HarperCollins | 2020 (9 January) | 461p | Review copy | Buy the book
It’s the first day of 2020 and I could think of no better way to kick off another year of reviews and book love than with The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson, a book I’ve been longing to read and which I absolutely adored. It’s a stand alone novel as well so you can dive in straight away.
With Richard III, the last Yorkish King, defeated in battle, his conqueror Lancastrian Henry Tudor now wears the crown as Henry VII. But a crown won on the battlefield is not safe and the only way Henry can end the Wars of the Roses for good is to unite the Houses of York and Lancaster and to found a new dynasty, secure and strong. And so Henry marries Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and niece of Richard III, and it isn’t long at all before their heir Arthur is born. The future looks bright and it looks Tudor.
Joan Vaux is brought to the Tower of London to serve the new Queen and they become close companions and friends. It’s a continuity of sorts because Joan’s mother had been confined to the Tower along with the Queen’s mother during the last brutal years of the wars. The Tower has significance for Joan and she is drawn to the ravens who live there, even though the men of the garrison think it fine sport to use them as target practice. It becomes Joan’s mission to keep the ravens safe, firmly believing the legend that should the ravens leave the Tower for good then the crown will fall and ruin will return to the nation. And so the years pass for both Joan and Elizabeth, for their families and for the ravens. All are interconnected. It is an engrossing tale.
I’m such a big fan of Joanna Hickson. She brings late medieval, and now Tudor, history alive through her characters, women who play such a significant role in history but for whom power is more often than not an illusion. This is a society ruled by powerful men. Women are expected to serve their men as wives and mothers but their domestic lives are every bit as dangerous as those of their sons and husbands – childbirth is a battle that almost every woman must face and not all survive it, and the loss of a child is something more mothers than not have to endure. But these women can still exert an influence and we see that here in Joan, her mother, Elizabeth and in Henry’s mother Margaret, an astonishing figure whose story Joanna Hickson told in The Tudor Crown. Margaret plays less of a role in The Lady of the Ravens – this is very much Joan’s story – but her influence is everywhere. Not the easiest of mothers-in-law for the new Queen…
Talking of which, the pain that the new Queen Elizabeth must endure is so well dealt with. This young woman has no idea what happened to her brothers, the Princes in the Tower, and must cope with pretender after pretender claiming to be one or other of them, each of them opposing her husband. Her cousin imprisoned in the Tower of London must have been a constant reminder of how insecure her own position was. I thought this was an extremely successful element of The Lady of The Ravens.
I loved Joan. She’s a wonderful figure and she’s drawn so well. The novel’s title focuses on her relationship with the ravens, and she really does stand out as unusual, even a curiosity, for her care of these birds, but there is much more to the book than that. Narrated in the first person by Joan herself we get to know all aspects of her life, as well as her fears and aspirations. I loved getting to know her and, through her, the people in her life. She really just has to get on with things. There is little choice but she does win small battles. I really enjoyed the novel’s focus on Joan. There are baddies – the Tudor court was never the safest place, especially for a woman who needs patronage, and a husband, to survive – but the book never becomes a drama. It is managed beautifully. It feels like a realistic account of a relatively wealthy gentlewoman’s life in the Tudor court and outside it. As such, I couldn’t have been more riveted to it.
The portrayal of Henry VII is also fascinating. Henry is often presented as dry financier, counting the pennies, controlling every aspect of his household. But this is not the Henry we meet here. We are reminded that Henry won his crown in battle and during the course of the novel he has constant fights with pretenders to the throne. He has to fight to hold on to it, even going into pitched battle again. This is no clerk, this is a warrior. Who also likes to dance. It’s also intriguing to be given glimpses of the child who would become Henry VIII. The people in The Lady of the Ravens couldn’t be more interesting and Joanna Hickson brings them to life beautifully.
The historical setting is so well depicted. The narrative is full of rich and colourful detail. I loved the descriptions of the buildings, palaces and clothes. I really enjoyed the union of domestic drama and life with political dealing and unrest. The novel works so well on both levels. There is a historical resonance. The Tudors are such familiar figures in historical fiction but we don’t often see the future Henry VIII and his sisters and children. The ravens themselves add something a little Gothic, an ominous sense that life is fleeting and violent.
I was thoroughly immersed in The Lady of the Ravens from start to finish and spent much of Christmas Day with my head buried in it. I couldn’t have had a more perfect Christmas read. The novel is beautifully written, it’s full of life and interest, while still keeping an eye on its historical context and significance. I absolutely loved it. What a great start to 2020!