08 March 2007

Book Review: The King's Women by Deryn Lake

The King’s Women At the start of the fifteenth century, France was a decentralised collection of provinces in the middle of a century-long conflict with England. Into the midst of this arrived the future Charles VII, son of the gluttonous and depraved Isabeau of Bavaria and (supposedly) the mad Charles VI. Despite having two older brothers - and being disinherited by his mother in favour of her English grandson Henry VI - Charles obtained the throne and secured a place in history as the king who united France under a single monarch, drove the English back to a toehold at Calais, and brought his country out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance.

This book is not just a biographical novel abut Charles, but also about the various women in his life. Neglected by his mother, he sent several years in the house (well, castle) of his mentor and future mother-in-law Yolande, Queen of Sicily and Duchess of Anjou; a formidable woman who ruled the duchy almost single-handed during her husband’s long absences. Her daughter Marie went down in history for an entirely different reason: supplying the Valois dynasty with more than a dozen children. Charles’s mistress Agnès Sorel encouraged him - in this version of events at least - to the final strike which dashed English hopes of ruling France. But the greatest impact on history was that of the legendary Joan of Arc.

Since much of the history I read is English, it was a refreshing change to read something new, and from a new perspective. Here the great warrior king Henry V was a maniac whose warmongering ruined France to the extent that it almost wasn’t worth the effort of winning. Reading this book really showed how much I still have to learn; I never realised that Joan of Arc was part of the Hundred Years’ War. Nor did I know that Henry V began his campaign for the French throne in the middle of a burgeoning French civil war . . . or that one side of said civil war actually allied with the invaders. I found the wealth of historical information fascinating, though it was a good thing that the book included a French/English royal family tree and a list of characters; I needed to refer to them often. Unfortunately it did not include a map - I had to check the atlas and discovered that my mental map was not entirely accurate.

The fictional elements were neatly woven in with the historical facts, with one exception. The book has an unusual take on the origins and history of Joan of Arc which, while creative, suffers from bad timing. It was based in large part on The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which was later to provide so much inspiration to Dan Brown before being, as I recall, thoroughly discredited. Mentions of Templars or the Priory of Sion or the Grand Master character inevitably reminded me of tv documentaries taking the book and its theories to pieces, and it was some time before my ability to suspend disbelief reasserted itself. Doubtless it looked much better back in 1992. But the chance to read about a time and place I knew so little of outweighed this fault.

Rating: B+

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776