Book review – Drake: Tudor Corsair by Tony Riches

“Fame favors the bold.” This is a famous line from Virgil’s “Aeneid“, a tale about the unlikely rise of an unfortunate traveler who’s suddenly blessed with good fortune. “Drake” follows a similar storyline. But unlike supernatural tales of bravery and heroism, it is chance and Francis Drake’s religious conviction which keep him from succumbing to a life of complacency. And yet, in spite of his ambition and strong sense of adventure, he is still a man of his time.

That is what this novel bottles down to. Often, I will come across novels with attractive covers and an enticing summary that promise to take the reader back in time to an era that will no longer seem so dissimilar from the one we live in. The problem with this is that the lead characters are turned into something else completely different from the real ones. Thankfully this isn’t the case with “Drake.”

Tony Riches has given us a Francis Drake that is the closest thing readers will get to the real historical figure. Furthermore, the author is brutally honest in his portrayal of this time period. There is no white washing or needless justification of characters’ actions or prejudices we don’t approve of and rightfully condemn today. And this brings me to my final point: when writing historical fiction, especially centered around legendary figures like Sir Francis Drake, the best way to do them justice is by being direct. With that directness comes heavy detail. Despite this time period being written and shown about to death in pop culture, there’s still a lot of misinformation. As a result, novelists must go above and beyond to put everything into context, and bring to life this time period while also keeping their readers hooked from start to finish.Drake’s life encompasses several turning points in English naval history. His sentiment is mirrored by several other members of his crew, including the various captains he’s served under. As a consequence, his initial contempt towards Elizabethan statesmen like William Cecil, Lord Burghley, is perfectly understandable. The statesmen of theate Elizabethan regime and the early reign of the first Stuart king of England had an uneasy business relationship with corsairs, naval adventurers, and others of the sort like Hawkins and Drake. So it was great to see this being portrayed here in a way that feels as if the brief exchanges between these characters actually happened.Another thing I greatly enjoyed was how the author captured Drake’s religiosity as well as the religious divisions of Europeans and their colonial subjects. Drake’s reading of bible verses and psalms was a perfect juxtaposition to the grim and amoral world at sea.If you are a big fan of the renaissance or early modern history in general, pick up this book. “Drake” invites you to discover the life of the daring Francis Drake and it also takes you on a wild voyage filled with uncertainty and danger, where human ingenuity, ambition, opportunism, religious conviction and unpredictable weather shaped the fortunes of Francis Drake and by default, England’s.

The Best Portrayals of Jane Seymour in Fiction.

Jane Seymour in fiction collage 1

Some of the best portrayals of Jane Seymour for are in the BBC’s “Six Wives of Henry VIII” and in “The Tudors” where she was played by two different actresses. The first shows her as someone who tries to make the best of a bad situation and as Amy Licence brilliantly pointed out in her book “the Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII” what women could truly say ‘no’ to Henry VIII?

We also forget that this was a different point in time, and women did not have the same freedom of choice as they today in free societies. Women were nonetheless assertive. In her biography on the Woodvilles, Susan Higginbotham, wittily ends her first chapter by loosely quoting Jane Austen, stating that a king -especially a new one- was in dire need of a wife to preserve his dynasty.

Jane Seymour part of the Dynasty portrait

The Tudor Dynasty was still relatively new and Henry needed to secure it by any means necessary. He went to great lengths to marry Anne Boleyn and then to rid himself off her, marrying Jane Seymour over a month after her predecessor’s execution. Retha Warnicke decided to focus on this on her biography on the Queens of England when she addressed Jane Seymour, implying she walked all over her dead rival before her body was cold. Retha Warnicke’s influence continues to be felt among many Tudor fans and in pop culture that continues to borrow from her writings.

The Tudors did a good job showing a well-rounded Jane Seymour, who was neither hero or villain. Anita Briem showed her ambitious side, knowing that this was a dangerous game that she was being used as a pawn by her brother elevate her family, but one that she could also benefit from greatly if she went along with it. Anabelle Wallis showed her kinder side, without overlooking flaws.

Jane Seymour Henry viii and his six wives 1The Six Wives of Henry VIII decades before that on the BBC was the first popular depiction to humanize her, tearing through the caricatures of the innocent plain Jane and the evil homewrecker that continue to abound in fiction.

