I received this novel as an e-ARC from Sourcebooks. It will be released in two days, on 9/1/10
This is the first novel that really spells out what some mistresses of kings were: rape victims.
King Henry II of England (in the late 1100s) was the guardian of the orphaned Ida de Tosne. When he selected her, it was one of the worst nights in her short life. She later becomes pregnant and has a child. Since she was brought up as a Catholic, she was not comfortable that she was living in sin and had a child out of wedlock, even though none of these events were really her fault.
Ida realizes that Henry will not be interested in her for much longer, so she starts to look for a decent man to marry; otherwise, Henry might marry her off to someone who would benefit him but not be good husband for Ida. She manages to attract the attention of Roger Bigod, a nobleman who has to work hard to regain the lands and castle that the previous Bigod had lost.
What I liked about this novel was the aspects of life outside the court. Roger had to work very hard. Once he was a hostage in Germany with his liege; he left his family for many months and had no contact with them. He was a traveling judge; he had to hear cases and decide the outcomes. He had to renovate his castle. He and Ida had to turn over a lot of jewelry and other treasures to the royal treasury from time to time. He had to spend more time than he wanted at court, to give advice to the king and administer parts of the kingdom. He also had to gather soldiers and go off to fight in several battles.
Ida's life wasn't easy either. When Roger was not home, she had to oversee the renovations, raise her children, run the household, oversee other management issues, and keep her spirits up, despite not being to communicate with Roger as much as she wanted to.
Some things that I take for granted are wonderful for the people of the times. Farmlingham, the home for the Bigod family would have "plenty of windows and these would be filled with glass." (I guess some castles had open window, in spite of the cold winters.) And the whitewash on the walls was applied with brooms, not paint brushes.
The food was also interesting. One of hostages, who spent time in Germany with Roger, was looking forward to having "a hot eel pie and a horn of honest Norfolk ale brewed by the Gythe at the Tub at Yarmouth." In May 1199, the Bigods had a small outdoor party held at Farmlingham. The menu included: "..dainty fritters and pies, cold roast fowl, bream from the mere, custard tarts and honey cakes studded with raisins."
Many of the names and words had a strong French influences; I then remembered that England had been under Norman rule since 1066.
The only quibble that I have is that sometimes when the main characters spoke, they sounded like 21st century denizens instead of 12th century.
Elizabeth Chadwick has complied links that tell the history behind her novels. So, by reading her works, you will be learning some English history at the same time but in a fun format.
A note on ebooks: This was my first time finishing an ebook. I like being able to find information more quickly, but I missed holding the book and marking pages with my darts. Even though my laptop is light, I had to lie down on my back to read the novel and couldn't lie on my side, as I sometimes do when I read a book. No, I won't buy a Kindle or Ipad. I think that I will stick with paper copies as long as I can.