Shortlisted for Book of the Month
France / Wales
‘Set in the period following the Second Crusade, Jean Gill’s spellbinding romantic thrillers evoke medieval France with breathtaking accuracy. The characters leap off the page and include amazing women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Ermengarda of Narbonne, who shaped history in battles and in bedchambers . . .’ So runs the Amazon blurb for the first novel in Gill’s excellent Troubadours Quartet.
I have now read them all – Song at Dawn, Blade Song, Plaint for Provence and Song Hereafter – and plan to read each again in the near future. The storylines are page-turners, but you have to pay attention to pick up hints and plot threads, too. The main characters are multi-talented and complex: Dragonetz Los Pros, a knight of noble birth is far more than the usual flawed hero. The emotionally-wounded heroine is of more humble origins and goes by her court name of Estela de Matin. Estela combines ambition and desire for a better life with the tensions of being married to one man and loving another. As Dragonetz and Estela act and interact in carefully researched historical events, each of them keeps secrets from the other; each of them has a private affliction or sadness to overcome. The reader wills them to be happy together, but their relationship is never easy – and that is another aspect of Gill’s story-telling, for she understands human strengths and our weaknesses very well. Estela also has a fabulous big, white dog, who has a part to play in their story, especially in Song Hereafter – but to say more would be a terrible spoiler.
Song Hereafter, the final book, is poignant and compelling, bringing together all the plot threads and resolving the troubled relationship between the gifted troubadours and lovers. Dragonetz is summoned to the court of Queen Alienor (Eleanor of Aquitaine) and offered the chance to clear his name (for perceived past misdeeds) by undertaking an intelligence-gathering task that will help her become Queen of England alongside her husband Henry.
Estela insists on joining him, leaving their son Musca in the care of trusted friends and servants, and the big, white dog. Together, they journey to Gwalia (Wales), where there are battles, intrigue and song, a near-death experience in a secret gold mine, and the consolidation of the traumatic romance begun in Song at Dawn.
This novel, like the others, captures the essence and stark contrasts of the epoch – the elegance and the cruelty, the sophistication of palaces and the primitive livelihoods of peasants – here, we read about the exquisite architecture of Moorish Spain and what can only be described as the brutish lives of those living in the mud-ridden hovels of rural Gwalia (Wales) – and yet even in this constant strife and mire there is a certain beauty. Jean Gill, who now lives in Provence, lived and worked in Wales for many years so all details about Gwalia ring true.
Gill also has a special way with words. She brings to life these dichotomies without ever labouring the point. In Song Hereafter, for example, there is an almost paradoxically ironic scene where Dragonetz and Estela, two highly-skilled court musicians play music with a rabble of a male-voice choir on a rainy Welsh hillside. It takes a certain skill to create the scene in the first place, but to make it so memorable requires a special talent.
I recommend reading the quartet in order to better understand and appreciate the relationship between Dragonetz and Estela, and to follow the historical events and intrigues. Many characters in the books are mentioned in history. It is not necessary to have a working knowledge of the twelfth century, though – I don’t – because you will learn a lot as you go along. Historical fiction fans will appreciate the author’s use of contemporary domestic details, her description of journeys and battles and bathing houses, Damascus steel and even early paper-making. Those who enjoy a convincing historical romance are in for a real treat.
The Troubadour Quartet is a whole bag of Discovered Diamonds.
© J.G. Harlond
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