Friday, February 10, 2012

Queen Hereafter

"Refugee. Queen. Saint. In eleventh-century Scotland, a young woman strives to fulfill her destiny despite the risks . . .

Shipwrecked on the Scottish coast, a young Saxon princess and her family—including the outlawed Edgar of England—ask sanctuary of the warrior-king Malcolm Canmore, who shrewdly sees the political advantage. He promises to aid Edgar and the Saxon cause in return for the hand of Edgar’s sister, Margaret, in marriage.

A foreign queen in a strange land, Margaret adapts to life among the barbarian Scots, bears princes, and shapes the fierce warrior Malcolm into a sophisticated ruler. Yet even as the king and queen build a passionate and tempestuous partnership, the Scots distrust her. When her husband brings Eva, a Celtic bard, to court as a hostage for the good behavior of the formidable Lady Macbeth, Margaret expects trouble. Instead, an unlikely friendship grows between the queen and her bard, though one has a wild Celtic nature and the other follows the demanding path of obligation.
Torn between old and new loyalties, Eva is bound by a vow to betray the king and his Saxon queen. Soon imprisoned and charged with witchcraft and treason, Eva learns that Queen Margaret—counseled by the furious king and his powerful priests—will decide her fate and that of her kinswoman Lady Macbeth. But can the proud queen forgive such deep treachery?"

Why are all blurbs so inaccurate these days? I guess not too inaccurate, just...intentionally misleading on one or two points.

Another Scotland novel, and this one a historical fiction piece to boot. Margaret of Scotland is a new heroine for me, and one I may choose to read more about from other authors. Susan Fraser King's novel is a tight, well paced, well written work that left me wanting more...just not from that same author. One gets the feeling that Ms. King does not like Malcom Canmore and so is unable to render him clearly. Instead she sketches a bear of a man and pushes him off to the side where he can do little harm and she is not obligated to make him into a hero for anyone.

Margaret herself is a difficult woman to like in this novel. No, better said she is a difficult woman to love. One can like her, as the protagonist Eva does, for her brief moments of intelligence and goodness. But she is incompletely drawn. Rather than a living woman, the author gives us a holy statue, somewhat wooden even. Her saintly ways (holy anorexia anyone?) and sharp perfectionist temper are not balanced by a sympathetic look into her heart. Indeed, the author begins the novel allowing us to see into Margaret's thoughts, but shortly we leave them never to re-enter. It's an unsatisfied potential, and I'm sorry for it.

All of this means that what could have been a lovely trip into one of the most fabled romances of Scottish history fell short. Margaret and Malcolm have all the makings of Beauty and the Beast (as the author herself notes in her afterward), yet their relationship is a cold one here. Brief moments of closeness between the two, as seen through the eyes of a fictional protagonist, barely whet the appetite for more. The author uses Eva as protagonist to avoid trying to write through the voice of a saint. I can't help feeling Margaret would have made a much more interesting sole protagonist. Neither can I shake the notion that this author did not like Malcom and was too afraid to humanize St. Margaret to give their story the best telling. Ah well. At least Ms. King made wise plot decisions which cut down the timeline and make the book a smoother read than pure history would have allowed.

Rating: Three kilts and a bottle of Scotch. I'm glad I read it, and now I need to find another book about this woman.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy

"Set in Scotland and Iceland in the 1950s and '60s, The Flight of Gemma Hardy—a captivating homage to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre—is a sweeping saga that resurrects the timeless themes of the original but is destined to become a classic all its own."

I'm leaving out the bulk of the blurb there since if you've read Jane Eyre you know how this story goes. And while I love Bronte's book, I actually picked this one up for the setting since I'll be visiting the Orkney Islands in a few months.

Luckily, the setting is wonderfully rendered. Settings plural, I should say, since the novel travels all around Scotland before taking a trip to Iceland and back. Margot Livesey creates a lovely atmosphere in each of her various settings, including Gemma's stay on the Orkney Islands. Without getting bogged down in descriptions, I felt myself surrounded by the sea, listening to the calls of birds and seals, and feeling the cold wind pushing my back from the cliffs. Truly, well done.

