Day 804: The King Without a Kingdom

Cover for The King Without a KingdomWhen I first read Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings series, I didn’t even know there were seven books. I read the first six, which told of the destruction of the Capet dynasty and ended with the death of Robert of Artois, a prime mover of events. But Druon still had one more tale of incompetent royalty to tell, that of King John II, the third Valois king.

The entire novel is written as a monologue by the Cardinal of Périgord, who tells the tale as he travels to try to mediate peace between King John and Edward, Prince of England. The Cardinal is a sharp old man with many a sarcastic observation to make to his audience, his nephew. King John is actually in captivity to the English, and the cardinal’s story is about how this situation came to be.

Unfortunately, I found this change of narrative style to be irritating, uninterrupted as it is by anything except references to arrivals, changes of horse, and other details of the journey. Although the story he has to tell is certainly interesting—about how the king threw away certain victory in battle because of his own stubbornness and incompetency, and about how he alienated his allies by reneging on deals in order to give honors to his favorite—the narrative style just seems too artificial.

In The Accursed Kings, though, Druon draws a devastating portrait of how a series of bad monarchs brought France down within a few years during the 14th century, from the greatest nation in the world to an impoverished, poorly run country that was considerably smaller.

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Day 758: The Ten Thousand Things

Cover for The Ten Thousand ThingsIn keeping with my goal to read all of the finalists and winners of the Walter Scott Prize, here is my review of the winner for 2015. The Ten Thousand Things is John Spurling’s novel about a turbulent period in Chinese history. It is written from the point of view of Wang Meng, an actual artist of the time, and inspired by Wang’s paintings of the ten thousand things, all of creation.

This novel is related by Wang from his prison cell, where he chooses to tell about his past in the third person. He has been arrested on charges of conspiracy because he accepted an invitation to view the art collection of the disgraced Chancellor Hu.

Wang’s story begins in a mountain retreat when he is already a grown man. He has resigned his minor government post to pursue his art, although strictly as an amateur. This action has disappointed his more ambitious wife, but she is barely a character in the novel.

China is uneasy under the Yuan dynasty, which is dominated by the Mongols. The Chinese upper class resent the fact that the powerful jobs go to Mongols. Taxes are heavy, and men are restricted to following the professions of their fathers. Wang’s own grandfather, General Meng, was controversial because of having decided to support the Yuan government instead of retiring from his government post as many of his peers did. In Wang’s time, revolts are underway under several different war lords and groups of bandits.

When Wang withdraws to his retreat, he has three fateful encounters. He meets Ni on the way there when he is forced to share a room in an inn. Ni is a great artist whose work affects how Wang views his own. Next, when Wang’s cousin Tao asks him to a nearby village to meet a woman he is thinking of marrying, Wang and Tao are just in time to witness a demand from the Red Scarf Bandits that she marry their chief. When her father asks Wang’s advice, he suggests that she choose for herself. She decides to marry the bandit, and soon becomes a bandit queen named the White Tiger. Finally, Wang meets Zhu, a would-be monk from a nearby monastery who asks Wang to take him as his servant. Wang politely explains he can’t afford to and advises him to join the bandits if he wants to learn about the world. Later, Zhu becomes a powerful war lord and then an emperor.

This novel documents the turbulent period of the overthrow of the Yuan dynasty and the establishment of the even more repressive, but Chinese-lead, Ming dynasty under the paranoid Emperor Hongwu. It moves a little slowly and is told in a detached way from the point of view of an artist who attempts to stay away from the seats of power. It also spends a good deal of time describing Wang’s paintings. The novel reflects a sophisticated and intellectual culture, although it certainly concentrates its story in the upper realms of this society.

link to NetgalleyI think it was this detached viewpoint that kept me from enjoying the novel more. The subject matter is interesting, as I know little of Chinese history and have long thought it was a ridiculous bias that we didn’t learn any history of the Far East in school except when it intersected with Western history. Yet most of the characters seem only sketchily drawn, and I didn’t fully engage. The novel is said to illustrate the principles of Daoism, but since my brief reading on that subject left me completely clueless, I did not understand in what way the philosophy is reflected, except perhaps in the perceptions of the narrator.

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Day 748: The Lily and the Lion

Cover for The Lily and the LionBest Book of the Week!
The sixth book of Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings series follows the fall of Robert Artois, the prime mover in many of the events of the other five novels. It is the reign of Philippe VI, the first Valois king, so you’d think the curse of the Knights Templar against the Capet kings would be complete. But Druon points out that there is one Capet we’ve probably forgotten.

It is Robert Artois who ensures that his Valois cousin is chosen from the candidates proposed for the crown, despite the better claims of Isabella of France, the only surviving sibling of the Capet King Charles IV, for her son Edward III of England. But even though by supporting the victorious candidate Robert finally gains a peerage and property of his own, he is still obsessed by the theft of his county of Artois by his Aunt Mahaut years ago.

