Review: BRAZEN by Katherine Longshore

I admit when I found out Katherine Longshore had a book coming out about Mary Howard, I ground my teeth.

This is because I too am writing a novel about Mary for teenagers. As Anne Boleyn’s youngest maid-of-honour, cousin of both  her and Katherine Howard, married at thirteen to Henry VIII’s bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, Mary was connected in different ways to all of the king’s six queens. So she’s an obvious subject for someone who wants to write about the court of Henry VIII from a teenager’s point of view.

Longshore has a fabulous track record on writing about the Tudor court. Her first book, Gilt, tells the story of teenage Katherine Howard’s marriage to the king, written from the point-of-view of her best friend. Her second Tudor novel, Tarnish, is about a young Anne Boleyn, before she hooked up with Henry, and follows her through the entanglements with Henry Percy and Thomas Wyatt that would later come back to bite her. Gilt established Longshore’s very distinctive and appealing style. She takes refreshingly believable teen characters and places them in a highly authentic setting, researched to a very great level of detail. Her characters banter, flirt and play games with each other. But because this is Tudor England, where female sexuality was tightly controlled, particularly for the aristocratic characters Longshore writes about, flirting and romance are dangerous and the stakes are frighteningly high.

In Brazen, Longshore focuses on the years from Mary’s marriage, up until she returns to Kenninghall in Norfolk, aged sixteen, giving us a ringside seat for the fall of Anne Boleyn and the brutal executions of Anne and her supposed lovers. Primarily, though, it is a love story. Longshore’s Mary falls in love with the young prince she marries, but they are kept apart due to fears that early marital relations might damage Fitzroy’s health as it was thought to have damaged the king’s older brother’s. (And, Longshore hints, so that Henry could keep his options open, in case a more advantageous match for Fitzroy came along and he needed to have this one annulled.) The novel charts their efforts to maintain their relationship in secret, with lots of stolen kisses and secret meetings.  We have no evidence that this happened – in fact, we don’t even know for certain that they ever saw each other again after the wedding – but it could have done. Longshore is expert at finding the gaps in history where you can make a space for a story. (Completely different from my version then – phew!)

The first person viewpoint of the novel takes us vividly into the world of the Tudor court. Longshore’s greatest strength as a historical novelist is her ability to bring the past alive through tiny details, because she doesn’t just describe things, she shows you people reacting to them emotionally. One of my favourite scenes in her earlier book Gilt has Katherine Howard sneaking into a room in the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s house and sitting on a forbidden chair which has lions carved on the arms. I can never see an impressive piece of furniture in a historic house now without wondering who wanted to use it but wasn’t allowed to, and who did it in secret when no-one was looking. The key object in Brazen is what is now called the Devonshire Manuscript, a book which was passed around between Mary and her circle with poems and secret messages written in it. She’s equally effective with emotional responses to the rules and traditions of Tudor life: everyone made grumpy by Lenten fasting, or jostling over who has the highest rank and should therefore take precedence when entering a room.

It isn’t Mary who dominates the book, though, so much as her best friends, the forthright lady-in-waiting Madge Shelton and romantic Margaret Douglas, the King’s niece. Longshore’s Mary, in contrast, is awkward and introspective, nurturing a love of language (‘I run the word queen around in my head and roll it on my tongue. The beginning is tart and brittle like the skin of an apple. But the long e is bright and sweet.’ ‘Divorce tastes like a posset. Curdled and fermented and heavily spiced’). Fitzroy, made insecure by his royal father’s inconsistent affection, makes a moving and plausible love interest for her.

Anyone who has enjoyed Longshore’s previous Tudor books will love this one. Teens will enjoy the intensity of emotion and the stylishness of the Tudor setting, while adults will appreciate Longshore’s ability to introduce us to Tudor characters we haven’t met yet, and give us fresh perspectives on those we have.

 

 

BRAZEN by Katherine Longshore, Simon & Schuster, 2014

 

 

 

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Review: LOVE IN REVOLUTION by B.R.Collins

I had this book in my ‘Young Adult Historical’ folder for a while but it was only when I was a few chapters in that I realised it wasn’t historical: Collins has set her story in an imagined country at a time that is never made clear. There are televisions, but many of the people still live a peasant lifestyle, so it’s some time in the late twentieth century.

She’s written historical before (The Broken Road, a story about the Children’s Crusade, based in medieval Germany) and a ghost story with a brilliantly realised partly historical setting (Tyme’s End). But the refusal to tie Love in Revolution to a particular time or place is a very successful decision. It gives it a mythical quality that makes the story resonate, it increases the sense of isolation and thus the intensity, and finally, it allows Collins to create a national sport, pello, which the characters are fanatical about.

Pello sounds a lot of fun. It’s a brutal, aggressive game involving two players bouncing a ball against a wall, hard enough to do each other considerable damage. It can kill. Every year the top players compete for the King’s Cup. One of the most famous pello players, known as The Bull, comes from the village where the main character, Esteya, lives, and the story begins when he returns for a visit and is challenged to a game.

Present at the game are Esteya, her brother, Leon, who has revolutionary sympathies, and Skizi, a young outcast from persecuted, gipsy-like community.

Through the summer Esteya’s secret relationship with Skizi grows stronger. But Communists like Leon are fomenting revolution, and when it comes, the consequences are bloody.

Love in Revolution is a moving, gripping, haunting book. Collins’ writing is plain and expressive all at the same time – ‘I felt like a chocolate bar left in the sun, all sticky and oozing’ ‘Skizi nodded, once, her eyes on my face as if I’d caught her doing something illegal’. (I wish I could write with such unpretentious beauty as she does.) It’s a coming-of-age story which fits seamlessly with the story of the coming-of-age in a country, as it abandons optimism and faces the reality of the post-revolution world. This is a book which deserves more attention, and should be read by teens and adults alike.

Love In Revolution by B.R.Collins, published by Bloomsbury Children’s, 2013.