15 November, 2014

Catherine of Lyonesse, by Rick Robinson. Book review

Corgi, 2014. ISBN 978-0-552-57133-3. 488 pages.

Catherine of Lyonesse is set in the invented countries of Lyonesse and l’Aquitaine, which bear a distinct resemblance to sixteenth-century England and France. All events, places and characters are fictional.

I’m acquainted with the author, Rick Robinson, by email, and Rick often comments here on my blog. I read a draft of Catherine of Lyonesse before it was published, and was very pleased to see it in print. Rick did ask me to review the book; however I had already decided to review it and ordered a copy before he asked. I should also say that I have a particular liking for the somewhat unusual genre of invented history (for a definition, see earlier post), which is set in an invented world but has none of the supernatural elements of fantasy. My own Ingeld’s Daughter is similar, although the setting is more medieval than Renaissance.
Now, on with the review.

Catherine is the elder daughter of Prince Henry of Lyonesse, heir to the old and sickly King Edmund. When her father is killed in a supposed hunting accident, seven-year old Catherine and her three-year-old sister Anne are hurried into exile in l’Aquitaine by their mother, a princess of the Aquitanian royal family. After her mother’s death, Catherine is brought up in exile at the Aquitanian court by Madame Corisande d’Abregon, ex-mistress of the King of Aquitaine and now married to the chief minister, Antoine de Chirac. Catherine is heiress to the throne of Lyonesse, which she should rightfully inherit when her grandfather King Edmund dies. The King of Aquitaine recognises her as a valuable political prize, but he is uncertain how best to make use of her. By the age of fourteen, when the main story opens, Catherine is old enough to know that she does not want to be used by anybody – she wants to reclaim her kingdom and rule it in her own right. But in Lyonesse, ambitious nobles plot a usurpation, and in Aquitaine she has enemies who would gladly see her dead, either for Court factional politics or to replace her with her more pliant sister Anne. In her support, Catherine has only her own intelligence, the education in statecraft she has received from Corisande, and two bright and beautiful young ladies-in-waiting. Can she even survive, let alone claim her throne?

Catherine of Lyonesse is a rollicking adventure yarn. Being set in an invented world, it is not constrained by real events and the story is free to take any turn the author pleases. So, unlike historical fiction, no reader can know in advance the outcome of Catherine’s dramatic – and sometimes ill-advised – escapades. Catherine is a delightful central character, warm, courageous and intelligent, but also impulsive and prone to hasty judgements that do not always work out well. The two ladies-in-waiting, brave and athletic Madeleine du Lac and voluptuous and cunning Solange de Charleville, are as vivid as Catherine herself. The court of l’Aquitaine has a believably poisonous atmosphere of in-fighting and back-stabbing, as rival factions jostle for political power and the influential position of mistress to the King. Long-standing military antagonism between Lyonesse and l’Aquitaine periodically flares into open warfare. Not least when a young nobleman of Lyonesse, William de Havilland, decides to put his experience as a mercenary ship’s captain to use as a privateer, attacking Aquitanian targets and provoking a backlash that puts Catherine in significant personal danger. The web of dynastic and political tensions surrounding Catherine creates a convincing sense of real peril.

As well as the political side to Catherine’s story, she also has an adolescent girl’s natural hopes for romantic love – though her position as heiress to a throne complicates matters – and this provides material for an intertwining sub-plot.

The different countries, cultures and languages in the novel are cleverly portrayed using variations in titles, personal and place names. In l’Aquitaine the language is Gallic, represented by French phrases, French titles (Altesse, instead of Highness), French personal names such as Catherine, Louis and Guillaume, and French spellings of place names such as Kellouique and Richebourg. In Lyonesse the language is Saxon, and the names become Kateryn or Katrin, Lewis, William, Kelliwick and Richborough. In the Republic of Ravenna, a mercantile and maritime city-state bearing a resemblance to Italian city-states such as Venice, the names become Caterina and Guglielmo. Readers familiar with sixteenth-century Europe will have great fun spotting parallels between the fictional world and real European history – almost as much fun, I suspect, as the author had in creating them. There were some that I only noticed on a second reading, and I expect there are more that I haven’t yet spotted. Catherine of Lyonesse is much more interesting than an allegory, though. Catherine has some aspects reminiscent of the young Elizabeth I and the young Mary Queen of Scots, but her actions, situation and personality are entirely her own.**

Rattling adventure yarn set in an invented world bearing a distinct resemblance to Renaissance Europe, with a cracking plot and a most attractive heroine.

**In a comment here once, Rick described Catherine as ‘a sort of improved Mary Queen of Scots’, which I think is a very apt description.


Constance Brewer said...

Sounds like an interesting novel - and it's not even what I usually read. :)

Carla said...

