Thursday, December 06, 2007

Daughter of York


Our book today is Daughter of York by Anne Easter Smith, whose previous historical novel was A Rose for the Crown. That previous book handily embodied every single thing historical fiction can do wrong: creaky dialogue, anachronisms on every page, escapism offered in the place of fact. The past was in many, many respects a better place than the present - and in a greater number of ways not so. Then, everything tasted better and privacy was possible; now, people (including, needless to say, people you love) don't die from stepping on a nail, and anyone who wants to (as opposed to anyone who can afford to go there) can see pictures and videos of the Holy Land, or the Ganges river, or Victoria Falls.

In either case, both the historian and the historical novelist must be true to what was true at the time about which they're writing. Characters must not speak in B-movie dialogue (or if they do, it must be part of your conceit that they do, not an obvious accident). 14th century characters must not have 21st century reactions. The past must be allowed to be the past, or the whole exercise of writing about it is rendered redundant.

With that in mind, we present Daughter of York, a long historical novel about Margaret Plantagenet, King Edward IV's idiot sister, who - since she was vain, stupid, eloquent, and strong - deserves a book of her own. She was nervy, but she wasn't brilliant; she was no Eleanor of Acquitaine, much less an Anne Boleyn or a Barbara Villiers. It would take a subtle hand to bring her to life.

Whether or not Anne Easter Smith possesses that hand would ordinarily be our job her at Stevereads to tell you. But we are not excessively cruel (not excessively; just to the level required) - we shall here, without comment, simply append the first page of Miss Easter Smith's new novel. As to the rest of a critic's portfolio - well, on this rare occasion we're prepared to let you all sample the goods on display and make the determination on your own. Here's that first page:

"The Micklegate towered above her, seeming to touch the lowering sky, as she knelt in the mud and stared at the gruesome objects decorating the battlement. Rudely thrust on spikes, several human heads kept watch from the crenellations, wisps of hair stirring in the breeze. A paper crown sat askew on one of the bloodied skulls and drooped over a socket now empty of the owner's dark gray eye. The flesh on the cheeks had been picked clean by birds, and there was no nose. Yet still Margaret recognized her father. She could not tear her eyes from him even as his lifeless lips began to stretch over his teeth into a hideous smile.
It was then Margaret screamed.
'Margaret! Wake up! 'Tis but a dream, my child.' Cecily shook her daughter awake. She watched anxiously as Margaret's eyes flew open and looked around her with relief.
'Oh, Mother, dear Mother, I dreamed of Micklegate again! A terrible, ghastly dream. Why does it not go away? I cannot bear to imagine Father and Edmund like that!' Margaret sat up, threw her arms around her mother's neck and sobbed. 'Oh, why did they have to die?'

17 comments:

Sam said...

Hmm, does Cecily give her some Sudafed PM and let her watch fifteen minutes of the Colbert Report before coaxing her back to sleep? People in the Middle Ages really were just like us, huh?

Imani said...

AAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

That was hilariously awful, thanks so much for quoting it. You know there's something wrong when a description of a paper hat on a piked skull makes you laugh out loud.

Oh, oh, that was great. It makes me feel good about my bias against historical fiction.

steve said...

But it wasn't MEANT to do that! It was meant to make you feel good about your bias against BAD historical fiction! Bias against ALL historical fiction would be CRIMINAL, Imani! CRIMINAL! Not only do we here at Stevereads love to read it, we've even been known to write it on occasion!

Sam said...

This calls for another LIST.

JEaton said...

I know one book that would be included on such a list. Steve once asked me to pick up The Sheriff of Nottingham by Richard Kluger for him at the Book Barn. Before surrendering the copy I read it and it's a marvelous look at a very complicated time period. The revamping of the Robin Hood story was subtly and cleverly done, although the sensibilities of the title character were overly modernized. The real value of the work though was Kluger's ability to breathe life into the byzantine legal morass of running a 13th century British shire. Totally brilliant.

Imani said...

Oh, it's just not my thing, unless it's not written the way most people expect them to be written: lots of lushly described market scenes, complete with odours, observations on the natives colourful clothing, probably have to travel on a ship at some point so the reader can get a taste of that salty air ad nauseum. There's probably a war going on and everyone has really bad accents.

I really enjoyed Artemisia by Anna Banti but she played with the temporal structure a bit and she created this great, frustrating character with awesome internal monologues, and by passed all the typical tropes. (Although they did sail once.)

My Name is Red by Pamuk was just beyond most novels, period. Thornton Wilder did The Ides of March but it was an epistolary with exactly zero descriptions of gladiator fights smelly Roman streets.

So, I'm not too strict about it. Except that I'm in the middle of Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay, which was supposed to be a fantasy but is merely an alternate history with thinly veiled Jews, Arabs and Catholic Spaniards clashing swords, wearing elaborate clothing, and jostling through carefully described market scenes. Ugh.

Imani said...

I reread my comment and realised it's the heavy emphasis on setting and the cultural woo woo vis a vis the clothing and sumptuous feasts that I don't find appealing. Fantasy already has me down there, and unless the writer is Tolkien in terms of his long, detailed recreation of peoples, I'm much more concerned with the world's fantastical characteristics rather than having a character pass by a building-in-progress to accommodate the writer's imminent lecture on architecture.

steve said...

I can't speak for anybody else, but I tend to like my Jews thinly veiled. More stylish that way!

Sam said...

That's not what you said last weekend at our annual Latke Luau when you made derisive and hurtful comments about my sarong.

JEaton said...

(Not to hijack this blog, but . . .) I was checking one of my favorite blogs today (Language Hat) and straight out of the blue there was a giant shout-out to Open Letters Monthly with huge swaths of Steve's article on the new War & Peace translation getting quoted. I read this blog all the time, with no notion that anyone I knew was in any way connected. Not only is the world small, apparently so is the internet.

Sam is credited with alerting the blog's proprietor to the article and Steve, you get referred to as "puckish."

steve said...

'puckish,' coincidentally, is only one letter away from a term that gets applied to me all the time ...

Sam said...

Who on earth is calling you pukish?

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