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.

12.12–Shaman’s Crossing

I just realized that I’m only on my 12th blog of the year. Kind of sad considering how many books I read last year. I will try to be more on top of both reading and blogging.

The novel about which I post today I picked up in the airport as I was leaving Belfast for Barcelona.  I felt a desperate need for high fantasy that was nearly unquenchable the entire time I was in Ireland.  Unable to find a book quite small enough to carry about with me, I settled on Shaman’s Crossing because Robin Hobb was a name I knew from working in the bookstore. Sadly, it was not at all the fantasy I desired.  Having my high expectations dashed by the book I choose seems to be a common theme these days. Still, it wasn’t bad and it certainly wasn’t boring.

Hobb’s novel tells the story of a boy named Nevarre, who has known his destiny from the moment of his father’s promotion to noble status. As a second son, he is destined for the King’s cavalla (the cavalry of the nation) and a glorious future as an officer in the military.  But his father’s well-intentioned hiring of a savage instructor to give Nevarre’s military education a (somewhat unfair) boost results in a change to Nevarre’s character that haunts and hounds him for the rest of the novel.  He is possessed by an old spirit that tugs him against his loyalties and his destiny.  It sounds as though the reader should have a clear idea of which side of him they’d like to win, but in reality I was very torn. I felt, almost, that I was rooting for the wrong side at all times.

Hobb’s novel has an interesting and somewhat unique plot, though the style in which it’s written is somewhat generic and dull.  There is not much about her writing style or word choice to latch on to.  She tells the story and that’s that.  The cast of characters that she creates, especially Nevarre’s roguish cousin Epiny, is varied and well-rounded, with plenty of heroes to encourage and villains to hate. Nevarre’s patrol-mates have a lot of learning to do over the course of the novel, and they each deal differently with the suffering inflicted on them by the older cadets in the academy.  Hobb has a decent grasp of human psychology, and the myriad possible ways different people can react to the same situation.  Though the novel is ultimately about Nevarre, she has a very large group of characters to develop and maintain, and she does this very well.

Epiny is in a class of her own. By far my favorite character of all, she is everything a proper Victorian lady is not.  She is loud and out-spoken, spoiled, flighty, flirty, and a dabbler in the occult arts.  This practice is encouraged by her mother, who sees it as a way to court favor with the Queen, and despised by her father as a dangerous phase that could get his senseless daughter in trouble. Despite the fact that everyone views her as unruly, stubborn, and somewhat airheaded, Epiny proves that she has both a sharp mind and genuine conjuring powers. In a book that can at times be very heavy, dark, and unsettling, Epiny is usually the lighthearted comic relief that always comes at much-needed moments.

Being a book that is almost 600 pages long, a detailed account of the plot would be too onerous. All I’ll say is that, of course, Nevarre’s path goes wildly off course (isn’t that always the way of it?) and he must use everything he’s learned in his short experience to defeat both corporeal and phantom enemies.  It is sluggish at times, but for the most part was an entertaining read. If you’re looking for a novel to read on your vacation this summer, this one is interesting enough to keep you piqued and long enough to last you a whole trip.