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Review: The Summer Queen

Review: The Summer Queen

Title: The Summer Queen
Author: Elizabeth Chadwick
Published: 2013
Length: 504 pages

My star rating:  ★ ★ 

Note: Occasionally this review discusses rape.

At the beginning of The Summer Queen, we meet thirteen-year-old Alienor, the eldest daughter and heir of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, on the eve of her father’s pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. When the sickly duke dies on the pilgrimage road, Alienor becomes the new duchess. She soon learns that she must marry the dauphin of France, Prince Louis, in order to keep her peace among vassals. She does so reluctantly and, though Louis is handsome and kind, she remains unhappy, unsatisfied, and restless.

That’s the gist of the book—what I read of it, anyway. (Full disclosure: I gave up on page 148.) Alienor, better known to history as Eleanor, is perpetually unhappy. She doesn’t want her father to die! She doesn’t want to marry Louis!

Well, chica, sometimes you don’t always get what you want, especially when you inherit of the wealthiest and most influential duchies in medieval Europe.

I was unsure about this novel, but checked it out because of its high Goodreads rating. Boy, was I misled.

For all its hype and raving reviews, this book would be better titled How To Write Terrible Historical Fiction. Let’s take a look.

  1. Begin your novel near an important milestone in your main character’s life. Instead of opening with a bang, drag readers along for ten to twenty pages and make the upcoming “dramatic” (and historical) event as dull as possible by dropping obvious hints along the way.
  2. Try to include virtually all events from the historical record, even if you plan on devoting only a few paragraphs to some of said events. After all, why should you be bothered with wiring a novel with a plot? In fact…
  3. Chop your novel into as many tiny episodes as possible in order to guarantee that readers are invested in none of them. Feel free to skip months or years without warning if you feel nothing sufficiently interesting happened during that time.
  4. Replace your historical hero(ine) with a “relatable” modern counterpart, even if doing so makes them deeply unlikeable. Anachronisms are okay! Instead of portraying your young heroine as vulnerable but full of potential greatness, make her an entitled, selfish bitch. Was she famously intelligent, ambitious, and cunning? Well, you know how teenagers are—just be sure that she’s as narcissistic and self-centered as possible!
  5. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, tell, don’t show. Even if you want a scene to tug at readers’ heartstrings, just tell them the character feels sad—or happy, or angry, etc. Don’t provide enough interaction between characters to let readers to understand why they feel a certain way about another character. After all, the author knows best!
  6. Force a conflict. When clashing personalities aren’t enough to explain an unhappy marriage, resort to changing the personality of one or both parties to maximize their misery, even when it conflicts with all your research and insults the figure(s) in question. Also, make sure that your hero(ine) is the victim at all times.
  7. Include as much sex as possible. Is this historical fiction or a historical porno? Does it really matter? Your heroine may have been young when she got married, but you want to put as many bedroom scenes as you can—and you want to make them one-sided and sometimes violent (see #6)!
  8. Make sure your book reads more like a textbook than a novel. You want your readers’ eyelids to droop as they slog through your dry prose, so make sure to include minute historical details in an effort to show how “authentic” your writing is (and to show off all that research you did). Also see #3.
  9. When your hero(ine)’s story gets boring, don’t just press fast-forward. You can also switch to the point-of-view of a previously minor character. Instead of being consistent with this tactic in order to add depth to your novel, make sure these POV jumps are totally random and provide readers with little, if any, insight into the other characters.
  10. Last, but most important of all, use completely bogus research methods to “back up” your actual research. Frustrated with sparse sources? Well, you’re a novelist, by George, so you’ll just fill in the gaps with your imagination, but instead of being honest about it, say you used some New Agey, metaphysical nonsense called the Akashic Records. That way, when attentive readers snark about insulting misrepresentations inaccuracies in your novel, you can claim that you have the ability to “see, feel, hear, and touch everything that has gone before,” and that you even know what your characters must have been thinking (and what their sex lives were like, probably)—therefore, you’re obviously right, despite those dusty old written sources. Some less historically-inclined readers will find it romantic, and people with functioning brains will run so far away that you won’t have to worry about their opinions! It’s a win-win!

Honestly, I guess I should be grateful—at least Ms. Chadwick admits to using this goofy “research.” Some authors (cough cough, Philippa Gregory) just claim to write straight-up, accurate history. So I suppose her ridiculous claims about the “Akashic Records” could be worse. Still, it’s pretty embarrassing to pretend—whatever your religious/spiritual belief system—that such “records” are in any way legitimate. I’ve only got some issues with well-researched fiction that slanders takes liberties with people who actually existed.

