‘The King’s Curse’ by Philippa Gregory

The latest installment in Philippa Gregory’s Tudor epic follows the life of Margaret Plantagenet, Countess of Salisbury. The daughter of Isabelle Neville and George, Duke of Clarence, granddaughter of the Earl of Warwick, also known as the Kingmaker, and the niece of two kings, Edward IV and Richard III, Margaret is no stranger to the perils that come with being close to the throne. Her brother Edward was locked in the tower from boyhood and executed, her cousin Elizabeth married to the Tudor usurper, Henry VII and her father drowned in a barrel of wine.

With her title stripped from her, she is married off to a Tudor loyalist and renamed plain Lady Pole. But she can’t escape her lineage, and is soon drawn back into the centre of the scheming and unpredictable Tudor court. Keeping the household of her cousins oldest son and heir to the throne, Arthur, Prince of Wales, Margaret becomes a close friend and confident of his young bride, Catherine of Aragon. Over the years, Margaret witnesses Catherine marry Arthur’s younger brother, the soon to be Henry VIII of England. She stands by her side as she loses child after child, and takes on the role of governess and protector to the treasured Princess Mary.

But when his wife fails to give Henry a male heir, Margaret has no choice but to watch as Catherine slips from his favour. Through the troubled times ahead, as more and more people are sent to the tower and the executioners block, Margaret has to make a choice – whether to defy the king and stand up for what she believes in, or to pull back and protect her family in any way she can.

Over the course of the novel, we watch as Margaret transforms from a scared young woman desperate to fly under the radar to a powerful matriarch in her own right, advancing herself and her family by asserting her rights as a member of one of England’s most influential families.

Comparing this latest novel to the previous books in Gregory’s ‘Cousins War’ series, Margaret stands out as a woman who is able to influence events and wield real, demonstrable power. She is one of few women to be made a peer in her own right without a husband, she runs her households and business with precision and, in Philippa Gregory’s imagining, she guides each and every member of her family in their careers and choices. She is the one who makes decisions about if and how they will make a stand against the King, and as a true Plantagenet, her name gives her the authority to influence the common people.

She’s an interesting character to get an insight into, and Gregory, as the undisputed queen of this genre, has a gift for creating characters with strong, believable voices that bring the past to life.

‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson

the daylight gatePublished in 2012 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials, one of the most well documented examples of witch hunts in English history, this novella combines established facts and records with a rich imagined backstory to help brings events to life.

The book focuses on Alice Nutter, one of the eleven people accused of witchcraft and tried in the August Assizes in 1612. Alice was unique in the fact that she was a gentlewoman and relatively wealthy compared to the rest of the accused.

Jeanette Winterson creates an atmosphere that evokes the culture of 17th century England – one of fear and fanaticism, complete with a paranoid King intent on destroying both witches and Catholics. It’s gritty and grim and bleak and it doesn’t romanticise poverty. There’s no scrimping on the details when it comes to hygiene, health or squalid living conditions. Grave robbing, torture and corpse mutilation all feature in their turn and at times it’s quite hard to read.

She uses the known facts and the details of the trial to give her characters motivations, backstories and personalities. The Idea of witchcraft is portrayed in numerous very different ways. For the most part, ‘witchery’ is something that people were accused of out of fear or anger. It’s also something of a religion to some of the poorer people, who out of desperation may believe in anything to help them survive. To the village healers, it’s a profession. To Alice Nutter and her companions, in this story at least, it’s something more real, dangerous but full of potential. Continue reading

Emily Croy Barker’s ‘The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic’

thinking womans guideDespite disliking the main character so much I almost quit halfway through, once you get stuck into this book it isn’t half bad!

The first part of this book is pure fairy tale. Our main character, Nora, stumbles upon a beautiful house and gardens deep into the forest. Soon, she’s drawn into the chanting and intoxicating world of Illisa and her friends. Caught up in a whirlwind of parties and swiftly married off to Illisa’s son Raclin, it’s only much later that she starts to regain her faculties enough to understand that she’s been enchanted from the second she clapped eyes on Ilissa, and that the Faitoren are much more than they seem. Desperate to escape their clutches, she flees and is rescued by the magician Aruendiel.

Away from the Faitoren, Nora finds herself in a world reminiscent of Medieval England. With no way to get back to her old life, she learns to adapt to life in his household. This brings some challenges in terms of how conceptions of power and gender are viewed compared to what she’s used to.  Initially, Nora’s relationship with Aruendiel is fraught and strained, with her essentially being an initially unwelcome, dependant houseguest who has yet to prove her worth. Eventually though, they start to work out their differences after she persuades him to start teaching her basic magic. And when Ilissa and Raclin make a play to kidnap Nora back, they trigger the start of a war that’s been a long time coming. Continue reading

‘The Golem and the Djinni’ by Helene Wrecker

GolemIn early twentieth century New York, a Golem wakes without a master and a Djinni is released from a bottle after years in captivity, bound in human form.

Created out of clay, the Golem has one single purpose, to protect her master and serve his needs. But when he dies crossing the Atlantic, she is left utterly alone and overwhelmed by the flood of human desires and emotions in the bustling city. Taken under the wing of a Jewish Rabbi who recognises her for what she is, the Golem struggles to overcome her instincts and to live a life disguised as a human within the tight Jewish community.

Elsewhere, in a Middle Eastern neighbourhood, a man repairing a metal flask is stunned by the appearance of the Djinni on his shop floor. The Djinni, having been trapped for thousands of years inside the flask and bound by iron cuffs that keep him assuming from his true form, is forced to take refuge as an apprentice at the metal shop in order to blend into his surroundings.

But even as they both adapt to their new lives, the Djinni never stops searching for a way to break his bonds and the Golem searches for answers and a way to be free to show her true self. Meeting by chance, they spend their nights wandering the city streets and parks, forming a friendship that helps them to get through the days they spend pretending to be human. Far away in Europe, a man sets out across the ocean. Dangerous and powerful, he threatens everything they have, but he might hold the key to setting them free. Continue reading

Victoria Hislop’s ‘The Sunrise’

The SunriseWhen I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of Victoria Hislop’s latest novel ‘The Sunrise’, I knew it was going to be good. I’ve loved all of her three previous novels, and this was no exception.

‘The Sunrise’ is set in Cyprus, and more specifically in the ill-fated coastal resort of Famagusta, on the eve of civil war between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. To give the novel some context, the year of 1974 saw Famagusta transform from a thriving tourist destination to a ghost town, as some 40,000 people abandoned their homes and fled in the wake of an advancing Turkish army. An area of the city, known as Varosha, remains barricaded off to this day. The war created hundreds of thousands of refugees – many of whom were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

In Hislop’s novel, Savvas Papacosta and his wife Aphroditi have built the Sunrise hotel to be bigger and better than any other hotel in Famagusta. The epitome of luxury, no expense has been spared to create the ultimate holiday destination. Despite growing tensions outside of the tourist resort, Savvas is determined to continue expanding and harbours ambitions of building a grand hotel empire along the beach. Continue reading