Review: Isabella, Braveheart of France

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

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She was taught to obey. Now she has learned to rebel. 12 year old Isabella, a French princess marries the King of England - only to discover he has a terrible secret. Ten long years later she is in utter despair - does she submit to a lifetime of solitude and a spiritual death - or seize her destiny and take the throne of England for herself? Isabella is just twelve years old when she marries Edward II of England. For the young princess it is love at first sight - but Edward has a terrible secret that threatens to tear their marriage - and England apart. Who is Piers Gaveston - and why is his presence in the king’s court about to plunge England into civil war? 
The young queen believes in the love songs of the troubadours and her own exalted destiny - but she finds reality very different. As she grows to a woman in the deadly maelstrom of Edward’s court, she must decide between her husband, her children, even her life - and one breath-taking gamble that will change the course of history. This is the story of Isabella, the only woman ever to invade England - and win. (from Amazon)

Isabella, daughter, wife and mother to kings, is one of those odd historical figures who led a fascinating and drama-packed life but who rarely shows up in historical fiction. I remember reading one of those old-school 1970s novels about her when I was a teenager in the 1990s and I'm sure Jean Plaidy gave her the fictional treatment at some point but the titles of both novels escape me. Unfortunately, Isabella is best known for her highly inaccurate appearance in Mel Gibson's 1995 epic Braveheart about the life of William Wallace. In that movie, Isabella appears as a fully-grown woman who has a daring affair with the Scottish rebel that results in the birth of the future king Edward III. Of course, none of that is true - she came to England to marry its king as a girl of twelve, long after Wallace was captured and executed. Hats off to Falconer for attempting to reclaim her true story - although I had to smile when I saw the sub-title of the book!

As for the novel itself, I struggled with Falconer's decision to use third-person, present tense to tell Isabella's story. For many readers, this narrative choice lends a vivid immediacy to the recreation of history. I can only recall two historical novelists (Hilary Mantel and Jude Morgan) who can handle the tricky nature of present tense and they do it by infusing their language with the flavor of the times. Unfortunately, Falconer's novel is far too short (my advance reader's copy wraps up at 207 pages) and filled with choppy chapters (often only one or two pages long) to supply the deep sense of narrative and detail that can compliment a present tense narrative.

I did enjoy Falconer's ability to inject a sense of humor into his character's dialogue - this is an often overlooked aspect of historical fiction that helps bring long-dead people to life - and Falconer is quite good at it. He also has a strong sense of color and paegentry that serves the setting of Medieval England and France quite well. While this novel wasn't quite my cup of tea, I think it could serve as a nice introduction to Isabella's story and many readers will find much to like in this fast-paced story.

Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. 

1 comment:

John C Gregory said...

Interesting fact you bring out about Braveheart. While I liked that movie, I think Isabella's relationship with Roger Mortimer and the resulting battles make a more dramatic tale, with the added benefit of being true!

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