He hears of the existence of a copy of the will and deeds that left him the property when he was a boy. The originals were stolen and destroyed by Mahaut and her minion, Monseigneur Thierry. But the Monseigneur kept the copies to protect himself, Robert is informed by Jeanne de Divion, the Monsiegneur’s mistress. Now that he is dead, Mahaut has treated Divion so poorly that she offers to steal the papers from the Monseigneur’s office. Before she gets the opportunity to do so, however, Beatrice d’Hirson, Thierry’s niece and Mahaut’s servant, steals them for her mistress. Robert then makes the decision that will decide his fate. He decides to forge the papers.

In the meantime, Isabella and Roger Mortimer have taken the throne from Edward II for his son, but the young king is a ruler in name only. Mortimer’s abuses are just as bad as those of the previous reign perpetrated by Edward II’s favorites. In addition, Edward III hasn’t forgiven Mortimer for having his father murdered. Soon, Edward will act for himself.

As with the others in this series, this novel is packed with traitorous acts, poisonings, and other skullduggery, as well as amazingly readable historical detail. Druon peppers his tales with plenty of cynicism and sly remarks. As always, I highly recommend this series.

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Day 676: The She-Wolf

Cover for The She-WolfThe fifth novel in Maurice Druon’s wonderful Accursed Kings series begins where the first one did, with the problems of Isabella of France, unhappy queen of England and sister to Charles IV of France. While Charles IV’s administration is being ably handled by his uncle Charles of Valois, the same cannot be said for that of Isabella’s husband, Edward II. He is completely under the sway of Hugh Despenser the Younger, his rapacious lover. At the beginning of the novel, Despenser has taken everything from Isabella’s dowry for himself and forces her to give him the valuable book she is reading.

Roger Mortimer is the only person to have ever escaped from the Tower of London, and he soon arrives in France. He too has been a victim of the greedy Despensers. He has a fateful meeting with Isabella when she arrives to broker a treaty. Soon their actions will cause the overthrow of a king.

The powerful Countess Mahaut of Artois still remembers Isabella’s testimony, which condemned her daughter and cousin to prison in the first book. She will make it her business to cause trouble for Isabella. And we know what trouble can mean, for in The Poisoned Crown, Mahaut had Charles’ oldest brother murdered so that her daughter could be queen of France.

Druon’s knowledge of medieval history, customs, and architecture is especially noticeable in this book, with its extensive historical notes. This fantastic series continues, with Druon specializing in snark.

The sixth book in this series will soon be available in paperback while the last is soon to be published in hardcover. Years ago, I read all but the last book, which I was unable to find, so I am looking forward to finally being able to read the entire series.

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Day 673: The Illuminator

Cover for The IlluminatorIt is the 14th century, and Lady Kathryn finds herself in a precarious position. She is a widow and owner of Blackingham Manor, the mother of 15-year-old twin sons. The church has been incessant in its demands for tithes, and there are also the king’s taxes. She suspects her overseer of being dishonest, and he is certainly disrespectful, but she has no one who could replace him.

When Father Ignatius makes yet another demand of her, she has nothing to give him but her mother’s pearls. Still, the church could make trouble for her, so she gives them up. Later Brother Joseph arrives with a message from the Abbott. If Lady Kathryn will house an illuminator who is working for the abbey, along with his daughter, the abbey will let up on its demands for tithes. For the price of food, Kathryn thinks this is a bargain.

Soon the artist Finn arrives, along with his beautiful daughter Rose. Lady Kathryn is immediately worried about her son Alfred, who likes to dally with the serving maids. Finn’s arrival is made more chaotic because of the news that Father Ignatius was murdered. Although this happened after he left her house, Kathryn doesn’t want to draw attention to herself, so she lies to the sheriff, Sir Guy, and tells him she hasn’t seen the Father recently. This of course turns out to be a lie she regrets.

Sir Guy, being the rapacious type, has his eye on Lady Kathryn and her estate, which is her own and does not go to her son. But Kathryn and Finn are soon drawn to each other. To get Alfred away from Rose, Kathryn asks him to supervise the overseer. Soon involved with Finn herself, she does not notice the depth of Rose’s friendship with Colin, the younger twin.

Other important characters in the novel are Half-Tom, a dwarf who befriends Finn, and the anchorite Julian of Norwich, a real woman famous for her writings about religion, reflecting unusual views.

I wanted to like this novel more than I did. Overall, my impression could be summed up as meh. At first I was worried that it was going to be a historical romance, which I usually do not enjoy, but it was not. It shows a solid grounding in the time period, with convincing detail. I think I was turned off by the depiction of the church. This was a violent time in history, and the Catholic Church was in a period of corruption, but I don’t think that is a good reason for depicting every representative of the church (except Julian of Norwich) as a cartoonish villain. It is clear that the author’s sympathies lay with the Reformation, but that movement had its own abuses. In fact, in the 14th century, it is doubtful that many people in England would have even envisioned a Reformation. Martin Luther didn’t put up his theses until 1517.

