The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

Fictionalised history…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Joan Vaux has known Elizabeth of York since childhood, so when Elizabeth becomes Queen to the first of the Tudors, Henry VII, it is natural for Joan to become one of her court servants. This is the story of Joan’s life – her rise through the ranks to become lady-in-waiting to the Queen and her husband’s equal rise to the top ranks of Henry’s circle. Living for periods of time in the Tower of London, Joan has developed a fascination for the ravens who make their home there and for the legend that says that should the ravens ever desert the Tower, its walls will crumble and the monarchy will fall. Over the years Joan will do her best to protect the ravens from those who see them as pests.

I’m no historian, especially of this period, but it seems to me as if Hickson sticks very closely to fact, both in terms of events and in the personalities of the Royals, insofar as their personalities are known at all at this distance. To me, this is not so much historical fiction as fictionalised history. By this I mean that it is a simple recounting of actual events as seen through the eyes of Joan, rather than a fictional story in its own right using the historical background as a setting.

In other words, there is no plot. The blurb speaks of Joan being “privy to the deepest and darkest secrets of her queen” but frankly Elizabeth doesn’t have any deep, dark secrets. “Like the ravens,” the blurb continues, “Joan must use her eyes and her senses, as conspiracy whispers through the dark corridors of the Tower.” Hmm! That rather makes it sounds as if Joan will be involved in the various events of the time, doesn’t it? But she’s not – she merely mentions them in passing as things that happen to other people. The book is well written for the most part and interesting for the credible detail it provides of the life of a lady of the court who sees and hears of the high events of the period without actively participating in or influencing them. Nothing wrong with that, but not quite what the blurb would lead one to expect. Personally I was perpetually disappointed that all the action was happening elsewhere – the rebellions, skirmishes, treaties, etc. However that’s a matter of personal preference – I’m always more interested in the political than the domestic sphere.

Yes, they’re still there…

The book is full of anachronistic phrases, like “healthy bottom line”, “cooking the books”, “dress to impress”, and so on – so many of them that I came to think that Hickson had made the decision to do this deliberately rather than accidentally allowing one or two to slip through. I can see that that may be an attempt to make the characters seem more accessible to a modern audience, but for me it simply jarred. I don’t think historical fiction should necessarily be full of thous and thees and mayhaps and verilys, but I find the use of specifically modern phrases simply pulls me out of the period. And I was seriously disappointed at the too frequent glaring grammatical errors, especially since Hickson tells us that she had two editors! Hopefully someone will have picked these up and corrected them before the final version was printed.

Joanna Hickson

Despite this lengthy list of niggles, I still found it quite an enjoyable read overall. It gives an interesting and convincing insight into the life of a lady of the court, juggling marriage and children with the duties of serving the Queen. Joan is lucky that the husband who is chosen for her is someone she comes to love and admire – not passionately, perhaps, but contentedly. All the important events of the time are touched on, such as Perkin Warbeck’s imposture of one of the missing, presumed dead, Princes in the Tower, and we are entertainingly introduced to the child who will later become Henry VIII. The book ends with the marriage of Katherine of Aragorn to the young Prince Arthur, and with a promise in the afterword that Hickson intends to continue Joan’s story in a future book. I’m not sure that I’ll stick with her for that, but that’s mainly because of my preference for novels that take me to the centre of events rather than leaving me on the domestic periphery. However, I think people who are interested in seeing how women of this rank lived at that time will find this an enjoyable and informative read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

On a different note, dear people, I’ve found that my anxiety level is through the roof at the moment, as I’m sure will also be the case with many of you. I’m finding it almost impossible to read anything that requires concentration and writing reviews of anything other than light books seems to have become a formidable task. So my posting might be erratic for a bit and rather full of vintage crime and comforting re-reads until my system accepts that this is the new normal. To hasten that day, I’m going to stop watching news except for the main evening bulletin on the BBC and I’m swearing off all social media except for the blogosphere for the time being – I’m sure the blanket coverage and conflicting messages are making things worse rather than better. I will also be avoiding blog posts about the pandemic, so apologies in advance for that.

Stay safe, stay as calm as possible under the circumstances, and don’t forget to stockpile chocolate!

50 thoughts on “The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

  1. Well, this is a bummer. Obviously, I bought the book based on the blurb but now, after reading your review, I’m not even entirely sure I still want to read it since it doesn’t at all sound like what I was promised. Like you, I much prefer being right in the thick of things.

