Apr 23, 2010

Book Review: The Queen's Pawn by Christy English



The Queen's Pawn by Christy English
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: NAL Trade; Original edition (April 6, 2010)
ISBN: 978-0451229236
Review Copy provided by the author, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating:

At only nine, Princess Alais of France is sent to live in England until she is of age to wed Prince Richard, son of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Alais is an innocent pawn on the chessboard of dynastic marriage, her betrothal intended to broker an uneasy truce between the nations.

Estranged from her husband, Eleanor sees a kindred spirit in this determined young girl. She embraces Alais as a daughter, teaching the princess what it takes to be a woman of power in a world of men. But as Alais grows to maturity and develops ambitions of her own, Eleanor begins to see her as a threat-and their love for each other becomes overshadowed by their bitter rivalry, dark betrayals, conflicting passions, and a battle for revenge over the throne of England itself.

The novel of The Queen's Pawn begins later in Queen Eleanor's life, in 1169 after she has given birth to the famous sons of King Henry II and where Eleanor is beginning to turn those sons against the king. Alais is a young woman seeking knowledge and soaking it all up from Eleanor, and Eleanor is one who intends to use everyone around Eleanor to her and her son's advantage. Although her favorite son Richard is not the eldest son, Eleanor has high hopes that Richard will go far, especially with Eleanor's duchy of Aquitaine. Putting her pawn, Alais, right in Richard's path she hopes to reap the rewards. As opposed to the many political and familial problems that Eleanor both created and endured, this story is focused on the one relationship between Eleanor and Alais, and ultimately the triangle to include Henry II. Eleanor had always thought of herself as the one single female in the kingdom who was able to balance power and keep kings and princes under her thumb, with the ladies bowing low before her. The one female who could glean this power and match wits with was none other than young Alais, Princess of France.

The events of this story are told in alternating first person narration by Alais and Eleanor, which can be irritating to some as it does not allow for a broad view in historical context. Back and forth the story went, from Eleanor conniving silently against her husband King Henry II, and Alais watching and learning from Eleanor. When Alais and the King meet, there are immediate sexual sparks which became a focus for Alais and in fact this liaison may have historical truth to it. I hoped, and Eleanor hoped, that Alais would marry Richard soon and solidify the alliance to move against the king. Henry had sunk his teeth into Alais, however, and was loathe to let her go, especially to a renegade son. Another topic regarding infidelity concerns the repeated references to Eleanor and her previous lover, Raymond, which I would like to believe is untrue, but was mentioned more than once. I wonder how much more we will learn about this paticular relationship in English's next Eleanor book, which is about Eleanor's life in earlier times. I have a read a few books with Eleanor featured, and my favorites are still the trilogy by Sharon Kay Penman which starts with When Christ and His Saints Slept.

In Christy English's novel, Eleanor is portrayed as calculating and manipulative, while Alais takes awhile to show how much she has learned from Eleanor. It also takes some time before Eleanor's character develops into a likable one, yet can be admired for her strength and will power. Eleanor truly sees Alais as her own daughter, and treats her as one. She loves her as much as she loves her boys, yet she is shrewd enough to position Alais into an advantageous position for Eleanor's political needs. The characterizations were well done with the group, and kept true to form and popular belief. The story itself that includes Alais is told in such a way that I have not encountered before and intrigued me with the insights Alais' view offered. History shows Alais being a ward of Eleanor and Henry, and Henry not willing to give her up. The novel peaks when Alais feels forced to make a decision between Eleanor and Henry, and the effects can be volcanic when dealing with this power couple. This is a very interesting story on Alais and one that is not seen often. For that reason, I would recommend it as it is a very interesting piece of a much larger story.

The author provides a quick read that started off questionable for me (the repeated references to how one's eyes looked quickly grew tiresome) but the actual storyline picked up its pace quickly enough to hold my attention for the remainder of it. The alternating narratives flowed well and I was not perturbed whenever it changed to the other person, and unlike some reads the timeline always moved forward instead of rehashing some of the same recent events, maintained a cohesiveness with it. There is also a lot of sex involved as Alais gives herself to the King but it is not over done, but done a lot (does that make sense?), as being a mistress to a king would inevitably be. Those looking for more substantial information regarding the turmoil of these medieval times concerning the uprisings against Henry will be disappointed; Richard was the only offspring that was mentioned often as he was betrothed to Alais, and John was only there as a young boy worshipful to his father. The eldest son Henry was mentioned only several times, so this is not another Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine Saga that some may assume. This is not a story that readers would particularly enjoy if they want as much factual information as possible but still is a read that can be enjoyed by those who are both new or old to the Eleanor story.

I really enjoyed the way that English wrote the relationship between the queen and the princess, and the love of a mother for the daughter; this was its most endearing part for me. Christy English's debut novel fills in the gaps that history provides concerning Alais, Princess of France, Countess of Vexin, and offers an excellent imaginary tale of intrigue, suspense, envy and power. I think this shows much promise of a new historical fiction author and I look forward to the next installment.

 The Queen's Pawn is available now for purchase!
Read a review at Historical-fiction.com from a not new to Eleanor reader.
Read a review at Historically Obsessed, from a new to Eleanor reader.