shortlisted for Book of the Month
"A good, solid, old-fashioned historical novel. By which I mean that the settings, the characterisation, and the interaction between characters are all wonderfully and skillfully depicted."
"Hailes Castle, 1511. Midnight on a doom-laden Halloween and Elisabeth Hepburn, feisty daughter of the Earl of Bothwell, makes a wish to wed her lover, the poet David Lindsay. But her uncle has other plans. To safeguard the interests of the Hepburn family, she is to become a nun and succeed her aunt as Prioress of St. Mary’s Abbey, Haddington. However, plunged into the political maelstrom and religious turmoil of the early Scottish Reformation, Hepburn's life there is hardly one of quiet contemplation. Strong-willed and independent, she clashes with those who question her unorthodox regime at St. Mary’s, including Cardinal David Beaton and her rival, Sister Maryoth Hay. But her greatest struggle is against her godson, John Knox. Witnessing his rejection of the Roman Catholic Church, aided by David Lindsay, she despairs that the sins of her past may have contributed to his present disenchantment."
I have to confess to knowing little about the life and career of John Knox, other than a vague awareness of his role in the Scottish Reformation and the famous 'monstrous regiment of women' reference. This novel cleverly imagines the background to Knox's eventual involvement in that reformation, and the incidents which might have shaped Knox's temperament and passionate beliefs. Instead of meeting him at the point in his life where he usually makes an entrance as an intransigent firebrand, we see here the young child, deeply affected by his experiences and the injustices he witnesses in his early life. His relationship to Elisabeth Hepburn is pivotal to all this.
And it was this aspect which I most enjoyed. For what we have is not just an explanation and introduction to John Knox, but a good, solid, old-fashioned historical novel. By which I mean that the settings, the characterisation, and the interaction between characters are all wonderfully and skillfully depicted. The dialogue is believable and, though Scottish dialect words are liberally sprinkled on the page, very easy to follow. Not all the strange words are explained, but their meaning is clear and their use does not in any way hamper or hinder, but rather makes the characters come alive on the page. The complex layers and players of the Scottish nobility are explained only when it is necessary, so as not to confuse, and I became invested in the life of Elisabeth, following the twists and turns, the disappointments and triumphs of her life with not only interest but concern.
Not being sufficiently knowledgeable about this period, I was genuinely shocked by one plot twist and was worried for her, and what the revelation would mean if, when, she discovered what I, the reader, had just learned. Sights, smells, sounds; all are vividly conjured up, and I was immersed in Elisabeth and Knox's world.
The machinations of the royal court, the capriciousness of the kings, and the naked ambition of the clergy are all employed to good effect to show the danger inherent in an era where a change of someone's mind could mean the difference between one man, or woman, living or dying. All the characters are firmly rooted in their historical setting, nothing jarred, and from beginning to end I felt I was walking alongside real, living, breathing, sixteenth-century people.
I can't wait to tuck into the next volume of this trilogy.
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