The Summer Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine by Elizabeth Chadwick

 The Summer Queen cover

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick is subtitled Eleanour of Aquitane, History’s most powerful woman and it’s a hefty read at 478 pages. This is the first book by Chadwick that I’ve read and to begin with I was quite surprised as at times it’s a bit of a bodice ripper. I think on balance I prefer my historical fiction reading to lean more towards the battles fought rather than what goes on in the bedroom or in a secluded corner for that matter. I nearly gave up on it but I will definitely read the next one in this trilogy as I ended up enjoying it.

Eleanor’s mother was already dead when her father went off on a pilgrimage to Compostela and died on the journey. Her father had asked for his daughter to be protected by the King of France and taken into his household. Inevitably as Eleanor is heir to Aquitaine and very rich the king arranges a marriage between her and his son and heir Louis. Eleanor is only about 13 years old, but such was life in those days. Soon Louis and Eleanor are king and queen of France, but what had been an unexpectedly happy marriage turns sour when Louis becomes increasingly more pious and influenced by dubious advisers and hangers on.

As I knew absolutely nothing about Eleanor of Aquitaine I naturally wondered how much of this story was known history and how much research the author had done. Reading the Author’s Notes at the back of the book I was somewhat relieved to see that there is a Select Bibliography of history books mentioned however, when she mentioned using Akashic Records and a psychic perspective to fill in the blanks and explore what happened in the past I was really put off – what nonsense – what’s wrong with using your imagination?!

The Path of the Hero King by Nigel Tranter

 Bruce Trilogy cover

The Path of the Hero King by Nigel Tranter is the second book in his Robert the Bruce trilogy. The first one The Steps to the Empty Throne ended with the disastrous battle of Methven in Perthshire, when Bruce and his army were attacked during the night as they slept. That made Bruce realise that he would have to ditch his chivalric behaviour and adopt dirty tactics as the English King Edward I did. Previously The Bruce and King Edward I had been fairly friendly and the two countries had been on good terms.

In this book Scotland’s main castles are inhabited by the English as are many smaller castles and strongholds. King Robert is having a hard time with people who don’t recognise him as king and as usual the many clans in Scotland who have been at each other’s throats for generations are still causing problems. When he learns that his wife, daughter and sister have been taken prisoner by King Edward, and that they and his brothers had been handed to the English by a fellow Scot – the Earl of Ross – the gloves are off so to speak, especially when he’s told that the women have been hung in cages which dangle from various city and castle walls.

The Bruce begins the task of slowly grabbing back the smaller castles from the English invaders, using the guerilla tactics he learned from William Wallace. Slashing and burning the lowland parts of Scotland which the invading English army had to pass through, making sure that there was nothing left for the army to eat or even any shelter for them. That must have been heartbreaking for Bruce as the Border country had been his. There’s a lot of fighting in this book, interspersed with some bedroom action which I suppose is Tranter’s attempt to sex it up and bring in some variety.

This was a good read which ends on a high with the Battle of Bannockburn where Bruce used his knowledge of the surrounding land close to Stirling to win against a massive English army led by Edward II. I hadn’t realised quite how huge the English army had been, when the first of them marched into the Stirling area the end of the army was still marching through Edinburgh over twenty miles away! It must have been a terrifying sight.

Unfortunately I’ll have to wait a while before reading the last of this trilogy as I had to take the omnibus edition back to the library instead of updating it as someone else had requested it. I have plenty of other books to choose from though and will take a rest from historical fiction for a wee while.

Bloodline – Wars of the Roses by Conn Iggulden

Bloodline cover

Bloodline – Wars of the Roses by Conn Iggulden is the third book in this series, it begins in Winter 1461 and two men have been given the scary and disgusting task of impaling the heads of Richard Neville – Earl of Salisbury, Richard – Duke of York, and his young son Edmund on spikes mounted above the Micklegate which is one of the gateways into the walled city of York. They had been ordered to do it by Queen Margaret after her troops won the Battle of Wakefield. Margaret is calling the shots as her husband King Henry VI is yet again too ill to carry out his duties as king. She’s determined to put an end to the ambitions of the rival families for the throne, but as was predicted by one of her victims – she just succeeds in making the surviving family members determined to make Margaret, Henry and their supporters pay for their actions.

