Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

Memoirs of Cleopatra – Book Review

March 26, 2008

Memoirs of CleopatraMargaret George’s “Memoirs of Cleopatra” begins with the young princess Cleopatra‘s memory of General Pompey coming to Egypt and her role in charming him with her wit and personality in order to help her father keep his kingdom and of course tells her story up through her infamous death.

I feel like I did not give this book the attention it needed. Due to my large stack of TBR books (all still sitting in the bathroom, waiting for the bookshelves to go back, by the way), I just didn’t have patience for a 950 page book. I see that I had read 250 pages, and then be annoyed that it barely seemed like I had gotten anywhere.

That being said, I don’t think that the book seemed as if it were long just for the sake of being long, I don’t think that there was much in the story that was superfluous. George is a great author, and I felt that I could experience what the characters were experiencing. What I didn’t expect was the fact that I did not feel that I became Cleopatra’s partisan. I understood her motivations and didn’t think them ‘bad’ or ‘wrong,’ but I also understood the motivations of Octavian and others who were her ‘enemies’. Sure, I tended to think that Octavian was more ‘bad’ than Cleopatra, but I did not feel that he was really being vilified. Surely that is a gift, to write relatively sympathetically an historical character and yet not demonize her opponents. I really just got the impression that, for the most part, people were acting as they felt they needed to do for the good of their countries and their families.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me, though, was the afterward, explaining what in the book was historical and what was not. I wish more historical fiction did this. I found it fascinating how much of her story that most of us know as written by renowned Roman poets and writers was written by men who were indeed her enemies.

I will give this book the highest praise I can give historical fiction: it made me want to go and read more about all of the characters involved, including perhaps from some primary sources.

Buy this book on Amazon: The Memoirs of Cleopatra: A Novel

Victoria Victorious – Book Review

March 11, 2008

Victoria Victorious cover“Victoria Victorious” is one of the the longer of the Jean Plaidy books I have read. Now, this makes some sense as Queen Victoria is still the English monarch with the longest reign. However, the length, composition, and flow of the novel reminded me greatly of “Queen of This Realm,” Plaidy’s novel of Queen Elizabeth.

Indeed, Victoria herself seems to be inviting a comparison between her life and reign and that of Queen Elizabeth I. There is a scene near the beginning of the novel where Victoria is young and is playing with her dolls. One of her dolls is a doll of Elizabeth I and Victoria shows a strong amount of disdain and dislike for her, calling her “that doll” or “that Queen.” The emotion seems to be one almost of fear, fear that Victoria cannot live up to Elizabeth, that she can never be as great as Elizabeth. I know very little about Queen Victoria other than what Plaidy presents, but as far as Plaidy’s writings on both queens, it seems Victoria’s fears came true.

There are two things that stand out about Queen Elizabeth, particularly in Plaidy’s “Queen of This Realm”: the first thing is that, above all, Elizabeth is determined to keep the love of her people; the second is that she shall be King as well as Queen and will be ruled by no man. These political determinations of Elizabeth’s serve her well and keep her crown relatively safe on her head. Victoria’s crown seems to be safe only because by that point in British history, the monarch has become largely a figurehead and few outside figures care to challenge her right.

By no means did Victoria keep the love of her people. She had, I believe, 7 assassination attempts, although evidently not all of them were in earnest. Nor did she seem to care to keep the people’s love. Whenever they turned against her, Victoria turned back against them, railing about their stupidity and willingness to be led. Actually, it seemed that it was Victoria who was willing to be led…

I had high hopes for the Queen when I was reading about the girl. When she was younger, Victoria seemed able to stand up for herself and what she thought right, most tellingly to her mother and her mother’s…whatever he was…John Conyer. Once she is Queen, however, Victoria seems to simply float merrily on behind whatever man has earned her trust, be it Lord Melbourne, Benjamin Disraeli, or Prince Consort Albert.

Honestly, this was probably my least favorite of all of Plaidy’s books I have read. However, I do not think that this was necessarily because of failings on her part. First of all, it may be possible that I simply prefer to read historical fiction with a greater historical distance from the present, I constantly found myself trying to figure out the lineage to the current British royals, and perhaps that simply is not as interesting to me. Second of all, the events in Victoria’s queenship seem to come out from nowhere and disappear back to nowhere; however, this seems to be more of a function of her not having a particularly good head for politics, nor being particularly interested in it, at least as Plaidy writes her. Third, I fairly disliked both Victoria and Albert, as well as many of the people around them. Unlike regular fiction, where it is not typically well received to write thoroughly unlikeable characters, historical fiction is trying to convey the lives of real people, many of whom are quite unlikeable. It may simply be that Plaidy found Victoria unlikeable and wrote her thus, without simply giving in to the rumors about her.

Overall, this book seemed a good introduction to the reign of Queen Victoria – no matter how obnoxious and smug I found her husband to be.

Buy this book on Amazon: Victoria Victorious: The Story of Queen Victoria

Leonardo’s Swans: A Novel – Book Review

March 3, 2008

Leonardo's Swans coverLeonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex tells the story of the daughters of the Duke of Ferrera. Isabella, the elder daughter, desires to be powerful and adored, and most of all to achieve immortality by being painted by the Magistro, Leonardo Da Vinci. Her younger sister, Beatrice, desires most of all to love and be loved in return. Tension arises between the two when Beatrice marries Ludovico Sforza, one of the most powerful men in Italy and the patron of Leonardo Da Vinci.

These sisters lived during an extremely volatile time in Italian politics, a time of shifting allies and foreign threats. They had to deal with politics, government administration, their husbands’ affairs, threat of invasion by the French, and the frustration of working with Leonardo Da Vinci.

Karen Essex wrote this novel in hopes of setting a background for the life and works of Da Vinci through the women who appeared as subjects in his work, including Bianca and Isabella D’Este, Cecilia Gallerani, and Lucrezia Crivelli. She does this primarily through Bianca and Isabella, both of whom were strong, able women who were great assets to their husbands in the administration of their states. Essex’s goal may have worked too well, however; the novel seems to be more about Bianca and Isabella than about Leonardo, he seems to be more the incidental character, which is a bit incongruous considering the title of the novel. I did feel, however, that the novel was well written and had that thing which I most value in a historical fiction work: an historical description of the fates of the characters, in order to further the reader’s understanding of the period and the events.

Overall, this is a book I would definitely recommend. Perhaps those who have been stuck on the Tudors of England might like to move to Italy to help expand horizons; there are even some characters familiar to Tudor afficianados, French Kings Louis XII and Francois I, as well as Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian.

Buy this book on Amazon: Leonardo’s Swans: A Novel


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