Thursday, June 28, 2012


Published 2012, Gallery Books (a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc.), ISBN 978-1-4516-3324-5; ISBN 978-1-4516-3325-2 (ebook), 434 pages

Sherry Jones's Four Sisters, All Queens historical fiction novel opens with Beatrice, Countess of Savoy, claiming:  "I, Beatrice of Savoy, am mother to four queens....Yes, I am boasting.  I began scheming for my girls before I even held my eldest...Wanting success for my girls, I taught them as though they were boys, endowing them with true power - the kind that comes from within".

With the enemy pounding at the castle gates, literally, the impoverished Countess sought to save Savoy and bring it once again into glory.  Beatrice's scheming proves successful, but at a cost to her four daughters.

Marguerite:  In 1234, Marguerite marries Louis IX of France at 12 years of age.  She quickly learns her title is just that - a title.  Hamstrung by her mother-in-law, the White Queen, Marguerite is excluded from any issue remotely related to the Kingdom of France, including her husband.  The White Queen exerts absolute power over Louis, even in the marital bed.  It will be many years until Marguerite exerts power as Queen of France and is tested to the extreme by her fanatically religious husband.

Eleanore 1236. Eleanore marries King Henry III, "an old man".  He is 28 to her 13 years.  Eleanore faces a populace who hates her as a "foreigner", the possibility her marriage is invalid, ultimate betrayal by Simon de Montfort, estrangement from her son and a fickle husband not above banishing her.

Sanchia  Her greatest desire is to be a Bride of Christ, but her mother's lofty wish is Sanchia wed Richard of Cornell, Henry III's younger brother.  Beatrice is victorious once more when the couple weds in 1243 in London, when Sanchia is 18 years old.  Sanchia is a naive child in comparison to her sisters and destined to suffer emotional cruelty at the hands of a heartless husband.  Her Queenship is fated to be shortlived.

Beatrice  The baby of the family, Beatrice marries Charles of Anjou, Louis' younger borther in 1245 at 14 years old.  Beatrice finds a kindred soul in her husband - ambition and tendency for ruthlessness. Beatrice soon learns her husband has aspirations for a crown, just not that of France.

Inevitably, the sisters are brought into conflict over wars and the County of Provence.  While two sisters attempt to maintain their loyalty to each other, another has no such compunction - or so it appears.  Sadly, a sister is abandoned to her fate.  Their mother's mantra of "family first" is one that haunts them all.

Four Sisters, All Queens is written in present tense from the viewpoints of all four sisters.  I found the present tense a little disconcerting initially, but settled in quickly.

Sherry Jones illuminates four sisters history has mostly relegated to the mists or infamy.  Her impressive insight into the vagarities of each sister as they face challenges and, occasionally, joy brings the sisters to life in a vital way. I especially enjoyed reading about the Savoy sisters, as this is a new era for me.

The lifetimes of the Savoy sisters was a complicated epoch of war, rebellions, reconciliations, betrayals, conspiracies, bravery, cruelty, misunderstandings and regrets.  Sherry Jones excels at piecing the puzzle together and pulls no punches about revealing less than favorable characteristics, along with admirable strengths.

For these reasons, I am awarding of my quite rare:

 ***** 5 Stars (Exceptional)

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Published 2011, Crown Publishers (a division of Random House), ISBN 978-0-307-71657-6; eISBN 978-0-307-71659-0, 458 pages

Karleen Koen's historical fiction novel Before Versailles A Novel of Louis XIV focuses on a mere 4 months of Louis XIV, King of France.  These four months, however, were formative years in the making of the Sun King; a dynasty unrivalled in Europe before and after his time.

Louis XIV ascended to the throne in 1643 and ruled until his death of 1715, the longest reigning monarch in European history.  Upon the death of his chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, Louis, at the age of 22 making the shocking (to his Court anyway) announcement he was going reign as an absolute monarch.

Louis was surrounded by young men who had grown up with him.

"They were peacocks, all of them, their virility on display in a proud show of fashion and bravado.  They drank too much wine, were unfaithful whether married or not, gambled as if their pockets had no bottom, and looked for the slightest affront to their pride.....Off their leashes, they were as dangerous as wolves...".