If you don’t like reading about battles then this one won’t be for you as the whole book lurches from one battle to another although the descriptions aren’t usually too gory, and for me I found the intricacies of the armour, weaponry and battle tactics interesting.

This series has made the Wars of the Roses era so much clearer to me and I haven’t had to refer to the family trees at the front of the book too often. There are so many Edwards, Henrys and Richards though and of course their titles to contend with too. But I’ve already requested Ravenspur which is the fourth book in this series from the library so it won’t be too long before I’ll be reading that one.

Six in Six 2019 edition

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I’m a bit late with this but I’ve decided to join in with Jo at The Book Jotters Six in Six, you can read about it here.

You look over the first six months of the year and choose six books in six different categories. So here goes!

Six Historical Fiction books

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Dunstan by Conn Iggulden
The Steps to the Empty Throne by Nigel Tranter
Stormbird by Conn Iggulden
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Six books for children (of all ages)

Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers
The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden
Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Exploits of Moominpappa by Tove Jansson
Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery


Six non-fiction books

The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel
To the River by Olivia Laing
Jane Austen’s England by Maggie Lane
Independence by Alasdair Gray
Off in a Boat by Neil Gunn
A Capital View by Alyssa Popiel

Six books by Scottish authors

The Chronicles of Carlingford by Mrs Oliphant
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh
Homespun by Annie S. Swan
Gone are the Leaves by Anne Donovan
A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith

Six crime fiction books

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull
Murder with Malice by Nicholas Blake
Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh
Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards
The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor
The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons


Six classics

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope
Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Transformation by Mary Shelley
The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

This has been a good exercise for me. I knew that I had been reading more historical fiction than usual over the last six months, but hadn’t really thought that my crime fiction reading had tailed off quite so much. I intend to put that right over what is left of 2019.

Are any of these books favourites of yours?

Trinity by Conn Iggulden

 Trinity cover

Trinity by Conn Iggulden is the second book in his Wars of the Roses trilogy and it was published in 2014.

The date is 1454 and King Henry VI is still haunted by a mystery illness which has him in a vacant and sleepy state for months on end, unable to take any part in ruling of his kingdom. Inevitably this has led to those who are close to the throne casting their eyes in that direction. The actual heir to the throne is Henry’s small son and his mother Queen Margaret fears for the future, but she’s no shrinking violet and is determined to keep control of the realm while King Henry is out of commission. Men and families are taking sides, either supporting the King or Richard, Duke of York, who is supposedly the Protector of the Realm. Lancaster or York, which side are you on?

I really loved this one although there is a lot of fighting in it. I was particularly interested in the Battle of St Albans with soldiers crashing through houses and gardens to get to the enemy. It’s a place I haven’t been though and I wonder if they have interesting historical notes carved into the paving stones – as they do in Worcester where fighting went on within that town in a later time of English conflict.

I’m really looking forward to reading the last in this series.

Wars of the Roses – Stormbird by Conn Iggulden

 Wars of the Roses - Stormbird cover

Wars of the Roses – Stormbird by Conn Iggulden was first published in 2013 and it’s the first book in a trilogy. After really enjoying reading the author’s Dunstan I felt the need to go onto this series, luckily my local library had a copy on its shelves. The subject matter was something that I knew absolutely nothing about. It begins in 1437. King Henry VI is young and inexperienced, after years of there being a regency as he was too young he is now supposedly in charge. In reality he’s just about as far from being a warrior king like his father as is possible. He spends his time praying, obviously isn’t looking after his health, hardly sleeps and consequently is often ill both mentally and physically. His doctor seems determined to kill him with bleedings and purgatives. He’s desperate for a long peace with France but the territories in France that have been won in battles over the years are under threat from the French.

