Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: Thwarted Queen by Cynthia Haggard

Synopsis:

THWARTED QUEEN is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.

 Cecylee is the apple of her mother’s eye. The seventh daughter, she is the only one left unmarried by 1424, the year she turns nine. In her father’s eyes, however, she is merely a valuable pawn in the game of marriage. The Earl of Westmorland plans to marry his youngest daughter to 13-year-old Richard, Duke of York, who is close to the throne. He wants this splendid match to take place so badly, he locks his daughter up.



The event that fuels the narrative is Cecylee’s encounter with Blaybourne, a handsome archer, when she is twenty-six years old. This love affair produces a child (the “One Seed” of Book II), who becomes King Edward IV. But how does a public figure like Cecylee, whose position depends upon the goodwill of her husband, carry off such an affair? The duke could have locked her up, or disposed of this illegitimate son.



But Richard does neither, keeping her firmly by his side as he tries to make his voice heard in the tumultuous years that encompass the end of the Hundred Years War - during which England loses all of her possessions in France - and the opening phase of the Wars of the Roses. He inherits the political mantle of his mentor Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, and becomes the people’s champion. The rambunctious Londoners are unhappy that their country has become mired in misrule due to the ineptitude of a King prone to fits of madness. Nor are they better pleased by the attempts of the King’s French wife to maneuver herself into power, especially as she was responsible for England’s losses in France. But can Richard and Cecylee prevail? Everywhere, their enemies lurk in the shadows.



This book is filled with many voices, not least those of the Londoners, who forged their political destiny by engaging in public debate with the powerful aristocrats of the time. By their courageous acts, these fifteenth-century Londoners set the stage for American Democracy.



Createspace | October 29, 2012 | 498 pages

My Review

2 Stars

The period encompassing the Wars of the Roses and the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III is one of my favourite historical eras.  Given my Yorkist sympathies, I particularly enjoy books that feature the York's as central characters and/or that portray them sympathetically.  In light of this, Cynthia Haggard's Thwarthed Queen, which focuses on the life of House of York matriarch Cecylee Neville, should have been a winner for me.  Unfortunately, it wasn't.  

Judging from other reviews, my impressions of this novel are quite different from those of other readers.  Knowing that writing and publishing a novel requires a lot of heart and effort, I do not enjoy writing negative reviews.  Nevertheless, when it comes to historical fiction there are certain criteria that must be met in order for me to enjoy a novel.  Unfortunately, Thwarted Queen did not meet most of my criteria.  First and foremost I expect quality writing, engaging characters, and a well-developed, plausible plot.  While I don't consider Haggard's writing poor, it does lack the sophistication I have come to expect in good historical fiction.  This is especially true of the novel's dialogue, which doesn't come across as authentic.  In addition, the dialogue oftentimes has characters telling each other things they would already be aware of.  Although billed as a story “told by Cecily ‘Cecylee’ Neville, the Thwarted Queen” the section of the novel dealing with the Wars of the Roses is, in fact, told in third person.  The author notes that this was done to ensure that key events of the Wars of the Roses in which Cecylee would have had no part are conveyed to the reader.  Yet the three other sections of the book, which are each told from Cecylee’s perspective, have Cecylee and other characters clearly articulating important information second and third hand.

The novel's primary characters, all of whom come from the pages of history and with whom I'm already familiar, have little depth.  Cecylee comes across in the early parts of the novel as silly and immature.  Later in the book I found her to be too na├»ve for someone who is the daughter and wife of English nobles.  For example, she continually expresses surprise at the damage done by her revelation, in a room full of people, that Edward IV is illegitimate.  Really?  The man is the king of England.  How could she not know that there would be serious ramifications from her disclosure?   The antagonists of the novel, Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville, are one-dimensional villains, and I grew seriously tired of Haggard’s overuse of ‘Bitch of Anjou’ to refer to Margaret and ‘the Serpent’ to refer to Elizabeth.  The cast of characters is extensive, especially in the first two sections, with many characters appearing only briefly and adding absolutely nothing to the story. 

The plot, which covers a large stretch of time, does moves along at a relatively steady pace, but for a book ostensibly about Cecylee Neville I found that, other than her affair with Blaybourne, it actually showcases very little of her life.   While Cecylee states on more than one occasion that she worked her whole life for the benefit of her sons, with a couple of exceptions, the reader isn’t shown what she did for any of them.  As a result, this is the first novel I’ve read featuring Cecylee where I didn’t feel as if I knew her any better upon finishing than I did on the first page. 

