Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Published 1992 (1st Edition), Viking, ISBC 978-0-00-725055-4, 872 pages

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel tells the stories of Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins, three major players during the French Revolution commencing 1789.

About ten years ago, after a lifetime of forcing myself to read every book I started, I made a pact with myself not to waste time on a novel I was not enjoying.  There are so many novels awaiting me, I decided I'd much rather be reading something pleasurable.  After all, reading time is much coveted in a busy life.

I have previously read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which took perserverance to get past the first 100 pages.  Once I had accomplished that, I did truly enjoy the book.  I thought the same might happen with A Place of Greater Safety.

Hilary Mantel has a unique writing style, which can be difficult to assimilate and often dissuades readers.  Several of my friends mentioned they could not "get into" Wolf Hall.

At page 384 of A Place of Greater Safety, I admitted defeat.   I just could not see attempting to understand a further 500 pages, when I was still completely lost at page 384.  Mantel's goal (if I even have this right) was to interpret each of the three main characters personalities rather than the horrific events that took place at the time.  For instance, the fall of the Bastille seemed hardly the major occurence it was.

Mantel changes points of view so frequently I sometimes had to reread to figure out which character was currently highlighted.  All of which took me completely out of the book.  One character's point of view might be one paragraph long and then, suddenly, you are thrust into a different point of view consisting of several pages.  Another disconcerting tactic was referring to the reader during narrative.

The novel seems to be one of telling, rather than showing through action and dialogue.  I felt absolutely no connection to any character.

I acknowledge the French Revolution had an immense cast of characters and the political factions are quite confusing.  This novel did nothing to help me understand this tumultous time in French history other than the common people were starving and bread prices were out of reach.  This I already knew.

An online search of reviews reveals mixed reactions.  Some felt A Place of Greater Safety was an exceptional book; others found it erractic and incomprehensible.

I leave to the choice up to you.

My rating:  * (Not recommended)

Friday, December 16, 2011

CAPTIVE QUEEN A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir HISTORICAL FICTION REVIEW

Published 2010, Doubleday Canada (a division of Random House), ISBN 978-0-385-66708-1, 473 pages

Captive Queen, a Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the third historical fiction novel written by acclaimed biographer, Alison Weir. Her recent historical fiction novels include The Lady Elizabeth (Elizabeth 1) and Innocent Traitor (Jane Grey).

Having read her two previous historical fiction novels, I expected the same excellence in her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine, indisputably one of the most fascinating women of the 12th century. Unfortunately, the first approximately 250 pages disappoint.

Captive Queen begins when Eleanor at 28 years old meets 19 year-old Henry FitzEmpress, the future King Henry II of England, at the Court of Louis VII of France, Eleanor's spouse. Louis is pious to the extreme; in fact, so pious the possibility of begetting a son by Eleanor, who has already birthed two girls, is remote.

An annulment of Eleanor and Louis' marriage is quickly arranged and, almost just as hastily, Eleanor and Henry are married. Thus begins about 200 pages of the sexual escapades of Eleanor and Henry, who are madly in lust. I found the first half of this novel more concerned with their bed romps than any substantive historical occurrences.

Thomas Becket figures prominently in this novel and is viewed by Eleanor as an adversary. His martyrdom profoundly affects Henry but, by this time, a distance has grown between the spouses that precludes Eleanor providing comfort.

Eleanor hears rumors of Henry's infidelities, which he considers the normal activities of a healthy male and she believes the ultimate betrayal, and struggles to accept the fact that Henry, indeed, has been unfaithful.

It is not until Henry falls madly in love with “Rosamund the Fair” and Eleanor accepts their marriage is over in all but legality, does Alison Weir start to focus on the political aspects and machinations of Eleanor and her sons to gain the power their father continually denied them, whilst Henry is forced to fight against his rebellious sons as well as maintain control of his far-flung domains.

From this point on, Captive Queen fulfilled the expectations I had of Alison Weir. This is an author who has researched and written extensively about various historical royal figures, including a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor's fierce determination to ensure her sons receive their inheritances leads to Henry incarcerating her for 15 years. Her imprisonment only ends when Henry dies and her son, Richard the Lionheart, comes to the throne.

The underlying theme of Captive Queen is an intelligent, ambitious woman who finds herself no less trapped by her marriage to Henry than to Louis VII. She might have possessed the physical love Louis VII was incapable of for a period of time, but, in essence, she is as powerless and at the mercy of Henry as she ever was with Louis. It is the truth of the times. Women were subjugated by men, even the fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine, who experienced a far less restrictive life until her incarceration than any other woman of the era.

Historical fiction novels I recommend about Eleanor of Aquitaine are Duchess of Aquitaine by Margaret Ball (exceptional) and Sharon Kay Penman's When Christ And His Saints Slept (this book completely hooked me on this author - highly recommended), Time and Chance, Devil's Brood and cameos in Here Be Dragons and Lionheart.

I would prefer to allocate Captive, Queen, A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a 3 star rating for the first 200 pages and a 4 star rating for the remainder of the novel. But, seeing as novels are rated as a whole, I have given it:

Rating: ***1/2 Stars (Above Average)