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Jun 17, 2011

Queen Defiant: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Anne O'Brien

Queen Defiant: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Anne O'Brien
(Devil's Consort is the UK title)
448 pages, paperback
Penguin NAL Trade: April 14, 2011
Personal copy won through Maria Grazia's giveaway at her Fly High blog, thank you!!
Burton Book Review Rating: 4 stars

Orphaned at a young age, Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, seeks a strong husband to keep her hold on the vast lands that have made her the most powerful heiress in Europe. But her arranged marriage to Louis VII, King of France, is made disastrous by Louis's weakness of will and fanatical devotion to the Church. Eleanor defies her husband by risking her life on an adventurous Crusade, and even challenges the Pope himself. And in young, brilliant, mercurial Henry d'Anjou, she finds her soul mate-the one man who is audacious enough to claim her for his own and make her Queen of England.

Eleanor of Aquitaine has been written about many times, and even more so in the past few years as her popularity grows as a strong and willful woman. Anne O'Brien gives us an intriguing look at the upheaval that Eleanor caused her French husband with a few fictional spins based on the rumors of Eleanor's time. For those that do know the history of Eleanor, she was wed to the prince of France at a young age, and soon after became Queen of France. For years Eleanor chafed against the pious confines of her husband and his advisers, and was given little acknowledgement for her intelligence. Eleanor was bred to rule over Aquitaine, and with this hasty marriage with the French she consequently missed her home tremendously. Fast forward through a disastrous crusade and embarrassing attempts to give France a male heir, Eleanor finds a way out of France but needs young Henry Plantagenet's help.

The French king Louis is still portrayed as the overly pious, devoted to God and less of his country and his wife. Abbot Suger, and Bernard of Clairvaux come into play as they continually thwart Eleanor's schemes for her independence. And the reason Eleanor is so widely popular is apparent with her strong characterization here; she is not weak, whimpering and simpering, she is always aware that to persevere she must plod on. And for years she did. She outlived most of her closest family members and pretty much went through everything under the sun by the time of her death. The arrival of the young and virile Henry Plantagenet on the scene gave the book a welcomed flair, as Eleanor had finally met her match with Henry.

Anne O'Brien sticks to the main plot of Eleanor's life in France, but also blends in her fictional dramatic license to skew certain dates and events, but I was still not put off. There was something to be said about the voice which the author gave Eleanor that made me want to keep reading this story, even though I knew what happened to Eleanor and her hopes in the end. The fact that the author did not unequivocally stick to the facts or time lines made it that much more fun, and since I noticed the "factual errors" I think this is actually what held some of the story's appeal for me as well. Which is quite an odd revelation for me, really. I normally would rail against the extreme dramatic license, but this time I really enjoyed it, and I was entertained (and a touch scandalized!). Exactly what I am sure the author set out to do. And those folks who have not read an Eleanor every other month probably wouldn't notice most of the differences in the events. I was also intrigued by the genealogy charts in the beginning referencing the lines of consanguinity, as well as the map showing the scope of the lands between Eleanor, Louis and Henry. And that cover was fabulous as well, the texture of the book was just right.. and the pages inside kept me rooting for Eleanor to the very end. The very end actually ended with the coronation of Henry II and Eleanor, so I've got to wonder what's next on Anne O'Brien's plate? Another novel focused on Henry's and Eleanor's devilish brood? Where do I sign up?

Queen Defiant is roughly my seventh Eleanor themed read in the past 15 months. I have read others before those as well. Since they were all novels, I think it's time I read the biographical Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life, by Alison Weir just so I can brush up on the facts and timeline for Eleanor and call myself well-versed. But, for a woman who lived eight hundred years ago as a lady of two kingdoms and mother to three kings, you've got to applaud the everlasting appeal that she maintains with the historically inclined reading audience.