Eleanor, or rather Alienor, of Aquitaine had an incredible life. As a young teen, Alienor and her younger sister, Petronella, are orphaned, and she goes on to marry Louis VII of France, who shortly thereafter became King of France. The Summer Queen follows Alienor through those early years, from the death of her father and her marriage to Louis, through her travels to Jerusalem during the ineffectual Second Crusades, until her annulment from Louis and the beginning of her relationship with Henry, Duke of Normandy (who went on to become Henry II of England). Honestly, it’s a lot to cover – the first hundred pages cover 4 years, the whole book 17 years. And those years are filled with characters, battles, pregnancies, scandals, and more – there’s so much to take in.
For those who aren’t aware of the history of Eleanor of Aquitaine, let me give you a brief rundown (and no spoiler complaints will be heard – we’re talking history here, all this happened almost 900 years ago, and she was arguably the most influential and well-known woman in France and England at the time). At about 13 (historians estimate), Eleanor, written at the time and in this novel, as Alienor, married Louis VII, shortly after her father died and barely a week before Louis VI passed away. Alienor was a vivid woman, according to history, and brought wealth and land to France and to Louis. Unfortunately, Alienor and Louis were ultimately incompatible, both with their personalities (Louis was exceedingly devout, while Alienor is frequently described as being more “earthly”) and their offspring – during their 15 years of marriage, Alienor was only pregnant 3 times, the first a stillborn, and the other 2 girls, only useful (to Louis) for whom they could marry (compared to the 5 boys and 3 girls she had for Henry in 13 years). The Summer Queen covers from just before Alienor’s father dies until she marries Henry, Duke of Normandy, and they move to England after their first boy is born, and their second on the way.
And all this is just what Alienor herself experiences.
This story also includes Louis’ side of things (to a certain extent), Alienor’s sister Petronella, and her relationships, multiple military skirmishes, both in France and on the way to the Holy Lands, the Crusades, pirates – I’m tired just thinking about it.
My biggest issue was that reading this was just that – it was mentally exhausting. It’s not because of the writing, which I enjoyed, it’s simply because there is so much going on. It doesn’t read like a story, more like a fictionalized history book. I honestly went back and forth a lot on this one. I really wanted to like it, but then found myself pushing to get through the middle section, and the crumbling of Louis and Alienor’s relationship. There is just a lot of stuff going on here – it feels like the author is creating a barely fictionalized account of Alienor of Aquitaine, and wants to include all the major moments in her life. While I can respect that, it doesn’t leave much of a story arc for the reader. I really wanted a more in-depth story of some of the smaller arcs – her participation in the Second Crusades, or for example, or perhaps even the beginning of her (rather disastrous) relationship with Louis.
Now that I’ve said that, I was interested in how the novel is set up – each chapter is given a location and season, which speeds up the 17-year timeline a lot. There’s a lot of day-to-day life that is glossed over, so we can experience the major moments of her life. It also gives the reader a much more solid idea of where and when things are happening – since there is such a large time frame here, it really helps.
And for the story, well, you really can’t pick a more dynamic heroine than Alienor. She is determined, smart, manipulative, polite, politic, and powerful. She is fighting against the stereotypes of the south of France (that they are indolent, sensual and lazy), against Louis’ severe faith (and his mother), against members of the clergy, against her own sister – she really doesn’t get a break. But the wonderful part is that she is fully strong enough to handle whatever life throws at her.
If you are looking for a quick read, or something fun and fluffy, this is not for you. If you like your historical fiction true to history, you really can’t do better than The Summer Queen. It’s full of fleshed-out characters that (to perhaps be a little trite) bring history to life. I am definitely looking forward to reading more. I just wish I didn’t feel so exhausted at the end of the reading.
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