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.