Worth mentioning although it is not fictional is the portrayal from Lucy Worsley’s documentary series “Six Wives of Henry VIII” (“Secrets of the Six Wives” in PBS); it didn’t shy away from showing good and bad aspects of her character and of her situation.


Book Review: The Beaufort Bride by Judith Arnopp

Beaufort Bride novel

A beautiful tale woven by a talented writer with a clear passion for the late medieval and early renaissance period. I have always maintained that a good novel and history book is a like a trip back through time. Margaret Beaufort has become everyone’s go-to-bogeyman as of late. She is either the villain who should be pitied but still condemned or just condemned. Judith Arnopp decides to depart from this narrative and instead give us a woman who was much a victim of circumstance as a product of her times. Her faith, pride, loyalty to her house, and love of her son are what keep her going.

This is not to say that the novel takes the other route and turns her into a martyr. Far from it. She is a woman who is hardened by loss and grief but never loses sight of what matters. Her loyalty for her house remains, but she sheds her idealism in favor of survival, believing that something of the Lancaster pride can remain through her and her offspring.

The story of Margaret Beaufort has not been told enough. It has been popularized as a dark fairy tale -and to some extent it was- but more than a tale of tragedy, it is a tale of endurance and perseverance.

There were some parts where I thought that Margaret was portrayed a little too cold but given what she has lived through, I could see how she could have taken on those aspects.

An entertaining and refreshing read about a young heroine in a place and time that seems almost too surreal to us.

Book Review: The Queen’s Mary by Sarah Gristwood

Mary Seaton historical fiction

Seldom are there books written from the point of view a minor historical character that manage to captivate my attention as this one did. It is engaging, from start to finish, and a great illustration of the period seen through the lens of one of Mary, Queen of Scots’ trusted ladies.

Sarah Gristwood is best known for her non-fiction, primarily her biographies focusing on the lives of European queens from the late medieval to the early modern period. This is no different, except that it is fiction and yet, it feels s if you are reading one of her biographies because she is very detailed when it comes to fashion, the type of garments that nobles, based on their status, bloodline, etc, would have used, and the foods they could afford, and other excess.

There is a part towards the end where it was harrowing to read, which I won’t spoil but those who already read this, probably know what I am talking about, and it is a testament to her talent about being able to put herself in her characters’ shoes, historical ones no doubt! And give them a voice that doesn’t feel out of place with the rest of the events.

Scotland in the sixteenth century was for lack of a better word, a mess. And this novel doesn’t shy away from showing the negative from every religious side, including its most prominent members who only cared about their self-interest.

We see the world through the lens of a little girl who learns from the get go that her life’s purpose is to serve the child-queen and protect her interests above all else. As she gets older, her faith in Her Grace is shaken. She goes from servant, to friend to confidant.
We watch the downfall of a woman whose future seemed bright, and who was determined to reclaim what she viewed was hers because of her blood. Unfortunately, the Scotland she left is not the same one she returned and the people are hungry for leadership, and the nobles will side with whoever keeps their family fortunes intact. Mary Stuart is cunning and ambitious, Mary Seaton sees that, and she is far more resilient than she is given credit to, but she can’t come to terms with the new political climate, one which is entirely hostile towards female kings and her faith.

My only criticism comes for the time jumps. The first one felt necessary but towards the end, many things felt unnecesarily rushed. But I would have liked more flashbacks. However, I can look past it because as I previously mentioned, the plot moved along nicely thanks to brilliant dialogue.
Through her eyes we also get to see her wins and losses, and her personal struggles as she is forced to decide between her family and her queen, her family and her faith, or between her desires and her sworn duty to stand by her queen’s side no matter what.
It is an emotional roller coaster and a book that every history buff will quickly binge on. I greatly enjoy it and if you are new to this period, this is a good novel to start that will get you interested in finding more about the lives of these extraordinary and tragic women.

Book Review of ‘The Most Happy’ by Helen R. Davis

Anne Boleyn helen davis 2

The Most Happy is an alternative history, in short it asks the important question of ‘what if?’ What would have happened if Anne Boleyn had not been executed and she would have had more than one child. All this and more is explored in this book.

