Peer into the past

22nd June 2007 at 01:00
Elaine Williams chooses historical fiction

The Raven Queen

By Pauline Francis

Usborne pound;5.99


New World

By Chris Priestley

Corgi pound;6.99


The Falconer's Knot

By Mary Hoffman

Bloomsbury pound;12.99


The Medici Curse

By Matt Chamings

Faber pound;6.99


Not many of us will have given Lady Jane Grey much more than a passing thought, and not many history textbooks give her much more than a passing line.

This nine-day queen, the 16-year-old victim of plotting and intrigue during a particularly bloody and turbulent period of Tudor history, is easily overlooked, sandwiched between the brief and sorry kingship of Edward VI, and the heady, bloody reign of Mary I.

Like any good storyteller, Pauline Francis asks the simple questions: what could her life have possibly been like? How did she think and feel, love and hate? She answers them in full with a visceral, mesmerising debut novel that brings this little-regarded historical character to life.

The story of Jane's brief and tragic life is told in her own voice and that of her admirer, Ned. The fate of these star-crossed lovers - he a Catholic from a disgraced Catholic family and she an extreme Protestant with Royal blood - is relayed through a series of thrilling, climactic tableaux in haunting, lyrical style.

The precarious lives of Catholics a little later, under Elizabeth I, is explained in Chris Priestley's latest fulsome adventure story. New World follows the fate of Kit Milton, a boy from a noble Catholic family left on the streets after his parents are killed.

A chain of unexpected events brings him into the home of John White, mapmaker and associate of Sir Walter Raleigh, and soon on board the Tiger, sailing for the New World. Priestley is an adept historical novelist and this boy-friendly tale brings the everyday, brutish reality of Tudor life into sharp relief.

The subjugation of women is also one of the themes in Mary Hoffman's thriller The Falconer's Knot, set in Italy in the Middle Ages.

With echoes of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, the action unfolds in a monastery beset by bloody murder, but the lives of two women caught up in the violent intrigue creates a subtext which explores the heartache and frustration of their lack of rights. Once begun, this cannot easily be put down. Hoffman at her best.

The Medici Curse stays in Italy during the flamboyant but deadly period of Medici rule in Renaissance Florence.

In two parallel worlds - medieval and contemporary Italy - Matt Chamings takes us on an absorbing journey which tracks the precarious life of Arnaldo, a young Florentine painter who falls in love with the Medici daughter he is asked to portray, as well as the life of present-day Maria who discovers an extraordinary painting. This, too, is well worth picking up.

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