Friday, April 20, 2012

Unicorn's Blood

Author: Patricia Finney
Publication Date: 1998
Cost: This is on offer on for just over $7.00, and there is no Kindle edition available.
Where Did I Hear About It: This is another find.

The Backstory

This novel takes place in 1587. Elizabeth has been queen for some time, and is now an older, somewhat cantankerous version of herself. Her Privy Council continues to try and convince her to order the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. She is attended by several familiar faces and many fictional ones created for the primary action of the story.

The main focus of the book is a diary kept by Elizabeth as a teenager, known as the Book of the Unicorn. From the beginning, it is clear that this diary contains information that could completely undo the Queen, compromising the loyalty of her subjects and delivering to her enemies exactly what they're looking for to destroy her. The mystery of the novel is exactly how the different individuals, who appear both separately and without reference to the diary at the start of the book, fit together.

The primary characters are: Mary, a former nun dissillusioned by the dissolution of the monasteries and nunneries under Elizabeth's father; David Becket, a man who has completely lost his memory who may know something about the Book of the Unicorn; Thomasina, Elizabeth's court fool and trusted friend; Simon Ames, a Jewish man who was a former informant for Frances Walsingham; and Secretary Davidson, who is working for the Queen. All of them are somehow related to the Book of the Unicorn, and their relationship to this book and to each other is gradually revealed throughout the novel.

The primary question is: Will Elizabeth find the Book of the Unicorn before her enemies do? And, if she doesn't, what will be her fate?

What about the book?

This book, unlike many novels focusing on Elizabeth or on the Tudors generally, was never a big hit with history buffs, and, after reading it, I can completely understand why.

The story isn't a good one for many reasons. First, it has an aura of complete impossibility about it, and often, what separates clever historical fiction from not-so-great historical fiction is believability in the context of historical events. Second, for about half of the book, none of the characters are particularly likeable. I will say that this issue improves during the course of the story, however, it may be difficult for even a determined reader to get to that point before giving up on it.

Finney does several rather odd, and often unnecessary things that compromise the novel. At least a portion--if not all of it, although that isn't clear--of the story is "told" by the Virgin Mary. I'm not sure if there is anything quite more ridiculous than choosing a Biblical figure for the narrator. It's hard to figure out a way this could actually work, but, the obvious routes were ignored in this case. You would expect that Mary may make a comment or two about the religious conflict of the day, for example, or about the obvious parallels between Virgin Mary and Virgin Queen.

The novel is also plagued by many characters that it could do without quite well. The Queen's Carey cousins appear, but, in the end, their role is too diminished to explain elongating the novel to include them. A set of circumstances surrounding one of Elizabeth's Ladies in Waiting could also have been sacrificed without any serious loss to the plot. In addition, the "secret" about Elizabeth is predictable, but, more than that, other authors have used the same plot device in much more effective, and interesting, ways.

On one positive note, I will say that Finney picked probably the perfect pace through which to reveal the secrets in the story. At first, I felt that the main mystery was divulged too early, but in retrospect, I was very wrong about that. Once the pieces start to fit together, the story became more interesting and the characters far more likeable. Finney had so many characters that she resolved a few of their stories with a bit too much brevity at the end, but, overall, the novel improved exponentially after about the mid-point. However, several times, I almost gave up the book before I got that far.

Rating: A 5. This isn't a great story overall, regardless of its improvements later on in the story.
Buy It or Borrow It: Probably neither in this case, unfortunately. Although the novel improves, I don't think that saves it. Skip this one and try some other offerings.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn

Author: Robin Maxwell
Publication Date: 1997
Cost: It looks like the best way to get a hold of this book is via Kindle edition, and the price is $9.99. However, there are numerous used copies available for $6.00 or less.
Where Did I Hear About It: This is another Booksfree selection.

The Backstory

This novel follows two storylines concurrently throughout--the story of Anne Boleyn, coming to the attention of Henry VIII, becoming queen, and later being executed; and the story of Elizabeth, Anne's daughter by Henry, newly crowned queen and involving herself rather scandalously with Robert Dudley, a courtier and friend.

