Publication Date: May 18, 2023
Length: 434 pages
As someone who came late to the game in studying the period of The Anarchy between Stephen and Matilda, I am always excited to get my hands on any books set during that time. It is fascinating and exciting and a great backdrop for historical fiction. This author seems to be very popular right now and the gorgeous covers of her books really catch the eye and make you want to try them.
The story begins in 1127 at Windsor Castle. Matilda, or Maud, as she is called, former Empress of Germany, has been called home to England by her father, the current King Henry I, to take up her rightful place as heir to the throne. Having been widowed in Germany and no longer wife of the Emperor there, being female she is at the mercy of her father who insists on making her the one to inherit the crown upon his death. The barons and clergy are not thrilled, but with Maud's brother William, the only legitimate male heir having drowned years before, Maud is all that is left. They swear allegiance to her in front of Henry but this is short lived upon his death.
Maud is also painfully betrothed to the immature Geoffrey of Anjou and the two are like oil and water. Geoffrey is several years her junior and Maud is used to the adulation and honor due an Empress from her years spent in Germany, while Geoffrey is completely uninterested in both his older wife and in taking up duties in England. He is much more wedded to France, specifically his home territory and in acquiring Normandy and its surrounding lands.
The basic story of the Anarchy period is related chronologically from the years of Henry's death to the crowning of his grandson, Henry II. We witness the chaos of Maud's fight to regain her title and crown from her cousin Stephen, who has the support and backing of much of the nobility who see a male ruler as the only real solution. All the major players are here: Maud's confidante and trustworthy brother, Robert of Gloucester, sheriff Miles of Gloucester, and Brian Fitz Count, one of the nobility and supporter of Maud. The major battles and skirmishes, Lincoln, Oxford are recounted, as well as Maud's escape into the wintry night to Wallingford.
We are also introduced to fictional character, the loyal Alice, and her knight love interest, Sir Jacques, who serve as the way McGrath inserts the goings on of the more common folk and their attachment to the nobles and royals in the time period. Alice and her family are entertainers, puppeteers who are loyal to Maud and her side of the fight for the crown.
I started out really enjoying this book. And then about halfway through I started to lose interest. I pushed through to the end but found myself trying to figure out why I wasn't as excited to read it as it unfolded. After reading some reviews by others on Goodreads I finally realized the answer. There just wasn't the character development I wanted and one reviewer described the writing as "wooden." Sometimes it vacillated between sounding like a history book recalling facts and details, and then would try to switch to a more romantic style. It just didn't work for me. I will not say it is not worth reading but I didn't come away learning a lot of new information about the period and I also didn't really care about any of the characters involved, fictional or real. All the information was there but it just didn't flow or have that personal touch the way good historical fiction should.
Will I read another book by this author? Yes, I would like to try one of the books in her Rose trilogy. I am wondering if I read about a subject I don't know a lot about I might enjoy it better. Possibly because I've read so much on the Anarchy period in much greater detail, this book just recapped things I already knew and I skimmed through it for that reason. I rarely shut out an author after one book as I like to see if another works better. This book is a great fit for someone who is just learning about this subject and needs the background information told in an entertaining style. McGrath clearly has that knowledge and her research is solid. It is good to know what you do learn from it is based on proven, historical facts. That is my number one reason for reading and loving historical fiction.