Christy English’s THE QUEEN’S PAWN

This is the most unusual historical novel I have ever read. The story of the rivalry between Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen to Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, and her daughter-in-law Princess Alais of France, daughter to the same Louis whom Eleanor discarded by another wife.

The problem with writing novels about real people is the tangled family trees and tangled politics that one has to deal with. But Christy English, in her debut novel THE QUEEN’S PAWN has hit upon a novel solution. It is to slow the action down to a crawl by giving the reader a blow-by-blow account of every facial gesture, bodily reaction and thought in a series of tells.

If you’ve been reading my book reviews over the years, you know I am not a fan of tells. Too often they are intrusive and annoying, because they are – in effect – TELLING the reader what to think! And readers do not like that.

However, it is NOT possible to write a novel without having some tells sprinkled in. It is too clunky and laborious to convey everything merely by describing expression or bodily reaction without giving the reader some clue as to what is going on in the character’s mind. One way around this is to use interior monologue. And Ms. English does use some of that. But what struck me was how often she told the reader what to think. Here is an example of what I mean, two passages taken from the same page. The tells are in BLOCK CAPS.

 

“Richard bowed to us, and we curtsied. “I hope to see you again,” he said to me, LOWERING HIS VOICE SLIGHTLY, AS IF TO GIVE US PRIVACY THAT WE NO LONGER HAD.”

“Richard smiled, HIS FACE SOFTENING STILL FURTHER AT THE SIGHT OF THE BOY. He touched the crown of the boy’s head and the page rose to his feet.
“My lord prince, the queen calls for you to go on a hunt.”
THE CHILD INVOKED ELEANOR AS IF WHE WERE A PAGAN GODDESS COME DOWN TO EARTH. I hid my smile. I HAD ALWAYS LOVED HER. MY AWE HAD BEEN MARRIED TO MY LOVE. WITH OTHERS, SHE WAS ALWAYS ABOVE THEM, BEYOND REACH.”

 

There are three things that are odd about Ms. English’s writing style:

  1. The slowness of the pacing. It rarely gets much faster than this.
  2. The number of tells.
  3. The fact that these tells are almost always NOT annoying. Sometimes they are. But considering that the novel is literally stuffed with these observations that tell you what to think, it is surprising how unobtrusive they are.

So how does she do it? By not wasting words. What I mean by that is that everything she writes has a point to it, and the point is the emotional river that her characters inhabit. Where most people go wrong is in writing things that are not deeply connected to their character’s emotions. Ms. English does not make that mistake. Like Jane Austen, she has found a way to make tells both fresh and compelling. Five stars.

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