July 19, 2012

Medieval English Monarchy

The Lady of the Rivers
Philippa Gregory
Narrated by Bianca Amato
Historical Fiction
To buy Amazon - Barnes & Noble

I checked this audio-book out from the library thinking that I probably would not even end up listening to it. Usually I tend to lean more towards shorter books, and this one was 15 discs, and it sounded like an old medieval/fantasy story, something I normally wouldn't read. I'm not sure what compelled me to check it out ultimately. And it was sheer laziness that led me to renew it twice (that's six weeks for my library district), before ever popping a disc into my computer at work to give a listen. I'm grateful now that I did.

The book captivated me from the beginning. A young noble girl from France crosses paths with Joan of Arc before she is tried and burned at the stake for heresy. This girl possess 'gifts' from being of the line of a water goddess, Melucina (Mel-You-See-Nah. The worst part about reviewing audio-books is not being able to spell the odd words/names. I try!), and realizes very early, from her exposure to Joan, that powerful women are not welcome in the world of men. The girl, Jacquetta, is married off to a Duke of England who is occupying France, the Duke of Bedford. He is an old man, whose wife had died, and marries Jacquetta because he has heard of her gifts, not for love. He is a man who has hired herbalists, scholars, and alchemist on his quest for the Philosopher's Stone, and thinks marrying a young virgin with gifts of foresight will be the key to his quest. War takes up most of the Duke's time, and Jacquetta is left mostly in the care of his most trusted squire, Richard Woodville (real name Richard Wydeville), with whom she eventually falls in love with and marries (after her old man of a husband dies, of course). Easily the most enjoyable part of the story - Jacquetta and Richard had fourteen children together, they obviously loved each other very much! Because Richard is so far below her station, they have to marry in secret before notifying the English court, because the noble men were planning another arranged marriage for Jaquetta. In those times people were always married in order to ensure allies or strengthen bonds between families/countries, which is why Jacquetta married the Duke in the first place. At this point the young King of England, Henry VI, is arranged to marry Jacquetta's cousin from France, Margaret of Anjou, and Jacquetta is called to court to be her lady in waiting. This is where the story really starts.

The most fascinating part of this story, to me, is that every character in this book is based off of real history, real lords and ladies of 1400s England (here is the wiki page, we're looking at Henry VI in the 1400s). It is highly fictionalized, for in fact, there is no way to know exactly what happened so far back, especially because so much was hidden from the common knowledge of the people, but Philippa Gregory does a fantastic job weaving the characters in and out of each other's stories, and filling in the gaps. I even looked up these old English monarch's on Wikipedia, just to see how much of the story were actual events. Turns out, all the major plot points are absolutely in the historical record. All of Jacquetta's and Richard's fourteen children, the territories won and lost, and even the rumor that Queen Margaret's only son was not born of the King, but of a Duke, and advisor to the King.

The narrating was excellent. Amato did a wonderful job of changing the pitch and tambre of her voice for each character, none of which were too garishly overdone. I consider it a good thing when I sit here at my keyboard unable to think of anything that really stood out about the narration; Amato allowed the story to be the story, which is the best thing a narrator can accomplish. There were very few instances of foreign words in the text, but where they were they were perfectly done. The only thing at all I can think is that the entire book was done in an English accent, where the main character, Jacquetta, and the Queen, who plays a huge role in the book, were both French. But honestly, that is only a technicality.

For some reason, this book captivated me more than most. I was sucked wholeheartedly into this story, and these characters, and this bit of history (no matter how embellished). I think I especially liked it because the history is so old, and so generally unknown (by me anyway, I know nothing about medieval monarchy). Frankly, I cannot wait to read another of Philippa Gregory's books, I'm just uncertain which to turn to next. That reminds me! This book is actually part of a series called The Cousin's War, and The Lady of the Rivers is book three in that series. I'm almost scared to go back and read The Red Queen and The White Queen, the first two books of the series, because from what I understand, they both deal with events after where The Lady of the Rivers leaves off, and also, I'm afraid I won't be able to stay quite as interested if I am reading words like "Duke of Bedford", "Dower to Duchess", and "Edmund, Duke of Sommerset" over and over again all over the pages. I think having this book read to me was half of the magic. At folks, it was magic.

Happy Reading Everyone!


Steven Belanger said...

I would read Gregory's stuff if she wasn't so outlandish with her romance and fantasy. She is well-respected for her research and for her ability to use so many real-life people and facts. If she used those talents to write historical fiction, and that's it, I'd read everything she wrote!

Emma said...

I understand what you mean. I think the story would have been the same if not better if she just completely excluded all the 'magic' stuff (besides the suspicions of witchcraft, of course, as those were real). I also admit that the relationship between Jacquetta and Richard was very strong and enchanting, I think that if all her books have the same relationship between two characters, I will lose much respect. I will have to be the judge after another of her books, I think, to get a real feel for her as a writer. I just reeeeally enjoyed this one!