Jun 21, 2009

Book Review: "My Lord John" by Georgette Heyer

"My Lord John: A tale of intrigue, honor and the rise of a king" by Georgette Heyer
Product ISBN: 9781402213533
Price: $14.99
449 pages (includes Genealogy charts, preface, characters, glossary and reading guide)
Publication Date: May 2009 by Sourcebooks
The Burton Review Rating: 1.75 - 2 stars

"Set in the last days of the reign of Richard II, just before Henry V succeeded him to the throne, the eponymous hero is Henry's brother, John, Duke of Bedford. Heyer brings the medieval world to life, creating a panoramic view of a royal family's intricacies, intrigues and sibling rivalries, along with the everyday lives of the servants, clerics, and vassals in their charge."

That blurb is significant to remember as you read this. It is quite true regarding the details that Heyer retells, and when preparing my own review of the book I had specifically come up with the word "panoramic" to describe this, and afterwards realized that the description was not unique to me. But the word fits splendidly due to the nature of the book. My Lord John is immediately plagued by a quagmire of names... so much so, that I doubt that anyone unfamiliar with the era of Medieval times up to the Wars of the Roses would even want to attempt to understand what is going on here. I have read medieval fiction and non-fiction before but this one starts off with so many names including nurses, wives etc. having dialogues with each other without proper introductions to the reader that I had to stop reading and brush up again on the nobility of Medieval England. When you open a novel that begins with pages of family tables and genealogical references, you know you'll need to get your thinking cap on.

Heyer opens this novel up with 1393 - 1399 when Richard II is king, and is known as Cousin Richard to the lordings (the children) that we are immediately introduced to. Right off the bat I came across some interesting words that I had to look up. (Barbican, postern, herber.) This time I had the forethought to look in the back of the book and found the glossary and a reading guide! Heyer captures the dialogues between the lords with seemingly accurate phrases for Medieval times (hence the need for the glossary) and jumps right into her settings without much of a preamble. The story continues with the lordings of Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) and the small details of their comings and goings as they learn through gossip and messengers the goings-on of their King, Cousin Richard and the political upheaval the King creates which drastically effects the children. These lordings of Henry of Bolingbroke are number four boys and two girls, but the most important are Harry and John and given the most attention to in Part I. Harry who later becomes King Henry V after his own father is king, is taken under the wing of Richard II (or taken hostage, depends on how you look at it), and John is the My Lord John as referred to in the title. (I am really struggling to not turn this into a history lesson!).

Major events occur around the family such as the headstrong uncle to the King Richard, Thomas Woodstock is murdered after being sent into exile, more plots and arrests and soon after the children's father, Henry of Bolingbroke is also sent away. Hence, uprisings among the families and the start of the Wars of The Roses soon after that although not reaching that part in the book. I soon found that I was becoming engrossed with the story once it started to feel like Heyer was staying in one place with the characters at this point, but then she lost me again as we reach the 1400's when John becomes a Lord Warden in the North. The transition of King Henry IV after King Richard is deposed is cumbersome and drawn out. Heyer attempts to recreate the relationship of the boys with their father King Henry, but the grasp is tenuous at best. John's elder brother Harry is sent to deal with the Welsh and Owen Glendower. Their brother Thomas goes to Ireland. The two sisters Phillippa and Bess are married off and scarcely mentioned again except when the one dies which causes heartache for her father the King. Ongoing rivalries plague Lord John, the relationships with the nobles and the King are the focus, and the outcome of traitors and heretics are dispersed throughout. The problems with the new Pope are mentioned and the politics with their neighboring countries are also discussed, always in the glazed overview of minute details over and over.

The relationship between Henry and Harry, father and son, is also a running theme throughout the book, as the one is destined to succeed the other. The rivalries of the many families are a confusing mess throughout the book, with seemingly every family name featured such as Beauforts, Nevilles, Hastings, Beauchamps, Huntingdon, Kent, Despenser.. the list goes on and on and I am quite thankful for handy reference guide in the beginning of the book: four and a half pages devoted to "The Characters", and I enjoyed the Genealogy tables as well as the preface written by Heyer's husband.


Heyer fans like me who have only read her romance and mystery novels are in for an about face, as this is truly pure historical in nature and not with the usual comedic settings or romantic rendezvous nor the tongue-in-cheek of slapstick comedy romps that Heyer is best known for. At first look I believed I could only recommend this work to those who are very familiar with the background of this turbulent era, and for those who would like a closer look at John and the circumstances of his upbringing and his relationship with his family. But the fact that there was no sense of satisfaction from this book, I now hesitate to recommend this at all. I cannot truly imagine there being any new insights here that would be better be accomplished through reading a less time consuming and more engaging book.

I wanted to really, really like this novel, but this time I have to say that as both a Heyer fan, and Medieval era fan, I obviously did not enjoy this. It started to become a chore for me but I was pulled through only by Heyer's interpreting of the dialogues between the subjects which were interesting if they were not interrupted by Heyer's backtracking through explanatory history. Through the conversations of the nobles is when Heyer's wit shone through, unfortunately there was just not enough of this to make this tome worthwhile to me. It is said that Heyer researched meticulously for this book, which was published after her death, and she originally had intended to publish three books. Perhaps if more drama was inserted within which would merit it a historical fiction work, and indeed separating out and dramatizing the major events throughout the three books, this endeavor would have succeeded. But instead, a billion details about many characters of the time are squashed into 440 pages that lack the typical Heyer flair. The wording that Heyer uses to detail the story does not promote its readability, it actually hindered any progress that could have been made. It also had the feeling of one step forward, two steps back with the myriad of recollections of events amidst the current storyline.

The wording was dull, dry and emotionless and read more like a text book rather than the intended novel. There is zero romance, and I am very confused as to why on the Amazon website the editorial review is "rapturously romantic". Unless the use of 'romantic' the reviewer meant antiquated. Not a single romance brewing unless of course the mere mention of a death of one wife and the marrying of another (or the mentioning of having an affair) is what is called romantic! The Amazon tags also bring up Romance and Regency in several forms and there is none of that in this work. The cover for this book, although pretty, has nothing to do with this book either. I would put a warrior's shield on it in place of the woman (or even a man to represent John). The fact that the book trudges along for endless pages till its absolute insane conclusion in MID-SENTENCE because Heyer's manuscript breaks off there is utterly asinine!