While historical fiction seeks to fill in the gaps in the historical records and to make the story more enticing to its target audience, alternative history delves further by rewriting it. And while it may seem as the two have nothing in common, I beg to differ and I suspect you will too once you read the book.

Novelists take this genre seriously, and it wasn’t surprising to find many things from this era come alive in Davis’ book.  I remember when I read her other book, that is also alternative history, Cleopatra Unconquered and felt like I was transported to Ancient Egypt. That is the feeling I got when I read ‘The Most Happy’. From start to finish, the intrigues that history buffs are used to reading about the Tudor court, don’t stop. This book perfectly captures the dangerous time period that Anne Boleyn lived in, and how high the stakes were, not just for her, but for her enemies as well.

This was a period of great change. The Renaissance was not all that different from the medieval era, but there were many aspects of it that were still the same, one of it being the violence and fanaticism (now emboldened with the religious wars); throw in a dynasty that is not well-established and a queen whose religious affiliation is not with Rome -and is not recognized by the Vatican as such- and you have almost absolutely chaos. And I say almost because the protagonist doesn’t come off as a victim or a villain, but rather as a strong, intelligent woman who is determined to make things work.

Anne grows in her new role as Queen and mother to England’s future king. She is not afraid to take charge, or shy away from enforcing the rule of law when needed. She’s also proud, and can be vindictive but this behavior can be understood given the circumstances of her situation.

Fans of Tudor History and Historical fiction who are worried with how the iconic Tudor queen is portrayed in the media will love this novel. This is the one that has come the closest to capturing Anne Boleyn’s spirit in the past decade without the author shying away from her flaws or sugar-coating the complexities of this period. If this is your first time trying alternative history, you won’t be disappointed.

Book Review: Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen by Samantha Wilcoxson

Plantagenet Princess Tudor Queen collage with real ones

Looking for a good historical fiction to read that is true to Elizabeth of York and the tumultuous era she lived in? Look no further, the Plantagenet Princess is all this and more!

It is very hard to find a good historical fiction that is appreciate of Elizabeth of York, without downplaying on her strengths or ignoring her weaknesses.

Many novelists think it’s better to alter their female subjects, the ones who aren’t deemed “interesting” or “strong” in order to sell more books, by marketing them as progressive or ahead of their times.

This wouldn’t be a problem if novelists were honest with their audience but as it happens, they are not. So you can imagine my sigh of relief when I read this book and found an author who honored Elizabeth by staying as true as possible to her silent -yet strong- demeanor.

There is strength in silence and that is something that Samantha Wilcoxson emphasized on every chapter where Elizabeth comes out as an observant, proud, and pragmatic young woman who is aware of her importance, and is determined to be treated with the respect she rightly deserves.

As the firstborn of Elizabeth Woodville and Edwar  IV, Elizabeth was well aware of her value. To quote from Susan Higginbotham in her biography on Elizabeth’s maternal family: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an unattached young king must be in search of a wife.”
And a man like Henry who’s claim to the throne was more tenuous than Elizabeth’s father, he needed a good marriage to keep himself in power.

Elizabeth is a caring young woman who is witty and at times outspoken, someone who has learned from her relatives’ mistake, has had to endure loss, but never feels sorry about herself. Her strength lies in knowing who to trust, her religious devotion and faith in herself. Sounds trite, but this is as close as you will get to time travel and meeting the real Elizabeth in historical fiction. The book is beautifully written, highly descriptive and character driven, with Elizabeth being not the only character that shines from this tale, but those are there with her at the end of her journey.

If you are a history buff who’s read plenty on the wars of the roses, and is fascinated by Elizabeth of York’s story, this is the book for you. If you are new to this era but wish to know more about the story behind the White Princess, this is the book for you too. Well researched, masterfully written, highly descriptive, Plantagenet Princess: Tudor Queen brings back the wars of the roses and the early Tudor era back to life, and gives justice to a figure who’s been easily discredited, altered, and her queenship dismissed.

They say that the good you do won’t do you any good. Sometimes this is true, but for a woman who had seen many kings deposed, murdered and killed in battle, and queens’ reputations dragged through the mud, sweetness and piety became her greatest strengths and her fertility a shield against anyone who’d think twice about her harming the new Tudor Dynasty.
Experiences shape us, and they certainly shaped Elizabeth but as I’ve previously pointed out, it is often our willingness to get back up despite how many times we’ve been brought down that makes all the difference. And Elizabeth never gave up. Although her weapons were invisible they were no less effective and as it happened, they guaranteed her success. She went down in history as one of the most successful English consorts, and gained a cult-like status.

