In addition to the reviews I do on this blog, I've also been doing some reviews for The Historical Novels Review. Here are a couple that appeared in the recently released August 2006 issue. (Reviewers there have a word limit, so you'll find these reviews more concise than many on my blog.)
The Last Queen
C. W. Gortner, Two Bridges Press, 2006
The Last Queen is the story of Juana “the Mad” of Castile, daughter to Isabel and Fernando and sister to Catherine of Aragon. Spanning the period from 1492 to 1509, The Last Queen is a gripping story of passion, intrigue, and betrayal.
The novel is narrated by Juana herself, looking back at her past from a span of decades. Gortner’s choice of narrative styles was a good one, for it allows the reader to experience events as Juana experiences them, without knowing whom can be trusted. The final betrayal of Juana, shocking to her, is even more shocking to us.
Juana here is not a madwoman, but an isolated, proud, and increasingly desperate one who is as determined to claim her throne as others are to keep her off it. Her story, which in less skilled hands could have been a dreary, didactic tale of male oppression and female victimization, is saved from being so by Juana’s voice, one that is candid, dry, sharply observant, and totally lacking in self-pity.
Gortner avoids falling into “historical novel speak,” rendering his dialogue in modern English peppered with the occasional Spanish phrase. The novel reads quickly, and although the events going on around Juana are complex, Gortner finds a happy middle ground between overwhelming readers with too much background information and bewildering them with too little.
Readers who appreciate author’s notes will find an informative one here, though I would have found it more helpful if Gortner, having told the reader that he took certain liberties with characters, time, and place, was more specific as to what these liberties were. This single quibble aside, this was an exceptionally good read about an intriguing, wronged woman.
Plain Jane: A Novel of Jane Seymour
Laurien Gardner, Jove, 2006
Young Jane Seymour is stunned when she overhears her parents discussing her future: as they consider Jane too plain to attract a husband, they will send her to a nunnery—at least when they can find one that won’t demand too high an offering. Jane vows to prove them wrong about this bleak prospect. She does so, spectacularly.
Unlike the earlier novels in this series, where ladies in waiting are major characters, Plain Jane focuses on Jane. Gardner’s Jane is an opportunist in the positive sense of the word, able to seize upon what life offers her and to make the best of it, whether it be an invitation to join the court or a chance to marry the king. The reader can’t blame her for pursuing the latter option, for the Anne Boleyn portrayed here is thoroughly disagreeable, sometimes to the point of caricature. Henry VIII, by contrast, is more complex: kindly to Jane most of the time, he is capable of turning viciously on her when she seems to him to be meddling in his affairs.
The writing style here is somewhat choppy. There are long stretches of one- or two-sentence paragraphs, which I found distracting. More problematic was the fact that Gardner at times carries the theme of plainness versus beauty too far. It seems simplistic, for instance, to ascribe Anne Boleyn’s downfall to her being so “deceived by her long reign of beauty” that she fails to understand Henry. On the whole, however, I found this novel to be an engaging portrait of a determined woman.