Robyn Reviews: Divine Heretic

Divine Heretic is the story of Jeanne d’Arc, more commonly known in the UK as Joan of Arc. Jeanne is a saint of the Roman Catholic church for her role in the Hundred Years War, a battle between the French and the English for dominion over France. Jeanne claimed to have visions of angels – specifically the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine – instructing her to support the incumbent King Charles VII in his quest to reclaim France. Her actions aided him in ascending to the throne, but she herself was captured by the English and burnt at the stake for witchcraft.

The book more or less follows the common story, but diverges on Jeanne’s opinion of the angels. Here, the angels are more like demons who plague her. It starts with their first visit, when Jeanne is five, and follows as they torment her, cursing her with pain and horror for her family until she agrees to carry out their will. They claim she is the fabled Maid, but Jeanne doesn’t believe herself to be the Maid – she’s just a peasant girl. As time passes, the control these demons have over Jeanne appears to wax and wane – but they’re determined to ensure she fulfils her destiny no matter what the cost.

Jeanne is an intriguing protagonist. She’s exceptionally devout, but equally sure that these beings are not divine. She’s a strong character with clear desires – even when she seems powerless to achieve them. Her life is regularly awful, and she hates the demons she blames this on with burning passion. There’s a certain level of detachment between her and the reader – this seems to be common in historical novels – which can make her hard to connect with, but it’s hard not to sympathise with her inability to control her own life.

Unfortunately, the secondary characters are particularly two-dimensional. Her Grand-mere is an intriguing character – chosen to be the Maid before Jeanne until circumstances prevented her from fulfilling her destiny – yet this thread, and the impacts on her character, are never explored. Jeanne’s sworn protector, Ethan, also has brilliant potential – mixed-race in an era and place where that’s uncommon, he’s a strong knight with a heart of gold. However, he’s reduced to the cardboard love interest, never doing anything for himself. This would be a much stronger story if anyone except Jeanne felt like a real person.

I enjoyed the plot – despite telling a well-known tale it maintained interest, with less predictable twists thrown in alongside the predictable ones. However, I disliked what was done with the ending. It felt unnecessary – after the darkness of the rest of the book, throwing in fluffiness felt trite.

I struggle with historical fiction more than many other genres because it’s often written in a very detached style, and I need to connect with the characters to really enjoy a story. This is no different. It’s well-written, but the impersonal nature of it lessens its appeal. Fans of historical fiction and plot-driven novels likely won’t mind this, or may even prefer it – but I want it to delve deeper.

Overall, this is a solid historical fiction novel about an interesting, well-known figure that takes a slightly different spin to what is often portrayed. Recommended to fans of historical fiction, especially Roman Catholic history, and strong female characters.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Quercus for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

 

Published by Quercus
Paperback: 20th August 2020

Book Review: Into the Fire

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Into the Fire, by Manda Scott, retells the story of Joan of Arc from an original and compelling perspective. Two stories are told in parallel, one contemporary and one set in the time of The Maid’s most famous battles in the fifteenth century. Using this device the author is able to show how and why legends are created and, perhaps of even more interest, why they are protected so fiercely by those who benefit from them. As ever with half truths that morph into ‘accepted fact’, religion, politics and business interests play key roles.

The opening chapter is set in present day Orléans where Capitaine Ines Picault has been called to investigate the fourth in a series of arson attacks which have blighted the city over the previous three weeks. This conflagration represents an escalation in hostilities as the burning building contains the remains of a body.

A cursory study of the charred corpse indicates that the unknown male was dead before the fire started. A memory card is later found lodged in the victim’s oesophagus suggesting that the assault was not unexpected and that he had information which he wished to pass on. As the police struggle to recover the encrypted digital data, and to assemble the victim’s last known movements, the arsonists strike again. This time CCTV footage is captured which had previously been so carefully avoided. Picault suspects a false trail.

Interspersed with the chapters which progress this contemporary tale are those which detail the rise and exploits of Jehanne d’Arc, nicknamed The Maid of Orléans. Although her story is familiar and has been appropriated by many; from the suffragettes through LGBT Christians, the Traditionalist Youth Network in the USA (her virginity is a big selling point here) to opposing French political parties; this is a fictionalised, personal account by a fighter sent by the enemy English to destroy her. The author has studied letters and transcripts from the time to provide accuracy but, for me, the most interesting facts were these:

  • In 2003, a Ukranian orthopaedic surgeon found within the tomb of a fifteenth century French king, the bones of a woman whom he said had died in her late 50s or early 60s and had been trained to ride a war horse from a very early age: a woman knight. He said, ‘This is Marguerite de Valois. And this was Joan of Arc.’ The French closed the tomb and threw him out of France.
  • During the trial of Joan of Arc, which lasted for many months, nobody asked how a nineteen year old peasant girl gained her strategic and tactical skills, how she learned to ride, to wield weapons, to couch a lance. That any girl should be capable of such skills was unthinkable at the time. Those in power preferred to promote her much vaunted purity and to claim that she was a gift from God. It is this story which has been perpetuated.

As the parallel tales unfold the similarities between rulers, nearly 600 years apart, become clear. The public can be swayed by a pretty story which strokes existing prejudices. They appear to find it easier to support perceived beauty, purity and righteousness than to challenge societal structures with which they are comfortable. Then as now those in power will ensure, by whatever means necessary, that inconvenient truths are ridiculed or censored.

The author is a fine storyteller and her writing flows beautifully, maintaining interest and building tension towards the meshing of the two endings. As Jehanne d’Arc faces the deadly wrath of her enemies, Ines Picault discovers that she has been played in a callous and potentially fatal game. As with any good thriller there are twists and turns aplenty.

I enjoyed reading this book. The suggestion of a modern day conspiracy to protect a myth convenient to church and state is all too believable. Taught history is only ever as accurate as the scribes of the day allow.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bantam Press.

I will be giving away a signed copy of this book to one lucky reader. For details check out my tweets: Jackie Law (@followthehens) | Twitter.

This review is part of a blog tour. Below are the details of all those taking part, do please go and check them out.

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