Constance - I enjoyed it very much. Definitely worth a try!

Rick said...

Thank you for the wonderful review! (There's something delightfully surreal about reading a review of my own book here.)

The way I used names was inspired by what seems to have been a common 16th c. practice of anglicizing foreign names - we still routinely say Philip II of Spain, not Felipe.

In fairness to the 'unimproved' Mary Queen of Scots, her upbringing in the French court - where she was doted on by everyone including the king - did not encourage her political acumen or strengthen her sense of Scottish identity. Catherine's more ambivalent social status serves her well in that regard. (One of the nice things about invented history!)

My curiosity is piqued about historical parallels (AKA thefts) that you only noticed on a second reading.

Carla said...

Rick - you're welcome! I enjoyed the book very much.

Indeed, the historical Mary Queen of Scots had about the worst possible preparation for controlling a political snakepit, or even surviving in it. Poor lass; I always feel sympathy and exasperation in roughly equal measure. Your Catherine has an upbringing that in some respects is closer to the young Elizabeth I - there's no parallel for the exile aspect, and Catherine never has to face a situation as extreme as either Tom Seymour's execution or Wyatt's rebellion - but there's a parallel in the insecurity of her position, balanced between the possibilities of a throne on the one hand and assassination on the other. (Incidentally, I rather hope that William de Havilland, Lord High Admiral, may also turn out to be a sort of 'improved' Tom Seymour.) And yes, that is one of the nice things about invented history; in some ways Irinya in Ingeld's Daughter is a sort of 'improved' Empress Maud, with sharper political wits (also derived from adversity, come to think of it), and a different marital situation. So it's no wonder I liked Catherine of Lyonesse :-)

Things I noticed on a second reading: the King of Aquitaine humiliating his poor Queen by openly preferring his latest mistress (seem to remember Henri of France did that sort of thing to Catherine de Medici? Although it's not exact, as your Corisande - who is a sort of parallel to Diane de Poitiers, yes? - had the courtesy to stay in the background to salve the queen's dignity); the Monites settle succession issues by strangling rivals with bowstrings, and I seem to remember that some of the Ottoman emperors (or was it the Mongols?) are supposed to have done the same; the Duc de Septimanie and his family seem to have parallels with the Guise family; Madeleine du Lac seems to have something in common with Christine de Pisan; Catherine's escape has some parallels with Mary's equally daring escape from Lochleven (although the consequences are different); William de Havilland's attacks on Aquitanian ports bring to mind the legends of Francis Drake et al 'singeing the King of Spain's beard'; the Theudish Elector who wants to marry Catherine might parallel Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy who was one of Elizabeth's not-very-welcome suitors when she was a princess; the Duke of Norrey might be a parallel to the Duke of Northumberland (although that might be stretching matters a bit far). Am I right about any of those?

Rick said...

Carla - nice insight that while Catherine's upbringing abroad evokes Mary's, the insecurity of her situation is more like Elizabeth's - and a much better preparation for the throne.

Great minds think alike - Tammy Pierce described William as 'better Tom Seymour.'

Henri II did indeed humiliate Catherine de Medici (many times!), but my specific inspiration was an occasion on which Charles II caused poor Catherine of Braganza to burst into a nosebleed. (At least it wasn't a public Court occasion.)

And oddly enough, it was not until a few days ago that I thought of the explicit analogy that Corisande is in a comparable role to Diane de Poitiers, and the Lusianes to the Guises. (!)

I have no idea why it took so long for that to dawn on me. Probably because I did not originally set out to draw on Mary Q of S as an inspiration for Catherine - the elements of similarity were something that only hit me in retrospect.

In fact, I rarely had specific analogies in mind. It was more a matter of mixing my research into a stew to draw from in terms of atmosphere and the general sorts of events to be expected.

As one minor example, the lovely name Corisande was swiped from the nom d'amour of one of Henri of Navarre's mistresses, actual name Diane d'Andoins.

Carla said...

Nice to know that I'm not alone - I hope Catherine's Lord High Admiral works out better than Elizabeth's did...

I didn't know that about the name Corisande - but then I know very little about Henri de Navarre, apart from the 'Paris is worth a Mass' quote that everybody knows :-) Corisande is a lovely name, and suits the character very well.

Hereditary aristocratic monarchies tend to generate such things as family factions, and kings have a tendency to have mistresses/lovers (who may have political power/influence, depending on the circumstances and personalities of those involved). So the Lusianes and Corisande and Margot de Fontanelle come under 'general sorts of events to be expected'. There are probably equivalent analogies in many periods of English history; the Wars of the Roses is family factions writ large, and the game of putting a pretty female relative under Henry VIII's roving eye in the hope of gaining influence was something of a court pastime - although Henry tended to marry them, with resultant mayhem. Like I said, although Catherine of Lyonesse clearly draws inspiration from history, it's much more interesting than an allegory. I like Tolkien's concepts of 'invented history' and 'applicability'.

