Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

It’s no secret that I felt The Other Boleyn Girl was overrated. But I requested a free review copy of The White Princess, a novel based on the life of Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) and mother of Henry VIII, because I thought I should give Philippa Gregory another chance. After all, other readers in my family enjoy her novels and I value their opinions.

It’s written in present tense which I’m not a huge fan of because I find more often than not, it comes off sounding pretentious but admittedly, this is well written and it’s the one thing I can’t criticize her for. It’s also written in first person and here again, I can’t criticize Gregory’s ability to write well in first person, but I felt like the nature of it is too restrictive, especially for this complex subject matter. However, what really let this book down was the characterization, mainly of Elizabeth.

For starters, I could not understand how she could be in love with the man who kidnapped and imprisoned her brothers and then declared them, along with herself, illegitimate so he could steal their crown. Elizabeth seems to think he had no other choice but I’m not buying this “woe is Richard” attitude. She also seems to think that if Richard had won at Bosworth, he would have married her but the fact is, he could not marry a bastard and he could not re-legitimize her without admitting that he was wrong to declare her brother illegitimate and thus, admitting that he was a usurper and not the lawful king. I could maybe excuse Elizabeth’s expectations with Richard as youthful ignorance but even her mother seems to agree Richard would have married her had he survived. So this struck me as Gregory not fully understanding the situation or perhaps just choosing to disregard the reality of the situation to suit her fanciful story. I don’t mind using a creative license in novels but it has to be believable and it’s this kind of disregard for realism that makes it difficult to enjoy. For example, I’m okay with Gregory claiming that when Elizabeth’s family took refuge in Westminster Abbey, it was in the dark, damp “crypt under the chapel” even though in reality, they stayed in the luxurious house where the Abbot lived, in his best rooms as his guest. I’m okay with that because while it’s untrue, it’s not completely unbelievable that had the Abbot not been so accommodating, they might have hunkered down in a section of the Abbey where they could secure their safety. So I’m okay with using this idea as dramatic license, but I’m not okay with things that don’t even make sense within the contexts of Gregory’s own fiction. She makes a point of showing how Henry had to legitimize Elizabeth before marrying her because a king can’t marry a bastard so why would this not apply to Richard as well?

What bothered me about The White Queen miniseries (and I suspect of the book as well, which precedes The White Princess) was the portrayal that the women involved were the true engineers of these pivotal moments in history and the men were practically just their pawns. I enjoy stories about strong, influential women in history and how they cope with the turbulent events they often get caught up in, but I feel like Gregory’s portrayal of this is very unrealistic. However, Elizabeth of York was in a very different situation than her mother had been and so The White Princess took the opposite approach and portrayed Elizabeth as a victim and pawn of Henry Tudor and Margaret Beaufort. But Elizabeth does nothing to win favors or gain influence and spends most of the book clueless and passive. Apparently, there's no middle ground with Gregory - women either engineer everything or have no influence at all. Even Henry himself, after Elizabeth responded with “I don’t know” to all his questions, appropriately tells her:
“When I think of the fortune that was spent on your education, Elizabeth, I am really amazed at how little you know.”
I realize that he suspected she knew more than she was admitting but that’s the frustration thing, with one exception, she really didn’t know anything. And while I understand why she doesn’t know anything, the fact that it’s written in first person means the reader doesn’t know anything more than Elizabeth does, which makes for a frustrating read. Here is where third person would have been beneficial and there were many people around Elizabeth whose stories we got tantalizing glimpses of and would had really added more dimension to the story had we been able to see them.

I can also understand why Elizabeth wasn’t scheming and plotting in league with her mother, but I can’t understand why Elizabeth does nothing to improve her own situation. If I were Elizabeth, no matter how much I hated Henry, I’d be doing everything I could to convince him that he can trust me so that perhaps I could have more influence over him. But Elizabeth never even considers this.

