Struggling for independence in a man’s world.
Publisher: Sphere (Little Brown)
First Published: 20th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 16th December 2013
When Eleanor’s (of Aquitaine, and referred to as Alienor in the book and for the remainder of this review) father dies, the thirteen-year-old marries Louis of France to become queen so that lands can be bound together. It begins as a happy marriage but Alienor’s independence is curbed by the relationship and Louis is not the husband she hoped for. Strong-willed and now Queen of France, Alienor will not become the docile wife she is expected to be, nor will she allow Louis to rule her family’s land. But it will be a long fight to gain what she sees as her right.
The first book in a fictional trilogy about Eleanor, The Summer Queen is of almost epic proportions and spans from Alienor’s childhood to the beginning of her time as Queen of England. Blending fact with fiction (the latter to both fill in gaps and study possibilities) the book is a wonderful journey for the reader even when it is a trying journey for the queen.
There is a lot of content in this book, indeed Chadwick has packed this first section with the same quantity of information you might expect to be in a whole trilogy or at least the first two books. It is therefore safe to say that if you are thinking of reading this book you must be prepared for the long ride. Whilst Chadwick does skip over months, sometimes years, of Alienor’s life, as is her style, it is fair to suggest that this was actually necessary given both the length and nature of Alienor’s life.
Is it worth it? Most definitely. Chadwick is on top form; her characters are written brilliantly, there is a lot of attention to detail and (presuming you enjoy reading about the period) the only dull moments are aptly those moments that Eleanor herself is not enjoying. By including Alienor’s teenage years the author shows how the woman became powerful (in mind and thought), which means that there is all the more time spent on gender expectations too. And it means that Alienor is written as far from infallible meaning that she feels as realistic as she would have been.
Realistic also are the other characters. Even of the ‘negative’ influences in Alienor’s life Chadwick is fair. Louis, who causes a lot of pain, is still portrayed in a good light, which means that the reader can see exactly how monarchs could be manipulated and their good name destroyed by the ambitions of others. Chadwick never strays from this, and so even when Louis is at his worse you can still see where his actions stem from. Even if you can’t quite forgive Louis, because he could have been stronger and resisted some ‘advice’, the book may make you question just how reliable our sources really are.
As acknowledged in the afterword, Chadwick has made use of ‘what ifs’. One such question that has never been answered, the speculation over whether Alienor had an affair or, at the very least, feelings, for one of her countryman, is employed here. The resolution that Chadwick writes may seem convenient but at the same time it is understandable. When you consider the fact that this is an author who likes facts beyond all else, the brief foray into fiction that is neatly tied up so that it is almost detached from the factual content is something to be read without contention.
However it is this relationship that causes the one ‘major’ (in quotes because it is the biggest but far from being off-putting overall) issue of the text – the author’s repeated references to the subtext of Alienor and her lover’s letters and gestures. They touch, it is intimate to them but no one else would notice, they speak, there is a hidden meaning in their words that no one else would notice.
Beyond this there is little to find fault with. One can only wonder how much research must have gone into this book and there is so much information included – shown, not told – that you may finish the book feeling as though you’ve had the most interesting history lesson. The Queen does not stay in France, her progress and journeys are documented at length so that you are provided a brief introduction to various eastern European monarchs and customs.
The Summer Queen is a story of an independently-minded woman learning how to exert that independence when society is against her. It is a story of a woman who defied convention, and a story of partnerships and how equality could lead to good things even when the world did not believe in the notion.
The Summer Queen is as magnificent as any of Alienor’s sumptuous gowns and will delight those who enjoy reading about the medieval period.
January 8, 2014, 3:25 pm
I was just thinking this author sounded familiar and now I remember why. I have one of her books in my TBR stacks: For The King’s Favor. Have you read it?
This one sounds interesting. Alienor sounds like someone whose story I would really enjoy.
January 9, 2014, 11:01 am
Literary Feline: I had to look that one up as I’ve never heard of it – turns out that I own it (different title here – The Time Of Singing) but I haven’t read it yet. I think it’s one of the Marshal novels? This one is very good and if her development so far is anything to go by, forgetting the historical facts, then it’s only going to get better as the trilogy goes on.
January 16, 2014, 7:19 pm
Just added this book to my TBR list
Completely off subject~ have an idea for a 2015 (i know what!!) book challenge that I’m looking for royal literature readers to give feedback on please email me if you could