Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday Book Review and Giveaway: The Lute Player by Nora Lofts

Recently I received a copy of the reissue of Nora Lofts 1951 historical novel The Lute Player from the good folks at Simon &Schuster.

From the back cover:

One of the most renowned figures in medieval history, Richard the Lionhearted, inspired by a vision of the Holy Land, led his knights onto the battlefirelds of the Third Crusade.  During the years of fighting and intrigue, Richard's life was intertwined with the lives of two, strong, vibrant, and drastically different women who loved him - Berengaria, princess of Navarre, and his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine.  While his marriage to Berengaria was ill-fated, Eleanor loved her son with a frantic, possessive pride. But it is Blondel, the king's lute player, who here steps forward from the shadows to tell this tale of romance, war, and betrayal.

I've been a reader and lover of historical fiction since grade school but this is the first time that I've read a Nora Lofts novel, and it won't be the last. The back cover is a little misleading because the book really involves the lives of three women, Berengaria, Eleanor and Berengaria's half-sister Anna of Apieta, not just two.  Anna is not only illegitmate but she is also a hunchback which means that she has no hope of ever marrying or having a family.  The events detailed in the novel are actually set off by a single action of hers, hiring Blondel, who she meets in the market place.  Anna falls in love with him, although she knows it is hopeless, Blondel in turn falls in love with the beautiful Berengaria who is out of his league. Berengaria falls in love with Richard the Lionheart at first sight and is determined to be his wife or no one's, while Richard only loves war and other men.

For Berengaria's sake, Blondel follows Richard on the ill-fated Third Crusade, and then is the only one who can locate him when he is imprisoned in Austria. The novel is told through his eyes, Eleanor of Aquitaine's and Anna's. Lofts was unafraid to reveal her characters to be flawed, three-dimensional human beings, you love them and hate them as you get to know them through the course of the novel. Lofts also deftly portrays the hard lot of women in the Middle Ages, no matter their status. Both Eleanor and Anna are intelligent women, something that was not particularly prized in the Middle Ages when women were seen as either angels or whores, and they suffer because of it. Women who are often at the mercy at the hands of the men in their lives. Lofts is also not afraid to show the more unsavory side of life at the time either.  Although Lofts manages to give a true and accurate portrait of the horrors of war, this was actually the least interesting part of the book for me.  I also wish that we could have been privy to Berengaria's thoughts as opposed to seeing her from other's view points. Her story is a classic example of 'Be Careful What You Wish For."

Berengaria generally gets short shrift in the life of Richard the Lionhearted.  Although they were married, they spent very little time together. The reader can't help but feel for this beautiful woman whose only wish is for her husband to, if not love her, at least show her the respect that she deserves. Watching her disallusionment with Richard is one of the most painful parts of the book. It was also enjoyable to watch Anna and Berengaria forge a real relationship as the book progresses.

I confess that the only thing I knew about Blondel was gleaned from the Tim Rice/Stephen Oliver musical of the 80's, who portrays him as a blonde Medieval pop-star in the making, trying to craft a song for Richard (He comes up with the ditty "I'm a Monarchist"), along with his back up singers, The Blondettes. Lofts crafts the story of a young man who is thrust into a world that he has no idea who to deal with and who tries to mute pain and the horror that he has seen. He forges a friendship with Richard but also with Anna, which hopefully will save him in the end.

This was an exhilirating and rich novel, filled with details that make the age come alive for the reader. A real triumph. Simon & Schuster will be re-releasing Nora Loft's novel on Eleanor of Aquitaine in Spring 2010, and I will certainly be in the bookstore buying a copy!

Verdict: Highly Recommended.

Since I enjoyed this book so much I'm giving away a copy.
Note this giveaway is only available to my American and Canadian readers. Here are the rules:
1) Just leave a comment with your email address at the end of this post
2) The contest ends December 17th 2009 at 12:00 p.m. and will be announced on December 18th.

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