These were the courtiers who wanted a place on his council.  Louis' younger brother, Phillipe, was no exception; he, perhaps, most of all, felt he deserved a seat.  They were all destined for disappointment.  Louis would only ever trust Jean-Baptiste Colbert and Charles d'Artagnan.  The remainder he regarded with suspicion.

Louis must render powerless an ambitious scheming finance minister, without causing war, and learn some shocking truths about himself and his family.

On the romantic front, Louis, married pious Maria Teresa, a Princess of Spain, the previous year.  Louis remained faithful to her....until his heart was captured by Princess Henriette, his brother's wife and sister of King Charles II.  Their growing infatuation became evident quickly. The court was rife with rumors, gossip Phillipe could not ignore. Although prone to other preferences, Phillipe's honor was at stake. Brother opposed brother.

Henriette, as second lady of France, lead a frivolous life and had an avid following in stark contrast to Maria Teresa's austere lifestyle.  Into this mailstorm, Louise de la Baume le Blanc was accepted as a maid of honor to Henriette through the efforts of her cousin.  A naive 16 year-old, Louise entered an atmosphere unlike any she'd known.

Louise must grasp how to negotiate court pitfalls to avoid ruining her reputation.  The example set before her of Louis and Henriette advances her education until she realizes she is losing her heart to Louis...

Karleen Koen's lyrical style flows effortlessly throughout Before Versailles with all its conspiracies, betrayals, nuances and decadence.  I especially like Koen's closing sentences in her prologue:

"...a moment when his heart, like many a man's, yearned for something true.  It happened in his forest palace of Fontainebleau.  Perhaps it went something like this....".

Rating:  **** 4 Stars (Excellent)

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Published 2009, Crown Publishing Group (a division of Random House Inc.), ISBN 978-0-58925-5, 442 pages

In Emma Campion's historical fiction novel, The King's Mistress, Campion paints a more sympathetic portrait of Alice Perrers than the typically vilified version accepted in historical accounts.

In H. Eugene Lehman's "Lives of England's Reigning and Consort Queens", published 2011, pages 153 and 154, under the heading "Alice Perrers: Adventuress and Concubine", he describes Alice as Edward III's "most notorious mistress...Queen's Philippa's chief lady-in-waiting".  Lehman attributes Alice's four children as illegitimate off-spring of Edward.  Other statements Lehman makes regarding Alice include "Alice took on royal airs, and used powers over members of Parliament to enrich her purse....After Queen Philippa's death, Edward gave Alice (or Alice stole) many of Philippa's jewels and wore them openly at Court.... Negative comments against her include the tale that, as the King lay dying from a stroke at Sheen Place, she stripped the jewelled rings from his fingers before slithering away....She died in 1400, but lives on as England's most egregiously calculating ambitious scheming and greedy woman of disrepute."

Considering the date of publication of Lehman's work, yes, indeed, the reputation of Alice Perrers has changed little down the centuries.  There are no extant portraits or sketches of Alice Perrers, although the opposite scene is that of Alice Perrers supposedly stealing Edward's rings as he lays dying.

Emma Campion had her work cut out for her when she decided to write The King's Mistress depicting her as a woman who had little control over her fate and a victim of circumstances in many instances.

The Alice Perrers of The King's Mistress is born to a merchant family, with a father and siblings who love her but a mother who is unexplicitedly cold.  Her father teaches her his mercantile business and, other than her mother's dislike of her, grows up happy.  She is taught obedience and marries Janyn Perrers as instructed by her father.

Her marriage to Janyn becomes a love match and they have a daughter together, but Alice feels her husband is hiding secrets, secrets somehow connected to the Dowager Queen Isabella, mother of Edward III.  As Alice realizes how much influence Isabella has on Janyn and the Perrers family she feels uneasy, especially as she is not permitted to reveal the relationship between Isabella and the Perrers.

Upon Isabella's death, Alice is summoned to Edward III and Queen Philippa's court to act as lady-in-waiting.  Shortly thereafter, Janyn and his mother disappear without a trace.  Alice's father-in-law refuses to divulge their whereabouts and bans Alice from his presence.

Alice returns to court and remains there by royal command and to protect her child.  Emma Campion, as she notes in her Author's Notes, "....shaped a life for Alice.  I think she might be pleased with it." in The King's Mistress.   Campion, though her novel, attempts to shed a different light on Alice to refute assertions such as those made by Lehman.

