Book Review: The Trip to Jerusalem by Edward Marston

The third book in the Nicholas Bracewell series by Edward Marston, The Trip the Jerusalem ups the ante by becoming darker and more twisted in terms of plot and character motivation. So much so, it was hard to put down.

The Trip to Jerusalem (Elizabethan Theater, #3)The novel opens with London in the grip of plague, so Lord Westfield’s men decide to quit London and try and earn their keep by playing at inns and country houses on the way to “Jerusalem” or York. Knowing they have to reduce the size of their company in order to make the journey viable, they make some tough decisions regarding the actors, decisions that the murder of one of the players throws into disarray.

As per usual it’s not just murder that stalks Lord Westfield’s Men, but mayhem as well as they discover that their arch rivals, Lord Banbury’s men are not only pirating their plays but managing to perform them successfully prior to their arrival at each destination. But when one of their valuable players is kidnapped, other disasters befall the troupe, and strangers join their pilgrimage, bookholder, Nicholas, requires all his intelligence and skills to outwit Banbury’s men, sort out a muddle of relationships and uncover a plot that threatens the crown.

Fast-paced, easy to read and thoroughly enjoyable (there are some laugh out loud moments) this is a terrific edition to a series that is getting better with each instalment. Part of that is because the characters are becoming more familiar and lovable (or not) but also because the language in which the tales are told and the cracking dialogue is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s plays – particularly the comedies – and there’s a richness and boldness about them that’s at once familiar, strange and lovely to read.

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Book Review: The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

The latest Philippa Gregory book, The White Princess, is the fifth in her “Cousins War” series and follows the fortunes of Elizabeth of York after Richard III, her lover, has been killed and Henry VII (father of King Henry VIII) has ascended the throne. Forced to marry Henry and prove her family’s loyalty to the new dynasty, Elizabeth struggles with what’s required of her. Comparing her husband to Richard, she finds him wanting – and with reason.

As the first of the Tudors and a foreigner in all but name, Henry has to prove himself worthy of the crown – in terms of his leadership but also his blood. There are those loyal to the House of York who perceive him as a usurper and for the duration of his reign, plot to overthrow him. Claimants in the form of the princes in the tower (Edward and Richard – Elizabeth’s younger brothers who disappeared, believed murdered by Richard III) crop up everywhere – particularly Richard – and folk rally to their side. Scotland, Ireland, France – all collude to overthrow the king. Thus, Henry, raised abroad and under the thumb of his ambitious mother, Margaret Beaufort, sees threats and enemies everywhere, including in the shape of his beautiful wife, who is also the heart of the York clan. This affects not only his relationship with his wife and children, but with his court and people.

Covering at least a dozen years of Henry’s reign and Elizabeth’s marriage to him, I found Gregory’s interpretation of Henry’s insecurity and the possible reappearance of Prince Richard, the Duke of York, interesting. Told from the first person point of view of Elizabeth, you get the sense of strong female bonds, of what women were forced to endure and how often they had to bite their tongue or compromise their morals for their own sake and that of those they love and seek to protect. Elizabeth lacks her mother’s fire (perhaps she observed and learned), but does retain an inner strength in Gregory’s rendition. Though, there were many times you wanted to slap her. How she could love a man like Henry – selfish, needy, paranoid and a “mummy’s boy” beggars belief – especially in the way he is represented in this novel.

That was the least attractive aspect of this book – the portrayal of Henry. He had no redeeming qualities whatsoever – insightless, fickle, demanding – a complete arse, actually.