    I completely understand how you feel. Being stuck in some sort of apocalypse novel really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Although, I must say I don’t mind the self-isolation 😉. I hope you find something to settle down your anxiety levels. I’ll be thinking of you. Stay safe! 😘

    Liked by 1 person

    • Misleading blurb syndrome! It is quite interesting but definitely not as action-packed or thrilling as the blurb suggests. True to life, though, I suppose, since very few women actually played much direct part in events back then…

      Haha – it’s odd, because I live in semi-isolation through choice most of the time anyway. But now that they’re telling me I can’t go to parties and pop concerts and football matches, suddenly I want to! 😂 I’m already finding my news blackout is helping – I coughed earlier and didn’t follow it up with an immediate panic attack… 😉

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  2. I sympathise – I’ve had ongoing issues with anxiety, and this is obviously not a good time for anyone, and I’m ready to scream at people who are more interested in scaremongering or scoring political points than trying to work together. All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sick to death of the political point scoring too. I don’t believe any politician “wants us all to die”, as the hysterical Twitterers are all screaming about whoever their pet hate politician is! I’m hoping that now we’ve finally reached the crisis stage that the anxiety might ease off a bit – sometimes the anticipation of what might happen is worse than the actuality of dealing with it when it does. Stay well!

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    • Great motto – I suspect my sanity is more at risk than my physical health… so far, anyway! Yes, thank goodness for comforting re-reads and vintage crime. And re-runs of Friends and Murder, She Wrote… 😉

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      • I’m currently watching Babylon Berlin (until my NowTV subscription expires on the 28th of March). Find it oddly soothing to see the world go to hell in a handcart in 1929 Berlin rather than the present-day…

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        • Haha -yes, maybe we should read about all previous horrors to remind ourselves that one day this will be a blip in history too! I think I’ll avoid books about the plague though… 😉

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  3. That’s an interesting difference between Fictionalised History and Historical Fiction, I’ve never really thought of that before. I tend to enjoy historical novels which contain a good balance between the political and domestic, but if they swing too much in one direction or other, it feels too restrictive, so sadly, I’m not in a desperate hurry to read this.
    Wise idea to restrict your news intake and Social Media outings, I might do the same. The constant coverage and mixed messages are turning me into a jibbering wreck, far more than the idea of the virus itself. Let’s all keep each other sain by talking about purely escapist literature for a while.

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    • Yes, I like a balance too, where the characterisation is as important as the action, but I do like to be at the centre of events rather than on the periphery as Joan was. It was undoubtedly truer than if she’d made Joan play an active part in national events, since few women got the opportunity to do that back then, but I did feel she could have worked it so that Joan had a plot of her own to contend with somehow.
      Well, I restricted myself to one news bulletin and the daily briefing yesterday, and already feel better. All the political point-scoring drives me insane at a time like this – I’m one of these strange people who actually believes most politicians are trying to do their best! Yes, indeed, escapist literature sounds good – just started The Prisoner of Zenda and it’s shaping up to be a lot of fun! 😀

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  4. Hmm, yes there’s a fine line between fictionalised history and historical fiction, I much prefer the latter.
    I haven’t been watching the news for a long time now, mainly because it’s all bad. It is a very anxious time now but I’m definitely in favour of restricted news intakes.

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    • Yes, me too – plotless novels rarely work for me, however good the setting, and watching history happen through Joan’s eyes was kinda like reading a history book rather than a novel.
      I’m usually a news junkie – I enjoy political brawling as a spectator sport and don’t usually get annoyed by it. But I must admit the political hysteria at a time like this is maddening – whatever happened to the old Dunkirk spirit?? I restricted myself to the evening news yesterday and already feel my anxiety levels dropping… 😀

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  5. I’m glad you found this a good read overall, FictionFan, even with one or two things that didn’t work as well. I know just what you mean about anachronistic language. I notice that, too, when I read historical novels. It can be hard to avoid, but I think it’s best if the author’s really careful not to let those sorts of expressions come through. Still, it does sound like an interesting way to look at that time and that place. You’ll notice, by the way, that I haven’t said anything about misleading blurbs. I’d go on for too long and clutter up your comment section if I said anything about that…

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    • It’s very hard to avoid anachronisms completely but in this one they were so frequent and glaring it must have been a deliberate choice. And as for blurbs – pah! It’s so silly, because it attracts the “wrong” kind of reader and in these days of amateur reviews, that means the book ends up with negative ratings that it probably wouldn’t get if only the “right” readers were reading it. Had I known it was going to be about the domestic life of a lady of rank, I wouldn’t have picked it – not because there’s anything wrong with that but simply because it’s not a subject that appeals to me much…

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  6. Well, it sounds like the book held your interest at least. I would have the same reaction to the anachronisms.

