Reading this book is like an extremely frustrating exercise where you really, really, really want to like the protagonist but you can’t because she’s written so terribly unsympathetically you could cry.
Kristina: The Girl King, Sweden, 1638, Carolyn Meyer, 2003.
This is actually the same problem I have with a lot of Carolyn Meyer’s heroines, where they’re so obviously intended to be. Her book on Anastasia is exactly the same way. Maybe I just have very little patience! That’s true, but I’m not sure if it’s relevant here.
Kristina is one of the most fascinating people in European history—raised to be a king, abdicated her throne at only twenty-eight and converted to Catholicism, traveled Europe extensively, and then died and was buried at the Vatican. Her gender identity and sexual identity have been heavily, heavily, heavily discussed in the four centuries or so since her death, and there’s a couple intriguing hints here but nothing major either way. Which is fair, because Kristina is only about thirteen here, but it’s an interesting way to look back at it!
Fun fact: my library copy of this book is bound upside down and backwards, which is not technically a problem, but makes me very uncomfortable when I’m reading what appears to be an upside-down book backwards.
Kazunomiya: Prisoner of Heaven, Japan, 1858, Kathryn Lasky, 2004.
This is a fairly short one (under 130 pages), but Kathryn Lasky is a good enough writer that it doesn’t feel clipped or shortened. One of her particular gifts is a wonderful eye for sensory details and inclusion of colours and scents, which I think is especially lovely here, but good in all of her books, of course. Additionally, traditional Japanese poetry (where the emphasis is on leaving things unsaid and using short phrases) is a plot point in this book, so the trimmed-down narrative style really works here.
Here’s my standard disclaimer: I know next to nothing about Japanese history, but this book takes place in 1858, just a few years after Japan’s reversal of their isolationist policies in 1853, so it’s of course a time of ongoing political and power struggles. Kazunomiya, or Chikako (her nickname), is the younger half-sister of the Emperor, which means she has been betrothed to be married to the prince Arisugawa ever since they were small children and has been brought up to live at court—learning calligraphy, poetry, music, and history.
I can’t believe it’s been so long since I did a Sunfire novel! I am way behind on my quota of trashy romance. Would you believe I didn’t completely and totally hate this one with the fire of a million suns? It’s true!
Sabrina, Candice F. Ransom, 1986.
This cover is…you know, a little weird. The artist made a game stab at how Sabrina is described in the book, but then whiffed big-time on the outfit, because half of this book is Sabrina’s complaints about how she doesn’t have anything nice to wear. At one point she borrows a fancy dress from her cousin, but why would that be the cover? Also, check out Sabrina and Greencoat there in the corner—he looks like he’s trying to bore into her with his eyes and she’s going “Uhh…I think I’m getting a call, you’re going to have to excuse me,” and then there’s Fringey in the other corner. Good show.
What I did enjoy is that this is a Revolutionary War book, but it’s set in South Carolina, instead of the 15 million books from that era that are set in Boston and maybe New York if you’re super lucky. So points for that. And I didn’t completely loathe Sabrina! Although I will note that there’s an error on the back cover blurb—it says that Sabrina “lives and works in her uncle’s shop,” when she…just works there and lives somewhere else, which is actually a fairly major plot point. But I get ahead of myself.
Can you believe I only have a few more of these novels? I have enjoyed the Royal Diaries so much more as an adult than as a kid, when I thought a lot of them were kind of boring.
Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, Angola, Africa, 1595, Patricia McKissack, 2000.
My first complaint with my specific copy of this book is that the library pasted a huge sticker of the world with some reading-around-the-world challenge nonsense on it, and….why would you make that permanent? You know other people will read this book after the challenge ends, right? But that’s my own specific complaint.
Anyway, Patricia McKissack is a great writer, so my first complaint is that this book is so short. Some of the Royal Diaries books are behemoths and some of them are skinny little things, and this one clocks in at just eighty-six pages of story. That’s barely anything! That’s not enough! The tricky thing with some of these books that are about women in cultures without a tradition of writing is that they have to come up with a gimmick to make it work (some are better than others—when I get to Weetamoo, you’ll see), and this one works particularly well. Nzingha is being taught to read and write in Portuguese from Father Giovanni, a Portuguese captive in the royal court of Nzingha’s father, Kiluanji, the ruler of the Mbundu kingdom. The Portuguese have begun to make dramatic inroads in what is now Angola in an effort to conquer more land, and while Nzingha hates what they stand for, she thinks it isn’t a terrible idea to know more about what they’re thinking.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fine. I’ll review this, but I won’t like it, and I’ll complain about it the entire time, because apparently What A Waste Of Potential is my biggest problem. Too bad I am not a teacher and can’t torture children by going on at length about their wasted potential, like I can with this book!
