Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Winter Queen

Hi Flower.

Sometimes it all comes together, you know? The inspiration, the story, the writing and the reader. This time is was a trilogy by Jane Stevenson: The Winter Queen, The Shadow King and The Empress of Last Days. As novels, these books are terrific. As historical novels this series is brilliant.

Starting in the 1640's in the Netherlands and using the Thirty Years Year as a backdrop, the first novel, The Winter Queen, follows the fortunes of two exotic royals: Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia and Pelaguis van Overmeer the heir to the Youba Kingdom of Oyo. Elizabeth has been dethroned and is angling for the return to power of her house. The daughter of James I (son of Mary Queen of Scots and heir to Queen Elizabeth I of England) and sister to Charles I, she had been one of the most sought after Princesses in Europe. Now after the death of her husband and the loss of her throne she is desperate to use what power and connections she has to see her son restored to power and her other children's futures secured. Pelaguis was brought to Europe years ago as a slave. At the start of the novel he has recently been given his freedom by his former master. Pelaguis has been educated in theology and spent his life working on a study of the merits of indigenous plants. The two come together when Elizabeth learns of his reputation as a scholar and a reader of oracles.

Age and politics have led Elizabeth and Pelaguis to believe they are past romantic relationships at this time in their lives but they are not. As unlikely as a relationship between Elizabeth and Pelaguis (who is an invented character) seems the it's a testament to Stevenson's skill that you believe in it and want it to succeed. These are two unusual main characters in historical fiction. They are old, very old for their time. That alone is a wonderful change of pace. These are people who have lived most of their lives before we met them. They are also flawed. Their mistakes are of their own making. Youth and the manipulations of others are not their excuse.

As the series moves to The Shadow King, Stevenson brings us the story of the son of Elizabeth and Pelaguis, Balthazar. Baltahzar knows the secret of his birth but it's of little use to an educated, bi-racial, doctor and clandestine Prince in Holland in the 17th century. In his struggles Balthazar makes an intriguing enemy who is his equal in ambition and flaws, Aphra Behn. Aphra is one of the real historical people that Stevenson brings into these novels. Aphra, a live-by-your-wits schemer who has been credited with being the first woman known to have made her living by writing. (Makes you wonder why there hasn't been a novel about her, right?) Stevenson uses Aprhra as a catalyst for Balthazar. It is her discovery of his secret and threats to make it public that force him to take greater chances in his life.

A true disciple of the Enlightenment, Balthazar is convinced that he is the equal of any other man and can be of benefit to his community, but what is his community? Barely acknowledged in The Winter Queen, race and prejudice sit at the forefront of The Shadow King. Balthazar is viewed as an oddity, a diversion in high society and something to be treated with disdain and fear everywhere else. After he is unable to sustain a medical practice in Holland he attempts life as a planter in Barbados. He is forced to purchase slaves in Barbados to survive and fails there both economically and morally. Balthazar finally settles in an unwelcoming London finding a way to practice his gifts with medicine and raise his family.

In the series finale, The Empress of Last Days, Stevenson moves the story to contemporary academia and takes us through a young student and an Oxford don's discovery of this past and it's potential ramifications for the British monarchy. The student, Corinne is a Dutch graduate student. The don is Michael Foxwist a man disillusioned in his profession by college politics. In the course of her research Corinne discovers some obscure 17th century theological and botanical writings. These lead her and Michael to an equally obscure play about a marriage between a royal and a slave by Aphra Behn and from there to a mysterious scientist named Melpomene Palelogue who might be the last descendant of Elizabeth and Pelaguis and therefore the Queen of England.

Jane Stevenson employs a wide historical perspective when telling these peoples stories. She takes all of her exiles: Elizabeth, Pelaguis, Balthazar, Aphra, Michael, Corinne and Melpomene and through their lives illustrates: the Thirty Years War, the plague, Calvinism, slavery, colonialism, Restoration London and the lives, politics and economy of tradesman and royals in the 17th century. These novels are a masterclass in the history of the 17th century and how to write historical fiction. Not only does Stevenson gracefully display her scholarship but she does it in the context of plot and character development with emotional power and intellectual style. This is not bed hopping, pages of description of dresses, sword fight fiction. Stevenson has taken a moment in history that merits no mention in textbooks and expanded it in unexpected ways.

The Winter Queen and The Shadow King could each be read as successful, stand alone novels. I'm not sure that is the case with The Empress of Last Days. That said the story Stevenson tells needs Empress to bring it to completion. It can sometimes happen in a series that subsequent novels do not live up the first one in the series. The first in any series has whatever skills the author has plus the element of discovery for the reader that can never be duplicated in any susequent volumes. Think of these three books as one, dive in and be up to your eyeballs in reading joy and admiration.

Happy x3

P.S. I am also a big fan of an earlier mystery novel by Jane Stevenson, London Bridges. That was the first book of hers I read and what made me find The Winter Queen trilogy.

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