In an effort to keep the peace Henry decides to marry Margaret of Anjou, a very young daughter of the Duke of Anjou. Part of the secret deal brokered by his spymaster Derry Brewer and William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk is that Henry gives back some of his French territories including Anjou and Maine so they will be in French hands again. This infuriates the English men who had farmed the land for years and regarded it as their own. They still remember the men who had died in battle to gain the land. They’re thrown off the land by the French and often killed by French soldiers, the surviving refugees make for England to complain about their treatment. As they travel towards London the force grows ever larger and led by Jack Cade they storm the city.

Richard, Duke of York has ambition to usurp Henry, but Queen Margaret is determined to keep herself and her husband in power, despite his shortcomings. Margaret has to take over as Henry is unfit to rule.

I really liked this one. I knew next to nothing about this era of English history and I felt that I learned a lot, there’s a bibliography at the back so hopefully the history is mainly correct. I didn’t even realise that there was land in France called ‘Maine’ which is presumably where the state in America took its name from.

I’ll definitely be reading the next one in this trilogy.

Helen of She Reads Novels didn’t enjoy it as much as I did and you can read her view of the book here.

Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

 Dunstan cover

Dunstan by Conn Iggulden was published in 2017 and I was given my copy by a friend who had managed to buy it twice, it’s good to know that other people do that too!

The setting is 10th century England. The king is Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, but the book is Dunstan’s account of his life beginning with his first memories and going on to tell how he and his younger brother were taken to a monastery by their father and left there to get an education. The money paid over by their father is desperately needed by the religious order, but that doesn’t mean that they get special treatment by the brothers. It’s a rough and brutal upbringing, but Dunstan manages to impress the abbot and it’s believed by most in the religious community that Dunstan has been touched by an angel.

He has huge ambition and a love of learning, especially when it comes to architecture and construction and nothing is going to stop him from getting what he wants out of life – but that means he has to become a monk/priest which isn’t something that he’s really cut out for. On the other hand he does have a dislike of women and that ends up impacting on the lives of the other monks who had been allowed to marry in the early Christian Church. It doesn’t make him popular but as Dunstan is happy to sin grievously through his life, being a bit unpopular isn’t going to bother him.

Dunstan ended up being close to kings, seven of them in all and according to this book which appears to be well researched he was very much a flawed character, and that seems very likely to me.

This is a great read, my first by the author but not my last.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

 Lady Anna cover

I hadn’t even heard of A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel when I spotted it in a second-hand bookshop in Innerleithen. I quite fancied the subject matter though, the setting is the French Revolution and it’s a chunkster at 872 pages. I was disappointed for the first 100 pages or so and I did think that Mantel had definitely improved in her historical fiction with Wolf Hall, but this one eventually got going.

This book has an eight page cast of characters at the beginning, which is just as well as it certainly helps the reader to keep things straight. I think we all have a fair idea of what went on in revolutionary France, but this book begins in the 1760s with the early life of the main participants in the grab for power in the 1780s.

Mantel says in her Author’s Note that where possible she used a lot of the characters’ actual words, whether from their written speeches or preserved writing and has woven it into her dialogue.

She also says: I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide:anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.

I ‘did’ the French Revolution at school but reading this book made it all much clearer to me. I don’t think that my school books mentioned anything about the involvement of the British government who were working to destabilise France as a way of getting rid of King Louis and helped to finance the revolution – but now that I think about it – of course they would have!

This was a great read.

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant

 In the Name of the Family cover

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant was published in 2017 by Virago and it’s a sequel to Blood and Beauty which I blogged about here so it’s a continuation of the Borgia family’s story. It’s a chunky read at 488 pages.

