12.18–The Lady of the Rivers

I am such a huge fan of Philippa Gregory. I just think she is the bee’s knees.  The Lady of the Rivers is the third book in The Cousins’ War series, which follows the War of the Roses. This novel is the prequel to The White Queen–the first of the series.

Jacquetta is a descendant of Melusina, a river goddess, and therefore possesses special gifts–namely the second sight.  An early experience with Joan of Arc and her untimely demise gives Jacquetta a life-long fear of using these gifts, though she is occasionally ordered by her sovereign to do so.  Her marriage to the Duke of Bedford and her early widowhood yield her great privilege throughout her life, but also put her in great danger as England’s political cauldron boils over into chaos.  Standing by her side through all of these troubles is her second husband Richard Woodville, who she married for love, and her innumerable children.

Philippa Gregory does extensive research on all of her novels and this one is no exception.  Jacquetta was a real woman whose life occurred right at the beginning of the War of the Roses. Gregory became fascinated by this relatively overlooked woman and expounded on her story.  As ever, I am astounded by Gregory and her capacity for creating beautiful stories out of minor characters from history.  Jacquetta is an easy heroine to love.  She does all she can to protect her husband and children during this dangerous period in English history.  She is a close friend and confidant of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI.  Henry comes to the throne as a boy and never quite becomes a man. He is always naive, and Margaret is no help in that vein.  Jacquetta and Richard attempt to herd them in the right direction, but the monarchs’ petty quarrels with the Duke of York evolve into all out war within their lifetime.  Jacquetta, thrust very close to the throne by circumstance and some family meddling is caught in a vise from which she cannot escape.  Her instinct for self-preservation and diplomacy make her one of the most admirable women in the court of Gregory’s creation.  She is gentle and loving to her husband and children, and sweet to a fault with the queen.  The fact that she’s descended from a goddess and possesses supernatural powers is just a bonus.

The love between Richard and Jacquetta had me burning with envy throughout the entire novel.  As with Gregory’s other books, The Lady of the Rivers spans a very long period of time–from Jacquetta’s childhood to her twilight years.  Richard loves Jacquetta from the moment he sees her as his lord the Duke’s new bride until his death decades later. Though they spend much of their life apart, their passion never fades and neither of them strays from the other.  Each time they are separated, Jacquetta is frantic for his safety, and they fall into each others’ arms like young lovers on his return, even after she has borne him 14 children (ouch!).  In a genre in which it seems like everyone sleeps with everyone (at least according to our favorite juicy historical fiction) it is really refreshing to read about a couple that is still happily devoted to one another.

Gregory’s novels can sometimes be a bit repetitive, especially in this time period.  She does a lot of jumping forward in time, and skims over events that she deems less important to her stories.  During this war, the power switches sides a lot, and everyone accuses everyone else of treason.  Though a lot of people cry foul on each other and it can seem rather trivial and petty, Gregory does a fine job of reminding the reader that this situation is constantly life-and-death for Jacquetta and her family.  It adds tension to the story and keeps the reader engaged despite the repetition.

This is by far one of my favorite Philippa Gregory novels.  Though I try not to read books in a series right next to each other, I may have to go pick up The Kingmaker’s Daughter, just because this novel left me craving more of her writing style.  Definitely read it!

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12.17–A Clash of Kings

This novel, in case you don’t know, is the second in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.  By no means as interesting as the first, much of it feels rather like filler.  It takes a very long while for the events to get moving. For a novel that’s 969 pages long, reading through 400 pages in which mostly nothing happens is pretty difficult.  Still, the events of the latter half of the novel make pushing through the first part worth it, and I very much look forward to starting the next novel.

As ever, the story of the Seven Kingdoms is told from multiple third-person points of view, following a large number of different characters.  One of the most frustrating things about this series is the sheer number of characters (I believe I read somewhere that throughout the series of five books so far there are over 1,000 named characters).  Their names are unusual and some of them are very similar, making it extremely difficult to keep track of everyone.  At times I only followed the story based on some vague concept of a person’s character–this man is bad, this woman is benevolent, this man can’t be trusted, this one can be bought for gold–instead of attempting to memorize all the names. It helps to read the appendix at the back, and keep referring to it as the novel progresses.

I will say this for Martin: with his main players he takes a great deal of care, crafting them into multi-faceted, many-sided characters.  My favorite in this novel is Tyrion Lannister, a witty man whose lack of brawn has turned him into a clever schemer–the man who really controls the country, though from the shadows so that no one knows it. Arya, my favorite in the last book, lost most of her spunk for this one, though she gained it back at the end to reclaim her place in my heart. Sansa, whom I hated in the first novel, certainly earns the reader’s sympathy in this one, as her mad betrothed, Joffrey, abuses her horribly, both emotionally and physically.  Cersei Lannister and her son Joffrey are both evil to the core–Joffrey a spoiled, mad child who has been given a crown, and Cersei the mother who will do anything to protect her son and see him hold on to the Iron Throne.  Each of these characters, and the others, evoke specific emotions within the reader, and once the chapter ends and we don’t know how soon we’ll see them again, there is a little bit of disappointment.  I’ve considered skipping ahead to the next chapter belonging to a character I’m particularly interested in, but I know that by the time the novel gets around to that next chapter, so many things have changed that nothing will make sense.

