syntinen_laulu (syntinen_laulu) wrote in oltramar,

Book review: The Girl King, by Meg Clothier

Meg Clothier read classics at Cambridge, worked in Moscow for Reuters, then came back to Britain to study for a master's degree in post-Soviet politics. While writing a paper on Georgia she read about the 12th-century Queen Tamar of Georgia, and (in her own words)  "an inner voice whispered 'Sod the PhD. She’s worth a novel'".  All of which made me want to like The Girl King very much indeed, and hope that it would be brilliant.

Sadly, I can only give it B+ for effort and good intentions. I was going to write a long review but I find that someone else has already said much of what I wanted to say and a good deal more, here.

I'd only add in Clothier's favour that when she sticks to politics and statesmanship, she's good; I wish she had jettisoned most of the romance and stuck to the nuts and bolts of being a 12th-century queen. (And one cheer at least for making her not only quite unappalled by blindings, castrations and royal hunts consisting of mass slaughter of trapped animals, but having (almost) no truck with 'How can I marry a man I do not lerve???' either.) She also sternly set her face against 'exotic colour', perhaps even too much - you don't get much feel for how Georgia and its people looked.  The real failure in it is the Young Lerve element, which is not only, to my taste, quite unnecessary but just not even well done; she fails to make her Tamar 'n' Sos pairing interesting or particularly convincing.

I have to declare an interest here; I've always had a huge admiration for Davit Soslani, whose achievement I think is unique in history;  in a male-dominated warrior society, he spent his entire career as the (brave and mega-capable) subordinate of his wife, and still managed to go down in their country's history as a great warrior-hero and king. Anybody know of an achievement matching that? I don't. I'd love to meet that man, if only between the covers of a book, but I didn't meet him in The Girl King and am deeply, deeply disappointed.

Another gripe; the notion that readers will warm to juvenile historical characters if their names are given snappy short pet-forms - Sos for Soslani, Zak for Zakari, Con for Constantine. This reader doesn't; it grates. And frankly, if you require your readers (as Clothier, to her credit, doesn't shrink from doing) to take in their stride a character with the surname Mkhargrdzeli, do we really need his given name shortened from Zakari to Zak in order to feel close to him?

And this isn't Clothier's fault at all, but she has been dismally served by her publishers in the matter of cover art.  While Century's cover is just lettering that looks like something for a Tudor novel by S J Parris or C J Sansom, the Arrow Books one is crassly inappropriate. Clothier very rightly stresses in the book that Tamar never went into battle herself, but here we have a full-on Girl Knight in full 15th-century Western European armour - give her a white banner and that'd be a  picture of Joan of Arc. It's a strong contender for this board's 'Rubbish Medieval Book Cover' prize.

Still, Clothier does give a small part in the novel to everyone's favourite bad-but-fun Byzantine, Andronikos Komnenos; and he has a major role in her second book, The Empress, about Agnes of France who was sent to Constantinople in 1182 to marry Alexios II Komnenos. But, having just sent it to Silverwhistle for Christmas, I'll leave her to review that one!
Tags: andronikos, book review, georgia
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I just picked up the parcel the day I went down to Hull, but I left it in Glasgow. I only had time to leaf through Empress cursorily, and it gave me a few WTF?! moments, such as Agnès having a brief affair with Conrad during his very brief marriage to Theodora (here called 'Dora' – another of the iffy shortened names), sister of Isaakios Angelos. I think he had other things on his mind at the time! Still, at least (unlike the Graham Shelby portrayal) he's not a rapist in it…
Clothier is a very, very bad writer. Have been looking further at Empress: paper-thin characterisations, and a prose-style that is utterly undemanding and uninvolving. She also hasn't done enough research: she describes Manuel Komnenos's daughter Maria as "past 30" when she married Renier of Montferrat. She was in her late 20s (no more than 10 years between them). I think Choniates was responsible for exaggerating this, but in any decent annotated modern edition, the footnotes should clarify this. The Montferrat boys are at least depicted as the beautiful creatures they seem to have been, but I still can't get over the fact she has Agnès shagging Conrad during his very brief 1187 time in Byzantium.


January 9 2015, 10:42:12 UTC 2 years ago

I know: she's a sad disappointment. (She tinkers with dates and ages in The Girl King too - she completely cuts out the six years that Tamar was her father's co-ruler, being trained up for the job.)

I almost didn't send Empress to you, but decided that rubbish or not, you ought to know about any book featuring Conrad. At least Clothier grasped that he was (a) sexy and (b) a highly capable man of action, which as you say is an advance on Shelby! (And, to be fair, do we know that he wasn't the type who would find time to shag anyone shaggable even in the middle of a rebellion and palace coup? He certainly had the talents to do it.)
He might with someone else. However, he was well aware of the precarity of his position, and I think too politically astute to take undue risks. Some random court lady, perhaps; but given his brother's fate, I don't think Andronikos's widow would have been at the top of his 'to do' list (i you'll pardon the phrase), especially given that she was cousin Louis's daughter. The family seems to have gone to great lengths (Byzantium, Outremer) to avoid getting stuck in the consanguinity mire that resulted from both grandmothers marrying twice and having huge numbers of children!