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Game Review: Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth

Many fantasy RPGs use the medieval era as a backdrop or inspiration to build their worlds: think The Witcher, Dragon Age, Divinity, Dark Souls. But even without the dragons, magic, witches and warlocks, there is something inherently fascinating about the era – it was, after all, a dangerous time rife with political intricacies, brutal wars and religious dogma; a time of towering castles, jousting knights and tyrannical kings.

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Enter The Pillars of the Earth, a story-driven point-and-click game set in 12th-century England. Based on the critically acclaimed 1989 novel by Welsh author Ken Follett, the game is divided into three books spanning 21 chapters and revolves around several characters, whose fates and lives are intertwined around the town of Kingsbridge. There’s Tom Builder, the mason whose life’s dream is to build a grand cathedral that will stand the test of time; Philip, a kind abbey prior who inadvertently gets dragged into a war involving two English lords; Jack, a young outlaw who grew up in the forest with his mother; Lady Aliena, a disgraced noblewoman who finds love in a most unexpected place; as well as a whole host of colourful, secondary characters.

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The world of Kingsbridge is one of upheaval and strife from the get-go. The country is in the middle of a war after the death of King Henry I, as two opposing factions vie for the crown – and the characters you play will all be embroiled in it one way or another. You start the game as Tom Builder, leading your family through the woods to seek job opportunities elsewhere. Your wife is pregnant, it’s the middle of a harsh winter, and you’re low on food and supplies. As things go, your wife dies in childbirth, and out of grief, you abandon your baby in the woods. Yep, this game pulls no punches – and this is just a small taster of what to expect in the following chapters.

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The real ‘star’ of the story, however, isn’t in its characters (although they are certainly unique and rich, with multiple layers). It is in the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral and what it represents. Ken Follet himself in interviews has said that his inspiration for the novel came from his fascination of medieval communities and their obsession with church-building. In medieval England, building a large and beautiful cathedral was seen as an everlasting monument to God, a way for them to make meaning of their lives and show their religious devotion. But at the same time, the church itself was a place rife with corruption, where bishops plotted to murder. Playing the game, I felt as if the characters are there to tell the story of the cathedral, rather than the other way around. Characters would live and die – but the Cathedral, despite being destroyed and rebuilt time and time again, would endure; the task of building it taken over by future builders. All this is beautifully brought to life with hand-painted portraits, each bursting with detail that makes each scene seem alive.

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That being said, TPoTE is not for everyone. The pace is extremely slow, and there aren’t a lot of climatic moments – it’s really more like reading a historical novel than playing a game, really. There isn’t much to do apart from interacting with objects. Your choices are not that important when it comes to the overarching narrative, but they do matter in relation to the fates of several characters and whether they live or die. You don’t get to solve puzzles other than a few easy ones which have more to do with using items in your inventory to interact with certain things on the screen than actually cracking your brain. And of course, once you’ve finished the game, there is very little replay value. Still, it offers good value — I completed mine in 12 hours, and I since I bought it on sale on Steam for RM15, I can’t complain.

Rating: 6.5/10

Book Review: The Lady Of The Rivers by Philippa Gregory

Most tales in history tell the stories of men, who ride to wars for gospel, glory and gold, or scheme and plot against their political rivals. Little is said of the women who lived in these times, except as ‘commodities’ – pawns to be married off to cement alliances, bring wealth into a family, or treated as baby-making machines. But historians and storytellers often forget that women are individuals of their own, with hopes, dreams, wants and desires beyond what has been laid out for them by men and people in positions of power. And even in misogynistic societies that try to control and suppress women even as they fear them, there are brave women who dare forge paths for themselves, grasping their fate in their hands to change their own fortunes.

It is for this reason that I enjoy reading Philippa Gregory‘s novels and her rich descriptions of events and life in medieval Britain. Gregory’s characters are colourful, passionate, and while we can only speculate to the person’s nature based on what happened in history, her highly romanticised and embellished accounts breathe life into them. In any case, I think it’s a great way to introduce lay readers to these extraordinary people, often female, who are otherwise forgotten as mere footnotes in history.

While most of us would know prominent figures such as Anne Boleyn or Margaret Tudor, (thanks to popular portrayal in modern media), there isn’t much about Jacquetta St Pol, despite her being a lady of importance in the court of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou during the Wars of the Roses.

Gregory’s Lady of the Rivers shines some light into this often overlooked figure.

Synopsis

Young Jacquetta is a lady of a noble Luxembourg household, whose family claims ancestry from the water goddess Melusina. She befriends Joan of Arc, held prisoner by her uncle, and who was later burned as a witch by English troops. This early encounter teaches Jacquetta the fate that awaits a woman who tries to overstep her role in a world of men. Even so, Jacquetta is gifted by the Sight, and is determined to make her own way in the world.