But when you claim to have access to what those people actually felt and thought, then you’re spitting in the faces of not only the figures you’re writing about, but also of your readers. (As I read it: “nyeh, nyeh, I can access what everyone who ever lived ever thought/saw/felt/ and you can’t!” I guess Shakespeare used these “records” to twist Richard III into a hunchbacked, murderous psychopath with a withered arm. 100% accurate, right?)

Okay, obviously I have more problems with The Summer Queen than Ms. Chadwick’s liberal use of her imagination these kooky “records.” However, I have to assume that her (apparent) belief in their validity laid the foundation for a lot of those problems.

Her writing isn’t bad, it’s just a bit dull. I did feel like I was slogging through rather than enjoying myself. I would say that a reader can skim Chadwick’s prose and miss nothing, but the individual scenes are so short and disconnected that that’s not exactly true. Blink, and you’ll suddenly have been transported two years into the future. On top of all that, the prose just felt rather dry and disjointed, and a bit…heavy? (PSA: Not all nouns need adjectives.)

For example…

In the stultifying heat of July the arrangements for the arrival of the French bridegroom and his army continued apace… From cellar to turret, Bordeaux prepared for Louis’ arrival. Hostels were swept out and decorated with banners and garlands. Cartloads of supplies rolled into the city from the surrounding countryside, together with herds and flocks for the slaughter. Seamstresses toiled over yards of pale gold cloth of scarlet, sewing a wedding gown fit for their new duchess and future queen of France. The train was hemmed with hundreds of pearls and the sleeves swept from wrist to ankle with decorative golden hooks to loop them back should they get in the way.

…[H]er women robed her in a gown of ivory damask, the gold laces pulled tight to emphasize her slender waist. A jeweled cap covered the top of her head, but her burnished hair remained exposed, the thick strands woven with metallic ribbons. Her nails were pink with madder stain and had been buffed until they gleamed…

…The pale canvases of the ordinary troops marked the French periphery, while the center blazed with the bright silks and golden finials of the high nobility and the Church. She fixed he eyes on the largest pavilion of them all: lapis blue and powdered gold with the red oriflamme banner fluttering in the hot breeze outside its open flaps… All along the riverbank, small boats and barges plied their trade, rowing supplies of food and drink to the host on the far bank. … Banners decorated the lead barge, which was draped with a canvas awning to shade its occupants from the sun…

Pretty? Sure. But almost nothing happens for two pages. Just tons of purple prose.

Chadwick did do real research, and it shows—perhaps it shows a bit too much, in fact—but the biggest issue is that Alienor, the protagonist, does not seem to live in her own world. As happens far, far too often in historical fiction, Alienor feels like a modern heroine inhabiting a rather musty, backwards world that isn’t prepared for her forward-thinking ways. While I believe that some of Eleanor’s attitudes may have been “ahead” of her time, I also very much believe that she was a product of her time. Unfortunately, twelfth-century Eleanor never showed her face in this novel.

I don’t labor under the delusion that Eleanor was any kind of saint. Maybe she was unfaithful to Louis (though how would we know, beyond nine-hundred-year-old rumors?). Maybe she was a bit of, well, a bitch. Maybe she was a lot of things. We just don’t know. I also understand that historical fiction is not strictly confined by what was recorded. That said, when you’re writing about someone so famous, you have to be careful—and above all, be respectful.

Making Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most beautiful, learned, wealthy, powerful women of the Middle Ages a petulant, immature, self-interested child is not the way to go. I didn’t understand how the character Chadwick created could ever become the great queen of history, and I wasn’t willing to put up with Alienor for 500+ pages to find out.

Here are just a few examples of her childishness; instead of sympathizing with her youth, I found myself wondering how a girl who had been raised as the heir to a huge duchy could grow up into this.

“Daughter, did you not hear me? You will be a great queen.”

“But no one has asked me. It has all been decided behind my back.” Her throat tightened. “What if I do not choose to marry Louis of France? What if I…what if I want to marry someone else?”

Grow up, Alienor.

She also knew that [Louis’] father was called Louis the Fat and her vision kept filling with the sickening image of an overweight pasty youth.

Sickening? Really? He might be…chubby! (gasp) The horror, the horror! Alienor, he’s close to your age, he’s well-educated, and he’s a crown prince. Take what you can fucking get, and consider yourself lucky.

She felt as if she were being tied into this marriage and even helping her captors secure the knots [by participating in the wedding ceremony]…

You are. It’s a wedding. Jesus.