    Yes, indeed stockpile chocolate. I have a stack of it in a safe place. Sorely needed in a mad time. By all means, take whatever time you need. I’ve been avoiding the news because I know I will scream if I hear certain words again. P. G. Wodehouse books are a must in these times!

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    • I thought it was well done and would have worked very well for the “right” reader – unfortunately, that wasn’t me! Anachronisms always jar me, and there were so many of them in this book that it must have been a deliberate choice to leave them in.

      Well, I stuck to my one bulletin yesterday and already feel my anxiety levels dropping. Wodehouse, Christie and re-runs of Murder, She Wrote – that’s my survival plan… 😉

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  7. I know what you mean about anachronisms. Well, except for “verilys”, they get me every time . . .

    Perhaps my favorite kind of historical fiction is represented by The Master, by Colm Toibin. He fairly crawls inside of Henry James and shows us what it must have been like, starting with his first big professional failure, a play called Guy Domville opening in the West End. The book spans just under five years, but we feel like we lived every significant moment in the end.

    Our little town of Santa Fe, New Mexico, had its first case about five days ago, and already every school and significant venue is closed down, even the little book readings. We’ll ride it out, this self-isolation. I should think we book lovers are better suited for it than most.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Matt! Your new book is out – congratulations! Looking forward to reading it soon. 😀

      I’ve had The Master on my TBR for ages but keep holding back till I’ve actually read a bit more Henry James first – I have one of them on my Classics Club list so hopefully soon!

      I don’t think we’ve had a case in my little town of Kirkintilloch yet, but we’re a commuter suburb of Glasgow which has had several, so it won’t be long in coming, I expect. But I’m in the category the government has now decided should stay in for a minimum of twelve weeks with no social contact at all if possible… so thank goodness for Kindles and massive TBRs!

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  8. I haven’t read this one, but I really enjoyed your review, FF. The misleading blurb is off-putting, as is your finding grammatical errors after two editors read through the manuscript. Kind of shows us how lax the publishing industry has gotten. As for your decision to pull back from the world a bit, I’m right there with you! Of course, my mood is influenced greatly by the absence of Dallas, but I didn’t need a global pandemic to compound it. Stay healthy!

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    • The grammatical errors were such obvious ones too – I know I’m picky but it doesn’t seem much to ask that authors and editors should know the basics of the language! Grrr! I do think it’s a sad comment on publishing, especially since this is from one of the major publishing houses. Yes, this is a bad enough time for you without all this added worry and stress – stay well, Debbie, and look after yourself!

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  9. I’m definitely with you on this one. I found the modern phrases distracting and the first half of the book rather slow. It picked up for me in the second half when it was more about Joan. I’m not sure if I’d read the follow-up although I believe Joan does have a more direct impact on events that occur after the point this book ends.

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    • Yes, at the beginning I considered abandoning it but it did pick up later and I felt it gave a convincing picture of the time even though I wished it took us closer to the centre of events. That’s interesting that Joan may be more involved directly in the later period, but I don’t think even that would tempt me to read the next one – I’ll wait and see the reviews.

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  10. Hmm the fact that she includes these modern-day sayings is a huge turn off for me. I mean really, the use of those in modern day fiction is generally a no-no, editors tend to take that stuff out, so why for god’s sakes would we include it in historical fiction? So strange.

    There we go again-a missing plot!!! I think your checklist idea is a good one. And glad to hear you have lots of chocolate, me too! As you know, the lead-up to Easter is my favourite one because of the chocolate available, so other than having my kids home from school (ugh) I’m doing just fine! haha

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  11. I started to read this book a few weeks ago but I struggled to get into it and put it aside for a while. I might go back to it later, although I feel the same way as you about anachronistic language. And yes, the constant news coverage is making this whole situation even worse. I’m struggling with anxiety as well, so I sympathise!

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    • I ended up mildly enjoying it overall but those anachronisms did annoy me. And there are so many of them it must surely have been a deliberate choice – a strange one! The anxiety is hard to deal with, isn’t it? Every time I speak to anyone it’s all we talk about, even though I’m sure that just makes us feel even more anxious. And yet it’s hard to think of anything else. Oh, well, we’ll get through it in the end – stay safe!

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  12. Well…. despite the negatives you mention, I think I might still enjoy this. I particularly like social history and it sounds like I’d get a hefty dose of it here. The previous book I read by Hickson dealt with Jasper Tudor and I really enjoyed it.

