Saturday, April 11, 2009

Book Review: Mistress of the Monarchy

The first book I ever read by Alison Weir was The Wars of the Roses. I had just taken History of England in my freshman year of college and the people and events of the time period captivated me. After I read the book, I was also captivated by one historical figure in particular, John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III of England.

There is just something about John of Gaunt that draws you in. I probably took notice of him because, although he himself was never king, his direct descendants peppered the throne of not just England but Europe. Every English king starting with Henry IV is a direct descendant of the greatest nobleman in England. The Wars of the Roses are essentially his descendants battling it out. John of Gaunt married Blanche of Lancaster and became the Duke of Lancaster, so obviously the Lancastrians are his descendants. But Richard of York was also his great-grandson by virtue of his bastard daughter, Joan Beaufort. So his blood ran through the Yorkists as well. And not only was Henry VIII his great-great-great-grandson, but Catherine of Aragon was his great-great-granddaughter.

The progeny of John of Gaunt is captivating, but even more so because the Beauforts were his bastards with his mistress, Katherine Swynford. And the Beaufords were pretty bad-ass themselves. Katherine was the daughter of a lowly herald in Edward III's court, but her direct descendants include Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III (through her daughter Joan Beaufort); Henry VII and all the Tudors (through her son John Beaufort); and also James I and the Stewarts (though both her grandchildren John Beaufort and Joan Beaufort). Her son Henry Beaufort became a cardinal and apparently just narrowly missed being appointed Pope.

So long story short, Katherine Swynford is interesting, particularly because she was John of Gaunt's mistress for nine years before he married her after his second wife died. Mistress of the Monarchy is purportedly about her life, but really it is about her and John. Because she was of rather inconsequential birth, most the information Weir has about Katherine comes from John. For instance, Weir estimates the birthdates of the four Beaufort children based upon substantial gifts John made to her. Any insight into her personal feelings and thoughts is just conjecture, but one thing becomes abundantly clear: John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford loved each other very much. It's just a classic love story—the rich, powerful, noble hero and the beautiful, intelligent heroine. What more could you ask for?

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I don't even know what to say about this book by Seth Graham-Smith. "Magical" comes to mind.

This book is essentially Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen with zombies thrown in. And it is done is such a brilliant fashion that I was immensely entertained.

The Bennet girls are all highly trained zombie killers who studied with a martial arts master in China at the direction of the father. Their mother is mostly concerned with getting them married. When Elizabeth Bennet first meets Mr. Darcy as a county dance and hears him tell Mr. Bingley that she is "not handsome enough to tempt me," she starts seeing red. She is about to bust out her knife and slit his throat in defense of her honor when she is stopped by "unmentionables" (i.e., zombies) who break in through the windows and start eating people's brains. She and her four sisters immediately take the positions and form the "Pentagram of Death."

Need I say more?

Book Review: The Temptation of the Night Jasmine

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine is the fifth book in Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series. The series is based around an American graduate student names Eloise who goes to England to work on her dissertation/thesis. She is writing about spies during the Napoleonic Wars, post-French Revolution era. (Think the Scarlet Pimpernel.) When the matriarch of a noble family allows her access to the family papers, Eloise uncovers a whole group of flower-named spies. Eloise also catches the attention of the matriarch's nephew, Colin.

The books are light on Eloise's story, and heavy on the historical stories of the people she's researching. I really enjoyed the first book in the series, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, but I haven't been too crazy about the others. Mostly because so much time elapses between each publication, and I don't reread them, that I forget who is who and what went on in the last book. That's partially why I liked this book more than most.

The heroine in this book is Charlotte, who is a close friend of Henrietta, the heroine of The Masque of the Black Tulip and sister of the hero in Pink Carnation. So there is a connection to the previous books, but really this story stands on its own.

Charlotte was the daughter of the Duke of Dovedale, who died when she was young. Her distant (distant) cousin Robert inherits, but he is very young (I think fifteen) and runs away to join the army in India. It could be that he runs away before he actually inherits, but I don't remember. He isn't much interested in being Duke so he leaves things to Charlotte's grandmother, the Dowager Duchess. But years later when his mentor in the army is murdered by a fellow soldier who then hightails it back to England, Robert vows to avenge his mentor. That requires him to enter society as the Duke of Dovedale.

When he returns, Robert takes immediate notice of his lovely cousin, and Charlotte has harbored a secret tendre for Robert since they were children. But in true romance novel fashion, noble Robert messes things up because he doesn't think he can pursue Charlotte and the killer at the same time.

Willig has a lot of elements going on in this story, which makes it interesting. Charlotte loves to read romantic novels and she soon has to face the reality that life does not always turn out the way it does in her books. And Robert is haunted by the ghost of his reprobate father and has all sorts of "I'm not worthy" issues. I just bought the Twilight DVD and I've been watching it recently, so that is probably why I felt like there were similarities between Robert and Edward Cullen. Both of them think that they're no good when obviously that's not the case. But that's a pretty standard device in romance novels, I guess.

Anyway, it's not a bad book. But beware, romance novel readers: THERE IS NO SEX. I know, right? That's ridiculous. Even more ridiculous that Eloise and Colin didn't get it on. What are you doing, Willig? Stringing us along until the very end? (I've heard it's meant to be a six book series.) I guess so. Damn it.