Elisabeth: The Princess Bride, Austria-Hungary, 1853, Barry Denenberg, 2003.
First of all, the illustration on this cover is awful. Elisabeth, or Sisi, really was a famously beautiful woman, and the existing photographs of her show this! Why is the painting of her on the cover making her look like a disgruntled schoolteacher who resembles her own horse? Especially since practically this entire book and almost all of Sisi’s social capital rested on how beautiful she was! Seriously!
Second of all: This book is impossibly short! It clocks in at just ninety pages of story! You can’t tell me that Laurence Yep got approval to write an incredibly long story about Lady Xian, but Barry Denenberg got only ninety pages to blow through a story about a misunderstood monarch who is a bang-on perfect subject for a YA novel about royals? She literally has everything: incredibly difficult expectations placed on her without the framework to deal with them, a whirlwind mistake romance, anorexia and stress disorders, and the unreasonable expectations of beauty and femininity! This is tailor-made for a really good YA novel and THIS is not it. I should write it, I’d do a better job.
We open the book in July at Possenhofen, Sisi’s childhood home, where her older sister Helene is being summoned to Vienna by their aunt Sophie–the Archduchess of Austria and mother of Franz Joseph, the Austrian emperor. Now, Helene has long been picked out at Franz Joseph’s eventual bride, and their mother is dead-set on this, and her father doesn’t give a crap. I get a very strong Mr. Bennet vibe off of Sisi’s father–he doesn’t seem to care too much about his children’s futures, and is more concerned with dicking around at home. But as usual, we are expected to think that Sisi’s mother is awful and controlling for wanting to arrange her daughters well, and Sisi’s father is wonderful because he’s so indulgent. I already hate this book.
What an odd choice for a YA novel. And…interestingly executed, we’ll go with that.
Catherine: The Great Journey, Russia 1743, Kristiana Gregory, 2005.
This is the last installment in the Royal Diaries series (before the halfhearted relaunch), and it’s…different. It’s much shorter than most of the other books, and it’s such an odd choice since Catherine the Great is associated so strongly with licentiousness and autocratic Russian rule. (Even more so than Anastasia, I’d argue, since that story has acquired a lot of romantic cultural twists.) Even though it’s not true that Catherine the Great died in flagrante with a horse, she certainly did have a bunch of lovers and more or less did as she pleased after the death of her husband. And before his death. And while possibly being involved in his death. While I wouldn’t say that her story is inappropriate for younger teens, I would say that her story is infinitely better suited to an adult audience where you can take advantage of all the ready-made drama. Much like the Tudor court.
But since this is a novel about her youth, that doesn’t come into play so much, and what we’re left with instead is a bit on the meek side. A little short, and while it has a lot of interesting points, it feels a little wanting. And similarly there’s very little indication of the very strong personality Catherine had—she was an immensely powerful and intelligent ruler, but the Catherine in this book come off as a bit on the weak side. Part of that is due to her position, but because the epilogue is so short and wimpy it loses a lot of its potential.
Full disclosure: I know absolutely nothing about Caribbean history in general and Haitian history specifically, but wow. How outstanding was this book???
Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490, Edwige Danticat, 2005.
This is such an interesting novel in a period that is almost never ever ever a focus for any type of fiction in English: pre-Columbian-contact in the non-North American Western Hemisphere. Seriously. Name one other work of fiction for any age range that deals with any part of Central or South America pre-Columbian contact. Totally pre-contact, not “the white people show up at the end.” (Apocalypto doesn’t count.) Why so ignored? It’s so fascinating, and Danticat does such an excellent job of descriptions that it comes alive even for people like me who are (sadly, pathetically) pretty uninformed about Haitian history or indeed Caribbean history in general.
This is one of those interesting books in the series where the diary style is used with a culture that didn’t have a history of written language, so we need to handwave a little bit of that, but once you get past the initial dating system (season, phase of the moon, day, e.g. “The sunny season, first quarter moon, day 1”) it isn’t a distraction any more. Honestly, I think it works really well even discussing cultures that didn’t write, because by allowing the narrative to flow in this way is such a great way of delving into the narrator’s thoughts rather than a recounting of events. Anacaona is sixteen at the outset of the book and about eighteen by the end of it (if I’m counting correctly), and is married with a child by the end as well, so it’s definitely a bit more on the more mature end of things than, say, the Elizabeth I novel. But I would venture a guess to say it’s actually better, and I enjoyed it more afterwards.