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.

12.5–The Pillars of the Earth

As promised, a review on a bestseller. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is fantastic. It took me forever to read because it’s nearly a thousand pages long and I worked 12+ hour days all last week. What time I didn’t spend working I spent sleeping, so I did not accomplish much on the book. Still, I read every spare moment I had, including the ride to work and a little bit after shifts when I should have been sleeping (more).  It was fantastic, and I hated putting it down as much as I was forced to last week.

To give a synopsis is an incredibly difficult task, as the novel is long and covers almost the entire lifespan of the characters.  The entire plot is based around the construction of a magnificent cathedral at Kingsbridge Priory in England.  There is no end to the political intrigue and clerical corruption, and the lines between good and evil are very clearly defined.  William Hamleigh, the most notorious baddie I’ve encountered in ages, is an ever-present destructive force, and repeatedly obstructs the process of the cathedral and the happiness of the good characters. Among those we root for are: Prior Phillip, Tom Builder, Ellen (Tom’s wife), Jack, and Aliena.  Tom especially is a character that invites the reader to love him. He is strong and sweet and honorable, though perhaps a little too naive and trusting at times.  Ellen and Aliena are strong women who blaze their own trail, and are smarter than most of the men around them.  Jack inherits Tom’s sweetness and gentle strength, and becomes one of the most lovable characters in the entire novel.  All these characters’ stories begin apart from one another’s, and Follett slowly brings them together to entangle them irrevocably.

Follett’s characters are well developed and beautiful.  His plot is intricate and masterfully crafted.  I was disappointed, however, with the slight predictability of it.  Please do no misunderstand. I adored this novel and wanted to read it every spare second I had, even if I only accomplished one page.  But I found myself being able to predict what would happen, or at least that something would happen.  I understand that an author must do things to keep his novel interesting–one cannot fault Follet for that.  Still, the pattern of up, down, up, down, up, down was a little too formulaic and regular.  I found myself frustrated that the characters I loved could not simply settle down and find happiness.  None of the evil-doers were given what they deserved! I wanted William Hamleigh to die painfully and shamefully, but this hope was repeatedly foiled.  Follet kept me on the edge of my seat, but half the time it was out of anger and the desire to see the enemy brought low.  I have mixed feelings about these emotions he evoked in me.  One the one hand, they made me mad, but on the other, they kept me engaged in the story and enticed me to learn more. Perhaps this is the mark of a truly masterful author?

Another thing that did very much impress me was his research and knowledge of the time period about which he is writing.  I learned so much about medieval life, architecture, and engineering.  I learned what I flying buttress is! I had no idea that early cathedrals were thick, stocky structures with tiny windows.  Nor did I ever think about the origins of stained glass.  Sounds nerdy to get excited over such things, perhaps, but I’ve never denied the fact that I’m a nerd.  Any new opportunity to learn something about history or the development of humankind and its technologies, especially if it’s in the form of narrative, is welcome to me.  I truly enjoyed this book not simply for its plot, but its heavily researched descriptions and its ability to teach me something new.

If you can take on the daunting task of reading through 983 pages of minuscule text, I highly recommend this book. It has a little bit of everything: history, romance, drama, violence, corruption, and the enduring promise that good will always trump evil, even though the odds seem impossible and hope is often lost.  A great read, and well worth its popularity.  Thanks to Lauren for bumping this up to the top of my reading list!