Cleopatra Unconquered

Cleopatra Unconquered book cover

When I delve into historical fiction, I tend to be very picky but will push aside certain liberties as long as the authors are honest about it. When it comes with alternative history, I am even pickier so take my word for it when I say that this is a good book that every history buff and lover of ancient Egyptian history will enjoy!

Cleopatra Unconquered is a good book that expands on the question of what if Cleopatra’s forces had won against Octavian’s forces. It is an entertaining, well researched book with very well-rounded characterizations of the historical people involved here that doesn’t make them seem as if they are out of place, but rather people of their times -holding the same prejudices and core-beliefs as you would expect from people born into those societies.

Helen  R. Davis weaves as beautiful tale of love, hate, and deception to give us a convincing tale on how Cleopatra VII would have won against the armies of her rival, Octavian, and the consequences thereafter. This is the first book in a series that will explore more on how much history has changed, not just during the remainder of her reign, but after it.

Cleopatra comes out as a strong-willed queen, who is committed to remain in power and do what is best for her people, and as many pharaohs did back then, believes that she is being divinely guided by the gods, specifically Isis.

Fearless and unapologetic, Cleopatra VII is also ruthless and like other famous female regents and pharaohs before her, will go to great lengths to protect what is hers and show the world that she is not anyone’s puppet.

Book review: Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters by Wendy J. Dunn.

COA novel falling pomegranate

Falling Pomegranate Seeds: the Duty of Daughters is a fantastic novel written by Wendy J. Dunn, it is the first in her series on Katharine of Aragon. As a result, this focuses primarily on her formative years in Spain.  Without vilifying or whitewashing her, Wendy J. Dunn weaves an intricate tale of hope, passion, and self-growth as Katharine prepares for the epic journey that awaits her.

Katharine of Aragon was Henry VIII’s first wife, and before that, his brother’s wife, and the daughter of two of the most prestigious monarchs in Christendom. Born and raised to do her duty, she was also among the most learned women of her times. Wendy J. Dunn doesn’t brush past this fact; it is a key component of her book. The book opens up with Beatriz Galindo, known as “La Latina” for her scholarship, being questioned by the Queen of Castile about her youngest daughter’s education. Beatriz is delighted to be charged with such a task, and dedicates most of her time to Catalina, ensuring that she will grow up to be a learned queen.

It is refreshing to see a historical fiction devote so much time to Katharine’s formative year, and set the stage for the next books in her Katharine of Aragon series.

Her Katharine is how I picture she was in real life. She starts as an assertive and curious child who is determined to become Queen of England because she believes that is her destiny, and as the story progresses, even when we know how it is going to end, we are still rooting for her as she sets sail to her new home. The emotions run high near the end, it plays like a farewell scene but it is not. One chapter of her life has ended and another will begin and we are left eagerly waiting for that.

Wendy J. Dunn brings out the best and worst aspects of her character, something that is much needed in a figure that often gets put on a pedestal or easily disregarded as the ‘boring one.’ Katharine is mischievous, she plays, she is everything you would expect in a child, but she is also curious and intuitive with a mind of her own -which becomes more evident when she is in her teens- and like her mother, she is very proud and grounded in her beliefs that she’s unwilling to compromise when that compromise goes against her moral view of the world.

I recommend this book to all history buffs and those of you who like me, are very passionate about Tudor history.

Under these Restless Skies by Lissa Bryan

Under the restless skies

Under these Restless Skies takes places in Tudor England, specifically an England ruled by Henry VIII when he’s seeking a divorce from his first spouse, Katherine of Aragon to marry the alluring Anne Boleyn. I’m often very critical of historical fiction (and historical fantasy even more) because the characters tend to be one-dimensional and you have to suspend belief to really get into the story but with this book, not really because the characters were very close to their historical counterparts and the author really did her homework and was very accurate when it came to describing the rituals that men and women had to go through such as confinement, churching, coronation, and she included author’s notes at the end of her tale with a glossary and terminology.

