Friday, June 20, 2014

Review: The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson

The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson is more of what The Forbidden Queen by Anne O'Brien should have been (read my full review of Forbidden Queen here). Both novels are about Catherine of Valois but Agincourt Bride is a more multidimensional story of politics and court intrigue told from a woman’s point of view with better developed characters, whereas Forbidden Queen is a flat, one-track romance with a whiny, annoying main character. In Agincourt Bride, we get to see many of the characters develop, whereas in Forbidden Queen, we really only see Catherine and her love interests develop and even that is very one dimensional. However, Agincourt Bride is not without its flaws as well.

It tells Catherine’s story from the first person point of view of her nursemaid (and later, Keeper of the Robe), Mette. This winds up being a little limiting in terms of telling the whole story when letters written by Catherine to her brother are inserted in order to give us glimpses into her side of the story. The letters just felt too deliberately planted and are a testament to the drawbacks of writing in first person. Additionally, perhaps because we are seeing all the characters through Mette’s eyes, Catherine is portrayed as saintly while practically everyone else in the story is mean-spirited or even evil. Even some of the protagonists, like Catherine’s brother Charles, are not portrayed in the most favorable light. It seems only Mette and Catherine’s loyal friend from the convent, Agnes, (and later, Mette’s daughter) are goodhearted people who care for Catherine or treat her with any kind of respect. And yet despite this, we don’t really get to know Agnes very well. Despite she and Mette being Catherine’s most trusted friends and supporters and therefore constantly being around one another, they don’t really have any kind of relationship. That’s not to say they dislike each other, just that the only mention Mette makes of what she thinks or feels about Agnes is when she first meets her and decides that anyone devoted to Catherine is alright by her. To the reader, Agnes winds up feeling like a tacked on character who exists purely because the story occasionally needed another character who had Catherine’s best interests at heart.

Regardless, the overall story is still enjoyable and certainly had it’s strengths. In history, Catherine of Valois was a powerless pawn in the complicated politics of the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses. Particularly in her time before and during her marriage to Henry, she didn’t really do anything significant except give birth to the next King of England. Therefore, she was always going to be a difficult subject to write about, particularly when it comes to her early life, while still making her story interesting and her character likable, yet Hickson pulls it off. We are shown a woman who faces her fate bravely and wisely, even if she’s had no say in what direction her life will take. Hickson manages to create nearly an entire book out of Catherine’s life before she even married Henry V. While I’m not sure how much of the more intimate details are accurate (I’m certain some liberties were taken), it shows the turmoil that France was in at the time and how Catherine was caught up in it, something Forbidden Queen was seriously lacking. We get to see all of Catherine’s siblings develop and here was where Mette’s point of view was very beneficial, because we got to know Catherine’s siblings as children, when Catherine was too young to really know them, and again later as adults. Catherine’s mother plays a strong side role and we also occasionally see her mentally ill father. Burgundy plays a large role as the antagonist, with much of the politics centering around him. Henry is only really prominent in the last quarter of the novel but he was among the more complex characters.

So the story had its strengths and weaknesses but if you’re looking for a novel about Catherine of Valois, this (and likely its sequel, The Tudor Bride, due out in the U.S. March 2015 and already available in the U.K.) is definitely the better choice than The Forbidden Queen. I will likely read the sequel because I’m curious what the author will make of it. If she can make Catherine’s life before marriage this eventful, I definitely want to see what she can do with the latter portion of Catherine’s life.

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