Another element I look for in historical fiction is prose and detail that offers the reader a strong sense of time and place.   In my opinion, Thwarted Queen doesn’t successfully create either.  The Wars of the Roses and the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III is a fascinating and complex period of English history, but this novel doesn’t do its complexity justice.  While it is obvious a great deal of research went into the writing of this novel, much of the key historical information found within its pages is dumped into the text rather than seamlessly woven into the narrative.  In addition, the historical information conveyed in the book doesn’t adequately capture and link the contextual and background information necessary to an understanding of the origins of the Wars of the Roses.  

Overall, I think this novel suffers from the author overreaching in that she simply includes too many characters to successfully develop any of them, too much history without proper context, and covers too many years and events in too few chapters to do them justice (the formatting of this novel causes a misleadingly high page count).  A more focused narrative that examines only a few aspects of Cecylee’s life or that focuses solely on the Wars of the Roses might have allowed the author to avoid some of the weaknesses I’ve identified.  This would also address my final complaint, which is that the narrative fails to clearly convey the novel’s true focus.  Is the book supposed to be about Cecylee’s life, or is it supposed to be about the Wars of the Roses?  The synopsis indicates the book will be about Cecylee, yet the book’s overly long sub-title—A Saga About the Yorks, Lancasters and Nevilles, whose family feud started the Wars of the Roses.  Told by Cecily “Cecylee” Neville (1415-1495), the Thwarted Queen—points to a book focused on the Wars of the Roses.

I would like to end this review on a positive note.  While rumours about Edward IV's paternity arose after his death, there is no hard evidence that he was the son of anyone other than Richard, Duke of York.  Nevertheless, given doubt has been raised, I think Edward's paternity is an interesting topic for historical novelists to explore.  Even though I didn't enjoy Thwarted Queen, I do have to give Haggard credit for making Edward IV's possible illegitimacy one of the foundations of her novel since it puts a new spin on an already familiar period in history.  In addition, while not part of the novel itself, the Author's Note included at the end of the book is excellent.   In it Haggard clearly identifies where she took liberties, why she pursued certain avenues (e.g. Edward's illegitimacy), and the historical sources she used as research.  Many readers might not care, but I always appreciate when an author takes the time to explain their rationale for going in certain directions in their novels, and where and why they have deviated from history.   

Although I wouldn't recommend this novel, recognizing that other readers have had a more positive experience with the book I suggest checking out other reviews before deciding whether or not this book is for you.   

Note: I received a copy of this novel in exchange for my participation in the book's virtual book tour.


Check out the tour schedule and read other reviews by clicking here.

About the Author

Born and raised in Surrey, England, CYNTHIA SALLY HAGGARD has lived in the United States for twenty-nine years. She has had four careers: violinist, cognitive scientist, medical writer and novelist. Why does she write historical novels? Because she has been reading them with great enjoyment since she was a child. Because she has a great imagination and a love of history that won't go away. And because she has an annoying tendency to remember trivial details of the past and to treat long-dead people as if they were more real than those around her.

Cynthia's biggest influence was her grandmother, Stephanie Treffry, who had a natural story-telling ability. As a widow in 1970s Britain, Grandma Stephanie didn't drive a car, so would spend time waiting for buses. Her stories were about various encounters she had at those bus-stops. Nothing extraordinary, except that she made them so funny, everyone was in fits of laughter. A born entertainer, Cynthia tries to emulate her when she writes her novels.

In case you were wondering, she is related to H. Rider Haggard, the author of SHE and KING SOLOMONS'S MINES. (H. Rider Haggard was a younger brother of her great-grandfather.) Cynthia Sally Haggard is a member of the Historical Novel Society.  You can visit her website at www.spunstories.com

4 comments:

  1. Great review Melissa, I find it hard to right a negative review as well. I think you did a good job of showing the problems you had with the book and I would have to agree with you on most of them.

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  2. Sounds like there were a lot of good reasons for me to pass on this book!

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    1. Having an understanding of what you like from your reviews, I definitely agree that this one probably isn't for you.

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