Historical Fiction, Modern Sensibilities

A Reader's Respite
recently picked up a second-hand copy of a 2010 historical fiction release written by author Christy English, entitled The Queen's Pawn.  Despite the horrid cover art (really, Penguin Group, what were you thinking here?), the novel features a rather obscure historical protagonist:  Alys, a princess of France and daughter of King Louis VII who was bethrothed to Richard the Lionheart of England before he was king.  If you are a fan of old movies, you might remember Alys on the big screen in the epic film The Lion in Winter:

Cast of The Lion in Winter, starring Peter O'Toole as Henry II and Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine

Ho hum, you're probably thinking, yet another forgotten royal in medieval Europe, how original. 

 But Alys had quite a bit of scandal attached to her.  When Alys was betrothed to young Richard at the tender age of eight, the custom of the time demanded that she be shipped over to England to be raised in the court of Richard's father, King Henry II, until she was of age to be wed.  But by the age of fifteen or so, Alys and Richard had still not wed and rumor had it that Alys had become the mistress of her fiance's father, ol' Henry II, and had even born him a child.

As if that weren't scandalous enough, check this out:  Alys was the daughter of French King Louis VII and his second wife.  Lou's first wife was none other than the infamous Eleanor of Aquitaine, the woman who divorced him so she could marry, who else, but Henry II of England.  That's right, Richard's father.  So Alys was getting it on with not only her fiance's father, but the husband of her father's first wife.

Whew.  You keeping up here?

So how does The Queen's Pawn measure up?  As a historical novel, pretty darned well.  Since very little is known about the Princess Alys, the author has a lot of latitude to work with here.  She alternates chapters between Alys and Queen Eleanor,  imagining a wholly plausible rivalry between the two.  But it is the relationship between Alys and King Henry that takes center stage.  Their passionate affair fairly smokes right off the pages.  

And yet it must be remembered that young Alys was only fifteen or sixteen years old at this time.  Lolita, anyone?  Historically speaking, of course, women in medieval Europe were married much, much younger than today.  (The infamous Lady Margaret Beaufort being the perfect example:  she gave birth to Henry VII at the tender age of thirteen....good grief.)  But in The Queen's Pawn, Alys is the aggressor and instigator, seducing the forty-ish Henry and fairly dragging him into the sack.  Sometimes historical accuracy and modern sensibilities make for an uncomfortable read and A Reader's Respite salutes the author for not changing the ages of the characters just to make a more acceptable novel (and for the comprehensive author's note about this included).

If we had any quibble with the novel it was the habit various characters had of simply looking into someone's eyes and divining far too much information.

"I saw in his eyes that he wanted us to build our own alliance, a love born from our common loneliness." (page 76)

"I saw in his eyes that he had come back for Alais." (page 100)

"His eyes seemed to tell me......" (page 141)

Indeed, with so much information being beamed around the room by expression alone, it was a wonder any dialog at all was necessary.  

But medieval telepathy aside, the novel kept us merrily entertained for two days and for that, hats off to the author.  If you're in the mood for a good medieval soap opera, pick up a copy and enjoy.

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