I think that my biggest problem with the novel is that only a few characters were at all developed. The others were simply villains. I also had problems with the situations created in the novel simply by both Kathryn’s sons departing without notice. Alfred pulls a nasty trick on Finn before leaving—one that endanger’s Finn’s life and leaves Kathryn open to blackmail. Both sons behave like spoiled adolescents instead of the young men they would have been considered at the time, and Kathryn makes several poor or dishonest decisions regarding them.

There is also a theme of Kathryn’s changing religious beliefs, but I found this decision sudden and unlikely. I would have liked to see more about Finn’s art, but there was very little.

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Day 563: The Scottish Chiefs

Cover for The Scottish ChiefsWritten in 1810, The Scottish Chiefs tells the romanticized story of William Wallace, the Scots hero we know today as Braveheart. Jane Porter was a contemporary and acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, who deemed her the first author of historical fiction, then went on to write some himself.

The novel begins in 1296 and covers roughly eight years. After the untimely death of Alexander III, Scotland could not decide between two claimants to the throne—Robert Bruce or John Baliol—and called upon its neighbor, Edward of England, to adjudicate. He chose the weakest candidate, Baliol, and shortly afterwards seized the country for England. At the start of the novel, his governors have been mistreating Scotland for two years by imprisoning its leaders and taking their property for themselves.

William Wallace has been minding his own business and trying to stay out of trouble when he is summoned to meet with Sir John Monteith. Monteith passes him a metal box given to him by Lord Douglas before Douglas was kidnapped by the English. Monteith’s home is overrun by English soldiers, and he is afraid someone will discover the box, so he asks Wallace to remove it. However, the soldiers glimpse it under his plaid, and assuming it is treasure, they soon arrive at his home to take it. Wallace escapes, but his wife Marion is murdered by the dastardly Heselrigge, English governor of Lanark.

After his wife’s murder, Wallace vows to devote his life to freeing Scotland from the English. The novel follows his adventures and his defeats of the English in battle. Wallace’s victories are muddied by the jealousy and treachery of many of the Scottish chiefs, who refuse to believe the purity of his motives and fear his growing power over the populace.

The novel is written in the overblown style of Romanticism. It features a godlike Wallace, heroic figures like beautiful and saintly Helen Mar and faithful Edwin Ruthven and villains such as the perfidious Lady Mar and vicious Heselrigge. The dialogue is florid. However, the deeds described are truly exciting, and Porter manages at times to build quite a lot of suspense. The introduction by Kate Douglas Wiggan, educator and author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, relates how her copy of the novel was in tatters from re-reading when she was a child and how she would beg for ten more minutes of reading time when called to supper.

While reading this novel, I was trying to decide whether a modern youngster would love it or be bogged down by its style and length. I am not sure, but children read for plot, and there is much in this tale to make it a page-turner. That it is about a man who was truly a hero should make it even more exciting to them. In any case, if the writing style of early 19th century Romanticism doesn’t bother you, I think anyone might enjoy reading this novel.

Day 543: The Royal Succession

Cover for The Royal SuccessionThe recently married Queen Clémence of France is already a widow and expecting a child at the beginning of this fourth book of The Accursed Kings series, The Royal Succession. Her husband Louis X reigned for only 18 months and in that short time managed to create chaos in France and impoverish the country.

Louis’ older brother, Philippe of Poitiers, is occupied in Lyons with the problem of the election of a pope when he hears of his brother’s death. The cardinals seem to be hopelessly deadlocked, and France wants a pope who will be friendly to its interests. Philippe is caught between his desire to finish his mission and his ambition to be appointed regent to the unborn child. Finally, he locks all the cardinals inside the Church of the Jacobins, telling them they will not be freed until they elect a pope. Then he rides to Paris to claim the regency.

Philippe is unaware that he has come into power with the help of his mother-in-law Mahaut of Burgundy, who had his older brother poisoned. Hugue de Bouville, the queen’s protector, is keenly aware of the threat to the queen and her child. Later in the novel, his and his wife’s fears cause them to make a fateful decision.

As usual, Robert of Artois is creating as much havoc as possible for his aunt Mahaut. He is supported at a distance by Philippe’s uncle Charles of Valois, who wanted the regency for himself.

Although Guccio Baglioni spends most of the novel locked up with the cardinals, the Cressay brothers bring his wife Marie to Guccio’s uncle in disgrace. They do not believe the couple is married, and in any case won’t accept their sister’s marriage to a merchant. Marie is expecting, so Uncle Spinello Tolomei takes her to a convent. A twist of fate makes her the wet nurse to the baby King Jean.

Druon relates the story of complex politics, venality, chicanery, and outright evil in his usual acid tones. We sympathize with Philippe, who is plainly more able and upright than his brother, but he is already finding that the path to power corrupts, even those with the best intentions. This series continues to be terrific.