12 year old Isabella, a French princess marries the King of England – only to discover he has a terrible secret. Ten long years later she is in utter despair – does she submit to a lifetime of solitude and a spiritual death – or seize her destiny and take the throne of England for herself?
This is the story of Isabella, the only woman ever to invade England – and win.
My predilection for historical fiction about royals is well-documented, so when I was approached about reviewing Colin Falconer’s Isabella: Braveheart of France I was easily convinced, especially as I had just watched the episode of the BBC4 series She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens about Isabella. And while Falconer’s novel covers all the pertinent information of Isabella’s life and gives us some inkling of what may have driven her to take over the English throne, I had a hard time connecting or staying connected to the main players in the novel, largely due to the stylistic choices made by the author.
Isabella’s story is told from a third person perspective in the present tense in a rather fragmentary style and a somewhat dispassionate tone, with lots of scene breaks and short chapters. This makes it hard to settle into the narrative and connect to Isabella as a character. She starts out sympathetic enough, but during the course of the novel becomes embittered – not completely without cause obviously – and once we come to the end of the novel I found it hard to like her or be understanding of some of the choices she makes, trading a negligent husband for a domineering and callous lover she doesn’t even seem to actually like. I also found the way that Isabella’s internal dialogue isn’t rendered in a clearly defined way problematic, as on several occasions it served more to confuse than to add to the story.
The novel covers Isabella’s life from the moment she learns she’s to marry Edward until the moment she’s finally and irrevocably free from the marriage. Falconer manages to portray Isabella and Edward in a way that makes exceedingly clear how tragic their situation actually was. Isabella is traded away in marriage to ensure peace between England and France, only to find her husband is more interested in the stable boys than in her and she is quickly entrenched in a fierce rivalry with Edward’s lover Piers Gaveston. It’s this disappointment in her marriage, that fact that she was never first in her husband’s affections that causes her slow embitterment and the ultimate breakdown of their partnership. Falconer spends quite some time building up Isabella’s considerable political acumen and Edward’s dislike of kingship, both due to the restrictions it places upon him and due to the fact that he can never measure up to the legend of his father, Edward I.
At one point in their marriage, after Gaveston is murdered by Edward’s barons, they create a smoothly working partnership with Isabella masterminding a kingdom and power for Edward that allows him to avenge his beloved Piers’ death. Despite knowing how the story ends, I still found myself hoping they’d work it out and have if not a happy marriage at least a solid one. Falconer seems to be hesitant to portray either of them as the villain in the marriage, instead squarely placing the blame on the Despenser, who becomes Edward’s confidant after he loses Piers. Despenser is a venal, cruel, and greedy man who seemingly without conscience destroys people and families for his own gain. It’s this that prompts the barons to take action against Edward, but it’s not the sole reason Isabella decides to lead them. She is the proverbial woman scorned and she decides to take her fate in her own hands.
She’s also driven by her affair with one of Edward’s baron Lord Roger Mortimer. A man who has seemingly coveted Isabella from the first time he sees her. While the affair is historically accurate, Falconer never managed to make me believe it. It just seemed so abrupt and, while passionate, just as devoid of true love and companionship as Isabella’s marriage to Edward. I think that was the point that the novel truly started to lose me, because I just couldn’t wrap my head around this burgeoning affair. Add to this the fact that at this point I’d also lost any overview of which lord was which and whether they were the elder or the younger or newly created and the last third of the novel became a bit of a slog.
Isabella: Braveheart of France is an interesting account of a fascinating queen, but it suffered from its fragmentary pacing, dispassionate tone, and the seeming lack of loving connection between Isabella and Mortimer. If you’re looking for a novel to familiarise yourself with Isabella’s story, Isabella: Braveheart of France is a good choice, though it doesn’t tell her entire story, since it stops after she and the barons dethrone Edward II. If you’re looking for a satisfying love story or drama, however, you might be left a little underwhelmed by Isabella and Mortimer.
This book was provided for review by the author.