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!

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.

12.6–Matched

Matched by Allie Condie is an interesting story that I enjoyed reading, but it is by no means creative. In fact, it seems to be almost a carbon copy of The Giver, just updated for the 21st century. The technology is definitely more advanced, and there is the added detail of the romance, rather than a relationship between an old man and a young boy. But the similarities are too many for this to be considered a unique novel.

Cassia is a teenage girl living in The Society in a time not given to the reader. The novel opens with her Matching Banquet–the night on which she will discover who The Society had decided is her perfect marriage partner. Cassia’s situation is unique in that her Match is someone she knows; it is her beat friend Xander. But that night when she is alone, another face appears on her screen as her perfect match–the handsome and quietly mysterious Ky. After this revelation, Cassia must decide if she will follow the will of The Society or break all the rules and attempt to be with a person who is not considered her match.

Aside from the romance and Cassia’s struggle to decide who her man should be, the book is basically The Giver. There is a government that decides who owns what, who marries whom, how many children one may have, etc. each house is identical. Clothes are identical. There are “ports” in each house which resemble the screens in 1984, and they are a way for the government to monitor people and communicate with them.

Cassia has always believed that the government makes no mistakes and knows exactly what is best for everyone. When she sees the mistake made in her Match he begins to doubt their wisdom and her perfect world begins to crack. Unfortunately, Cassie is not a very well written character and the reader struggles to empathize with her dilemma. I wish I’d been able to like her more, but she just wasn’t deep or fascinating enough to make me care.

Despite its lack of creativity, it was an enjoyable, fast-paced read. Despite it being a romance, I didn’t want to kill anyone like I did when I read Twilight. As flat as she was, at least
Cassia was willing to fight for what she wanted.

In summary, not the most brilliant novel I’ve read, but I liked it enough to finish the series.

12.3–Fly By Night

Here’s another young adult novel for you, folks, although I wouldn’t recommend this one very highly. It has its shining moments, and there were definitely things I enjoyed about it, but it’s not something I’m demanding everyone put on their reading lists.

Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge tells the story of young Mosca Mye, a twelve year old orphan who runs away from her abusive uncle, but not before she burns his mill to the ground.  She throws in her lot with a man named Eponymous Clent, a wordsmith and spy.  Her goose Seneca also tags along for the ride. All books in this fictional kingdom that do not have the stamp of approval from a guild known as the Stationers is banned.  In the capital city, Mosca and Clent are caught up in a war between the Stationers and another guild known as the Locksmiths.  They are the two most powerful guilds in the kingdom, and Mosca must work hard to uncover the truth about the plot to control the ruling figure.  It is a world in which no one can be trusted, for everyone is either a spy or has his own hidden agenda.

The novel is supposedly loosely based on 17th Century England, though there are no references to anything resembling true historical names or places.  The whole novel is a little bit whimsical, and if my description of the plot seems a little confusing and difficult to follow, that’s because the plot itself is confusing and difficult to follow at times. Everything is a little disjointed, and my mind struggled to comprehend all that was happening. The names, as well, are baffling and difficult to keep sorted.  Altogether I felt that the novel was a disorganized mess.

That said, I will assert that it was creative.  My favorite thing about the novel is its floating coffee shops. On the River Slye, which I presume represents the Thames, there are coffee houses which dock along the bank, cutting loose and sailing up and down river when necessary.  Because they technically exist outside of the bounds of the city, they are controlled by neither the Stationers nor the Locksmiths, and are therefore the origin for any rebellion that may be in the works.  Most of the best scenes in the novel take place in these coffee shops, and they are what redeemed the novel for me a bit.

I had trouble deciding whether Mosca was an agreeable character or not.  She is fractious, stubborn, willful, and crude, but is also motivated and guided by a higher morality than many of her fellow characters.  She is nowhere near a dainty lady, though she idolizes one, and though this is rather charming in itself, it does seem to be the pattern for a large group of young adult novels these days. The tom-boyish runaway girl is no longer a unique concept, and Mosca joins an ever-growing parade of the same cookie-cutter character.  I wish that this author, or any author, would do something a little unique with their female heroines for once.

As I said, I don’t recommend this very highly. For those actively seeking something to read, feel free to pick it up. For those whose reading lists are as long as mine, you aren’t missing much by passing on it.