The plot moves swiftly and the fortunes of characters change in a flash.  In this novel, as in its predecessor and presumably its sequels, nothing is certain–life or death, good or evil, victory or defeat.  Even when it looks as if a battle can have only one outcome, Martin surprises us with some new trickery.  With five kings vying for one throne, and two more self-styled monarchs eyeing the throne from a distance, there is no well-defined line in the sand, no clear hero for which to cheer.  In this, Martin creates realism far beyond what most authors will do.  These people could be walking around in an alternate universe, where fate does not always favor the noble or the good.  Though the world he created is very thorough, complete with topography, geography, history, religion, language, culture, and the previously spoken-of characters, it is this ability of his to not give us the happy ending we want that truly brings the story to life and makes it believable.

Though I did not enjoy this novel nearly as much as the first, I still had difficulty putting it down, especially the nearer I drew to the end.  The simmering pot of the Seven Kingdoms explodes into a boil, and it gets to be a very exciting read.

12.10–Fire

Fire by Kristin Cashore was fantastic in a way that only action-filled, sexually charged teen lit can be.  I read a lot of reviews that condemned the novel for being too mature for teen audiences, but I disagree whole-heartedly.  Fire is 17 year old, is burdened with more than her fair share of unusual problems, and yet suffers the same fears and insecurities as the general teenage population.

I’m getting to an ago where teen lit is a guilty pleasure.  Five years out of teenager-hood, I should be over it. But I still find myself craving it often, mostly because it is fast-paced, fun, interesting, and lacks the forced introspective depth that a great deal of adult literature writers feel it necessary to stuff into their novels. Fire gave me exactly what I was looking for in a novel.  Stuck in the middle of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I needed to find a book that would actually encourage me to like reading again. So I bought it in an Eason in Dublin, and cracked it open immediately, feeling the soothing balm of an engaging story ease my mind and bring a smile to my face.

Fire is the second book by Kristin Cashore set in the same world as Graceling (also amazing) but on the other side of the mountains in a land known as The Dells. The main character is also called Fire, so named because of the color of her hair. In The Dells there are monsters, creatures that look like normal animals except for the fact that their fur or feathers or scales are brightly and unusually colored–magenta, marigold, purple, jade, turquoise, etc.  They are also extremely vicious, and even monsters whose animal counterparts are usually very mild hunger for the flesh of humans and other monsters alike.  Fire is half monster, the result of the union of her insane monster father and one of his human sexual conquests.  She can read peoples’ thoughts and emotions, and even control the minds of weak individuals or collected groups.  She is also extraordinarily beautiful, and men often go wild at the sight of her, either with lust or with hatred.  However, she is part human, and is therefore appalled by her father’s behavior and, for most of her life before the events of the novel, refuses to use her powers at all.  As the political situation in her kingdom deteriorates, she finds herself faced with the choice of using her power to help save her country or watch as it all falls apart.  Either way she risks losing the people she loves.

Of course, being in the Graceling trilogy, there is a romance involved as well.  Fire grows up alongside her best friend Archer, who eventually becomes her lover. But though he constantly proposes to her, is jealously protective, and wants nothing more than to spend forever with her, she is never able to love him in the same way. Instead, she finds throughout the novel that a romance is blossoming between her and someone very different from Archer.  It’s quite sweet and innocent, and I fear I don’t understand my fellow reviewers who seem to thing Fire is a slut.  Yes, she sleeps with Archer.  But she’s only with two men, one of which she marries (we assume).  Except to the ultra-religious, that number (ahem, 2) is extremely low–lower than the number of lovers a lot of teenagers will have. So let’s just reserve our judgement, shall we?

I enjoyed Fire as a character a great deal.  I saw a little bit of myself in her. Extremely beautiful, plagued  by the attention of men…totally kidding.  Her fears and reservations, her insecurities–what girl doesn’t go through those things?  Despite the fact that she’s a monster and therefore not quite human, and incredibly lovely, she suffers the same things as women everywhere.  She doubts the love and intentions of others because of the power she unwillingly has over others.  She is lonely. She is faced with very difficult choices. She worries over the people she loves.  She’s tough, but still delicate enough to be feminine and alluring.  She’s loyal and protective.  And she’s interesting, because at the end of the day, her biggest problems set her apart from us regular humans, and one can’t help but compare her reactions to what oneself might do in her situation.

I wish I could do more justice to how much I loved this book. It is extremely emotional, and Cashore is adept at making the reader feel what Fire is feeling.  In the midst of tragedy, the reader is heartbroken. In romance, the reader’s heart is full and excited with the hope that maybe they’ll have that someday (or maybe they already do?).  In times of fear, the reader fears for Fire and her loved ones.  For regular Bibliography readers, this is a common theme in the blogs about books that I really love: it absolutely has to make me feel some kind of emotion. If it manifests itself physically (tears, a sigh, catching my breath, etc.) then it is truly an effective and moving piece to me.  This is one of my favorite things about this novel, and Cashore wins major points.

As I said, it’s the second book in a trilogy.  I highly recommend this book, but you will definitely want to start by reading Graceling (Book 1 of the trilogy).  Have fun and enjoy it! Great book!