Tuesday, March 08, 2011

BOOK: The Girl King, By Meg Clothier (independent.co.uk)

Royal romp is fresh and fast-moving
source: independent.co.uk
Reviewed by Oliver Bullough

The first novelists to realise the potential of the Tudor period struck gold.

The multiple wives, the intrigue, the war, the costumes: it is perfect for historical fiction. Sadly, over the years, that vein has been strip-mined.

Happily for lovers of historical romps, Meg Clothier has found a new lode to exploit: medieval Georgia, and it is glittering. She discovered Georgia when working in Moscow, where we were colleagues at Reuters news agency. We co-operated on rather dry political stories about Russian-Georgian relations, and I had no idea this was what she planned. Dry, it is not.

The "girl-king" is Tamar, proud daughter of a king without a male heir. Surrounded by enemies, stalked by suitors, underestimated and betrayed, she is – in short – Georgia's Elizabeth I with the distinct advantage for plot purposes of not having been a "virgin queen". The book opens with her fleeing to the Caucasus mountains on Georgia's northern border, where she lives incognito with a family of highlanders. Drawn back into the war for control of her father's kingdom, she is thrust into the centre of politics when he names her his heir. As queen, she is surrounded by powerful men who would have her, or her kingdom, or, ideally, both.

Georgia, home to both rich farmland and soaring mountains, has an ancient Christian culture that was closely linked to the Byzantine empire until its defeat by the invading Turks. Cut off from the rest of Christendom, it drifted out of the mainstream, and has remained there to this day. Its current government is almost pathologically pro-Western, but it is almost unknown to tourists. Those who do visit, however, tend to fall in love with the place, thanks to Georgia's deep red wine, pristine landscape, complex cuisine and noble architecture. It is clear that Clothier is among them.

Georgia's notoriously complex language, unrelated to any other and written in its own unique and elegant alphabet, does occasionally block the flow of the book. Every time I came to the character called Gamrekeli or, worse, Mkhargrdzeli, I felt a little trip. But that is a minor quibble.
The plot is fast-moving, the story is fresh, and it culminates in a dramatic Armada moment. It is as if Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth were combined into one character, and unleashed for the first time: so much more fun than another Boleyn book.

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