Review – The Grass Crown

The Grass Crown (Masters of Rome No.2) – Colleen McCullough

Random House, 1991

Rome is the city without kings. Its Senate is a constantly shifting balance of power between the ancient patrician families and the charismatic New Men. None symbolise that competition better than the fiercely ambitious patrician Sulla, desperate to advance his political career after a youth spent on the battlefield, and the adored war hero Gaius Marius, ageing and unwell but commanding a respect Sulla can only dream of. Both men foresee a war with Mithridates, the covetous king of Pontus – but unrest is brewing much closer to home, and when it boils over, nothing will be the same.

This book, like its predecessor The First Man in Rome, is enormous. There is no foreword to catch up on past events in the series so you’ll definitely need to read book one for it to make sense, but a glossary is included at the back to help with more obscure Roman terminology. The Grass Crown is frequently intensely violent in a way I’d usually find very difficult to read but McCullough’s writing is so skillful that she maintains the flow of the story even at its ugliest moments and she doesn’t dwell on them at unnecessary length either. It’s testament to her talent that I can’t say I really liked most of the characters but I always wanted to know what they would do next. This is rich, epic storytelling, all the more frightening – and amazing – because it’s based on truth. The series continues with Fortune’s Favourites.


Review – The Constant Princess

The Constant Princess (The Tudor Court No.1) – Philippa Gregory

HarperCollins, 2011

Originally published in 2005

Catalina, the Infanta of Spain, was born to great and terrible parents and grew up on the edge of a battlefield. She knows that her destiny is to marry Prince Arthur, son of the Tudor king Henry VII, and to one day be Queen of England. When the time for the wedding comes, however, nothing is as she expected. England is cold and wet, the Tudors are dour and suspicious, and in this country, all of a queen’s power depends on the will of her husband. Which makes it all the worse that Catalina and Arthur do not know what to make of each other at all. But Catalina will surprise herself in what she can do – and she will surprise the whole of England.

Having read the Cousins War series, the last book of which overlaps with The Constant Princess, I was interested to see how Gregory would approach a period I know more about and how she would write the key players. The Constant Princess hinges on a controversial theory and I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it, but the historical facts are so strange that any narrative trying to go behind the scenes would have to make some pretty big jumps. I love the way Gregory focuses on the women of history, not just the famous ones but the lesser known figures who were a part of that world – it was particularly fascinating to learn about Katherine’s extraordinary warrior-queen of a mother. The Tudor Court series continues with The Other Boleyn Girl.

Review – The King’s Curse

The King’s Curse (The Cousins’ War No.6) – Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster, 2014

Margaret Pole was born a Plantagenet, one of the old ruling family of England displaced by the conquering Tudors. Once an heiress to a great fortune and niece to two kings, she now hides her royal name behind marriage to an unassuming knight and buries her grief and ambition with her executed brother. But fortune’s wheel has barely begun turning for Margaret. Whatever name she and her children bear, they will always be Plantagenets. And no one will ever forget it.

This final volume in Gregory’s epic Cousins’ War series was every bit as heartbreaking, infuriating and fascinating as I expected, and then some, following the life of another extraordinary woman living through massive upheaval. The way Gregory has written this series allows layers of depth and meaning – so many perspectives leading through wars, marriages and betrayals, to one hell of a finale. The Tudor Court novels take up where the Cousins’ War leaves off, beginning with The Constant Princess. I intend to devour them all.

Review – The White Princess

The White Princess (The Cousins’ War No.5) – Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster, 2013

Once the name of York belonged to kings, a name to speak with pride. With the death of Richard III, however, and the ascension of Henry Tudor to the throne of England, royal blood is no longer an advantage. Compelled into marriage with the new king to cement his place on the throne, Princess Elizabeth of York must tread a fine line to survive. Henry has won a kingdom but keeping it is another matter, because plots simmer under the surface of his court and hopes still grow for a York prince, returned from the dead…

This is the penultimate instalment of Gregory’s Cousins War series, set during the Wars of the Roses. Each part of the series has followed a different player during that tumultuous period of English history. The first book, The White Queen, was about Elizabeth Woodville; The White Princess is about her eldest daughter. And it was hard to read, quite devastating actually – the skill of Philippa Gregory is that even when the novel took me to dark and terrible places I couldn’t stop reading, I had to know what happened next, even though I mostly knew what would happen next. The series concludes with The King’s Curse.

Review – Wild Wood

Wild Wood – Posie Graeme-Evans

Simon & Schuster, 2015

Of late life has become a series of unwelcome revelations for Jesse Marley. Discovering in her mid-twenties that she was adopted, she travels to Britain hoping for answers, only to get knocked down in a traffic accident and stumble into the lives of two complete strangers – but strangers who are linked to her in ways none of them quite understand. Jesse, right-handed and without an artistic bone in her body, is suddenly drawing detailed images of the keep at Hundredfield, ancestral home of the Donne family on the border between England and Scotland, where bloody battles were once fought and many secrets buried in a vicious cycle. And it’s not over yet.

This historical fantasy is split into two interconnected stories, one in the eighties with Jesse and the other in the 14th century with Bayard Dieudonné. Bayard’s sections was uncompromisingly brutal; as a co-protagonist, I could not warm to him in any way or in fact to most of the characters in his chapters, with the exception of Margaretta. This is a period of history I’m not particularly familiar with so that was interesting, if disquieting. Jesse’s parts of the book had a very different mood but an ominous undercurrent. While the conclusion was thematically consistent with that tone, there were serious issues that I felt needed a bit more exploration. Still, if you like Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth and Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper this one is definitely worth a look.

Review – The Kingmaker’s Daughter

The Kingmaker’s Daughter (The Cousins War No.4) – Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster, 2013

Originally published in 2012

It is 1465 and while the crown may rest upon the handsome head of young King Edward, everyone knows the real power behind the throne is the Earl of Warwick. When Edward defies his plans by marrying for love, Warwick must look elsewhere for the fulfillment of his ambition. He plans marriages for his two daughters, Isabel and Anne, promising each girl greatness. Only one, however, can be Queen of England. And the way to the throne demands its toll in blood.

I found my copy in the gorgeous bookshop Archives while poking around some of Brisbane’s oldest buildings, and enthused passionately about women of the Cousins War to the very patient shop assistant. Gregory has created something extraordinary with this series – the same events have been covered three times over by now but with each protagonist’s different perception they become brand new, the heroine of one story becoming the villain of another. Anne Neville is introduced as a little girl and Gregory nails the complexity of emotion, particularly between the competitive sisters as they grow up. The Cousins War continues with The White Princess.

Review – The Lady of the Rivers

The Lady of the Rivers (The Cousins War No.3) – Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster, 2011

The year is 1430. The English rule half of France and the French king’s most famous soldier has just been caught: the one they call the Maiden, Joan of Arc. Her death is a reminder to every woman watching that this is a world ruled by men. Born into wealth and trained into the elegant ideal of a noblewoman, Jacquetta of Luxembourg exists in a different world to Joan – but she too has a birthright, as a descendant of the water goddess Melusina, and no woman with such powers can ever trust she is safe. When she marries into the English royal family, she must learn to walk a balance between knowledge and denial – or fall to her death.

I am more than a little in love with this series. Jacquetta is a little-known but significant historical figure – mother of Elizabeth Woodville, great-great-grandmother of Queen Elizabeth I – and it’s fascinating, seeing how her story fits into a larger picture of the turbulent times. Gregory weaves in a thread of fantasy, which I like, but doesn’t overdo it. The Cousins War continues with The Kingmaker’s Daughter.