Title: The Sister Queens
Author: Sophie Perinot
Genre: historical fiction
Pages: 528 (paperback ARC version)
Published: March 2012
Source: from publishers for review/book tour
Patient, perfect, and used to being first, Marguerite becomes Queen of France. But Louis IX is a religious zealot who denies himself the love and companionship his wife craves. Can she borrow enough of her sister's boldness to grasp her chance for happiness in a forbidden love?
Passionate, strong-willed, and stubborn, Eleanor becomes Queen of England. Henry III is a good man, but not a good king. Can Eleanor stop competing with her sister and value what she has, or will she let it slip away?
This is the type of book I am constantly looking for in the historical fiction genre, and rarely seem to stumble across; it's very engaging from the outset, it's lively to read with actualized characters in stead of cardboard historical cutouts, and it's mostly, somewhat accurate. Sophie Perinot may indeed be a first-time author, but you certainly wouldn't know that from reading her debut novel. The Sister Queens tells the captivating and contrasting stories of two proud sisters from Savoy and I was never bored reading about these two fascinating and strong women. This novel is an impressive and lengthy addition to the Tudor-heavy historical fiction genre, and miraculously, one that despite its nearly 530 page length, never bores. I personally read a lot of Tudor-era historical fiction, but this was just the right palate cleanser for all the Howards, Boleyns and Stuarts I usually see re-imagined. Thus, I may not have known as much about or been as familiar with the facts and history of the times the novel takes place during (1234-1255) going into this, but the characters were so vivid and alive that I felt compelled to research the actual personages upon finishing. Ms. Perinot's creation is indelibly her own, but I appreciate the factually-influenced way she presented both her story and her characters.
Marguerite and Eleanor are both sisters and, eventually, Queens, but it is the first bond more than anything that defines them the most. They are each others touchstone, especially once they are separated with Marguerite in France and Eleanor in England. Especially since each country viewed their foreign "Savoyard" Queens as less than appealing, their dependent relationship with the other is realistic and sympathetic. The Sister Queens interjects epistolary (fabricated) letters between the two before every chapter and each missive between the two reinforces just how close these women remained, though separated by years, wars, religion, distance. The POV shifts back and forth between the two, usually at the chapter breaks. While this could've been easily confusing, the "voices" of each respective Queen is very distinctive and identifiable. I didn't even really notice the use of present-tense for the first few chapters: I just felt that everything in the novel very immediate, in a good way. I could tell when I was reading Eleanor and when I was reading Marguerite before names/places popped up in their thoughts. The relationship between Marguerite and Eleanor, proud daughters of Savoy is the most compelling and emotional of the entire novel: unlike the relationships with their respective husbands, the relationship between the pair is as close to equals as the two can find in their lives. Their is an obvious amount of love between the two, but Perinot early on creatively slides in subtle hints of discord and strife that mar every sisterhood and that will eventually come to affect their bond.
Eleanor is the younger, covetous and more strident of the two, and my personal favorite of the novel. She is a woman very concerned with "fairness" and what's right, at least what's right according to her - character traits that will cause her unforeseen problems with both her husband and sister later in life. While I liked the personal evolution that both women undertake during the events of the book, I felt that Eleanor was more personally identifiable for me as a reader. Marguerite, especially as her marriage and happiness in that marriage, waned was more trouble for me to invest within. Perinot's deft foreshadowing on the troublesome piety of Louis IX sets the scene for Marguerite's woes early, but I only cared when she finally took some happiness for herself, rather than sit and pine and wait for her husband to extend some to her. Eleanor grows from an imperious, headstrong girl mostly concerned with what she possesses and controls into a gracious, intelligent queen that is both capable of reigning solely (unheard of at that time in history) and tampering her less-able King and husband's governing impulses. While neither husband-King of either sister could be rightly termed a "good" king (Henry is very ignorant of the feelings of the populace/Barons that control his country, LouisIX abandons his France for the Holy Land for SEVEN YEARS), both women show their ability to step up and make hard decisions when the menfolk can't seem to get the job done right.
While Eleanor was my self-professed favorite character, I do love a good villain. Blanche of Castile comprises that role for the bulk of the novel for Marguerite, and the "Dragon of Castile" made a malicious and well-mannered antagonist. The tête-à-têtes between Blanche and her daughter-in-law show a different side to the usually meek and accepting Marguerite; the first hints of future independence are shown clearly in her lack of deference to the dowager Queen. While later duties of antagonism were ably handled by her bumbling and ascetic son, Blanche commands attention even when not on the page. Her tussles with her daughter in love over her son/Marguerite's husband illustrate perfectly how alone and powerless Marguerite was in France. Not for her was her sister Eleanor's life of mutual love and respect, which itself was far from typical of the Royal couples of the day. Because of Blanche, Marguerite is a nonentity at the court of which she is Queen. This disparate use of power and control contrasts tidily with the life of Eleanor who schemes and manipulates her own court outright. The difference between the sisters is that Eleanor makes things happen, whereas <spoiler>until Jean</spoiler>and Marguerite is content to sit and wait for things to fall her way
One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Sister Queens is that no matter how convoluted the relationship, how twisted the tale, how unfamiliar the person at Court, Sophie Perinot never talks down to her readers. The tone of condescion from other historical fiction writers is absent entirely from these pages. Events are explained precisely and meticulously, nobles are referred to by their various names without reference to their every title or land (no "Lord Edward Sudbury, 2nd Earl of Westchester-on-the-Green, a Stuart and son of Lord......" type business before a character speaks/etc,) with a clear belief and respect that her readers can ably follow along.
I do wish that more had been shown of Eleanor's "toute seule" reign over England while her husband King Henry III was away. As Eleanor was my favorite and a very capable governor, a view of her directly in charge would've made a good contrast to the usual role she was forced to take. Elanor repeatedly maneuvers her husband into the Royal decisions and decrees which she deems correct before the regency, so a view into her own government would've been interesting to read. I'm also disappointed by the time that the novels ends at - 1255 - when both women have decades of still-tumultuous life ahead of them (Marguerite dies in 1295, Eleanor in 1291). I can't complain about the cut-off point too much or loudly because there is a lot of novel in what is provided (all 500 pages of Court intrigue, betrayals, war, love, uprisings) but I just want more. I want more about these two and their complicated, engrossing relationship from this author.
This review is part of the Passages to the Past Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour for The Sister Queens. Stop by again on the 23rd of March for an interview with the author, Sophie Perinot. Or, click the link the check out other stops for giveaways, interviews and more reviews!