Books I’ve Read This Week: Royal Historical Fiction

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 19: Royal Historical Fiction: In the past week, I read six historical novels about royalty. There are certain monarchs who have become iconic figures in popular culture such as Queen Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette and are therefore the subject of dozens of historical novels. I focused on novels about historical figures that have not been dramatized as frequently, choosing novels set in Spain, Russia, Sweden and India as well as England. After six historical novels, I wrapped up the week with a couple of fun books, classic and modern. Here are this week’s reviews:

#127 of 365 The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile by C.W. Gortner

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 53 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: May 17-May 20, 2018

Review:  I enjoy C. W. Gortner’s novels, especially The Last Queen, because he brings a fresh perspective to historical figures and events. Queen Isabella of Castile is an excellent subject for a historical novel because her life and reign were filled with dramatic circumstances and interesting personages. I enjoyed the first half of this book because Isabella’s path to throne was filled with danger and sudden changes in fortune, which provide the novel with dramatic momentum.

In contrast, the second half of the novel moved very quickly through the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, Isabella’s first meeting with Christopher Columbus and waging war against the Moors, leaving out other key events or mentioning them in passing. I thought Ferdinand was introduced too early as part of a fictional teenage romance. It would have been more compelling to have Isabella come of age and develop her own ideas without his influence before their marriage.

While Ferdinand appears in the novel too early, Isabella’s intent to wage war against Granada emerges too late in the narrative, and appears to be Ferdinand’s idea, when it was in fact her intention from the time of her marriage as stated in the Marriage Conditions of 1469. The book ends abruptly, acting as a prequel to The Last Queen (a novel of Isabella’s daughter Queen Juana la Loca). An engaging read but I did not always agree with the author’s pacing and approach to dramatizing Isabella’s reign.

#128 of 365 I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Hardcover, 352 pages

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Date Read: May 21, 2018

Review: I Was Anastasia has a fascinating premise, following the story of the most famous Anastasia claimant backwards and the Russian Revolution and imprisonment of the Romanovs forwards, with the stories meeting in the cellar room in Ekaterinburg where the Imperial family was murdered by Bolsheviks in 1918. The chapters concerning the claimant are interesting as they reveal a broad range of colourful characters who become involved in her quest to be recognized as Anastasia including Rasputin’s daughter Maria, and a Romanov cousin, Princess Xenia, who became an Oyster Bay socialite after the revolution.

The chapters concerning the actual Grand Duchess Anastasia and the imprisonment of the Romanovs in 1917 and 1918, however, contain numerous historical inaccuracies, which are infuriating for readers who have read extensively about Anastasia and her family. The author notes in her afterward that she is not particularly interested in royalty and considers Russian names confusing. These biases are evident in her portrayal of the Romanovs. There are violent scenes involving the Czar’s daughters prior to the murder of the Romanovs that did not actually take place but are presented as historical, even in the author’s afterward. If these scenes had been depicted as the claimant’s imaginings, which differ from the historical record, they might have made sense in the novel but as a dramatization of the actual Anastasia’s experiences, they are completely inaccurate and come across as gratuitous sensationalism.

I Was Anastasia has an interesting structure and approach and would have been a much better novel if the author had focused entirely on the claimant and her imagined memories instead of providing an inaccurate and sensationalized portrayal of the imprisonment of the last Romanovs.

#129 of 365 Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: May 21-23, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 19 hours and 52 minutes

Review: My favourite novel in Alison Weir’s 6 Tudor Queens series so far. Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife is presented as quiet and contemplative but not a passive figure, as she is often described. Her rise from country girl to maid of honour to queen consort unfolds amidst Tudor intrigue and an engaging cast of characters including the royal family, ladies-in-waiting, ambassadors, political figures and the ambitious Seymour family. The first two books in the series, which focused on Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn respectively, sometimes became mired in the details of Henry VIII’s first divorce but Jane’s perspective provides a sense of how individual courtiers responded to these circumstances.

Jane sometimes compromises her principles to maintain her family’s place in the Tudor court hierarchy and her experiences reflect the difficult choices made by many of her contemporaries at Henry VIII’s court as the king initiated religious and political upheaval. Weir provides a richly detailed narrative, contrasting Jane’s comparatively modest family home, where all the women of her family joined in the labour of kitchen and the herb garden, with the glittering Tudor court where established and rising families jostle for precedence. Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen is an absorbing read and I am looking forward to the publication of the next novel in the series, Anna of Kleve, next year!

