I’ve been reading some really great historical fiction recently (well…I guess Excalibur is only ‘kind of’ historical fiction seen as it’s based on legend, but it has a historical setting!), so read on if you want some fantastic recommendations!
The Scandalous Duchess by Anne O’Brien
When Lady Katherine Swynford finds herself widowed and destitute, she turns to an old friend of her family’s for help: the powerful and enigmatic Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. Katherine gratefully accepts a position in his wife’s household, but gradually finds herself drawn into the Duke’s web and a tempestuous love that outweighs the scandal. But when the Duke is blamed for bringing England to its knees, the spotlight falls on his scandalous relationship, threatening to tear the two lovers apart…
I’ve read several books now by Anne O’Brien, and I’ve usually really enjoyed them (The King’s Concubine, in particular, I liked, and The Forbidden Queen). However, I felt like the last one I read was something of a let down (The Queen’s Choice), and so I’d been kind of hesitant to pick up another, but I’m so glad I did. I saw The Scandalous Duchess going cheap on the Kindle store, and decided to give it a try, and thankfully, I really enjoyed it!
It was immediately engrossing, dropping you straight into the terrible strife faced by Katherine Swynford, a recently widowed young woman who has fallen on hard times. Despite her being the scandalous Duchess of the title, she’s an instantly likeable character, and even though she goes on to have an affair (a very lengthy affair!) with a married man, she’s clearly not a bad person. I found myself really sympathizing with her throughout the book, and I think that’s why I liked this book so much more than The Queen’s Choice: the main character was likeable and interesting.
The moral conundrum she faces early in the book certainly made for fascinating reading, and the rest of the book is spent dealing with the consequences of the choice she makes, that her love for the Duke of Lancaster outweighs the scandal.
The Duke certainly made for a captivating love interest from the start, being charismatic and charming, yet at the same time very complicated. Their love story is rocky and turbulent, yet there’s a sense of inevitability throughout the book that they will surely make it through the hard times. I’d heard the story of John of Gaunt and his long-term mistress (and eventual wife) but had never known the full story or much about either of them, so this book was fascinating as well as heart-warming.
The secondary characters were also interesting in their own rights: for example, I knew nothing about John of Gaunt’s second wife Constanza of Castille, and so it was interesting finding out about her, and the scene after she finds out that Katherine is the Duke’s mistress was insanely tense and had me on the edge of my seat. I also didn’t know that Katherine Swynford’s sister Phillippa was married to Geoffrey Chaucer, so that was definitely an interesting titbit of information!
Overall this book has convinced me to try some more Anne O’Brien books, as this returned to the brilliance of The King’s Concubine, and told an incredible story of love against all odds. The characters were interesting and dynamic, and the chemistry between them was undeniable, making this a book that I really didn’t want to put down!
Excalibur by Bernard Cornwell
Reeling from the betrayal of Guinevere, Arthur is at his lowest ebb as the Saxons regroup and plan to seize Briton. As the country falls into chaos, Arthur’s closest friend Derfel must strive to bring Arthur to his senses so that he can lead them into the final battle, whilst all the while Merlin and Nimue work their enchantments…
As a lover of Arthurian legend, I’d really enjoyed the first two books in Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King and Enemy of God), but after finally finishing the series, I have to say that the final book Excalibur was by far my favourite. This was the kind of book I was gutted to finish because it meant there was no more of it!
The book picks up where Enemy of God left off, with the characters picking up the pieces after Guinevere’s terrible betrayal. Things are looking bad as enemies close in on every side, and whilst Arthur is putting on every show of readying for battle, his heart isn’t in it.
Meanwhile, Derfel is immediately plunged into grave danger in this book, as he heads into the heart of enemy territory to try and make peace with the war-like Saxons. As Derfel has been an incredibly likeable narrator through the series, this meant immediate tension, as I was obviously invested in his safety and the success of his mission. Whilst the earlier two books in this series did have some much slower moments, this book stepped straight into the action, and didn’t let up until the very end.
In fact, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most throughout the Warlord Chronicles has been the detailed, fast-paced battle scenes, and this final book had some of the biggest and most intense battles yet, and with the highest stakes. Beloved characters were plunged into mortal danger, and you genuinely feared for them, making this book exhilarating and heart-breaking in equal measure.
This book definitely showed all of the characters pushed to their limits and having to work together, and through their own flaws to survive. Guinevere oddly became a much more likeable character in this book, despite her terrible betrayal, and I liked her involvement in the battles, and how she goes about making amends with Arthur. I also liked how Arthur starts to come to terms with his own mistakes and own failings, particularly his habit of sticking to oaths that would perhaps be best broken (like putting the terrible Mordred on the throne!), and his willingness to believe the best about everyone, even when they don’t really warrant it. As the central character in this series, I’ve really liked his complicated depiction throughout as a man who desperately wants to make the world a better place, but can only seem to achieve this through war and bloodshed.
Excalibur was one of those books that I was still thinking about ages afterwards, which is always the sign of an amazing book, and it was certainly a fitting end to a great series. I loved the epic scale of the story, yet how it still focused tightly on the complicated relationships between the main characters, from the deep friendship between Arthur and Derfel to the betrayed love between Guinevere and Arthur, and the pure love and mutual respect Derfel and Ceinwyn have. I loved every moment of this series, and can’t recommend it enough, although people with little interest in legends or who aren’t fond of historical fiction with in-depth battle scenes may find it a little hard-going. I’ll definitely be reading some more Bernard Cornwell books soon!
So have you read either of these books? What did you think? Have you read anything else by Anne O’Brien or Bernard Cornwell?