Which means I am curious as to how Catherine is going to get along ruling Lyonesse, which is no doubt full of its own crop of aristocratic family factions wanting to grab the top job either by marriage or murder (or possibly both, in that order), none of whom she knows in any detail since she hasn't lived there since she was seven. She may be better prepared than the historical Mary Queen of Scots, but she won't have detailed knowledge of their interests, feuds, motivations, characters, likely behaviour etc. The historical Elizabeth had the opportunity to gain that kind of knowledge since she was never exiled abroad; Mary Queen of Scots did not, and your Catherine is closer to Mary in that respect. She's going to have to learn very fast indeed - given the hints about a threat of usurpation, it sounds like the sort of environment where she won't get to survive many mistakes to learn from them.

Rick said...

I hope Catherine's Lord High Admiral works out better than Elizabeth's did...

This is at least a reasonable hope. ;)
Apart from Tom Seymour's other shortcomings, he did nothing to distinguish himself as an admiral - whereas William at any rate seems qualified for the day job.

As you say, Catherine will have her work cut out for her, having no real first-hand knowledge of the power players in Lyonesse. And, she has been brought up in the school of (incipient) absolute monarchy - Charles VI of Aquitaine might be manipulated or evaded, but with a standing army of 30,000 men, overt defiance was not a problem.

Another difference between her situation and Elizabeth's: Henry VIII cast an enormous shadow that completely shaped English power politics. Poor old Edmund IV, not so much. This could actually work out to Catherine's potential advantage, at least at first. Many lords might feel that a pretty figurehead is just the thing - at any rate until they find that she intends to be nothing of the sort.

Again the situation is reminiscent of Mary's - she actually seemed off to a fairly good start, before Darnley came along.

In the broad picture, I very much agree with Tolkien's remarks about the varied applicability of history, actual or feigned.

Kathryn Warner said...

This sounds fab!

Carla said...

Rick - Yes, one could say that working out better than Elizabeth's Lord High Admiral is not exactly a high bar... Still, am pleased to hear that this is a reasonable hope :-)
I think we've discussed this before: was there anyone Mary Queen of Scots could have married without precipitating a disaster of some sort? Certainly Darnley worked out very badly indeed, but would anyone else have been just as bad (although possibly in a different way)? Similarly it's hard to see whether there was anyone Elizabeth could have safely married; to be sure, she was better at navigating trouble than Mary, but in part that stemmed from being better able to anticipate and avoid problems - which she did by not marrying anybody. If you've given your Catherine a candidate with at least the potential for a successful outcome, you've been more benign than history was to Mary - another of the nice things about invented history :-)

Kathryn - I enjoyed it a lot. Definitely worth asking Santa for a copy :-)

Rick said...

Just for the record I'll note that Tom Seymour was Edward VI's Lord High Admiral. The holders of that office under Elizabeth had no known romantic links, but were evidently satisfactory at the day job. Lord Howard of Effingham in 1588 was not himself a seaman, but he did a good job of managing Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher, who were - not to mention being truly colossal egos.

And yes, we've discussed before the problem of who Mary (or for that matter Elizabeth) could possibly have married, without causing serious problems. But Mary did not help her cause by being *so* eager to reinforce her claim to the English throne - something calculated to un-endear her to Elizabeth, quite aside from Darnley's personal shortcomings.

The one queen regnant in this era (well, a shade earlier) for whom marriage worked out notably well was Isabel of Castile.

Carla said...

By the time Elizabeth was in a position to appoint a Lord High Admiral (i.e. queen), Tom Seymour was long gone! I was thinking of the title he held when he was involved in Elizabeth's life, as opposed to the conferrer of said title. If I have understood matters correctly, William de Havilland isn't appointed as Lord High Admiral by Catherine; he holds the position by inheritance from his father, independently of Catherine. As an aside I'm mildly curious as to how that system works in your world; what happens when the Lord High Admiral doesn't have a son to inherit, or when the son is uninterested or incompetent in the post?

Darnley was certainly an unmitigated disaster and a very bad choice; it's one of the decisions where I always wonder what on earth Mary could have been thinking. Perhaps her claim to the English throne had gone to her head and she really believed Darnley was a way of getting closer to it, or perhaps it was purely a personal decision and she wasn't thinking of the political consequences at all (if that was the case I feel even more sympathy for her, because it quickly seems to have become a personal disaster as well).

