Yes, I admit, I picked up this book because the cover follows the stereotypical historical fiction trend of a bodiced woman with no head. (I read somewhere that they do it this way because it’s better for you to imagine her face than see some model.) I had high expectations, because Jean Plaidy (a nom de plume for Eleanor Hibbert) is very well-known in the genre, and has published more than 80 novels dealing with famous people, places, and events of the past.
Unfortunately … and I hate to admit this … I wasn’t absorbed by the tales Plaidy spun about King Edward II. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Sharon Kay Penman, but Plaidy fails to set the scene in any meaningful way. I felt, quite honestly, that if you substituted “King Edward II of England” with “Space Emperor Jlasnveuduk of the Planet Capella” you could work the text just as well as a science fiction novel! There were hardly any descriptive scenes, nothing that specifically denoted the time period, and absolutely no references to historical realities!
The plot, which is fairly well developed (duh, it’s history, she didn’t even have to make it up!) follows Isabella, a French princess, as she travels to England to marry the young Edward, newly crowned King of England. At first sight she is swept away by his good looks, but she soon realizes that her husband is attracted to someone else. And for once, it’s not a lady-in-waiting, a chamber maid, or the local nun. No, Edward has an alternate lifestyle. He and his best friend, Piers Gaveston, are “closer than brothers.” (I’m using the ghastly quote marks to illustrate how annoying it is to read this book. They never come out and say “He’s a flamingly gay drag queen!” — oh no — it’s always innuendo and suggestion. They liked to say “he shared his brother’s couch” — whatever that means!
Isabella is heartbroken to discover that she is, in reality, a beard. Facing h a future with a husband who doesn’t really want her, she takes the only path open to her: motherhood. She manages to finagle Edward into bed with her long enough to get pregnant, and then begins plotting her revenge using her son. As time passes, the English barons become increasingly upset with the king and his favorite, and eventually arrest Piers (known as Perrot by the King — and no, I don’t know how to pronounce it) and summarily execute him. The king is inconsolable — but not for long. Soon another handsome young man with well-turned ankles waltzes into his life, and the whole cycle begins again.
After about 20 years of being ignored (and I would imagine sexually frustrated) Isabella decides that the time is ripe for rebellion. She falls in love with the Earl of Mortimer, and together they run to France to plot their battle strategy. With her son at her side, she eventually returns to England, and her son claims the crown as Edward III. The only snag in the grand plan is that daddy-o is still alive. After he is arrested, he “voluntarily” gives up his kingship for his son, and is then thrown in the castle dungeon.
All of this business took about 415 pages. With only 7 pages left, I wasn’t expected anything too exciting … but I was wrong! Someone sends instructions to the old king’s guards that his time on earth is up, and he needs to die “without leaving any marks on his body” that would make people ask questions. And of course, with the British sense of humor what it is, the guards decide to… well… it involves a hot poker and a place where you definitely do NOT want a hot poker to go. He died of shock and internal trauma — but hey! no marks!
Overall I have to give this book a thumbs down. The story is interesting, true, but you can get that on wikipedia. When I read a historical fiction book I want to get more than just the basics — and Plaidy left me feeling unsatisfied on that score. The only interesting aspect of her writing is seeing how delicately she writes; she never once used any of the words or expressions we commonly expect for someone who “shares his brother’s couch”. And that is a pity.