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.

No comments: