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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.”


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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Interesting Tidbits about Eleanor of Aquitaine

When I started writing THWARTED QUEEN, I knew that I was writing about a remarkable woman. Cecylee Neville (1415-1495) was the mother to two kings of England, and an ancestress to the present royal family. She survived the death of her husband and three sons, and saw her family split apart as her sons fought over the throne of England.

I wanted my readers to understand what made Cecylee so remarkable, and I decided I needed a heroine for her. Now, who would fit the bill? Another English Queen who was the mother of two kings of England, and survived many family tragedies? The answer, of course, is Eleanor of Aquitaine, as she is known today. (In her day, she was known as Alienor of Acquitaine).

So I was thrilled to discover one of my favorite authors – Sharon Kay Penman – writing about Queen Eleanor in her blog. In the following excerpt, she talks about a visit she made to the Louvre to see something that belonged to Eleanor:


Our major objective was to see the beautiful pear-shaped rock crystal vase that was given by Eleanor to Louis after their marriage in 1137….George Beech, author of “The Eleanor of Aquitaine Vase” in Eleanor of Aquitaine, Lord and Lady, my favorite book about our duchess, makes a convincing case that the vase was a gift from the Muslim king of the Spanish city of Saragossa to Eleanor’s grandfather, Duke William IX in 1120 and that it is of truly ancient origin, possibly crafted in Persia before the 7th century. There is an intimacy about this vase, perhaps because we know Eleanor held it, caressed it, and cherished it enough to give as a wedding gift, and the inscription by Abbot Suger brings us even closer to the “Queen of Aquitaine,” as he calls her, the “newly wed bride on their first voyage.” It is interesting, too, that Abbot Suger chose to name her as “Aanor,” for in her charters, she always called herself Alienor.


Here I must pause to digress. My understanding is that Alienor was so called, because her mother was called Aenor, and she was “the other Aenor”, which in Latin becomes Alienor, from the word alias.  Perhaps Abbot Suger called her Aenor  because her mother was already dead, and there was no need for the alias part of the name. Sharon Kay Penman continues:


It was believed until recently that Eleanor was 15 at the time of her marriage to Louis, but now, thanks to the research of Andrew W. Lewis, we know she was actually born in 1124, and was therefore only 13 when she became Louis’s bride and, several months, later, Queen of France. A very young age for a girl to—in a matter of months—lose her father, gain a husband, and leave her beloved homeland of Aquitaine for a new life in Paris.


I am always keeping track of dates, it is something of an obsession with me. When I was a girl, I was told that Eleanor was born in 1122 and died in 1204. There is little dispute about her death, because by then she was so famous that it would have been well recorded. But her birth? Not so much. If she was born in 1122, she would have been about 15 when she wed Louis of France. Then a few years ago, I heard from another source that she’d been born in 1120, which would have made her thirteen years older than Henry of Anjou, her second husband. Believing this date to be correct, I write this “fact” into my novel. Now Sharon tells us that the latest research indicates she was born in 1124, making her only nine years older than Henry.

Such is the life of the historical novelist. We try so hard to get our facts correct, only to find that they still elude us.

If you would like to read more about Eleanor, Henry and her interesting family on Sharon’s blog, point your browser to:  http://sharonkaypenman.com/blog/

Image: The city of Poitiers, France where Eleanor may have been born, maybe in 1124.










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