Emma started a bit of a Mary Sue at first but after Anne’s glorious moment, she starts acting more human, exploring the darkest aspects of our species and becoming more human herself. As with every good book, you suffer from book withdrawal at the end or what I like to call book blues. There is a lot of good moments where the author describes the customs and beliefs of the period through dialogue and by doing this she keeps the story moving and interesting.
The only thing I disagreed were some instances regarding Anne Boleyn. I like Anne Boleyn for being an outspoken and intelligent woman, she was also flawed and she was known for her temperament. You could say some contemporary accounts were bias and she wasn’t entirely responsible for what her family did or said to Mary, or said about her mother -Anne’s predecessor and enemy, Katherine of Aragon- but she wasn’t entirely blameless either. Anne did not order her death -Katherine died of natural causes which were accelerated by her living conditions- but she did encourage her female relatives to be mean to Mary so she could accept her father’s new marriage and her condition as the king’s bastard. While I do not like some of Anne’s attitude, a great deal of it was brought about by the situation she was in. She was playing a highly political game and the stakes were *really* high. As she tells the original character (Emma) before her coronation, she must be recognizes as Henry’s true and only wife and one word, one rumor could be the difference between life and death. (Which is exactly what happened when Henry looked to replace her. She was tried for treason and executed. The evidence used against her was ridiculous. Even Chapuys who was one of her biggest critics, wrote he couldn’t believe that they were trying her on scant evidence and that it was amazing how anyone could believe any of it). It was a good portrayal nonetheless where Anne is seen as a strong yet also vulnerable woman through the eyes of the immortal Emma Sommers. It is hard to write about Henry VIII, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the man as there are about Anne Boleyn, that often authors lend credibility to them. The author nailed down Henry VIII showing him at his best and his worst.
Finally, there is the fantasy part of the selkies or the sea creatures that the author wrote about. I said it before, but I will say it again. I felt like this was a good twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s the little mermaid. A fish out of water who comes face to face with a terrestrial and she falls in love with him, and is willing to let a piece of her be taken so the two can be together. But instead of a handsome prince, her one true love is Will Sommers, a man with a bad back but a heart of gold, and instead of love being one-sided, Will Sommers shows her that he loves her as well.

The author has a blog where she has written extensively about the Tudors, and dispels many myths about them, primarily Anne Boleyn whose figure continues (and probably will for many years to come) to be at the center of many heated debates.

“Wolf Hall” Accurate?

Those in the UK will be lucky to see the new mini-series adapted from Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, this January. For those of us in America, we will have to wait until April when it’s aired on PBS. In spite of the long wait. Let’s review on the accuracy of this show.

So we have no cod-pieces because they thought American audiences, or others for that matter, would squirm at it. Okay BBC, first of all, not all of us in America are ignorant about cod-pieces or the fact that they are not sexual in any way. But anyways, refraining myself from an upcoming rant I will go to the most important points of this article: Accuracy. And how does Wolf Hall score in this respect?

If I could give it a score from 0 to 100 based on the photographs and articles I have seen written of it, as well as historians weighing in on it , I would give it a 90. (Yes not a 100 because of the lack of cod-pieces.)

To be honest, it was about time we had a series that other from being entertaining and being a Glee-style travesty of history, invested its big budget on accuracy. “The Tudors” was entertaining, many people liked it (myself included) but it was not accurate. Not by a long shot. In terms of acting it was great, new talent was discovered, young actors got their careers bolstered and I am glad. But the series missed a lot of good points such as Henry VIII’s two sisters that got merged into one because apparently Hirst believed we (the audience) would be too stupid to distinguish from the many Marys on the show. Hilary Mantel thankfully is not making the same mistake. And neither does the production team behind “Wolf Hall”.

There has been an intricate attention to detail, from costuming to the way people  acted or were attended by their ladies. in this scene where Anne Boleyn is about to be crowned; she is not just about to be crowned in the traditional sense as we’ve seen on TV. But the complete ritual is about to be displayed.

