some time to read Bennett’s excellent and expert rendering of the life of a very human and regal queen and the man she raised from far below to stand beside her.

Author Photo About the Author

An award-winning journalist, Vanora Bennett is the author of Portrait of an Unknown Woman and Figures in Silk. She lives in North London with her husband and two children.

Find out more about Vanora at her website.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, March 8th:Unputdownables
Wednesday, March 9th:Books Like Breathing
Thursday, March 10th:Rundpinne
Tuesday, March 15th:The Lost Entwife
Wednesday, March 16th:Luxury Reading
Monday, March 21st:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, March 23rd:Life In Review
Thursday, March 24th:Book Reviews by Molly
Tuesday, March 29th:Hospitable Pursuits
Wednesday, March 30th:Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, March 31st:Katie’s Nesting Spot

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Wonderful thorough review! I have never gotten into the Tudor craze, but people sure do love that period for historical fiction!

Geosi Reads said...

Great review. I really did enjoy your thoughts here. And the book length... (WOW!)

bermudaonion said...

I've read one historical fiction surrounding royalty and it didn't do much for me. I was thinking it was the time period I didn't enjoy, but maybe I need to try a different author.

Anonymous said...

"historical fiction at its very best" - now that's really saying something! When I read great books like this I usually find myself craving more books set in the same time period, you know what I mean?

I'm so glad you enjoyed this one. Thanks for being on the tour!

TheBookGirl said...

Historical fiction is a favorite of mine, although I haven't read alot in the "royal" vein...This time period and main character is one that I am not familiar with; your enthusiastic review makes me think it might be a good one to try. The only thing that stops me now is the length...I need to set apart some time to tackle a 600+ page book :)

Audra said...

Great review -- so thoughtful and inviting -- and I'm practically drooling over this book! (Also, I love the name Vanora.)

nomadreader said...

I admit: books over 500 (okay it's closer to 400 pages) scare me. It always seems like such a commitment. But when they're good: it's heaven. I'm adding this one to my list for post-Orange Prize reading!

Ana S. said...

Like Jill I don't quite get the Tudor craze, but I love a good HF novel regardless of the period. And this definitely sounds like one.

Darlene said...

LOL - it looks like your a week or two ahead of me on all these tour books. I just popped down to the end to see what you thought- I'll be back at the end of the month after I read it and write my review.

Suko said...

The author's skill sounds great, and Catherine sounds like a complex and compelling character. I enjoy historical fiction, especially of this high caliber. Thanks for a wonderfully thoughtful review, Zibilee.

Unknown said...

great post.

I woke up Sunday a.m. to find my blog, my 500 plus followers, my 100plus author interviews, and my 200 plus reviews gone. Blogger gave no explanation, but I think the account was hacked. Change your password often!

I have reloaded the interviews and reviews, plus redesigned the blog. But if you could, please hit the "follow" button so I can reclaim the fellow bloggers I miss. I'm still following you, as my account remained--thank goodness!

Thank you!
Kelly Moran

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I'm adding this one to my wishlist. It sounds wonderful.

I loved this sentence in your review: "Through the ruination of her royal family and the fall of France to England’s forces, Catherine is dangled in front of Henry V as a proposed bride to unite both kingdoms."

Great review!

Jenners said...

As usual, you wrote the most detailed, thoughtful and lovely review. I'm always so impressed with you!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

So glad that you read another book by this author, and that you thought it was an even better read. It's a good thing it was, with the size of this chunkster!

I used to read a lot of historical fiction, but I've gotten away from it in the past few years. I'm not sure I'm up to something this length, but it's hard to ignore an endorsement like you've given.

Aarti said...

Whoa, I'm reading a book set in the same period about Catherine's cousin, Charles d'Orleans! It's a pretty old book, translated into English, called In a Dark Wood Wandering. It's very dense, but enjoyable so far. There was a LOT going on, wasn't there? Hard to keep all the characters straight! In a way, people historically have been just as self-serving as they are today, except that today they can exert so much more control over so many more people..

Trisha said...

I don't read much historical fiction, but this one sounds really interesting!

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I've been really enjoying historical fiction lately, so I'm going to have to add this one to the ever growing list. There's just something about historical fiction that can really pull you in.

Jesse said...

This review is great! The book sounds wonderful--I actually wrote a paper on Catherine de Valois, Henry V, and Shakespeare while pursuing my degree in English. Very interesting :)

Unknown said...

Oops! You already reviewed The Queen's Lover, sorry! This book sounds fantastic! I don't know much about the Tudors but Catherine is fascinating.
Loved your fantastic review and will be listing this book on my TBR!

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