Saturday, April 9, 2011

Scandalous Women in Fiction: TO BE QUEEN

Author:  Christy English
Publisher:  NAL
Pub Date:  April 5, 2011

From the back cover:  Taught by her father, the Duke of Aquitaine, how to be powerful in the midst of ruthless politics of the court, Eleanor learned at an early age to inspire love and loyalty in the people around her.  Those lessons serve the fifteen-year-old well when - after her father's sudden death - she is crowned Duchess of Aquitaine and becomes the most eligible, sought-after woman in France.
Enamored of the young and beautiful Eleanor, King Louis VII claims her as his own, but the newly crowned monarch is easily manipulated by the Church and therefore bound to a way of life Eleanor does not believe in.  Trapped in a loveless marriage and met with opposition at every turn, Eleanor fights to dissolve her estranged union with Louis and return to Aquitaine. But Eleanor is soon charmed by the English upstart Henry of Normandy.  If she can find the strength to leave her homeland behind, she may finally win the passion she has longed for and the means to fulfill her legacy as queen.

My thoughts:  Eleanor of Aquitaine has long been a heroine of mine, I find her endlessly fascinating, even after years of reading biographies and novels about her.  I had the privilege of reading Christy English's debut novel, THE QUEEN'S PAWN last year, where she skillfully interwove the story of Eleanor's later years with the story of Alais, the French princess who was meant to be Richard the Lionheart's bride, but ended up the last love of Henry II instead. That novel was compelling look at the love not just between an old man for a young woman, but the love between a mother and a daughter, for Alais in many ways was more a daughter to Eleanor than her own children.

So I was beyond excited when I received my copy of English's newest novel, TO BE QUEEN from NAL in the mail.  At the same time I was anxious.  Would this second novel live up to the promise of the first? Well, I'm happy to report that TO BE QUEEN is an even better, more accomplished novel. For most of us our first memory of Eleanor of Aquitaine was a woman in her twilight years in THE LION IN WINTER.  English gives us the young Alienor (as she was known then), starting at the age of 10, as she learns the ways of statecraft from her beloved father, William Duke of Aquitaine.  By the age of 10, Alienor has already lost her mother and her younger brother who was heir to the throne. Although their deaths were tragic, Alienor has learned at a young age to supress her emotions, at least in front of those who might use them against her, seeing them as a weakness.

The relationship between Alienor and her father is so lovingly depicted that it made me long for my own father (who passed away 11 years ago).  William recognizes in his daughter that she has the temperment and inherent skills necessary to be the Duchess of Aquitaine.  Instead of remarrying so that he can have a son to inherit the duchy, William is content to leave it in the hands of his daughter. The two plot to make Eleanor not just Duchess of Aquitaine but Queen of France.  Unfortunately Eleanor's father dies before the plans are fully in place.  Eleanor, however is ambitious, and she manages to achieve her dream only to find that all that glitters is not gold.  She pays a high price for her ambition, marriage to a man who is more monk than saint.

It is a credit to English's skill as a novelist that while we not only feel for Eleanor, we also sympathize with Louis, who is ill-prepared to deal with a woman who has twice the balls that he does. We feel Eleanor's frustrations as Louis spends more time on his knees praying than he does in her bed getting a son.  "I had been a better woman, a soft-hearted woman like my sister, I would have pitied him. As it was, as I listened to his tears, and to the weakness that no prayers would free him from, I began to hate.' How trying it must have been to be married to a saint.

Although I know the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine by heart, English was still able to surprise me with some of the twists and turns of the narrative. I don't want to put up any spoilers but I was surprised at a plot twist that occured 3/4 of the way through the novel that was a game changer for Eleanor and Louis.  Even a story that I knew well, about an incident that happened while the couple were on Crusade in what would be known modern day Turkey, English managed to add nuances and details that took the story to a whole other level. She manages to keep the dramatic tension taught throughout the novel, never letting it slip once, keeping the reader turning the pages to find out just what is going to happen to Eleanor next, will she succeed in getting an annulment, will she and Louis reconcile and have a son? What about the young Henry of Anjou?

Her prose is gorgeous but not ornate or flowery. Eleanor's sister Petra is described in one scene as 'She was fifteen and as beautiful as a summer morning that has not yet felt the heat of noon.' Or this line after Eleanor explains to her young daughter Marie that she is leaving to go on Crusade with Louis. 'One must cut out one's heart to be queen.'

The novel ends on a high note, Eleanor has achieved her goal of being free, as she makes her way back to the greatest love of her life, not Henry II or Richard the Lionheart but to the Aquitaine. I was very happy with the ending, although it left me wanting more. What adventures await Eleanor next? That to me is the mark of a satisfying story.

My verdict:  A highly enjoyable, thoroughly satisfying journey through the early years of Eleanor of Aquitaine's life.


Louise said...

Eleanor has been my favourite historical woman ever since I discovered her more than 20 years ago. And my favourite part of her story has always been that difficult marriage to the monk-king Louis. (Dare I say parts remind me of my own story?!)
Thank you for sharing this new book with us - I for one can't wait to read it.

Vol said...

Christy is a talented writer! Btw, I was the 500th follower of your blog!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for following the blog, and Christy is a most talented author.

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