Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review: PROMISED TO THE CROWN by Aimie K. Runyan

Years ago, Nicole Macé's novel MARIE CARDUNER, FILLE DU ROY, written in French, introduced me to the fascinating history of the filles du roy, the eight hundred young French women who emigrated to Canada between 1663 and 1673 under the sponsorship of Louis XIV in order to find husbands and increase the population of New France. Intrigued by the world Macé evoked, I searched for other novels on the topic, only to discover the story of the filles du roy virtually unknown to English-language readers. Aimie K. Runyan's lovely novel, PROMISED TO THE CROWN, released today from Kensington, is the novel I had searched for back then. As the first volume in the DAUGHTERS OF NEW FRANCE series, it guarantees that the filles' story will reach a broad, and appreciative, audience.

PROMISED TO THE CROWN follows the plight of three filles who board ship for Québec and an uncertain future: Rose Barré, a well-born orphan relegated to a charity hospital after being abused by her guardian; Elisabeth Martin, a Parisian baker fleeing a scheming mother and an unwanted match; and Nicole Deschamps, a Norman farmer's daughter escaping rural poverty and a broken heart. During the long weeks at sea, the women develop a deep friendship that will sustain them through the joys and vicissitudes of life in the New World. Once arrived, they lodge in a convent where they learn the skills needed for life on the frontier and mingle with the settlement's eligible bachelors at carefully chaperoned receptions. Marriages eventually follow; each of the three women embraces, with varying amounts of enthusiasm, the challenges and opportunities their choice of husband entails. Runyan deftly weaves their personal hardships, tragedies, and blessings into a seamless narrative by alternating between their three perspectives by chapter. The resultant story chronicles not only the women's personal histories, but the evolution of a friendship that never would have been possible within the restrictive social framework of Old France.

Within its well-researched historical framework and convincing seventeenth century setting, PROMISED TO THE CROWN is a moving celebration of feminine friendship and strength. Elisabeth, Nicole, and Rose face uncertain, dangerous situations with a fortitude they never realized they possessed. Each turns to the others for advice in solving problems, support in grieving shattered dreams, and companionship in sharing good fortune. No matter what cruelties life in the northern settlement throws at them--and these trials are many and severe--the friends help each other overcome and prosper. More than once I wished misunderstanding, disapproval, or even betrayal might test their friendship; for all they face external hardships, nothing ever disturbs their cozy circle of comfort and unquestioning approbation. But the love Elisbeth, Nicole, and Rose share is hardly insular; in healing them of past hurts and traumas, it allows their circle of warmth to expand to include others in need of generous validation. Letting go of old resentments and forgiving the individuals they fled allows all three women to embrace a truly new life on New France's distant shores.

Sound in craft and big in heart, PROMISED TO THE CROWN offers convincing testimony to the courage of our continent's early settlers, the role of female friendship in creating vibrant community, and ability of love to heal brokenness of spirit. The filles du roy have found a gifted spokesperson in Aimie K. Runyan. I eagerly await forthcoming volumes of THE DAUGHTERS OF NEW FRANCE series.

For more than a decade, Aimie K. Runyan taught French to high schoolers, with stints into English, Public Speaking, and Competitive Forensics. When she's not writing or wrangling her wayward toddlers, she enjoys hiking, baking, sewing (especially costumes), music (especially live), theater, movies, and all things sacred unto Nerd Culture. 

Aimie is proud to be a member of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Pikes Peak Writers, and the Women's Fictions Writers Association.

For more information about Aimie and her books, visit her website.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: THE SERPENT'S CROWN: A Novel of Medieval Cyprus by Hana Samek Norton

Readers eager for a sweeping historical novel with the flavor and complexity of a Dorothy Dunnett tale need look no further than THE SERPENT'S CROWN by Hana Samek Norton. Recently released by Cuidono, an independent press dedicated to publishing quality historical fiction, THE SERPENT'S CROWN continues the adventures of Juliana de Charnais and Guérin de LaSalle, scion of a minor branch of the powerful Lusignan family descended from the mythical enchantress Mélusine. The action of the novel moves from medieval Poitou in France to the Levant and back again as it seeks to answer Juliana's question, "What does a marriage make?" Cautioned by the example of Mélusine's marriage to her husband's ancestor and witnessing the treacherous net of ambitious unions that define the power structure of outre-mer, Juliana's physical search for her absent husband takes on intriguing philosophical and emotional overtones.

Troubled with doubt over the canonical legitimacy of their marriage (Guérin had been betrothed to another as a child) and desperately in love with her husband although she would never admit it, former novice Juliana devotes herself to their infant daughter Eleanor and to finding her place among her husband's people in Poitou. But then a messenger arrives from the Knights Templar in Jerusalem, summoning Guérin to the Levant to shore up the crown of his cousin Aiméry de Lusignan, King of Cyprus. Guérin abandons Juliana, and soon after his departure, his father assumes custody of Eleanor. Distraught at her loss and seeing no other way to reclaim her child, Juliana travels to Cyprus to bring Guérin home. Her task is far from easy: Guérin has become deeply emmeshed in the convoluted plots and complicated loyalties of the interrelated Frankish families that seek hegemony over Jerusalem and Cyprus. Juliana must rely on wits and inner strength to survive the treachery that threatens not only to upset the balance of power in the Levant, but to destroy her marriage. As she works to outmaneuver shadowy agents intent on wresting the kingdom from Aiméry's young son Hugh, she is forced to confront her own inability to trust her husband and the difficulties she has ordering marriage's conflicting duties and purposes.

Norton does a marvelous job recreating the opulent, treacherous world of outre-mer as the arena for Juliana's growth. The author's descriptions of the physical setting are replete with sensory detail, from the taste of grapes and olive oil to the haunting beauty of tumbled classical ruins. She keeps the reader grounded amid the complicated politics and factional interests of the families competing to rule the Holy Land, the details of which might overwhelm those with little previous knowledge of the place and time. Within this broader framework, Norton creates unique characters whose particular aims and foibles generate fast-paced yet often subtle action laced with delicious twists. I did occasionally feel a bit lost trying to follow cryptic conversations and understand veiled motives, but disparate plot elements ultimately came together in satisfying fashion. Norton admirably meets what can be a difficult challenge for writers of historical fiction: the interweaving of the main characters' personal conflict and the broader political intrigue into an absorbing and gratifying whole.

THE SERPENT'S CROWN is the sequel to THE SIXTH SENSE, published by Plume in 2010. Although I thoroughly appreciated CROWN on its own, I suspect my understanding of the dynamics of the relationship between Juliana and Guérin would have benefitted from having read the previous novel. I sometimes wished for a deeper understanding of why Juliana fights her love for Guérin and mistrusts him for so long. The sequel sketches in the facts of the couple's early history but not much in the way of its emotional contours. Nevertheless, I rooted for Juliana and Guérin throughout and hoped that by the end of the novel they would not only be able to answer the question "What does a marriage make?" but live out that answer together.

Hana Samek Norton grew up in the former Czechoslovakia exploring the ruins of castles and cloisters where she became captivated by history and historical fiction. She later earned history degrees from the University of Western Ontario and the University of New Mexico. She currently lives in New Mexico, where she works as a consultant and occasionally teaches. THE SERPENT'S CROWN is her second novel. You can learn more about Hana and her books at her website. THE SERPENT'S CROWN may be purchased directly from Cuidono Press or from Amazon.