The Running Vixen by Elizabeth Chadwick

the running vixen The Running Vixen by Elizabeth Chadwick

For a full synopsis of this novel please click here. This novel is the second in a trilogy, the first novel is The Wild Hunt.

This is a medieval romance novel set in the Welsh Marches (along the English-Welsh border) in the early twelfth century. It is one of Elizabeth Chadwick’s earlier novels and I have been meaning to read it for a long time. Although not immersed in historical fact as her more recent work, this novel is still a well-crafted, imaginative tale. The characters are fictional figures instead of historical, however the context within which they are placed is just as historically valid and well-researched as you would expect from this talented author.

This novel follows on from an earlier novel, The Wild Hunt. Although the story is self-contained and therefore can be read by itself, I would still recommend reading them in order. The female protagonist in this novel, Heulwen, is the daughter of Guyon, the male protagonist in The Wild Hunt. Thus it is intriguing to read of the next generation and see how events have transpired.

Not only have events moved forward for our characters, the kingdom has also gone through turbulent events. This story is set during the time of Henry I, six years after his son and heir drowns in the sinking of “The White Ship”. It can be argued that this tragic event was the catalyst for a period of English history known as “The Anarchy”. After losing his heir Henry I is left with only one legitimate living child: his daughter, Matilda. Although this novel takes place prior to “The Anarchy”, Ms. Chadwick does a marvelous job of portraying the discontent the English lords felt at having to pay homage to a woman. It also gives insight into the type of woman that Matilda was (to explore this more deeply, Ms. Chadwick’s novel  Lady of the English focuses upon the life of Matilda). Haughty and arrogant, Matilda alienated a lot of the lords that could have supported her. This novel sets the scene of how it came to pass that Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, assumed the throne after Henry I’s death and successfully held it for his lifetime. Perhaps if Matilda had of been a more likeable figure the lords would have supported her claim instead.

However, I digress…

What I liked about this novel in particular is that whilst it alludes to the grand historical picture, the focus is primarily upon the relationship between Heulwen and Adam, a well-respected knight and land-holder in the Welsh Marches. Adam was the ward of Heulwen’s father and therefore they grew up together. It is evident from the very beginning that Adam has always held deeper feelings for Heulwen and yet she married elsewhere as a young girl. When the reader is introduced to the characters Heulwen is a young woman, a widow, and searching for a husband that will provide her with a marriage of convenience. Although it takes time to fully puzzle it out, the reader is aware that her first husband broke her heart in some way and thus she is not looking for a love match. She has sealed off her heart to prevent herself from being hurt once more.

The villain in this story is, of course, the man whom Heulwen has decided to marry. Oblivious to his atrocities, it is Adam who must bring them to light whilst trying to win Heulwen’s hand at the same time. This leads to an alluring medieval romance tale that I found to be a very entertaining read. Ms. Chadwick does a wonderful job of bringing the past to life and allowing the reader to view the romance in context. We are not viewing Heulwen and Adam as a modern couple merely living in the past, rather they are a true medieval couple. Their mannerisms and ideals are very different to our own and yet the depth of their feelings are the same. Love might very well be the only thing that has not changed throughout the centuries.

I look forward to reading the last book in the trilogy, The Leopard Unleashed.

 

I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith

livia I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith

After reading The Daughters of Palatine Hill I knew I had to read this author’s debut novel. For a debut novel I am amazed. Not only was it well-written but the clarity in which Livia’s world opened up before my eyes was unbelievable. Her story felt incredibly real to me, the thoughts she had were complexly human, and never once did I doubt that I was reading the story of a woman who actually lived. Livia was so vivid that I actually forgot that she was a character in this novel and began to view her purely as the historical figure she was. It was as if she was talking to me through the annals of history.

Livia’s story is fascinating to say the least. Daughter of a staunch supporter of the Roman Republic, it is amazing that she ended up marrying Emperor Augustus; a military dictator and the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. Livia has often been portrayed as power-hungry and an “unnatural” woman for claiming the authority that she was granted as Augustus’ wife. Yet she was very intelligent, with a mind for politics, and thus she was ideally suited to life as the wife of the Emperor.

I thought it was very clever of the author to draw the comparison between Livia and Augustus’ sister, Octavia, as often as she did. Octavia was held up to be the paragon of Roman womanhood, loyal and subservient and happy to sacrifice herself for the good of the Roman people. Her  marriage to Marc Anthony was a way in which to forge a peace between him and her brother and yet it was a turbulent marriage with many difficulties for Octavia. Even after her husband shunned her and married Cleopatra of Egypt, Octavia stayed loyal to her role as peace-keeper between him and Augustus. The Roman people saw this as for their own benefit, nobody wanted another war, and thus Octavia became their darling. Compare this to the “unnatural” woman that was their Emperor’s wife and it becomes apparent why Livia may have been remembered in such a negative light.

