Hello, everyone! In times of trouble, I always seek comfort by turning to the past. Lately I’ve been immersed in historical fiction, and I wanted to recommend some of my favorite works about turbulent dynasties, tenacious princesses, and courageous women caught in the net of intolerant societies. I hope you’ll find something to interest you for the summer ahead.
The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile by CJ Gortner
Synopsis: Isabella of Castile never thought that she’d be queen. Exiled after the death of their father, Isabella and her younger brother Afonso have spent their childhood in a remote palace with their disgraced mother. When Isabella’s older half-brother Enrique, the unpopular king, recalls her and Afonso to court to resume their education, Isabella is wary, and her fears are soon realized when a group of powerful noblemen use Afonso as a pawn in their bid to usurp the throne from Enrique. As civil war breaks out in Spain, Isabella must keep her wits about her and follow her destiny towards the throne.
My thoughts: C.W Gortner has made a career out of bringing Spain’s iconic queens to life, first with his novel The Last Queen about Juana I, and now with this novel about Isabella. Though Isabella and Ferdinand have earned their place in history as the power couple who funded Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World, Gortner spends the bulk of the novel exploring Isabella’s other achievements: her campaign to recapture Grenada, her success at reuniting the two kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, and her efforts to usher in a golden age of literature, art, and learning. Gortner paints Isabella as a woman driven by compassion and perfection, but also makes a point to emphasize how her desire to keep her kingdom united led to an era of unparalleled cruelty.
It’s difficult to comprehend that Isabella could be a compassionate ruler on one hand, and also allow the national program of torture, murder, and expulsion of Spanish Jews known as the Inquisition. Gortner makes no excuses for Isabella’s decision, but he does his best to present her choices as objectively as possible by showing that the path to the Inquisition stemmed from Isabella’s fervent Catholic faith, her desire to please her zealous husband Ferdinand, and her need to placate her angry subjects, many of whom harbored intense hatred against the Jews. By presenting Isabella as a nuanced human, a woman as equally benevolent as she was bigoted, Gortner paints a realistic rendering of Isabella and allows modern readers to sympathize with her, while also seeing the darkest elements of her character.
The Burning Time by Robin Morgan
Synopsis: Set in 14th Century Ireland, The Burning Time tells the true story of Lady Alyce Kyteler, a noblewoman and high priestess of the Craft who went toe-to-toe with a bishop to protect her lands and people from the Catholic Church.
My thoughts: The Burning Time is a true gem of a historical novel, the kind of book you won’t get recommended often because of its focus on such an obscure part of history. Even though this is another historical novel about the Inquisition, Morgan provides a new perspective on this chapter of history by centering the story on a microcosmic battle between the Lady Alyce and her town of Kilkenny, and a power-hungry bishop intent on eradicating paganism from Ireland. I really enjoyed the slice-of-life portraits of the village, as well as Lady Alyce, whose role as a powerful female landowner with an independent mind enrages the conservative church, and provides lots of comedic relief for the reader. Additionally, Morgan’s description of pagan rituals, in which the Craft is a joyful celebration of nature, family, and community, offers a new perspective on a practice that is often depicted as inherently evil.
Although The Burning Time is a fascinating novel, it’s also not a book for the faint of heart. Like many stories set in the Inquisition, the happy endings are few and far between, and the novel’s ending is heartbreaking. Despite that, however, The Burning Time is a must-read: a story of wit and tenacity keeping intolerance and injustice at bay, if only for a short time.
Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir
Synopsis: Lady Jane Grey was queen for only nine days before she was deposed and later executed by her cousin Mary I of England. Her journey to the English throne was a perilous one, led by her scheming parents, power-hungry uncle, and the precarious succession plan created by her cousin Henry VIII. But Jane herself was just a 16-year-old girl; dedicated to her studies, and known throughout England as one of the most educated women of her time. Her story is a tragic tale of how greed and a hunger for power led to the death of an innocent girl, known forever after as the Nine Days’ Queen.
My thoughts: This novel is my favorite representation of 16th century England during the turbulent period after Henry VIII’s death. Weir, a famous historian, explores the paranoia of a country split between Anglicanism and Catholicism, and the chaos of a royal court helmed by an immature king. It’s her portrait of Jane, though, that makes this novel spectacular. Weir depicts Jane as a permanent outsider in her home; a brilliant girl, who, like her cousin Elizabeth Tudor, wants nothing more than to study and write, but is forced to be a pawn in her family’s royal power play. Like a classic Greek tragedy, Jane can do nothing to escape her fate, and her short life is overshadowed by her harrowing death.
I highly recommend this novel for anyone who’s interested in Jane’s story, as well as anyone who wants a better understanding of the politics at play during the reign of Edward VI. Since Jane was a Tudor, Weir also touches on the stories of Katherine Parr, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth, and the Seymour brothers, all notable figures who played pivotal roles during the period between Edward VI’s reign and that of Mary and Elizabeth. Innocent Traitor is a fantastic introduction to this time period, as well as a warm-up for anyone interested in reading more about Mary and Elizabeth.
Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian
Synopsis: After marrying Thomas Deerfield, a respected member of the community, 24-year-old Mary becomes a victim of horrific abuse. When Thomas stabs her hand with a fork during a drunken rage, Mary decides to divorce him, an act almost unheard of in 17th Century Boston. Armed with evidence, and the support of her wealthy parents, Mary pleads her case in court, but when Thomas files charges of witchcraft against her, Mary realizes that she’ll need more than evidence to convince the court of her innocence.
My thoughts: Hour of the Witch is a truly-one-of-a-kind novel. It’s a work of historical fiction, a character study, a courtroom drama, and a romance, and every page is exhilarating and horrifying at once. I was pretty unfamiliar with this time period, and I loved reading Bohjalian’s intricate descriptions of daily life in a Puritan community, from the clothes they wore, to the food they ate, to their insane suspicion of so-called “satanic” objects, like the fork that Thomas uses to stab Mary’s hand. The meat of the story centers on the absurd accusations of witchcraft against Mary, such as her using a three-tined fork (the Devil’s instrument), and the novel demonstrates how a society can turn against anyone who doesn’t fit into their idea of acceptability.
Even though the story itself isn’t based on true events, it’s an accurate representation of other witchcraft cases that took place in Puritan Massachusetts, and an engaging look at the American legal system in its infancy. I would recommend this novel for anyone who likes courtroom dramas, domestic thrillers, and novels about the peril of using evil eating utensils.