Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner

Full disclosure: I started following Warner’s blog a few years ago and corresponded a few times via e-mail regarding some questions I had. We’ve since become Facebook friends and I quite like her as a person. 

Read: 16 April, 2015

Warner’s excitement about Edward II is infectious. I found her blog through my general interest in medieval Europe, and soon found my new favourite monarch. So I was understandably excited for this book to come out. (Then, of course, had to wait eons because Amazon apparently didn’t get enough books to cover the pre-orders.)

The writing style is, unfortunately, a little info-dumpy. I found it difficult to really get engrossed in the narrative when it felt more like reading someone’s notes than the final product. This is a very common problem in non-fiction, though, and is overshadowed by the book’s strengths.

Notably, how well Warner is able to make Edward II (and Isabella, for that matter) seem like a real person – complex and sometimes idiosyncratic, a whole person. In particular, it was wonderful to see such a nuanced look at Edward’s relationship with his wife, Isabella.

It was a shame that so much time was devoted to debunking the common myths surrounding Edward’s reign, but it had to be done. I was glad, also, that Warner didn’t take the easy route of simply dismissing them out of hand, instead taking the time to explain the arguments and present the evidence.

I really enjoyed the numerous lists in the book – how much Edward’s household spent on cloth for a wedding, how much fish was consumed during a stay in a particular place, etc. I know it’s not for everyone, but it helped me visualize what these events might have looked like, it made them tangible and relatable; especially since Warner took pains to translate the lists into modern terms (how much would that amount of money have really meant at the time?).

I definitely found it a worthwhile read, and I recommend it for anyone interested in the politics of medieval England, and particularly in the life of the first English monarch to be deposed.

EDIT: I’ve heard rumours that Warner may be working on a biography of Isabella next, so I’m really excited for that!

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #3: The Merchant’s Mark by Pat McIntosh

Read: 10 December, 2010

Gil Cunningham is eagerly awaiting a shipment of books. But when the barrel that was supposed to contain literature turns out to have a human head floating in brine instead, he and his companions become enmeshed in yet another mystery.

Another great addition to the series!

There’s a bit more supernatural stuff (a ghost this time), but it’s still manageable in quantity.

I like that Gil’s station changes between the books. Each book is an isolated mystery, of course, but the character development is continuous throughout the series. I’ve really enjoyed watching Gil’s relationship with Alys grow and change – which it does in a delightfully realistic and sensible way – as well as their accumulation of companions – first a baby, then a dog. I look forward to reading the next books in the series!

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #2: The Nicholas Feast by Pat McIntosh

Read: 3 December, 2010

Soon after the events in Harper’s Quine, Gil Cunningham participates in his old university’s Nicholas Feast. But during the day, a young student is found dead. Because of his success in catching the killer in Harper’s Quine, Gil is asked to solve this murder as well. Joined by his love, Alys, and her father, he immerses himself in politics and espionage to find justice for a student no one seems to have liked.

I bought this book, along with the next two in the series, as soon as I had finished the first one, but I didn’t read it for quite a while. In my silliness, I loved Harper’s Quine so much that I was afraid of burning through the series too fast!

This was an excellent addition to the series! Once again, the mystery was interesting, and I love the relationship between Gil and Alys (not to mention Alys’s father). I’m not a fan of the supernatural element (the titular Quine from the last novel seems to be psychic – although like most psychics, his pronouncements are vague enough to be of absolutely no use), but it’s low-key enough that it can be easily ignored. Besides, the rest of the story more than makes up for it.

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #1: The Harper’s Quine by Pat McIntosh

Read: 11 September, 2010

I think that anyone who pays some attention to my reviews here would easily be able to guess that I love mysteries and I love historical fiction. So when I came across Harper’s Quine as a book that offers both, I had to buy it. But, as is so often the case, it sat on my shelf next to a whole lot of other unread books as I tried mightily to catch my reading rate up to my shopping rate.

Finally, finally, it was time to give Harper’s Quine a turn, and I immediately regretted that I had waited so long!

Gil Cunningham is expected to enter the priesthood. But when he becomes mixed in with a murder investigation, he is led to meet the lovely Alys, his future becomes rather less than certain.

I really enjoyed this books for quite a few reasons. The biggest is that the mystery is solvable by the reader – pay attention while Gil gathers clues, and it’s possible to figure out the murder rather early on. It’s a little frustrating to see Gil continue to stumble about in ignorance, but it’s immensely satisfying to be proven correct at the end. These are my favourite sort of mysteries!

Another aspect I really enjoyed was the relationship with Alys. Alys is an active participant in the mystery solving. She’s smart, capable, and contributes a lot to the detective work. But at the same time, this doesn’t feel anachronistic. Unlike Rowland’s Uechi Reiko, Alys is not a modern feminist trapped in the past. She’s a strong woman, but she’s still plausible. And, as a woman, she has many responsibilities. While her father and lover are out having great adventures, she must remain mindful of her household and its need to be continuously managed.And she can’t just “do it all” – there are times when she can’t get to a particular task that’s relevant to the mystery because she is occupied with being the lady of the house.

If I had to look for a flaw, it would be with the fate of the baddie. I’ve complained about this before, I know, but I find it rather distasteful when the baddie(s) meets with a gruesome end. I understand that it’s supposed to be cathartic, or some such nonsense, but it just strikes me as barbaric. A simple hanging, while only slightly less brutal, would at least have the benefit of being that age’s expression of justice.

But leaving that aside, this was a truly remarkable book, a rare gem. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who is a fan of mysteries and/or historical fiction!

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The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone

Read: 31 October, 2010

One night, Bakar disappeared. His family is left alone, with only an old man to hunt for them. But then a stranger appears with a story of a great wave that killed his people, and this sets in motion a series of interweaving stories, told by the many voices of the People.

Set in prehistoric Scotland, The Gathering Night is a story about survival, as well as a community’s attempts to heal itself after a tragedy.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but to compare this novel to Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series. I think it might be blasphemy to say this, but I found that Elphinstone actually did a better job. Both authors try to convey a lot of “land knowledge” in their books, explaining the various things that can be eaten for example. But while Auel simply lists them in page after page of plant names, Elphinstone builds it right into the story.

The story itself is captivating. I’ve been very critical of books with multiple narrators in the past, but it works in this case. The set up for telling the story is plausible, and the narrative voices are distinct enough to feel like the story is really being told by several different people (but not so much that it feels like a gimmick).

All in all, I’d say this is a very worthwhile read. It preserves all off the appeal of prehistoric novels while avoiding many of the flaws.

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Bridei Chronicles #1: The Dark Mirror by Juliet Marillier

Read: 5 April, 2009

As a small child, Bridei was given to the powerful Priteni druid Broichan for his education. It soon becomes clear that Broichan has a destiny in mind for his young ward, a destiny that Bridei has no choice but to accept. But the moon goddess seems to have plans of her own as, one Midwinter’s Eve, she sends him a very peculiar baby girl whom Broichan immediately perceives as a threat.

I’m finding it extremely difficult to write this review. The Dark Mirror is by no means a bad book, nor is it a good one. I can think of nothing that Marillier did wrong, yet I can think of nothing that she did very well. This is the epitome of average (though, to be fair, my standards can be very harsh). I can only think to say that the novel seemed very slow-paced, but I can think of no scene that could have been cut. The fat is far too well spread.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, but I can think of very little that was memorable. In that sense, I will recommend it as filler, something to read on a rainy afternoon. This is a book that can be put down without much of a struggle when the phone rings.

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