What the author brought to the foreground in this novel is that Livia, too, was loyal to the Roman people. Her father had been a man of the Republic, a man of the people, therefore Livia too felt a connection to the common people of Rome. This is evident by her public works and the “fire brigades” that she set up to help with a common issue in the poorer parts of the city. There is a wonderful scene in this novel where Livia comes back from assisting a brigade put out a fire and she has a smudge of dirt on her face. Her son, Tiberius, tells her “Your face is dirty. I don’t think you should go to the fires. It’s unseemly for a lady”. Not only does this highlight what a well-born Roman woman was supposed to be like, but it also gives a small glimpse into the future to show what kind of man Tiberius will grow up to be (The Daughters of Palatine Hill will explore more deeply).

It is important to understand that Livia lived in a time very different to our own. From a modern perspective Livia would most probably be exalted as a strong and intelligent woman. We would expect her to control her own finances, make decisions for herself and her family and we wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at the thought of her helping her husband to rule. However, two thousand years ago in Rome things were altogether different. I believe the author does a wonderful job of bringing this home for the reader and allowing Livia to simultaneously be seen through both our own modern perspective and also the historical perspective of the time. A remarkable feat that is to be greatly admired. I very much look forward to more novels of Ancient Rome from this talented author.

 

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

daughter America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

Thank-you to Amazon Vine for my advanced reading copy of this novel. For a full synopsis of this novel provided by Goodreads please click here.

This novel is told from the viewpoint of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson. Helpmeet to her father and his almost constant companion, Patsy not only travelled with him to France and witnessed his rise to the Presidency but also kept his secrets close to her chest. This novel utilizes the letters that Thomas Jefferson wrote and received in his life, whilst reminding us that it was Patsy who guarded these letters. Thus it is likely that she passed on an edited history to future generations.

Truthfully, I find this book very difficult to review. I hate that I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as others have professed. For me though, the spark just wasn’t there. Patsy Jefferson was an intriguing historical figure, yet I couldn’t relate to her within these pages. She was a two-dimensional figure from long ago that told me her story as an older person looking  back over her life. It was bland. Not at all what I would have expected from the glowing reviews I’ve read, plus my knowledge of how great an author Stephanie Dray is. I’m not quite sure how the collaboration worked between the two authors, however when it comes to author collaboration Stephanie Dray knows what she is doing. She was a part of two of the most amazing multiple author novels that I’ve ever read: “A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii” and “A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica’s Rebellion”. In fact, in the latter of these two it was Stephanie Dray who rounded off the novel and made it complete for me. Therefore I can only summarize that it was the extensive research that made this novel so bland for me.

Let me explain. This novel is based upon “thousands of letters and original sources” and therefore the historical research is paramount to the novel. Of course this isn’t a bad thing, history is compelling in itself, however I do feel that when the lines are so tightly set the author runs the risk of also putting their imagination on a tight leash and thus creating a very prosaic novel.

For me personally I read historical fiction for two purposes. One, to learn, and two, to be entertained. If I just wanted to learn I would read the original sources for myself. If it’s something that I am fascinated by then I will read both fact and fiction books about it. First I gather as much knowledge as I can about a subject and then I read a novel that brings it to life for me. I want it to be more than just facts on a page, I want the figures to jump to life and show me who they are. For me, this is what was missing in this novel. The entertainment factor.

Let me give an example. Patsy is enrolled in a convent for educational purposes whilst her father is in France. Evidently something about it appealed to her because she later wished to become a nun . I wanted to know what exactly appealed to her and what life inside the convent was like for her. Was it a harsh environment? What were the sleeping arrangements? What clothes did she have to wear? What did she learn there? I really wanted to know about life inside the convent but all that was mentioned was that her father’s secretary William Short visited her there and that she made one friend that teased her about her feelings for him. I have no clue as to what appealed to Patsy so much that she wished to take her vows. Even if there is no factual evidence as to why, her character was so indistinctive that I was not even able to deduce a reason for myself. This is where the story-telling is supposed to come in. The facts are known, the ingredients are set, now is when the fictional salt and pepper should be sprinkled in to create a more lively and exciting recipe.

Nonetheless, I did learn a lot from this book. If I take a step back and do not look at it as a novel then I can honestly say that I have admiration for the work that these two historians have created. The mix of original sources and deduced conclusions from these original sources lead to quite an interesting read. As a non-fiction book this would have been brilliant. Yet unfortunately I feel that I must judge it as what it has been proclaimed to be: a novel. And as a novel, in my opinion, it is sadly lacking.