#130 of 365 Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: May 22-25, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 400 pages

Review: The Rani of Jhansi is an ideal subject for a historical novel, a female ruler with a dramatic life and times who deserves to be better known around the world. This novel is not about the Rani, however, but one of her female guards, Sita. A lot of the book is devoted to court intrigue, conflicts and friendships between the women in the Rani’s household and Sita’s concern for her family. The Indian Rebellion of 1857, where the Rani was one of the key leaders, goes by quickly in the last 70 pages of the novel. The book is engaging and readable but it seems like a missed opportunity to focus on the Rani and the Rebellion.

#131 of 365 The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Borrowed from one my students

Format: Hardcover, 416 pages

Date Read: May 25, 2018

Review: This book was recommended to me by one the students in the history of Imperial Spain course that I taught earlier this year. The novel is an absorbing murder mystery set in rural Aragon during the reign of King Philip II amidst the preparations for the royal wedding of the king’s daughter, the Infanta Catalina, to the Duke of Savoy. The novel is well researched and captures the atmosphere of the sixteenth century Spanish kingdoms when the Inquisition was scrutinizing the behavior of Conversos (descendants of Jewish people who had converted to Christianity) and Moriscos (Former Muslims and their descendants who converted to Christianity) for signs of their former religious practices.

The mystery itself was less compelling for me than the setting and historical context but the author maintains a consistent pace and I was interested in Magistrate Mendoza’s investigation to the very end. The novel provides a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of King Philip II and I would have liked to have read more scenes set at the royal court.

#132 of 365 The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 56 minutes

Dates Listened: May 24-25, 2018

Review: A fun, farcical novel about a missing atomic bomb and a plot to kidnap the King of Sweden. The last six or seven chapters are especially funny as the calm King and anxious Prime Minister are kidnapped by an anarchist in 2007 (who has himself narrowly survived falling through a roof into a pillow distribution centre in a condemned building). The anarchist, and his much smarter identical twin brother who does not legally exist, have accidentally come into possession of a South African atomic bomb mailed in error to Sweden. Like the twin, the bomb also does not legally exist.

There is amusing repartee between the King and the Prime Minister such as “Fredrik Reinfeld finished pondering&he said to his king,”I have been thinking.””Great,”said the king,”That’s the sort of thing we have Prime Ministers for, if you ask me.” The kidnappers travel to a farm owned by a potato growing Countess who arranges an impromptu dinner party because “no-one should have to abdicate on an empty stomach” and then the Israeli secret agent arrives…

At the centre of the novel are the twists and turns in the life of Nombeko, who goes from latrine emptier to jewel thief to the brains behind a nuclear facility to the king’s unlikely rescuer. The author provides an affectionate portrait of King Carl XVI Gustaf who is unflappable throughout the kidnapping (even fixing a tractor) and always has the common touch. An enjoyable and sometimes hilarious read. I look forward to reading other novels by this author.

#133 of 365 Queen Lucia by E. F. Benson

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Format: Paperback, 187 pages

Date Read: May 25, 2018

Review: “My dear, it is just busy people that have time for everything,” declares Lucia to describe her wide array of hobbies and interests including taking up yoga. A 1920s social satire set in a British resort town with lots of quirky characters. The novel was written in the aftermath of the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and Lucia uses over the top analogies about social disorder whenever there is a threat to her leadership of seaside society such as “Bolshevism was in the air!” A fun read but I prefer the recent BBC TV series.

#134 of 365 Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 25 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Listened: May 27, 2018

Review: I always enjoy David Sedaris’s essays, especially his reflections about his childhood, family, travel and learning languages. This collection is not as funny as the classic Me Talk Pretty One Day but it is more entertaining than the recent Theft by Finding. There is some Canadian content as Sedaris gives a reading at an Indigo bookstore in Toronto then makes a disastrous appearance at Costco, where he is ignored by passing shoppers.

My favourite chapter was about Sedaris’s travels in Hawaii where the holiday exactly matches the brochure in contrast to Normandy, which is not as picturesque as he expects. I could have done without most of the opening chapter at the creepy British taxidermist shop though Sedaris’s observations about gift giving at the beginning of the book are very funny.

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