Thursday, June 26, 2008

LADY OF THE ROSES by Sandra Worth

1456 - ahh, the good ol' days when Men were Men and the Women were Cattle.
Good morning, Blog Buds! Thanks to everyone's good wishes and advice on me dealing with Tendinitis. I am feeling better, but it's clear I need to be more careful in the future.
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The first thing to know about LADY OF THE ROSES by Sandra Worth is that it is NOT a Historical Romance novel. Although it has a strong romance in it, this is Historical Fiction. What's the difference? Well, for one thing, if you've tried and failed to find a Historical Romance novel without graphic sex that is not Inspirational or Young Adult *you are in luck!* The romance is strong, but I wouldn't rate the nookie over Mildly Sensual. For another thing, you cannot expect the usual tropes of the Romance genre. This romance is not about the courtship. It's about the entire relationship, which is something I find refreshing. I've been married way over a decade now and I know there's a lot more to romance than boy-meets-girl. So, if you're a Historical Romance reader, great! I love 'em too. But, don't go into this expecting that. 'Kay?
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The year is 1456 and England is in the throes of the War of the Roses. For those of you who don't know, that's when England was torn apart by the House of York and the House of Lancaster for control of the country. King Henry suffers from mental illness which keeps him out of the game much of the time. Meanwhile, his French wife, Queen Marguerite, is running the show in his name and during a time when it's not exactly welcome for a woman to do so. She has a young son whom many believe was fathered by one of her studmuffin advisers and not the King. She also has wardship of the beautiful young teenager, Isobel. This means Isobel's parents are dead and the Queen has guardianship over her. The Queen received payment from Isobel's inheritance for this. More than that, the Queen can demand a very high price from any man who wants to marry Isobel. Since Isobel is beautiful and heiress to great wealth, the Queen sets a very high price. I did warn you women were cattle during this time, right? One would think the Queen would want to change that, having obtained a position of power for herself. After all, if she could expand her power by empowering other women it might last longer. But, no, she is self-centered and greedy. I'd say she's got her nose firmly wedged in her own belly button.
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I know it's popular to start novels with the Heroine being smart and powerful and totally on top of things, but let's take a Reality Pill here. No one is born that way. And neither was Isobel. Like nearly all women of her time, she's grown up accepting that her fate is not in her own hands and that her husband will be chosen for her. So barbaric, so medieval...no, wait, that was going on in that Texas polygamy cult just last month, right here in the 21st century America with a constitution in place to protect the civil rights of those girls.
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Isobel starts the story hoping the Queen will pick someone nice for her, someone not old and ugly who won't beat her. The only other option is the nunnery. But, then, she meets Sir John Neville at a dance while her caretaker is drunk/asleep. He's strong, he's handsome, he is sooo nice. They're both enchanted with each other.
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While Isobel pines for John, her anxiety mounts over the Queen negotiating the price on her head from would-be husbands and the War of the Roses carries on. Like I said, this isn't a Historical Romance novel. The history of the period is richly described in a manner I envy, since that's one of my weak spots as a writer. The prose is perfect and you'll never tire of it, unless you hate this time period. But, if you hate this time period, you probably won't pick up this book anyway. The way it all ties in to Isobel is that she is falls on the Lancaster side of the political landscape by accident of birth and the death of her parents and Sir John Neville falls on the Yorkist side. You have to remember this was a time when your place in society was decided almost entirely by who your parents were and not be any choice of your own. Has anyone ever read the classic novel THE BLACK ARROW by Robert Louis Stevenson? Similar thing there.
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"How could I marry someone for whom I had no regard, now that I had tasted love?" This quote is one of Isobel's thoughts as she cries after the Queen rejects Sir John Neville. After a post on the Alien Romance blog, I once commented, asking why a girl would risk defying her society, which could mean death as punishment, by choosing to marry a boy it disapproved of. I imagined it was because her home life was so miserable she wanted to escape that and find real love. Jacqueline Lichtenberg, the Great Lady of Science Fiction, said it was not merely that. After all, a lot of women stay in abusive marriages. She said it was because the girl was capable of imagining and believing that her life could be better and love really was obtainable elsewhere. I certainly believe this was the case with Isobel. Besides not getting to choose her own husband, she does have it pretty good as an heiress. But, the desire for freedom coupled with the desire for real love drives her forward.
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This is an area in which Sandra Worth excells. Too often in Historicals of any kind, the author falls back on bringing contemporary attitudes into the story in order to appeal to contemporary readers. Ms. Worth doesn't do that. She brings the strength out of her Heroine within Historical context. She draws on universal truths, things which were as true for women in 1456 as they are in 2008, even if you don't include the Texas Supreme Court.
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As the different factions try to negotiate peace while others fan the flames of war all around her, Isobel exheeds her original programming as a medieval woman by working towards marriage with Sir John. Thankfully, Sir John's family is a loving one and his father, though worried, places his son's happiness before his own convenience and political advantage. And he agrees to press the suit for the young couple. The Queen sets the price high like any shrewd negotiator, finally using it to secure as much political and financial advantage as she can. Isobel and Sir John are married. I did warn you this wasn't only about the courtship, right?
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Isobel is very lucky not to die in childbirth as her babies come in rapid succession. There was no birth control back then and birth attendents did not wash their hands. The infant mortality rate was extremely high. And so Isobel counts herself exceedingly blessed even as her husband's life comes in danger with the mounting conflict. The strength she gained from working so hard to marry the man she loved has brought her the confidence and wisdom she needs to work behind the scenes on her husband's behalf. She's a mother now too and she's educating her daughters. She's growing into a woman of power in her own fashion, but will she be powerful enough when her family falls under the wrath of the Queen?
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Some Violence. Mildly Sensual Heat Level. If you liked THE BLACK ARROW by Robert Louis Stevenson, IVANHOE by Sir Walter Scott, or NEFERTITI by Michelle Moran, you'll love LADY OF THE ROSES by Sandra Worth.

3 comments:

Heather said...

"Cattle"---oh my, too funny.

Marg said...

I own a couple of Sandra Worth books now...one of these days I will read one of them!

Lisa Shearin said...

So glad you're feeling better!

It sounds like a great book.