When I began THE SUMMER QUEEN by Elizabeth Chadwick – a signed copy, I might add – I promised myself I would read it purely for pleasure rather than with pen in hand to take notes or mark passages for further examination. And I did just that. However, since my mind is still humming with the pleasure of Chadwick’s story, I thought I would use the top attributes of favourite historical fiction from the 2013 historical fiction survey to explain my enthusiasm for this novel.
(1) Feeling immersed in time and place – As a reader of historical novels, I expect to be transported to another world and in this case I was ready to dwell in the early 12th century the moment I opened The Summer Queen. In the very first chapter, descriptions of household activities, garments worn, food served and a pilgrimage to Compostela set the scene immediately. Ancient terms enter the text, dialogue reflects a time of very different customs and manners, we progress from place to place feeling the ache of long hours on horseback and the dust of the road, a gyrfalcon marks Alienor’s power and position.
“The bed itself was blessed with much sprinkling of holy water, and then Louis was guided to the left side of the bed and Alienor to the right, the better to ensure the conception of a son.”
This was a time when men had all the power and the church influenced so many decisions. Women were pawns in marriages that served only to bring land or curtail the influence of some enemy. Despite being a mere female, Alienor discovers and nurtures her own power base – sexuality, intellect, fierce determination, and the steadfast loyalties of her people.
(2) Superb writing – Chadwick’s prose effortlessly blends narration, description and dialogue. Each chapter advances the story with tension and drama, never with superfluous detail or tangential storylines. Dialogue reflects the time and circumstances of the characters and yet is easy for today’s readers to understand. In terms of emotional resonance, I identified with Alienor’s desire to protect Aquitaine, understood her efforts to support Louis and others who depended on her. My heart ached when hers did and I could appreciate how Louis’s disdain and behind-the-scenes maneuvering undermined their marriage. The plot offered many twists and turns – in that era no woman of substance and fortune could take her life’s path for granted.
“Swords of sunlight cleft the clouds and illuminated the pilgrim church of the Madeleine crowing the hill of Vezelay … as if the fingertips of God were reaching down to touch the abbey in benediction.”
(3) Characters both heroic and human – Alienor, Louis, Geoffrey de Rancon, Henry, Geoffrey of Anjou, are examples of characters both heroic and human. Chadwick is careful to let us see their strengths as well as their flaws. Each character comes alive through description, action and dialogue. Alienor, in particular, is magnificently drawn – shining in tempestuous energy and heartfelt longing. And we can readily understand, and even sympathize with, Louis’s flawed personality. Towards the end, Henry bursts on the scene and I am eager to know more about him in The Winter Crown.
(4) Authentic and educational – Chadwick delivers on historical fact without overwhelming the story, concentrating events on people who are critical to understanding Alienor’s life and times. We learn about food, fashion, political strategies, royal tensions, border disputes, the second crusade, the role of the church and so much more. Language of the time is used sparingly, allowing the reader to appreciate unfamiliar terms without being confused.
“the servants spread a trestle under the rich blue sky”
“wrapped in a warm mantle lined with the pelts of Russian squirrels”
“Louis took a mouthful of wine, swilled it around his mouth, and leaned over his destrier’s withers to spit it out.”
(5) Dramatic arc of historical events – as the first novel in the trilogy, The Summer Queen gives us Alienor from the age of thirteen to the dissolution of her marriage to Louis VII and the first few years with Henry II. Chapter by chapter, Elizabeth Chadwick selects only the important characters and events of that time, never burdening the story with too much historical detail. Drama stalks every scene. The stakes are high. Alienors future is uncertain from the time of her father’s death; her position frequently threatened. She leaves her child to accompany Louis on crusade and loves a man she cannot have. Powerful men attempt to thwart her at every turn. Happiness is never a certainty. Death lurks and quickly overcomes. Throughout, tension was palpable and the pages flew by.
The Summer Queen is truly superb. Bravo, Elizabeth Chadwick.