Nothing but the castle.
Publisher: Bywater Books
First Published: September 2012
Date Reviewed: 10th December 2012
Please note that this book is the fictionalised story of the author’s family and therefore there are a lot of references to “Blackadder” that will not necessarily refer to the author herself.
Alison Blackadder, instructed by her father to become invaluable to Mary Queen of Scots with the aim of retaining Blackadder castle, begins a life of deception. Having been brought up as a boy in order to mask her from the family’s enemies, Alison finds it easy to be Mary’s eyes and ears in the city, as well as the sovereign’s guard when Mary wants to see the city for herself. Whilst Mary is unattainable, Alison finds herself attracted to other people, however for all her desires one remains the most important – to stay in the Queen’s favour until the castle is regained.
The Raven’s Heart is a grand epic that combines history, politics, and romance, accompanied throughout by a lot of suspense. Indeed the suspense rarely lets go of the narrative; the story speeds along in no time. And considering that almost the entirety of Mary Queen of Scot’s time in her homeland is included, that is a very fine thing.
The epic nature is very much apparent in the storytelling. The beginning of the book focuses on love – Alison’s feelings for the Queen, and the later relationship with one of the maids – creating a sweeping romance, mini plot points arising where Alison’s sexuality causes religion and taboo subjects to enter the fray. But as the book moves on and decisive blows are struck (literally, if you consider the use of execution in those times), romance takes a step back to allow politics, domestic situations, and social history to stake a claim. In other words, the events that do not relate to Blackadder Castle are from popular record and therefore the author lets the dynastic history take over. This in itself is rather wonderful when you consider that the author set out to tell the tale of her ancestors (albeit somewhat fictionalised to fill in the gaps) and means that both the Blackadder tale and the story of Mary Queen of Scots are given ample time; thereby creating a book that is very broad in appeal. The author wants to tell her family’s story, but she never forgets the period of which she is writing and the interest her contemporaries have in it.
Nevertheless, for all the book moves swiftly, it must be said that at times it can seem a bit like a bullet-pointed list. Whilst there is nothing that feels overly quick or lacking in detail, the reader may wonder why the narrative moves quite so fast, even if it’s obvious that Blackadder has made a conscious effort to strip away any text that is unnecessary. Yet the author does look at some events, both fictional and factual, in great detail, and it should be said that the speed and change of scenes and time are a big part of why the book keeps its suspense. Whether the written structure is complimentary or not will likely depend on the reader.
Regardless of the fact the book incorporates romance, attention should be brought to the way sexuality has been approached. Looking at the surface, so to speak – the reference to same-gender relationships on the book’s cover – it must be said that Blackadder’s use of a cross-dressing bisexual woman provides a fantastic contrast to the violent aspects of male perversion present in the novel. The author shows to good effect the difference between harmless same-sex relationships, and perversion. Given that same-sex relationships and bisexuality are often still linked with perversion today, Blackadder demonstrates the marked difference that surely makes the cause for acceptance easy to see. And most interestingly, in choosing these subjects as well as the references to the liberal court of France, the author openly displays the fact that such ways of living have always been a part of humanity. In so doing Blackadder makes use of the opportunity presented to comment on the way different people responded.
The character of Alison, a woman more aligned with manhood, also allows Blackadder the chance to comment somewhat on gender as a whole, and to study the way in which society’s restrictions on what makes a man or woman creates expectations of how people should act. For example, Alison, having lived as a boy all her life, finds talking in a lower register and walking with a wider gait comes more naturally than the dainty traits of the stereotypical woman, and is able to make a decision as to which traits she would like to adopt from her days as a lady-in-waiting.
Unfortunately, with all the events that have been included, the book does start to loosen its grip on suspense before the end. Depending on how invested the reader is in the story of the castle, this may happen when that thread is tied, partly because it can be a surprise, otherwise the natural winding down of the narrative whilst aiming to detail the rest of the reign inevitably slows everything down. In the case of the castle, the story has finished, and thus the continuation of the narrative, albeit necessary to the dynastic tale, shines less brightly. There is also a short period of personification that whilst aligning with the thoughts of the main character, can feel a little convenient and forced.
However the few negatives are relatively minor. Finding anything really off-putting is rather difficult and it has to be said that Blackadder has done a fabulous job of not only introducing her family to the world, but in providing an accessible account of Mary’s reign. There are times when artistic liberties have been taken with the history, but it is easy enough to discover the reality.
The Raven’s Heart is an extraordinary tale of society, politics, love, and one woman’s aim to get back the heritage that ought to have been hers. It will delight the literary interests of a myriad of readers, and perhaps most of all it warrants that the name Blackadder should no longer be confined to a British television series.
I received this book for review from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.
December 12, 2012, 8:16 pm
This novel sounds quite good, and the exploration of bisexuality makes it even more interesting to me. I am also intrigued by the fact that it’s a fictionalized account of the author’s own family. I appreciate your thorough, thoughtful review.
December 12, 2012, 8:55 pm
This sounds really interesting. I like the idea of combining the tale of the author’s ancestors with the story of Mary Queen of Scots and Alison sounds like a fascinating character too. I’ll have to look out for this book!
December 13, 2012, 2:35 am
Sounds like an interesting premise & agree with other commenters, it is very intriguing that the author blends family history and fiction. (Also what a great last name!)
December 13, 2012, 1:18 pm
I must admit the first thing I thought of when you mentioned the name Blackadder was the comedy TV series. However this book does sound very intriguing, I think I will have to make a note of it.
December 14, 2012, 1:54 pm
Stephanie: The exploration of bisexuality is great – it’s the way it’s carefully woven into the story without a straight-out reference. Yes, I think so far there’s only the bare basics about them, at least that’s what my quick research implied.
Helen: Yes, it provides so much story to get lost in. If Alison were real she’s be a popular topic, I’d say. Though, that said, there are bound to be similar real stories.
Jennifer: Yes, her interests are obvious but she humbly invites interest from all history lovers.
Jessicabookworm: Me too, and I think that’s a big part of what made the author start researching. It is a very good book!