Both sides of this story are examined fairly equally. Elizabeth's story is confined to a short period of, perhaps, months, while Anne's attempts to cover 14 years.

In the novel, Elizabeth is approached by one Lady Somerville, the now elderly niece of Constable Kingston of the Tower of London. She presents Elizabeth with her mother's diary. The novel moves back and forth between the two stories, Elizabeth's history being interrupted by her taking time to read the diary. In the meantime, Elizabeth is confronted with the challenges associated with being head of state, conflict with Scotland, her love for Robert Dudley and the mysterious death of his wife, Amy, and the various help and problems presented to her by her faithful servants, Kat Ashley and William Cecil.

The novel ends with the diary, documenting the last days of Anne's life, and Elizabeth's desire to learn about her mother's death from Lady Somerville. It also ends with one of Elizabeth's most fateful decisions, and the fulfillment of her mother's prophesy.

What About the Book?

Robin Maxwell's "prequel" to this novel, Virgin: Prelude to the Throne, was earlier discussed here. The prequel was actually written a few years after this novel, but, I do think it is the superior of the two.

The Secret Diary surprises the reader by focusing on Elizabeth first. I think, on the whole, the involvement of Elizabeth in this novel is very positive. Maxwell built an excellent bridge between these two novels in that many strands of the plot here are matched with explanatory mentions in the prequel. However, the prequel's story is far more compelling, probably due to Maxwell's far more clever and in-depth development of the character of Thomas Seymour in the prequel.

It is clear that Maxwell is doing two things--setting the story up for Elizabeth's "revelation" at the end of the novel, and apologizing for Anne in the process. Anne is cast as willful, attempting to forge her own destiny, but still subject to the desires and uses of the men around her (which is a realistic concept). However, Anne is far from the character that many who have studied her character know--although Maxwell has Elizabeth briefly discussing how vindictive Anne was, Anne's character is far from vindictive and far from passionate as she is portrayed in the diary.

Maxwell clearly wanted to cover the length of Anne's story in a rather short novel, so, in many cases, the diary entries' dates are few and far between, especially earlier on. Maxwell spends more time on periods of Anne's life that were particularly significant, and that seems appropriate. However, she also leaves out some important parts of Anne's story that we do know from a historical perspective, and, in other cases, a few important events are only given a line or two.

I think this novel suffers from a huge number of missed opportunities. There were moments when you really think there is going to be a remarkable revelation of some kind, and you end up disappointed. For example, Anne meets up with Henry Percy at one point prior to her marriage to King Henry, and it is implied that they had a romantic tryst. This reader immediately thought that perhaps Anne's first child would have been the product of Anne and Henry Percy, and that would have been a fascinating revelation with multiple implications....that never happens. It's as if her meeting up with Henry Percy had absolutely no purpose at all.

This novel also has some significant historical accuracy issues. At one point, Henry's past prior to his being marked out as his father's heir is discussed, and it is literally said that Henry VII predeceased his first son, Arthur. It is well known that Arthur died long before his father, and that Henry lived for many years as his father's designated heir as a result. In addition, Anne's last pregnancy is far too long to match up correctly with the historical record. She first mentions this pregnancy in May 1535, but she miscarries in January of the next year. This would have brought her very close to term. In reality, her January miscarriage (which is true) was estimated to have been the culmination of a 15 or 16 week pregnancy, and this was why it was so difficult to determine the gender of the child. If the child had been conceived in May, it would have been a miscarriage at between 7 and 8 months, and the gender of the child would have been quite obvious by that time (not to mention that miscarriages that late are extremely uncommon--at that point, the delivery of a child at that age would have been classified as a stillbirth).

The sections focusing on Elizabeth are far superior to Anne's diary, which is a disappointment given the diary is the focus of the novel. The reader can't but wonder if Anne had been cast as a more complex, and perhaps a more malevolent, character, the novel would have been a far more interesting read.

Rating: An easy read, actually, and not very long. I'll give it a 7.
Buy It or Borrow It: Borrow this one. I doubt you'll read it again after your first go around the block. It would be useful, though, to read this before you read Maxwell's other novel.