I was thinking of Isabella of Castile when I wrote my previous reply. She was in the highly unusual position of having a neighbouring king of a neighbouring kingdom available to marry. So Isabella and Ferdinand were of approximately equal rank - both royal and both rulers in their own right - so both outranked any alternative candidate(s) among their respective nobilities. So the marriage didn't automatically disturb factional internal power balances, which is generally a plus for an external marriage. Aragon and Castile were neighbouring kingdoms with at least approximately compatible language, religion and culture, which avoids the usual minus of an external marriage, fear of domination by 'foreigners' - Aragon and Castile were not all that foreign to each other, and Isabella and Ferdinand were from branches of the same family (common grandfather or great-grandfather or something? I remember they had to get a papal dispensation because they were related). The existence of a common enemy in al-Andalus no doubt also helped. It may also have helped that Castile was a larger and richer kingdom than Aragon, so although the husband was theoretically the superior partner in a marriage, the ruler of Castile was politically superior to Aragon and that may have helped to balance out to something like an equal partnership. An unusual situation all round. If Mary Queen of Scots had been a boy and could have married Elizabeth, a similar situation might have applied in Britain, and history may have worked out very differently.... If I remember rightly, didn't one or other of them make a joke that it was a pity they couldn't marry each other?

Rick said...

Indeed Tom Seymour was long gone - "This day perished a man of great wit, and very little judgment." (Alas, this saying of Elizabeth's may be apocryphal.)

I was indulging a bit of pedantry - or more than a bit - but it sounded odd to my ears to say that Elizabeth's Lord High Admiral set a low bar, considering events of 1588!

And it turns out I may have spoken a bit too soon about Lord Howard of Effingham in another respect - I just read that as a young man he was 'well favored,' and began his career as one of the handsome young courtiers surrounding Elizabeth. But that was long before he became LHA.

William's office as LHA is not quite formally hereditary - 'by the usage of Lyonesse,' he says, not by law as such, but indeed there could be the potential for awkwardness!

One book I read on Mary argued that she had already fallen out of infatuation with Darnley, but married him for political reasons - which, as you note, makes her decision even more dubious.

And I believe it was Mary who made the joke about how much more convenient it would have been if she could marry Elizabeth. Hard to imagine Bess making that particular joke!

Ferdinand and Isabella were indeed quite a special case! And marriage politics will certainly be a challenge for Catherine - but one that she regards as part of the job. We can speculate endlessly (and have!) about whether psychological factors made Elizabeth marriage-averse, but Catherine's personal attitude is clearly different: "I shall give my husband as dowry a kingdom in good order, and nothing less."

Carla said...

Pity if that saying is apocryphal :-)
As we'd been talking about William de Havilland, it was the personal rather than the official context that came most naturally to mind....
To be fair to Effingham, probably most midde-aged men holding high office in the 1580s had been handsome young gallants-about-court in the early days of Elizabeth's reign.

On the whole, I'd rather imagine Mary as making a bad political decision because she was madly in love with Darnley at the time; I don't really want to imagine that she had such appalling judgement as to consider it a wise decision! But we can never know.

Indeed, it's hard to imagine Elizabeth making many jokes about marriage. I should think it's just as well for your Catherine if she doesn't share Elizabeth's personal attitude to marriage! But she - fortunately - hasn't witnessed quite so much marital trauma in her childhood as Elizabeth had. I hope, though, if you're going to bring her into proximity with a Darnley, that she has better jugdment than Mary!

Rick said...

Belated catch-up!

Yes, the discussion was indeed about the personal aspect - it just sounded odd to me, since the Armada story was my first introduction to things Elizabethan.

And indeed, probably most midde-aged men holding high office in the 1580s had been handsome young gallants-about-court in the early days of Elizabeth's reign. Perhaps the only similarity between Elizabeth and Charles VI of Aquitaine is that both liked a decorative court. ;)

As for Catherine, I don't think 'lady-faced' Darnley would be much to her taste - in that regard, I think she's not entirely unlike Elizabeth.

Carla said...

Interesting how the first point of contact with a historical figure or period can be the one that sticks, isn't it? One of the first things that I remember catching my attention about Elizabeth was reading in a children's history book that she'd been imprisoned in the Tower and in danger of having her head cut off.

Rick said...

Yes, first impressions can be strong ones! (Look at how 'Young Bess' stuck in my mind.)

Elizabeth's youthful perils must have been a revelation, a striking contrast to the vague rosy glow that tends to surround her reign.

Carla said...

I don't remember now, but it's possible that it was the contrast that caught my attention. I may well have wanted to know how Elizabeth managed to move from a prisoner in danger of her life to the 'Gloriana' or 'Good Queen Bess' of popular mythology. It's still one of the aspects of her career that interests me the most. And, I think, it may have something to say about what she chose to do with power when she had it.