Louis’ mother, the Queen Dowager, sums it up quite nicely (and of course she’s supposed to an antagonist):

“And how can you be Queen of France and a fitting consort for my son when you behave like a silly, frivolous girl?”

Queen Adelaide FTW!

I did mention selfish, right?

“What would my future have been had [my mother and brother] lived?”

“I learned not to think that way after I lost [my wife] Burgondie and the child in her womb,” he said. “It does no god. Al you can do is live each day in their honor.”

Her throat tightened and ached. He had missed the point, perhaps deliberately so. Had her brother not died, she would not have had to marry Louis … It made all the difference.

Such sympathy. Much kindness. Charming girl, that Alienor!

The way Chadwick handled Louis—transforming him from a pious, loving, slightly naïve and introverted young man into a temperamental, power-hungry man unhealthily obsessed with (and dependent on) God, getting his own way, and controlling the wife he claims to love—was flat-out unacceptable. In fact, her decision to portray Louis as little more than a rapist (numerous times) was, ultimately, what made me abandon the book—I couldn’t handle it anymore. It was absurd. By all accounts, Louis cared for Eleanor, and while I’m no expert in medieval French history, he was also a decent king. In other words, he was hardly a moody boy who used his wife’s body to regulate his overwhelming emotions.

Not to harp on this too much, but it’s just so hard to believe that Ms. Chadwick did all the research, then turned Louis into…this:

…Louis took [Alienor] with all the vigor his fury lent him, uncaring that he hurt her, expending his temper on her body as if it were all her fault.

Seriously? I’m insulted for Louis’ sake. Hell, I’m insulted for Eleanor’s. Does anyone honestly believe that a woman like Eleanor of Aquitaine would spend fifteen years in this kind of marriage? She was obviously capable of ending it, against Louis’ wishes, when she finally wanted to. (This was also the passage that sealed the deal for me. I did not read further.)

Perhaps Ms. Chadwick felt the need to explain away or justify the ultimate failure of Louis and Eleanor’s marriage, but what explanation is needed beyond their sharply contrasting personalities and the fact that, even after fifteen years of marriage, Eleanor had not produced a son? Or does Chadwick consider her flawless Queen Alienor incapable of breaking a man’s heart that way? Does she think it would make her less sympathetic?

On that note, the teenage Alienor at one point lusts after Geoffrey of Anjou—which is extremely unnerving when you remember that Geoffrey is the father of her future husband, Henry II.

His gaze was predatory and amused. She tried not to show how much his direct stare perturbed her. … Alienor felt as if Geoffrey of Anjou had stripped her to her chemise in front of everyone, even though their exchange had been one of social formality. She was intensely aware of him in the room… … Even the thought of Geoffrey made her feel restless and hot. … All that charisma, virility, and danger. What would it be like to master a beast like that—to ride it?

Her future father-in-law, ladies and gentlemen.

Chadwick even refers to one of the male characters as a “sexual predator” because he has had many lovers. Really? A sexual predator? It’s the twelfth century, please write like it!

And at one point, Louis actually says that “he needed to put his wife in her place.” With sex. And Alienor “responded willingly…because she had gotten him to do her will.”

Remind me again why readers are supposed to care about either of these wretched people?

I’m sorry for how long this review has gone on, especially since it’s technically only a review up to page 148. In short: despite all the hype and the gushing reviews all over the internet, The Summer Queen is neither a particularly good work of historical fiction, nor a particularly good novel. It features insufferable, nearly-flat characters who bear little resemblance to their historical counterparts and most of whose motivations boil down to lust; unnecessarily flowery language jarringly paired with a short, choppy structure; and very little action.

I’m giving it two stars only because she did put effort into her research—even if she paired it with her bogus “records.”

Eleanor of Aquitaine is a perennial favorite. She is legendary: a beautiful, wealthy duchess in her own right, a two-time queen consort, and the mother of two more kings besides. As such, there are dozens of novels which focus on her floating around. I have little doubt that at least some of them do her more justice than The Summer Queen. In fact, I plan on checking out the much-lauded Sharon Kay Penman’s trilogy about Eleanor and Henry II.

I have no intentions of having anything more to do with this trilogy, and it still baffles me that so many people do. I pushed myself to page 148 because I adore Eleanor.

Sadly, I stopped reading for the same reason.

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2 responses »

  1. This is exactly how I feel about The Book of Eleanor!! Another historical fiction book about Eleanor of Aquitaine. It also did all of these things and it was equally pretty bad…

    Like

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Review: Queen By Right | Luthien Reviews

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