    Take a deep breath, relax, and enjoying reading whatever stories bring you the most comfort and pleasure. 🙂 I find nature calming and plan to post some recent photos I’ve taken soon.

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    • I do think it would work well for anyone interested in seeing how women of this rank lived at that time – it felt to me like an authentic picture. I’m just more of a plot-driven person myself – I’d rather have been with the king making wars and treaties than with Joan in childbirth!

      Yes, I think a diet of Wodehouse and Christie is called for, and replacing the news with re-runs of Murder, She Wrote! And cake – cake is very calming… 😉 Stay well!

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    • Aw, thank you, Laila! Isn’t it good to know that we have a virtual community even if we have to stay away from people in real life? 😀 I stuck to my new rule of one news bulletin and no Twitter yesterday and I already feel less anxious. A few Agatha Christies and some re-runs of Murder, She Wrote – that’s my survival plan! 😉

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  13. I don’t think I’ll be reading The Lady of the Ravens… you’ll probably tempt me with the Wodehouse and reviews of the ‘funner’ books. As long as we’ve got enough chocolate and books we should stay sane 🤪

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    • I’m not sure how sane I was before all this began! Yes, Wodehouse and Christie are going to be my survival plan – and maybe some Georgette Heyer if things get really bad… and cake!! There must be cake… I hope they’re organising emergency cake deliveries… 🍰📚

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      • Now there’s a business idea! We used to camp at a caravan park where the local bakery sent their van around each morning to sell bread, pies and the nicest donuts I’ve ever eaten. It was only a holiday treat but wouldn’t it be lovely if it was all of the time and everywhere 🍩🍩
        Got the news today my library is closing tomorrow so will hotfoot it down there first thing in the morning.
        I’m working from home so keeping busy but they are certainly anxious times. Might take a page from you and get fun, escapist-type reads.

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        • For a very brief period of my life I manned the doughnut making machine in a café in a holiday camp, which of course meant limitless access to freshly made, still hot ones – perhaps my best ever job! Although the hotdog stall came close… 😂

          It’s a horrifying thought that libraries and bookshops will be closed. For once I’m glad to have my huge TBR! Glad to hear you’re able to hunker down at home now – somehow going out at all feels like a hazardous adventure! Now that I’ve got plenty of supplies in, I’m quite glad to be able to shut the world out for a while… but hopefully not for too long…

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            • *nods* And alcohol, usually – well, I was only a teenager at the time… 😀 Our PM seems to think we’ll have turned the corner in twelve weeks, but the general opinion is that he’s crazy…

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            • It’s impossible to guess at the future but I imagine our health care workers are hoping that 12 weeks is all it will take. I’m probably with the general opinion and think that your PM is trying to put a hopeful spin on his communications.
              Donuts and alcohol sound like a popular diet for a teenager. Now there is another business idea… Rum flavoured donuts, whisky, every flavour of liqueur you can think of as a creme filling. I don’t drink but think these will appeal to donut-lovers. No doubt someone will do this and it will be a food fad for a while and I’ll be looking on and saying, “I thought of that first.”

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            • Yeah, he’s kinda dialled back on that claim now! But they do still seem to be planning for twelve weeks for the worst of the social distancing at the moment. We’ll see!
              Hahaha! You should start the business while you’re at home! I bet there’s a huge market for home delivery donuts at the moment, especially alcohol-laced ones – I’d buy them! 😀

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  14. Nope – I don’t think this one is for me. Hooray! Normally you’re terrible for my TBR 😉

    I feel the same way FF – to moderate my anxiety I’ve taken the same decision to stick to one new bulletin a day. We can get through this my bookish friend – the entire BLCC back catalogue awaits us 🙂

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  15. Thank goodness for blog mates, they can’t make us self-isolate from those! I do hope you find a way to have a settled and comfortable life while the world works it way through the next wee while. It’s such a strange and unknown time as we ponder different realities and different questions than we’ve had to before. At least you are heading to spring (and we head to autumn- a lovely sunny autumn today). As always, I’ll be delighted to read whenever and whatever you post.

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    • Absolutely, Christine! What a boon that we live in the internet age – this would be so much worse if we couldn’t continue to have our bookish conversations and just general contact with humanity! Now that I’ve managed to get myself organised for the twelve weeks the government is recommending to stay in isolation, I feel much less anxious happily. I hope you’re managing to stay safe and well over there too. I have great faith in science to find a vaccine quickly, so hopefully all this will have been worth it to minimise the impact until then… 🙂

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