Gemini Sasson’s novel about Isabella, wife of England’s King Edward II and her relationship with Sir Roger Mortimer is a spell-binding work of historical fiction. Meticulously researched, beautifully written, Sasson takes the reader on a journey into the 14th Century, into the turbulent politics of England, France and Scotland.
Daughter of the King of France, Isabella is married off to Edward II at the age of thirteen – and soon discovers that as far as her husband is concerned, she is simply a brood mare for his children. He’d rather spend his time with his lover, Piers Gaveston. After Piers is killed, Hugh Despenser insinuates himself into Edward’s affections. Increasingly isolated from her husband, Isabeau (it is the pet name of her childhood) turns to Sir Roger Mortimer. History has not been kind to Queen Isabella but Sasson has treated the ‘she-wolf of France’ as a wonderfully human character.
The book is a compelling read, with beautiful locations, lovingly wrought. You can see it and taste and (sometimes unfortunately) smell it. This is just one example of Sasson’s evocative descriptions, already enjoyed in her book about Robert the Bruce, ‘The Crown in the Heather’.
‘Snow tumbled down, melting as it touched the earth. I looked out over the somber, glassy surface of the harbor to one side and then far up at the imposing castle of Dover, its stout, gray walls shouldering a joyless sky.’
No boring history lesson, this. The story moves apace, switching from Mortimer’s point of view to Isabella’s over a period of eighteen years as Isabeau evolves from a frightened child-bride to a doting mother and then into something darker when her children are snatched from her. For his part, Mortimer, a hardened professional soldier, sees his honour and his birthright stolen. And then he falls in love.
We share the journey with Isabeau and Mortimer as the setting moves from Dover to London to Leeds to France to Burgundy as Robert the Bruce and his Scottish army invades England, as the Marcher Lords lay siege to the King. The characters are all three dimensional, with virtues and flaws and the details of costume and culture, as well as natural settings, are beautifully drawn.
Sasson has brought this turbulent era to life. It is a masterful piece of writing and I look forward with pleasure to reading the second instalment of Isabeau and Mortimer’s journey.
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