given this book 5 full stars. It took me an inordinate amount of time to finish
it due to the humongous cast of characters and the tangled relationships that
the Tudor and Stuart family trees exhibit. Now that the reading is done, I can
say that I’m truly impressed by this luminous, expertly researched biography of
the gracious, witty, brave and ill-fated Scottish Queen, from whom every
subsequent British ruler has been descended.
Stuart was crowned Queen of Scotland when she was less than a year old. As the
only daughter of James V, granddaughter of Margaret Tudor and
great-granddaughter of Henry VII of England, she had a rightful claim to the
the age of six, under the auspices of Mary’s powerful maternal uncles at the
French court, the de Guises, she was sent to France to be betrothed to the
dauphin Francis. They were married when Mary was fifteen (in 1558). In 1559,
Henry II of France died and the dauphin was crowned Francis II. A year later,
Mary’s mother, who was ruling Scotland as sole regent for the absent Queen,
died. Six months thereafter, Mary’s husband, King Francis II, also died. The
ambitious de Guises sent eighteen-year-old Mary back to Scotland, envisioning a
unified claim to the thrones of Scotland, France and England. It was there and
then that her nightmare began.
the one hand, Mary was immediately plunged into a factional melee of violent Scottish
tribal politics, which were often tinged with religious
sectarianism and always motivated by the nobles’ self-interests. On the other
hand, Elizabeth I of England did her best to clamp down on Mary (one of her
demands was so draconian as to dictate whom Mary could marry), as she was fearful
that Mary might usurp her throne (her fear being constantly magnified by her secretary
her home turf, Mary found herself surrounded by treacherous, vicious and
depraved courtiers, including her sly and duplicitous half-brother James Stuart
(Earl of Moray). Her de Guise relations used and abandoned her as situations
warranted and were hardly a source of support. Unfortunate for Mary, her
trusting and big-hearted nature would often land her in a perilous position. Her
predicament was further exacerbated by constant threat of religious war all
over Europe (Catholicism vs. Protestantism). As witty and tenacious as she was,
the odds were always stacked against her. Despite all, Mary still strove to
preserve her reign as the Scottish Queen and to claim her legitimate right to be
last third of the book unfolds like a thriller/mystery novel, as Mary tried to
eke out some breathing space for herself by seeking political marriage. She
first wedded Lord Darnley, an English royal whose maternal grandmother was
Margaret Tudor, and who would thus strengthen Mary’s claim to the English
throne. Then when self-serving and deceitful Darnley was murdered, she married
Lord Bothwell, a powerful and ruffian Scottish lord, who also betrayed her
trust in times of need. The melodrama of her life culminated in 1568 when Mary naively
tried to seek protection from Elizabeth but ended up being captured on English
soil, where she would be under house arrest for the following eighteen years.
In 1586, out of desperation, she fell into the trap that William Cecil had set
up and took part in a madcap assassination plot against Elizabeth. She was
tried in October 1586 and executed on February 8, 1587.
is impossible not to feel sympathy for this hapless but good-hearted Queen, whose
only flaw was perhaps her deep emotional need to be loved.
Earnshaw Books will be releasing my new historical epic titled "The Green Phoenix" on September 1, 2017. It is a novelized account of the life of Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, born a Mongolian princess who became a consort of the Manchu court, and then the Qing Dynasty's first matriarch. She lived through harrowing threats, endless political crises, personal heartaches and painful losses to lead a shaky Empire out of a dead end to peace and stability. The story is set against a turbulent canvas as the Chinese Ming Dynasty is replaced by the Qing. Xiaozhuang guides her husband, her lover, her son and her grandson - all emperors and supreme leaders of the Qing Empire - to success against the odds.
much of imperial Chinese history is an enigma; a world we, as outsiders, are
shut out off. Alice Poon’s novelised life of the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang
fictionally pulls back the curtain on Manchu court life and lets us step into a
Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking
Poon has written a masterpiece of Chinese history little known in the West.
It's a story of love, betrayal and loyalty, and shows how one woman inspired
the reunification of China. For so long the West has fixated on the end of the
Qing dynasty, but as Poon beautifully recreates in her book, the real heroine
of the Qing is the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang. Never before has this story been
told in English, and it's arguably the most important historical novel of early
Qing Dynasty China.
