Friday, April 2, 2010
Scandalous Book Review and Giveaway: The Queen's Pawn by Christy English
What it's about: At only nine, Princess Alais of France is sent to live in England until she is of age to wed Prince Richard, son of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Alais is an innocent pawn on the chessboard of dynastic marriage, her betrothal intended to broker an uneasy truce between the nations.
Estranged from her husband, Eleanor sees a kindred spirit in this determined young girl. She embraces Alais as a daughter, teaching the princess what it takes to be a woman of power in a world of men. But as Alais grows to maturity and develops ambitions of her own, Eleanor begins to see her as a threat-and their love for each other becomes overshadowed by their bitter rivalry, dark betrayals, conflicting passions, and a battle for revenge over the throne of England itself.
Set in the years 1169-1173, the book is told in alternate chapters between the two women, starting with King Louis of France informing Alais of her betrothal to Prince Richard. Alais is naturally treptidatious, she's heard rumors that King Henry II of England is the devil, and that his children are the devil's spawn. When she arrives in England, she and Eleanor showly come to know each other. In Eleanor, Alais finds the mother that she never knew, and for Eleanor, Alais is more like her daughter than the daughters of her own blood. When Eleanor brings Alais home from the convent where she has gone until she's old enough to marry, Alais and Richard fall in love at first sight, but Henry also wants Alais. When Alais has her illusions shattered by Eleanor and Richard, she makes a choice that has devastating consquences.
It's no secret that Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of my favorite historical women, and English captures her perfectly. Eleanor is a loving mother, but also a shrewd political operator, moving people around like pieces on her chessboard (lovely scene where Eleanor teaches Alais how to play chess). Eleanor has some regrets for her actions, but would still do the same again. But the real revelation in the book is English depiction of Alais. In her hands, Alais is a complicated, headstrong, loving beauiful young girl, who is at once a mature woman and at the same time a child in many ways. Some of the loveliest scenes are when Alais meets Henry for the first time in the stables where she has gone to play with the puppies. Because of the way he is dressed, she thinks he's a stablehand not the King of England. The alternating chapters work so that just as you find yourself learning towards one woman or the other, you read the next chapter and your point of view on the situation changes.
English's take on Richard is intriguing. On the surface, he's the same Richard that we know and love from THE LION IN WINTER and other novels, devoted to God and war, but English shows a softer side to him in his relationship with Alais. Historians are divided on whether or not Richard was gay, bisexual, or neither and English has come down squarely on the straight side. I totally bought her version of Richard.
English bumps up Alais' age for the novel and moves the dates of her affair with Henry a few years earlier to coincide with the final rift between Eleanor and Henry, and the start of the conflict with his older sons. According to Wikipedia, she was born in 1160 which would have made her only twelve at this time. In the novel, Alais is older when she starts her affair with Henry. Still there was a part of me that was a bit queasy at the idea of a 14 year old sleeping with a man who was almost 40. I had to remind myself that this was not unusual at the time. Henry VII's mother, Margaret Beaufort gave birth to him when she was 13, after being married to Edmond Tudor who was in his 30's.
I highly reccomend this book. English deftly brings to life one of the most intriguing women in history, and her times to life. It will be hard for readers not to sympathize with both women, particularly Alais. As I was reading the book, I couldn't help casting the movie version. I see Toby Stephens as Henry, Saoirse Ronan as Alais or Romola Garai, and Harriet Walter as Eleanor. Perhaps Rupert Grint, who played Ron in the Harry Potter films, as Richard.
I'm giving away a copy of Christy's book to one lucky winner. Just leave a comment along with your email address between now and April 7th to win. This giveaway is only to readers in the United States.