February 08, 2011

All That Glitters (Reviews of The Other Countess and The Queen's Lady by Eve Edwards)


The Other Countess and The Queen's Lady
Eve Edwards
Razorbill 2010/11

I have oft been heard to say that I do not enjoy historical fiction but, having been proved wrong time and time again, I may have to start qualifying that with the statement that when it is done well it can be jolly good fun. Which is the case in point when it comes to The Other Countess and The Queen's Lady – the first two books in a hugely enjoyable new series by Eve Edwards. Both titles are set in the late 1500's against the backdrop of Elizabethan England and follow the paths of several young nobles and their households.

The Other Countess focuses on three characters whose path intertwine over the course of what is a charming and well realised tale. The main protagonist (although there are sections from all points of view) is Ellie, a Spanish Countess who finds herself struggling against the ambition of her lovable if slightly dotty Alchemist father. Ellie is a sweet girl who genuinely cares for her father, despite the fact that his futile quest for gold has cost her all of hers. After being made destitute by the new Earl of Dorset (who blames the alchemist for his families financial difficulties), Ellie finds herself face to face with the young Earl several years later – this time at the royal court. Will Lacey, said Earl, is more than a little surprised to find that the beautiful girl he encounters is the daughter of a man whom he considers an enemy and the two begin a rather choppy relationship that swithers between disdain, tentative friendship and more. The third character is one Lady Jane who, despite being from a much wealthier family, finds herself drawn to Ellie and slowly her fate becomes seemingly inextricably linked to that of Ellie and Will.

The story plays out nicely and, while sometimes predictable, is so delightfully written that it is hard to put it down. While the story as pertains to the three characters may lack depth, it is offset by the historical background against which it is set. Queen Elizabeth has recently imprisoned her Scottish cousin, Mary, and is busy routing out Catholics left, right and centre – determined that England shall be a protestant country. This is touched on just enough during The Other Countess to give the story a ring of authenticity. Equally, Eve Edwards attention to detail adds texture to the novel. From depictions of court fashion (think The Tudors and you're just about there, although in fashion only – The Other Countess doesn't go anywhere near the sexy times enjoyed by Henry Cavill and co.) to village life, it's all fascinating. Adding yet more realism is the clever placing of real life figures such as Walter Ralegh among the fictional cast.

The Queen's Lady picks up several months after the end of The Last Countess and again returns to the Lacey family as it's starting point. This time, rather than following eldest brother Will, the story focuses on his brother James. Poor James hasn't had the easiest time of it, having been fighting in the Low Countries (Europe) he's seen things that he'd really rather forget and finds himself lost and depressed on his return home. Will's reaction to this is to send him off to join Walter Ralegh's latest venture – a voyage to the newly discovered Americas with his servant Diego. The two find themselves at court, prior to leaving and James encounters the Dowager Marchioness of Rievaulx serving as one of Elizabeth's Ladies in Waiting. The Marchioness will be recognisable to readers of The Other Countess and it is her and James's stories that carry The Queen's Lady. As background to their rather tangled affairs the author treats us to a further two points of view, that of Diego and of Molly, a seamstress in London's Cheapside.

The Queen's Lady takes place almost entirely at the royal court and this, to my mind, lifted it above The Other Countess. The courtly intrigue and etiquette are absolutely fascinating with Elizabeth glinting in the background of every decision, conversation and plot. Elizabeth's reign is by far my favourite period of British history, mainly because the Queen and her country seem to have sat together so incongruously. This is illustrated particularly well in The Queen's Lady where one of the main story lines is that of the Marchioness being forced into marriage by her father. In Elizabethan times women were owned by the men in their family and had little say in their own future or fortune. While marriages could not go ahead without the blessing of Elizabeth herself, she rarely intervened. It is a curious thing that a country where women were so powerless was overseen by such a powerful women and the sections of this title that involve Elizabeth directly are by far the most gripping.

Like The Other Countess, The Queen's Lady is a very enjoyable read. Again, it leans towards predictability but that only adds to the charm of watching the characters stumble through their various troubles to the satisfying conclusion. These two titles are such fun to read and an excellent introduction to historical fiction for those who have not tried it before. I highly recommend both books to anyone looking for an enjoyable way to pass the time – there are few eras quite as interesting to escape into as this one. The third book in the series, The Rogue's Princess, will be released this summer and promises to follow an illegitimate son and the object of his affections. I, with my loathing of historical fiction, find myself surprised at how much I am looking forward to returning to the Lacey family and their fascinating friends.

The Other Countess and The Queen's Lady are available now. Thank you to Puffin for sending me these titles to review.

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