It begins in 1501 and Niccolo Machiavelli is a young poverty stricken diplomat and witness to many of the shenanigans going on within the Vatican where an elderly and ailing Rodrigo Borgia is still Pope Alexander VI. His daughter Lucrezia is now on her third husband, and is Duchess of Ferrara, her life isn’t her own, she’s used as a political pawn by her father and as ever for women of those times she’s under pressure to give birth to a male child. Pope Alexander’s remaining son Cesare realises that when his father dies the power that the Borgias have had is going to disappear. Cesare has never been one to toe the line.

The whole book is liberally scattered (or should I say pock marked) by references to the French pox as it had become almost an epidemic, it’s a historical fact that syphilis first appeared around this time, apparently brought to Italy by French troops.

I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much as Blood and Beauty. I have a feeling that Dunant wasn’t as interested in this part of the Borgia story and even the arrival of Machiavelli didn’t help with what seemed to me to be quite a flat book. As you would expect not everyone agrees with me.

The Times has it on a list of Best Historical Fiction of 2017 describing it as ‘A stunning tale of power and family.’

History Today said it had been ‘Meticulously researched.’

Daily Mail said ‘Stuffed with violence, danger and passion.’

Mark Lawson of the Guardian said ‘Dunant has made completely her own the story of Italy’s most infamous ruling family … in a way that we can see, hear and smell.’

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander cover

I decided to read Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian because it’s the first book in his Aubrey-Maturin series. I recently discovered that an ancestor of mine was transported to Australia (for campaigning for the vote to be extended to all men) on the Royal Naval ship Surprise, but that is the third in the series. Sadly the series begins in the early 19th century, but William Skirving was transported on 1794, but I’m looking forward to reading O’Brian’s description of the ship.

This is the first book by Patrick O’Brian that I’ve read . I can see why his books are very popular but it took me a while to get into this one as for my liking there wasn’t enough in the way of character and there was just a bit too much action. But by the time I got towards the end it seemed to have evened out a bit.

Jack Aubrey has been unlucky in the past and his career in the Royal Navy hasn’t been as he wished, so when he unexpectedly is given the command of His Majesty’s Sloop Sophie he’s absolutely thrilled. Sophie is undoubtedly not a thing of beauty, she isn’t all that strong either but Aubrey quickly gets down to fitting her out with a crew, guns and powder as well as food and water. He feels especially lucky to sign up a young doctor/surgeon, the crew are always much happier with a doctor on board. Stephen Maturin is just as happy to get on board as he is at rock bottom.

Aubrey wants money. Basically the British government of the time supported piracy and the Royal Navy went about attacking foreign ships, seizing the cargo and imprisoning the crew, and the British crew got a cut of the ‘prize’, with the bulk of it going to the British treasury. So the book lurches from naval action to naval action, with a lot of sailing terms being bandied about. It was all go with the Sophie sailing along the Mediterranean coast attacking every ship they saw, and being very duplicitous about it too.

I could have been doing with a glossary, I did end up looking up words such as snow, settee and tartan – all different types of ships, and there were a lot more of them. In my copy of the book there’s a nice drawing of a square-rigged ship, hung out to dry in a calm. The sails are all numbered – all 21 of them, so when the mizzen topgallant mainsail was mentioned, you could look and see exactly where on the ship it was. Until then I had no idea that the phrase ‘hung out to dry‘ was a naval term.

I must admit that O’Brian writes some lovely descriptive passages, below is a sample.

Stephen could remember an evening when he had sat there in the warm, deepening twilight, watching the sea; it had barely a ruffle on its surface, and yet the Sophie picked up enough moving air with her topgallants to draw a long straight whispering furrow across the water, a line brilliant with unearthly phosphorescence, visible for a quarter of a mile behind her. Days and nights of unbelievable purity.

I’ll definitely keep on with the series as I think the books are historically authentic and there’s a lot to be learned from them, in a painless fashion. The Times has dubbed O’Brian as being ‘The greatest historical novelist of all time.’ Have you read any oh his books and if so would you agree with The Times?

You can read what Helen @She Reads Novels thought of the book here.