Campion's version of the life of Alice Perrers is well-written with fully developed characters readers can empathize with or dislike for their actions.  The King's Mistress is a worthwhile read for an alternate version of who and what Alice Perrers may have been.

Rating:  **** 4 stars (Excellent)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Published 2006, Crown Publishing Group (division of Random House), ISBN-13: 978-0-307-33991-1; ISBN 10: 0-307-33991-2, 530 Pages

Dark Angels is a prequel to Karleen Koen's historical fiction novel Through a Glass Darkly.  It is 1670, ten years after the Restoration in England took place.

A little history revisited:  in 1649, the unthinkable happened -Charles 1 was beheaded.  His heir, Charles, Prince of Wales, drifted around Europe at the mercy of various monarchies for food and shelter.  Impoverished, Charles spent 10 years attempting to raise an army and enough money to mount an invasion of England, ruled as a republic by Oliver Cromwell.

Charles's first attempt at invasion failed. It wasn't until Cromwell died in 1659 and England began to fracture that a return to monarchy was viewed as the only hope of salvation.  Charles was invited to return, which he did in 1660.  The Restoration Settlement, however, gave Charles II notice Parliament would not be ruled by him.  For most of his reign, Charles was tied to Parliament until, in 1681, he prorogued Parliament and reigned as an absolute monarch until his death.

His first years as King of England were not easy; a war with the Dutch was unsuccessful, the plague decimated London's population in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666 necessitated the rebuilding of the majority of the City.

Perhaps from his youthful experiences of deprivation of even the basic necessities, Charles II was determined to live life to its fullest.  A quote from Charles II perhaps sums up his motto:  "I always admired virtue - but I could never imitate it".  This attitude bestowed upon him the moniker "The Merry Monarch", which has survived down through the centuries.

Charles II married Catherine of Braganza of Portugal in 1662.  She was unable to carry pregnancies to term, thereby leaving the succession of the crown in doubt.  The only contenders were his bastard son, Duke of Monmouth, son of his mistress Lucy Walter, and his younger brother, James, Duke of York.  Charles adamantly maintained his oldest illegitimate son would never inherit the Throne and divorcing his Queen was out of the question.

Dark Angels opens in May 1670, ten years after Charles II has been restored, and his beloved sister, Henriette, wife of Louis XIV of France's younger brother, Phillipe, arrives in England for a brief reunion with her oldest brother.  Along with Henriette, arrives Alice Verney, a maid of honor.

Alice, having left England 2 years earlier under the shadows of a scandal, is determined to once again become one of Catherine's maids of honor.  Her second goal:  marry the elderly, powerful Duke of Balmoral, ride on his coattails and exert control over Court members.

The daughter of the "wily, ambitious rogue", Sir Thomas Verney, Alice inherits many of his traits.  She is loyal to a select few, schemes to realize her dreams at the cost of others, is devious and unforgiving towards those who defy her will.  In fact, she has few redeeming qualities.

This is the beauty of the character Karleen Koen has drawn.  Alice is far from the perfect heroine and there are many reasons to dislike her, but she is most intriguing.  Koen keeps her characters true to their nature and, should there be internal reflections and transformations, she doesn't portray these evolutions instantaneously.  She draws them out over time, much the same as human nature does.

Dark Angels is over 500 pages of secrets, plots, counterplots, counterplots to the counterplots, betrayals, false loyalty, extravagance, passion, heartache and, yes, even some regrets.  This is a one line summarization of Dark Angels.

I finished this novel a few weeks ago and spend a great deal of time pondering how to write a review; not because I didn't like the novel - I just couldn't figure out how to adequately convey the mastery with which Karleen Koen blends all the above aspects into a novel (and keeps track of of it all!).  The plot never sags or becomes tiresome; there is just too much action for that to happen.

I highly recommend reading  Dark Angels prior to Through a Glass Darkly so the storyline flows chronologically, even though the books were not written in that manner.  Now Face to Face is the sequel to Through a Glass Darkly

I read Through A Glass Darkly and Now Face to Face years ago and, therefore, cannot provide reviews without rereading them.  One day, I promise to do just that and review them both.

RATING:  **** 4 Stars (Excellent)