Anne Boleyn's Coronation from "Wolf Hall" (2015)
Anne Boleyn’s Coronation from “Wolf Hall” (2015)

She sits in the chair, crowned with a beautiful white dress and is visibly pregnant. She holds the scepter and the rod and on her forehead is none other than the heavy crown of St. Edward. Let’s remember this because it is very important! Anne was not crowned as her predecessor was with the traditional crown worn by Queen Consorts. She was crowned with the crown of St. Edward. Henry wanted to make a powerful political statement that this Queen was not only going to be his true queen and his true wife but that their heir that was nestling safely in her womb would be his undoubted successor.

Secondly, before she even reaches the chair she has to complete the long ritual of prostrating herself before the altar. For this, it had to be a complete ordeal for Claire Foy who was wearing a baby bump to simulate Anne’s real pregnancy.  Lucy Worsley gave her advice how to accomplish this:

Anne Boleyn accurately prostrates herself before the altar, before sitting on the chair and being crowned. This ritual has not been depicted in the latest historical dramas.
Anne Boleyn accurately prostrates herself before the altar, before sitting on the chair and being crowned. This ritual has not been depicted in the latest historical dramas.

“Foy reveals that the ‘baby bump’ is uncomfortable under her costume, and isn’t sure how to ‘prostrate’ herself to the ground before the altar. With his customary attention to detail, director Peter Kosminsky asks me, as a historian, how she should do it. We agree that two of Anne’s ladies in waiting should help their pregnant mistress down to the floor.”

After the Mass ended, she made her way to Whitehall where a banquet was held in her honor. Upon her arrival the heralds cried:

“Now the noble Anna bears the sacred diadem.”

Anne’s victory was nearly complete. now all she needed was to give birth to a son. Anne was visibly pregnant during the ceremony, some whispered she had conceived before their marriage in January of that year (some historians place it before or after, depending on what sources they are using). This ceremony was significant because it guaranteed Anne’s place next to Henry and their offspring’ legitimacy.

In spite of all of this; there are some things that the series missed and this is that it will keep perpetuating the ‘dark Spaniard’ myth that all Spaniards are dark-haired- dark-eyed, etc.

Now the actress portraying Katherine of Aragon is not black-haired as Irene Papas in the “Anne of a Thousand Days” movies but she wears too much make up that makes her look too old and she looks very thin.
Katherine of Aragon had grown plumper as her predecessor, her mother in law Elizabeth of York had. The series of miscarriages and tragedies she had suffered -and the added stress- made her lose her figure but by no means did she look *that* old. Secondly, it was Anne who was dark-haired and dark-eyed and had olive skin and Katherine who was red-haired and with fair skin and blue eyes. Joanna Whalley by contrast is fair skinned, but her hair is not red enough and her eyes are dark brown, but at the same time she is shown wearing gable hoods and wearing the color purple which is very important if we want to talk about accurate costuming. Tudor society was very elitist. Everyone was put into boxes, or categorized according to their wealth and lineage. Thomas Cromwell and his family wear very sober colors, they have a lot of material artifacts thanks to the social mobility experienced during this period; but this doesn’t change the fact that they are still part of the middle class and not the elite. Royals, as they were above everyone else would wear specific colors. Purple was one of them.

Wolf Hall's Katherine of Aragon (played by Joanne Whalley) looking older in the second picture, once again perpetuates the Spanish stereotype. Although she is younger in the first episode, wearing the color purple and a gable hood as the ones she wore in the portraits of her; she still doesn't fit the mold of Katherine. Katherine was red haired -a fact that is mentioned in the episode when Wolsey remarks to Cromwell how "beautiful" she was and "how she dances, that red hair"- with blue eyes. This Katherine's red hair has lost its shine, but her eyes are dark brown.
Wolf Hall’s Katherine of Aragon (played by Joanne Whalley) looking older in the second picture, once again perpetuates the Spanish stereotype. Although she is younger in the first episode, and wears the color purple and a gable hood; she still doesn’t fit the mold of Katherine. Katherine was red haired -a fact that is mentioned in the episode when Wolsey remarks to Cromwell how “beautiful” she was and “how she dances, that red hair”- with blue eyes. This Katherine’s red hair has lost its shine, but her eyes are dark brown.

But I guess, like with Katherine of Aragon, we can’t have it all can we?

Nonetheless, the production looks very good, the clothes are very accurate, the hoods, the castles -the way they are decorated-, and everything else in general looks spectacular and I, as many history buffs, will be looking forward to this production when it hits the States in April.