Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: The Summer Queen

Elizabeth Chadwick
The Summer Queen (Eleanor of Aquitaine Series, Book 1)
By Elizabeth Chadwick
Sourcebooks Landmark, July 2014

About the Book

New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Chadwick brings Eleanor of Aquitaine to life with breathtaking historical detail in the first volume of this stunning new trilogy.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, the legendary 12th century queen of France and later of England, is one of the most powerful and irrepressible women in medieval history, and her story of romance, scandal and political intrigue has fascinated readers for centuries. Young Eleanor (or Alienor as she was known) has everything to look forward to as the heiress to the wealthy Aquitaine. But when her beloved father William X suddenly dies, childhood is over. Sent to Paris and forced to marry Prince Louis VII of France, she barely adjusts before another death catapults them to king and queen. At the age of just 13, Eleanor must leave everything behind and learn to navigate the complex and vivacious French court. Faced with great scandals, trials, fraught relationships, and forbidden love at every turn, Eleanor finally sees what her future could hold if she could just seize the moment.

The first in this highly anticipated trilogy, The Summer Queen follows Eleanor through the Second Crusade to the end of her marriage to Louis VII. The author’s meticulous research (including delving into the Akashic records) portrays the Middle Ages and Eleanor with depth and vivid imagery unparalleled in historical fiction that will keep readers riveted and wanting more.

My Review

The first in Ms. Chadwick’s sweeping trilogy of Eleanor of Aquitaine (known as “Alienor”) begins when her father, Duke of Aquitaine, dies on a pilgrimage and 13 year old Alienor is ordered to wed Louis (eventually Louis VII) of France for her own protection and the continuation of her duchy. A second son who trained to be a monk until his older brother’s death forced him to the throne, Louis is ill-matched to handle the independent, driving force that is Alienor. Louis blames her for their inability to conceive a son, for her flamboyant style of dressing, and for her quick, decisive, and intuitive style of governing that is so different than his own.

After a miserable crusade to the Holy Lands, Louis and Alienor agree it’s better to have their marriage annulled. Leaving behind her two daughters Marie and Alix in Paris, Alienor strikes out on her own and takes a chance on a young upstart who aspires to the throne of England. Henry and Alienor form an instantaneous, almost innate bond. Both share a fiery determination to protect their vassals, expand their lands, and succeed. But there is a darker side of their relationship, too, with an ongoing jousting match to determine position. Henry is consumed with a restless ambition that marginally includes his wife. It is only when Henry is weakened by illness that he gives Alienor the respect and attention she so craves. Once again Alienor rails against her lot as a broodmare, yearning for a true partnership that neither of her husbands are willing to give.

Though this version of Alienor’s story isn’t significantly different than other published accounts, the strength of this book lies in Alienor’s relationships, her connection (of lack thereof) with her husband Louis, her rigid first mother-in-law Adelaide, her impetuous sister Petronilla, her paramour Geoffrey de Racon, and her imperious second mother-in-law the Empress Matilda. I was struck by how much Alienor’s life seemed to mirror that of the late Princess Diana. Their journeys from scared young bride to independent woman in control of her own destiny are eerily similar, though Alienor was granted a much longer life to complete her trek.

The only woman to be both a queen of France and a queen of England, Alienor is an eternally fascinating character, probably the first woman powerful and brave enough to write her own story, going against the tide of society, the church, and conventional wisdom. This book reveals a woman who comes into her own, grasping for her own destiny with both hands—a story that is rich and inspiring.

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