Eventually, she does come to care for Henry but I struggled to understand why. He spends most of the book demanding to know what she knows (which is nothing, of course), sulking or throwing a tantrum when yet another “York boy” pops up, and cowering behind an army he has no faith in. He is driven half mad by fear, which is understandable, but it’s hardly going to make a woman fall in love with him. On Henry’s end, he claims to have hoped for Elizabeth’s love from the first moment he met her but again, I’m not really sure why since she is dull and clueless and spends most of the book turning away from him. Henry goes on and on about how she has some kind of inherent likability that all Yorks do and which eludes him, but apart from being pretty and smiling and waving at crowds, I couldn’t see what was so likable about her. It’s not enough to say a character is this or that, if you don’t show me, it falls flat.

I really thought we were going to see a woman who was quietly influential in the shadows of not only her husband but her growing son Henry as well but instead we get a girl who has basically given up on life and is just passively enduring it.

Then there’s Henry. I felt like Gregory’s attempts to paint him as multidimensional missed the mark. On one hand he is cold, calculating, and untrusting but on the other hand he almost immediately begins readily opening up to Elizabeth about his insecurities and fears, despite the fact that she has done nothing to coax this out of him and despite the fact that he never trusts her. Making a character multidimensional doesn’t mean having them do things that don’t make sense.

I get that this is supposed to be a story about a woman who was forced to ride the line between two warring factions and how she was powerless to stop the people she loved on both sides from destroying one another. I get that it’s supposed to be about a man who is barely able to cling to a throne that was never his and how it will haunt him for all his days. In theory, it sounds like a great story but it just wasn’t executed very well.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier

Received ARC from publisher via NetGalley.
Release date: March 11, 2014

Philologist Diana Morgan has always had a fascination with the legend of the Amazons from the time her supposedly mentally ill grandmother claimed to be one and even gave her a notebook with a dictionary of a strange, unknown language. So when Diana is approached by a mysterious man with a photograph of an archaeological site covered in the very same language (which I suspect is supposed to be the language from the Phaistos Disc), she can’t resist the offer to investigate.

Running parallel to her story is that of Myrina, a young woman struggling to survive within classic tales from Greek mythology and Homer's Troy, who will stop at nothing to protect her younger sister. But Fortier's retelling is anything but traditional and manages to put realistic spins on The Iliad that link several elements from history and mythology. Though the premise of novels like this can sometimes be a little far-fetched, this was one of the more believable ones.

I love a good treasure hunt/archaeological mystery and the fact that it was based on Greek mythology intrigued me more. From the time I was 12, when I first learned about classical mythology, I've been fascinated by it so this was right up my alley. There's lots of action and adventure as Diana follows clues taking her in Myrina's footsteps across the Mediterranean but the character development isn't neglected either and the personal journeys that both the main characters go through make it difficult to put down. 608 pages may be longish for an action novel but they flew by. The feminism could be a little heavy handed at times but that's to be expected from a novel about a sisterhood and it's important to remember the brutal world the Amazons lived in and particularly how women were often treated.

While Diana's chapters are told in first person, Myrina's are told in third person, which is not normally something I'm fond of but it works well to distinguish the different time periods. Despite being split over thousands of years, the book flows between the two worlds effortlessly.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review: Sisters of the Bruce, 1292-1314 by J.M. Harvey

Received free review copy from publisher via NetGalley.

Robert the Bruce was King of Scots and a key figure in the Wars of Scottish Independence against the English and as such, he plays a major role in several novels. This book attracted my attention because it’s the first novel I’ve seen devoted to the women of the Bruce family, initially the two eldest sisters of Robert, Isabel and Christina - or Isa and Kirsty as they are called in this novel. A large portion of it is told through letters between the two of them (and occasionally Robert the Bruce himself), and later letters include Matilda, so there is a lot more “telling” than “showing”, not my preferred method of storytelling. When events are described in the letters, however detailed they may be, they still felt as though they were merely glimpses of what should have been so much more, and I kept wishing I could read a scene of the event taking place, hear the dialogue, etc. It meant I never really formed an emotional attachment to what should have been important characters in the sisters lives.

It’s obviously very well researched and portrays the medieval world accurately. However, even once the letters cease being the primary storytelling method, the book continues to tell the story often more as like an overview of events. For example, there is rarely any dialogue, which I found very strange. Though there was internal dialogue, it was too little too late. I couldn’t get into it and spent the second half of the book skimming it. There could have been a great story here and I really wanted to like it but the method of storytelling let it down.

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