Blumberg-Kason, author of Good Chinese Wife:
have attributed the demise of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) to various reasons,
the most prominent being: emperors indulging in extravagance and/or self-glory
or being pathetically paranoid and/or incompetent, factional feuds between
eunuchs and officials in court, endemic corruption in all levels of
administration, and the court overtaxing the already desperate underclass of
peasants. It took a long period of time (stretching over the reigns of the last
three or four emperors) for these factors to foment and become a deadly tumor
that set the nation’s body and spirit on an irreversible trend of decay. This internal
cancerous growth, in convergence with fateful external factors like the emergence
of an ogling neighbor state and the rise of rebellious commoner leaders,
ultimately put the Dynasty to rest. Indeed, those internal causes of death
sound almost banal, given that they can probably be applied, with adjustments
here and there, to any previous dynastic era in China’s long history.
the case of the Ming Dynasty, one external factor - the “ogling neighbor state”
- turned out to be the Manchu Empire, a newly united tribe of cavalry Jurchens
under Nurhaci of the Aisin Gioro clan. The origins of the Jurchens could be
traced back to the Great Jin Dynasty (1115 to 1234), which had persisted in
nettling the Southern Song Dynasty after defeating the Liao in Northern China.
It was Hong Taiji, one of Nurhaci’s sons, who established the Qing Dynasty in
Mukden, just outside the borders of Ming China. But his dream of conquering
China proper was not to be realized in his lifetime. Just one year after his
death, though, his half-brother Dorgon, Regent to the child Shunzhi Emperor,
fulfilled that dream with the uncanny help of a Ming General, Wu Sangui. Yet
the fledgling years of Qing were far from stable, and it took the wits and
tenacity of one Mongolian woman – Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang - to keep the multi-ethnic
Empire from crumbling.
are just some basic facts of history at the crucial crossroads where Ming’s end
met with Qing’s start. The study of history can turn people off if it involves
only chewing on dry hard facts. But we ought to sing the praises of historians
who take great pains to attempt an unbiased and accurate recording of
historical facts, if only because our collective future depends on drawing
valuable lessons from and avoiding disastrous mistakes of our past, all races
included. That said, we must remember that history is often written by the
victors, or those who dominate or suppress others (no distinction is made
between Western and Eastern history here), and thus we should keep a
questioning mind. As well, there is always the element of historians’ own
subjective interpretation of facts, so that three different historians may well
present three accounts of the same event with quite different slants. All of
history is intrinsically made by people and it is always the “actors” of
history that make the study interesting or even worthwhile. It should not be
surprising then, that some of us love reading historical fiction for the very reason
that such fiction focuses on telling the personal stories of those “actors” of
task of weaving historical facts with fictional narratives (in some cases with
fictional characters) falls to historical novelists, whose mission is to work
creatively with the gaps left by historians, while animating the actors of
history with feelings, emotions and thoughts. In general, historical novels are
invariably more enticing and less intimidating than dry, non-fiction history,
thus more likely to reach a wider audience. If such novels can pique readers’
interest and curiosity and make them want to learn more, then they will have
served one great purpose.
am not a historian, at best only an amateur in Chinese history. But I am
passionate about writing historical fiction set in China’s distant past, in
which is embedded a colossal untapped reservoir of juicy materials to write
good fiction from. The historical fiction genre has long been skewed towards
Western history and badly needs diversification into Oriental history. I, for
one, would certainly love to see more historical fiction writers jump on this Old
was my first Bernard Cornwell novel and I picked it up because I wanted to
learn about the historical background of the Battle of Azincourt, one of the
significant battles in the Hundred Years' War, and about Henry V of England.
When I closed the book, I was a little disappointed at the dearth of historical
details relating to the ultimate and proximate causes that led to the battle,
and the character of Henry V still seemed somewhat blurry in my head.
the sweltering summer of 1415, the English army, having crossed the channel,
engaged in the siege of Harfleur (in Normandy), which ended in a hard-won
English victory. This prelude is followed by the English march north towards
Calais (English-occupied). Then in the rainy and gloomy month of October, the
English army had to face off with the far-outnumbering French army waiting in
the muddy field of Azincourt in Picardy. The battle scenes are vividly drawn,
with lots of gore, savagery, horror and obscenities (and feces too).
Descriptions about armor, weapons and archery, in particular the usage of
longbows, are expertly detailed. But some episodes as well as the ending of
the novel come across as a bit cliched.
did come away with a better understanding of why the English and the French
hated each other's guts for so long.