The author unabashedly uses Jane Eyre as template for this novel. However, it was a bit like reading the same classic plot with all new characters. Mostly the wrong characters, unfortunately. A few of the lesser figures were given nice backstories and modern updates that seemed to work. Mirriam (aka Helen) has asthma and an actual personality in this version, and Nell is much more enjoyable than Adelle ever was, with a more heart-wrenching history. Mr. Sinclair, on the other hand, is nothing like the brooding, passionate, tormented hero that was Mr. Rochester. Instead he's a claustrophobic banker who says very little and spends virtually no time with the heroine before falling inexplicably in love with her, making it seem more like a rebound off of Coco (Miss Ingrid's tacky, two-dimensional update who self-destructs almost instantaneously).

Gemma herself is the worst fit of all in her role as Jane Eyre. Unlike her forbearer, Gemma does not grow from a difficult childhood into a strong woman whose integrity and belief in humanity define her. Instead, Gemma grows from a difficult childhood into a selfish, unlikeable liar with a sense of entitlement which baffles the mind. While Jane's flight from Thornfield hall is fraught with heartbreak and sacrifice, Gemma's flight is a story of selfish abandonment. Sinclair, it turns out, does not have a mad wife in the attic ala Rochester. What he does have is neither a romantic deal breaker nor any reason for Gemma to drop him like a hot potato. Drop him she does, however, and goes on to wreak havoc in the lives of several more innocent people, lying and stealing her way to "finding herself", before magnanimously forgiving Sinclair when he presents himself again in a very deux ex machina moment in the last chapter. That last chapter, by the way? Horrific. Slap-dash, void of atmosphere, climaxing in one of the worst speeches I've yet read from a main character. Basically, she wants to be treated like an adult. She wants to act like a spoiled, selfish child of course, but be treated like an adult. Okay, sweetie. Welcome to prison. It's where adults who do the things you did end up.

Rating: Two stars. One for the ocean birds and one for the secondary characters like Seamus and Ross.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Red Queen

Heiress to the red rose of Lancaster, Margaret Beaufort never surrenders her belief that her house is the true ruler of England and that she has a great destiny before her.
Married to a man twice her age, quickly widowed, and a mother at only fourteen, Margaret is determined to turn her lonely life into a triumph. She sets her heart on putting her son on the throne of England regardless of the cost to herself, to England, and even to the little boy. Disregarding rival heirs and the overwhelming power of the York dynasty, she names him Henry, like the king; sends him into exile; and pledges him in marriage to her enemy Elizabeth of York’s daughter. As the political tides constantly move and shift, Margaret charts her own way through another loveless marriage, treacherous alliances, and secret plots."

The actual summary for this book is about five times the length of what I've cut and pasted up there. Gives you an idea about just how long and involved this book is. Historical fiction, honey, what can I say?

I will say this, it was less sexy than The Other Boleyn Girl that's for darn sure. It helps that the protagonist here pretty much spends the entire novel wanting to be a nun, so there's that. It also had a lot less intrigue than Other Boleyn, which means it was harder to get through.

What I loved about this book is that even though the protagonist is an egotistical brat and master manipulator, Phillipa Gregory totally had me routing for the Red Queen all the way. It's written in first person narrative style, which should make it difficult for readers to get a clear picture of the heroine. Gregory managed it deftly. You know from the very beginning that you are reading from the perspective of a woman who could give Malificent a run for her money, and yet you like reading her. You want her to win. When she falls, you are not only disappointed for her, you're angry right along with her as though your pride has also been wounded. When she triumphs, you want to stand looking haughtily down at enemies now vanquished. This is what I imagine it would feel like to read from the perspective of the villainess.

I also loved the love stories. Yes, there were multiple. Some predictable and others not. One in particular, with her second husband, is bitter sweet and understated. Again, Gregory shows her talent in getting us to see  Margaret not only through her own eyes but through those of her aging, gentle second husband who is wiser than Margaret gives him credit for and loves her much more than she deserves.

I did not love how action free the novel was. Margaret eventually became the king's mother, but her contributions to the cause didn't amount to much more than getting pregnant, marrying some dudes, and writing a few letters. For the greater portion of the book it felt like the action was happening off stage somewhere. And that's probably how it was for Margaret. Her power came not from herself but her husbands and sons who did all the manoeuvring themselves. The book is a window into the impotence of being a woman during those times, when girls are not much more than heifers sent to breed by the men who own them.

I would not read this book again, but then I can't really think of any historical fiction novel which I would read again. I would, however, totally love to hang out with Margaret and let her be witchy to me. So there's that.

Rating: Two stars, my gentle lords and ladies faire.