Isabel, Jewel of Castilla

Do you want a classic ur-example of “I’m a princess and people keep trying to marry me off to people I don’t want to marry?” Here you go.

Isabel: Jewel of Castilla, Spain, 1466, Carolyn Meyer, 2000.

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This was a nice break, because I don’t usually like Carolyn Meyer’s books, but I did like this one. Also notable: reading this book at twelve or thirteen or whatever was the first time I realized that Isabel is the Spanish version of Elizabeth. Never tell me these books don’t teach us anything. I mean, besides teaching us about the lives of young royals, especially when they are particularly important ones like Isabella, the first queen regnant of Spain and key player in unifying Spain with her husband, Ferdinand.

Now, usually her name is rendered as Isabella, but Meyer here has opted for Isabel so I guess we’ll go with that for the duration. This is one of those books where the biggest problem is the attempt to skip through a large chunk of time in a relatively short book, which seems to be far more common in the Royal Diaries books, maybe in an effort to fast-forward through the boring parts. Which seems to me to be a bit of a failure, because I have always felt that the details about daily life and habits to be the most interesting parts of all of these books! Let’s face it: if you want to read a book about the youth of Elizabeth I or Isabella I or Anastasia or Victoria, you can find it, and it will give you far more detail than you ever cared to know about political intrigues and all that nonsense. But books like this, with details about how people lived their lives and what they did with their time and celebrated and mourned—even though they’re fictional, in a lot of ways it gives a more full and holistic portrayal of a life.

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Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine

I really, really, really loved this book when it first came out. It’s still pretty great, but on a disappointing note I think I might be the first person to take it out from my local library because it’s in pristine condition. Kids these days don’t know what they’re missing! Full-on romance, courtly love, beautiful gowns, everything you need from a romance in the twelfth century.

Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine, France, 1136, Kristiana Gregory, 2002.

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Eleanor is one of the most interesting women in French and English history—queen of France, Crusader, queen of England, prisoner, dowager queen and mother of Richard I and John I—wow, there’s a lot going on in her life. This book alludes to some of it, but it doesn’t become overwhelming or irritating with its “let’s preface the future, tee hee” hints—it’s just an interesting window into her early life, which is frequently overshadowed in favour of the zillions of interesting things that happened later in her life.

As we open, Eleanor is thirteen and living in Poitiers with her younger sister, Petronilla, and her grandmother and the rest of the court. She has a crush on one of the knights, Clotaire, and spends a lot of time writing about how dreamy and strong he is, which is…pretty realistic. The girls’ father has been excommunicated by the Pope for supporting the antipope, and the court in general is quite, ah, lusty. “Petra’s gown is emerald, mine blue, and our shoes are white silk beaded with pearls. When we dance we may have to kick out our feet to show them off.” That right there, that’s probably 90% of the reason I liked this so much as a kid.

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Catherine, Called Birdy

Would you believe this is the first time I’m reading this? For some reason I missed this as a kid, which seems like an outrageous oversight. I can’t explain it.

Catherine, Called Birdy¸ Karen Cushman, 1994.

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How did no one buy me this book as a kid? It was a Newbery Honor book and it would have been right up my alley! But instead here I am with the 20th anniversary edition, enjoying it as an adult and totally unable to share what I thought of it as a kid. Such is life. Anyway, Karen Cushman wrote the excellent The Midwife’s Apprentice and has an excellent reputation for children’s historical fiction, so I am practically preprogrammed to enjoy this.

This is a journal-style book, except it has the charming detail of including which saint’s feast day every day is, and some expository detail. “28th Day of January, Feast of Saint John the Sage, an Irish philosopher who was stabbed to death by his students.” “3rd Day of November, Feast of Saint Rumwald, who at three days old said ‘I am a Christian’ and died.” This is also pretty much the Ur-Example of “girl who doesn’t want to submit to society’s expectations about her,” which is the most common trope in all the books I review, but it’s done reasonably well here so I won’t complain about it too much. Other than right here.

So the idea and driving force behind this whole book is that Catherine (called Birdy, because of her attraction to birds) is fast approaching the age where she’ll need to be married off, and she does not want to be at all. Her father is a rough and cruel lackwit, but he’s doing his best to get Catherine married off to a wealthy man as quickly as possible. Catherine’s job is basically to try to outwit him at every pass. She does a surprisingly good job for a young teenager, which either speaks to her wit or her father’s lack. The first suitor comes calling and Catherine manages to dispatch him by blacking out some teeth with soot and behaving like an idiot at dinner. Mission accomplished.

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Mary Queen of Scots

One of the interesting things about the Royal Diaries series is that they’re doing a really difficult task—taking small parts of (mostly) very famous stories, and adapting them for a young audience, but deleting all the sex-and-death that tends to populate adult fiction. They’re more daily life and growing up (and therefore more relatable for a young audience) and less violent killing and adultery.

Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country, France, 1553, Kathryn Lasky, 2002.

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This is an interesting one because Mary Queen of Scots story is generally immensely overshadowed by her far more famous cousin, Elizabeth I of England. But this is the prelude to a story that’s really fascinating in its own way (after all, Mary was eventually imprisoned for eighteen years and then executed by Elizabeth, after a fun-filled life that included being the Queen of France and then a marriage to a noble that ended in his murder and a major explosion at their house! Whew) and features all kinds of famous names that usually pop up in much more lascivious books: Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, Nostradamus! Geez.

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Quest for a Maid

This book was a surprisingly enjoyable reread and trip down Memory Lane! However, I have never found anyone who’s ever even heard of it, which is truly bizarre to me. I don’t think they even had it in my childhood library—I don’t even know where my copy came from. Someone must have given it to me as a gift WAY too young, because I have a very clear memory of trying to read it in Grade 2 at age eight and being in way over my head and then stowing it away in my desk. I didn’t pick it up again until sometime in high school, I think.

Quest For A Maid, Frances Mary Hendry, 1988.

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I’m not a big fantasy person, but this book has exactly the right amount for me. Meg, the protagonist, is the nine-year-old youngest of seven sisters, all daughters of a reasonably wealthy Scottish shipwright in Inverkeithing in the 13th century. Her oldest sister, Inge, is a witch, and a witch of some power to boot. We start right in on the action when Meg hides in her sister’s storehouse and watches as an elegant court lady asks for a favour from Inge—asking her to kill the king, Alexander III, to clear the way for her own family to assume the throne. Inge does it by appearing in a spectre before the king as he rides during a dark night’s storm towards his queen—and then Scotland is, predictably, plunged into a horrorshow.

One of the things that’s so great about this book is that Hendry is a terrific writer, and the book moves right along at a terrific clip considering at 270 pages it’s a pretty hefty tome for a YA novel. And the second great thing is that it relies pretty heavily on plenty of Scots dialect words, but it doesn’t come off as pretentious and annoying like so many others do. I think it’s due to the fact that Hendry uses it extensively throughout the book, rather than just sprinkling in a few words here and there for “effect,” and the fact that it doesn’t distract from the story itself. It’s used along with sentence structure evocative of Scots that’s period-appropriate, so instead of just being a twee little affectation, it’s a major, and excellent, part of the book.

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The Midwife’s Apprentice

Happy New Year! And welcome to another year of revisiting these classics and trash. This week is a classic to start the year off in the best way.

This is aimed at a little bit younger than the books I usually review, but I can’t possibly ignore it. It’s such a classic of the genre! It was a staple in every school library, on every classroom bookshelf, at every book fair, etc. etc., and so on. I haven’t probably touched this book in seventeen years or so, but it’s amazing the things that I remembered.

The Midwife’s Apprentice, Karen Cushman, 1991.

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In case you don’t remember the basic premise of this book, it’s about a homeless girl in the Middle Ages, who literally lives in a dung heap. She has no family and no friends and no one to look after her, and she cuddles down in the dung heap to keep warm. This is also the first place I learned that rotting hay and stuff got warm and could conceivably be a place to stay if necessary, which featured in many of my childhood imaginings about what would happen if I got transported back to the Middle Ages. (I was a weird kid, don’t judge me.) She has no name, so everyone calls her Brat, except for the mean village boys, who call her Beetle. So already we’re working with a super cheery premise for a kids’ book.

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Gwyneth and the Thief

I don’t know what I expected from a book that literally has “An Avon True Romance For Teens” listed right on the cover, but I gave it a good shot. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

Gwyneth and the Thief, Margaret Moore, 2002.

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There was a general trend in the late 90s and early 2000s to have lots of historical fiction and light historical romance all over the YA fiction section, just like how today that section is overwhelmingly dominated by fantasy and urban fantasy and novels about socialites, also sometimes involving fantasy. Most of these were written by romance novelists and have a pretty varying level of quality—the execrable Miranda and the Warrior was in this series, as was Samantha and the Cowboy, but there’s also two charming entries by Meg Cabot and a really good one by Beverly Jenkins about a black couple in the 1850s that I’m really pleased made the cut among the rest of white-white-white novels.

Unfortunately, this is one of the worse novels in the “series.” Margaret Moore is an entirely competent writer, but her entire oeuvre consists of bodice-rippers in the 80s and 90s tradition, with covers that feature women in dresses that are falling down and men with either no shirts on or very fancy clothing. Usually they have something to do with Scotland. This book is really just a historical romance novel that’s had the more explicit parts expunged. That takes a lot of the interest out of it, honestly.

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