Nonetheless, Gregory does have a compelling writing style and even when you’re most fed up with characters and the repetition of phrases and ideas continues (occasionally too much and this is a flaw in the book), you are drawn into this world of religion, politics and royalty, and the burgeoning romance at its centre, and it’s Elizabeth who takes you with her on a journey into the privy rooms, court and bedrooms of the greatest in the land. The words unfold, poetic at times, sharp at others, and yes, repetitive too, but Elizabeth’s world and the pressures under which she must operate and find her place are well drawn.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I have some of the others and that’s because there was a sense in which Gregory kept telling the same story over and over, emphasising the same characteristics and foibles and concerns of the main individuals as well. There wasn’t so much character growth in this novel as diminishment. That being the case, it was hard to invest in them. Knowing the history and the conclusions to the story of great historical figures does not take away from the reading pleasure of historical fiction, on the contrary, it can enhance it as you seek to uncover how the author reads the times and people involved, the hues in which she paints them. Whereas Gregory has been unsurpassed with some of her books, in this one, she is – perhaps aptly – too black and white – thus the White Princess fades into a snowy backdrop that, ultimately, disappoints more than it gratifies.

Nonetheless, I did mostly enjoy the book and will look forward to the conclusion.

Rated 3.5 out of 5.

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Book Review: The Kingmaker’s Daughter, Philipa Gregory

I really enjoy Philipa Gregory’s books, especially those that cover the “War of the Roses” when the Houses of York and Lancaster and people with close ties of kinship to these great people jostled for power and the English throne.

The Kingmaker’s Daughter is the story of a woman who is often dimmed by the brightness and strong personalities of those who surrounded her, Anne Neville, the youngest daughter of the great warrior and “kingmaker” the Earl of Warwick. In this book, Gregory sets out to tell her tale, from a first person point of view, and accord the young woman who commenced as little more than a pawn in her father’s political games, to become, albeit briefly, the Queen of England, some agency. There’s a sense then in which Gregory is using historical fiction to accomplish revisionist and feminist history and, in that, she succeeds.

The problem with this book, for me, was twofold: firstly, I had not long read Sharon Kay Penman’s magnificent The Sunne in Splendour, another well-researched and beautifully detailed account of both Edward and Richard’s reigns – a period Gregory also covers. In Penman’s book, which is at least twice the length, Anne features strongly and sympathetically. She may be quiet and susceptible to other’s manipulations, but she’s also kind, intelligent and capable of making decisions. She’s a fully rounded and realised character – when rarely disappoints you because you understand her motivation and the context in which she behaves. Compared to Penman’s novel, in particular her portrayal of Anne Neville, Gregory’s doesn’t stack up so well. Anne comes across as weak, ineffectual, whiny, and a bit two-dimensional and very predictable – beyond women’s social roles and limitations in that period. Often her behaviour is inexplicable and it’s hard to escape the notion that thoughts and actions are being shaped to match history in ways that don’t always stay true to the character being created.

Secondly, in this novel, the other characters are far more interesting and engaging than mousy Anne. Contrasted to the splendid and at times diabolical Elizabeth Woodville, King Edward’s queen and her mother, Jacquetta, never mind her elder sister Isabel, Anne is a poor second best, despite being the main character. Her readiness to believe those who shouldn’t be trusted seems to serve the story and this interpretation of history more than it does logic. When she has the occasional nasty thought about someone or wishes ill upon them, it doesn’t appear to be in keeping with the woman the reader has had access to since childhood. It’s hard to explain without giving away plot spoilers.

But kudos to Gregory for offering a different interpretation to well-known historical events, such as the changing faces on the throne, the wars, the alliances, the internment of the princes in the tower, and the swiftly changing politics throughout this period. In keeping with her series, she eludes to the Rivers’s connection with the goddess Melusina and their supposed “magic” powers/use of witchcraft. Again, I didn’t enjoy references to this nearly as much as I did in the other books in this series such as Lady of the Rivers and The White Queen.

I found the first part of the book to be slow and ponderous, even though I love this period but Gregory is very skilled at giving details of the time without being obviously didactic. The second half of the book was a much better read and even a real page-turner, as events leading up to Richard taking the throne mean a fast pace is established and maintained and the machinations of the nobles come to a head. Knowing what happens doesn’t spoil it; there’s a certain pleasure to stacking up a good fictive interpretation against known facts

Overall, this is a better than good fictive version, despite my reservations, that history buffs and those who like Gregory’s books will appreciate.

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