The Queen’s Choice – Anne O’Brien (The return of Northernreader!)

So it’s been a while, but you have had the high jinks and churches of http://www.northernvicar.co.uk to keep you going. He has included the Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature which we enjoyed last weekend, so perhaps I’ll get round to writing about that sometime. Certainly I enjoyed meeting Kate Charles and listening to her speak of Clergy crimes. Apparently clergy have a lot of experience with murder in her world….

Anyway, perhaps a surprising choice for my comeback, but one I have enjoyed reading and, let’s face it, I can’t read worthy, literary books all the time. Not that there is anything unworthy about this book. It’s a great read, kept my interest throughout, and introduced me to new characters that only Shakespeare had vaguely mentioned. I really enjoyed the twists and turns of a pre Tudor historical fiction writing. I have loved reading about the Tudors since I was about ten (I know, I know. Blame Jean Plaidy) and have worked my way through Phillipa Gregory. This novel is different, and I enjoyed not knowing what happened at the end!

Joanna of Navarre is a woman who has been married off for political reasons at an early age. Her much older husband, the Duke, is affectionate and immensely respectful of her feelings and intelligence. So when he allows her to speak alone with Henry, an exile from the uncertain court of Richard II, he knows that she is deeply attracted to this young widower whose fate is so unpredictable. When John dies, he leaves his title to his young  son, but the administration and effective ruling of his dukedom to Joanna. In a life full of incident and surprises, Joanna rules firmly and well, but is approached by a suitor who she knows, loves and respects, via a man who is to have a profound effect in his own right.Her eventual choice is less dominating of the novel as a make or break decision than you would think from the title, but the results of her choice change her life and in no way leads to a bed of roses. Henry is a difficult man, fighting off challenges of every kind, unwilling to allow Joanna in to his decisions. I was frustrated at her lack of action at times, but given the historical setting she takes control of her destiny on a frequent basis. As I said above, not knowing what would happen to her and those around her added to the novel for me, an element I have enjoyed in The Forbidden Queen, an earlier O’Brien book.

Part of me is surprised that O’Brien is not better known. Her sense of place is great, and her research seems to me solid and reliable, without ever bogging down the plot or characterisation. Her novels feature strong women whose experiences are believable with men who they love, but who frustrate them in a very realistic way. She has written novels about imaginary women, but seems to have settled now for women with a definite footprint in history. These are novels which fairly race along and carry the reader with them, keen to know what happens. The Harrogate History Festival cited one of the problems of historical writing as that the reader knows that the characters “all die in the end”, but these novels are not dominated by that truth. There is always hope, yet a resolution of the female lead’s story.  I find that the writing style is not dense, not bogged down by details which prove that the author has done her homework but slow the action. Not that I don’t appreciate solid research by any means, but sometimes historical fiction seems to leave the characters behind in the rush to impart facts.

Anyway, this is a good book, well written and immensely readable. I’m just going to investigate her other books lurking on my shelves that I may not have read, before looking out my book group novel The Needle’s Eye by Margaret Drabble. Not such a fast read, I fear…

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