The Stolen Queen by Lisa Hilton

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The Stolen Queen by Lisa Hilton

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Maybe not a hist-fict for those who don't like their history adjusted. For the rest of us this tale of King John's second wife Isabelle of Angouleme complete with a left field-ish, mischievously nail-biting conspiracy theory is a rivetingly ripping read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Corvus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1848874695

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Nine-year-old Isabelle of Angouleme is betrothed to Hal, son of Hugh de Lusignan. She doesn't like him much but she's learning to gently manipulate those around her so she feels life will be interesting and rewarding. However with England's King Richard the Lionheart all changes. Isabelle will marry King John instead – a totally different prospect for all concerned. This is a match that will not only be a challenge for the young girl but will show her the true heart of her mother and the true art of political manoeuvring. Isabelle may be the pawn in all this but it's not a role she takes to willingly, despite the nightmares of the horned man and the occurrences of a certain May night that will haunt the rest of her life.

Lisa Hilton writes both non-fiction historical biography and historical fiction. There are obviously rules and confines that need to be heeded in the world of non-fiction but historical fiction is a different matter. Here we watch Lisa take her imagination off its leash as she mixes the factual with little twists of fantasy or ideas that the historians hadn't dreamt of and we who already relish in the style of authors like welcome with anticipation.

In Wolves in Winter (2012) Lisa mixed the magic of alchemy with the Medici court. This time she envisages King John's second wife as a woman torn between her own will and those of others, strait jacketed by a sort of pagan sister/brotherhood. What, in the hands of lesser writers this may have been on the silly side of credible, Lisa's talent turns into a totally unputdownable novel.

The real Isabelle, Countess of Angouleme is just as fascinating. In real life she was actually betrothed to Hal's father, the adult Hugh of Lusignan but one can imagine having to change an adult betrothed to a 9 year old for modern tastes! The Lusignan family weren't at all pleased in real life when she was whisked away by King John. However there was an interesting turn of events later when King John died and she actually married Hugh's son. (This isn't a spoiler as the novel stops around John's death.)

The Isabelle Lisa offers us begins as a spoilt aristo brat, capricious and self-serving. As she grows we begin to warm to her, seeing the story revealed through her eyes. To her mother she's immaterial as a person; Isabelle's been born to unite the French and English thrones while enriching the family coffers. Then Lisa puts in a shock or two and flips our sympathy, showing that adult Isabelle too has a ruthless side when it comes to self-preservation. Indeed, as we witness King John becoming increasingly cruel and erratic, she needs every ounce of resourcefulness available.

Due to it being written in Isabelle's first person, big historical moments like the death of John and the Dukes' revolt are glossed over, linking in with Isabelle's feelings for her deceased husband and her location at the time. Isabelle doesn't miss out completely though. Lisa finds a way to include her in John's rescue of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Mirebeau making it a marvellously action-packed (and understandably violent) set piece.

There are also some great little insights into the period. For instance when child Hal hits child Isabelle and pummelled by her in return, he gets told off by his father… for losing a fight to a girl!

As previously mentioned, Lisa has added her own seasoning to the recipe in that she's brought in 'the old religion', meaning the worship of pagan ideas such as the Green Man. This is a flight of fancy that works well and pays dividends in paranoia as the plans of Isabelle's interfering relatives have a way of seeping into Isabelle's life when she – and we - least expect it. The effectiveness of this is attested to by my chewed finger nails and the fact I devoured the entire novel in one sitting!

The seriously factual histories of Isabelle are always going to be there for us to turn to now that Lisa has raised our awareness and whetted our appetites. Meanwhile this is definitely compulsive reading of the not to be missed variety.

(Thank you, Corvus, for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If this appeals, we also eagerly recommend Lisa's aforementioned Wolves in Winter. Read it already and are a fan of the history/imagination meld? The Gallow's Curse by Karen Maitland awaits. If you'd rather read more fiction around the life of King John, we suggest To Defy A King by Elizabeth Chadwick.

Booklists.jpg The Stolen Queen by Lisa Hilton is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books of 2015.

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