Three years later, Jacquetta marries John, the Duke of Bedford, who seeks to use her otherworldly ‘gifts’ to discover the secrets of alchemy. After his death, Jacquetta is left a wealthy widow. She falls in love with her husband’s squire, Richard Woodville – an honourable man, but poor. They get married in secret, much to the displeasure of the King, and are exiled from court after paying a heavy fine. Jacquetta gives birth to their first child, Elizabeth Woodville. Little do they know the future in store for her.

The couple is eventually forgiven and allowed back to court, where they rise in favour with the ruling house of Lancaster. Jacquetta and Richard Woodville are allies to Henry VI and his French bride Margaret of Anjou, Jacquetta’s kinswoman, but the royal couple become increasingly unpopular. No thanks to favouritism and the lavish of titles and land to select nobles, rivalry between the houses of Lancaster and York come to a head. Margaret of Anjou falls pregnant with the heir to the throne, although it is heavily implied that the baby was fathered by the court favourite Duke of Somerset. To make things worse, the king falls into a coma, and civil war breaks out. Jacquetta, her husband and their allies are now forced to navigate a dangerous minefield as the country descends into chaos.

Verdict 

The Lady of the Rivers is signature Gregory, woven around a central female character full of fiery passion and a refusal to go quietly into the night. Gregory’s protagonists are never shrinking violets, but actively working behind the scenes to secure their future and ensure the survival of their families and loved ones. As a character, Jacquetta seems to crave a quiet life surrounded by her husband and her children, but cannot resist a higher calling and is torn between her sense of loyalty for her household and doing what is right for the country. Jacquetta’s foresight does not give her much relief, as even though it is told as if she has the power to foresee certain events or what may come to pass, she is often powerless in doing anything to stop or change what is to come.

As usual, actual events in history are used as the basis for much of the novel, and it was a good entry point for me to find out more about the Plantagenets, the 300-year dynasty that came before the Tudors. Truth is stranger than fiction, and these historical accounts are juicier than Game of Thrones : there’s murder, treason, adultery, betrayal, war and savagery, kinsmen turning on kinsmen.

Gregory’s works often feel rushed at the ending, and this was no exception, ending almost abruptly – but all in all, The Lady of the Rivers was a solid read. I’d recommend picking one up if you’re interested to expand your knowledge on British medieval history (as well as her other works), although they shouldn’t be used as factual basis.

Score: 7/10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

My first Philippa Gregory book was The Other Boleyn Girl. The acclaimed novel, which revolved around the life of one of England’s most infamous queen consorts –  Anne Boleyn – was jam-packed with tales of intrigue; of power hungry men (and women) who’d stop at nothing for influence and the throne, and of dangerous political games where love and family have to be put aside for alliances and securing one’s position in the hierarchy. Despite being a fictionalised account, it still offered a fascinating insight into one of medieval Europe’s richest and most colourful courts. Needless to say, I was hooked, and I’ve been reading Gregory’s books ever since. It has even inspired me to read more on the actual events in history.

The Constant Princess, another of Gregory’s works, is a prequel of sorts (in terms of timeline) to The Other Boleyn Girl; chronicling the tale of Queen Katherine of Aragon, one of Anne Boleyn’s greatest rivals. Betrothed first to one English prince, who died at a young age, she then married his younger brother King Henry VIII and reigned over England for 24 years before she was ousted off the throne, and her marriage annulled so that Henry could marry Anne.

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Synopsis

From a young age, Princess Catalina has learned war at her mother’s knee. As the youngest daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand II of Spain, she saw her parents campaign against the Moors and her mother’s strong belief that it is God’s will guiding their actions. This instills in Catalina the belief that whatever path chosen for her is similarly, God’s will.

Betrothed to Prince Arthur Tudor to seal the alliance between England and Spain, Catalina knows it is her future to become Queen of England. But she soon discovers that reality is far from her girlish fantasies. At 16, she travels to her new home only to receive a cold welcome from her husband, who is far from a man himself. The two youths eventually fall in love, laying out grand plans for their future together.

The dreams are shattered when Arthur succumbs to the sweating sickness just a few months after their marriage, and dies. On his deathbed, he makes her swear that she will marry his brother Harry and fulfill their plans for the country. Thrown into despair, with little support and far from home, the young Dowager Princess falls out of favour at court, seeing that now she has little to no value to the royal house.

After Arthur’s mother, Queen Elizabeth dies, Arthur’s father King Henry offers Catalina the chance to become queen, as long as she bore him sons and played the role of submissive wife. Worrying that she’d never put in place the reforms she spoke of with Arthur, Catalina refuses and insists to marry Harry. The spurned King Henry is enraged, and plots his revenge. Outwardly, he betroths the two, but then ill treats her. He refuses to pay for her household’s allowance, and her own parents refuse to pay the other half of the dowry until some arrangement is made for Catalina to marry. So it was that she waits seven long years, a constant presence at the fringes of English court, sinking further into poverty. Her luck changes when King Henry dies, and Harry ascends the throne, honouring his word and marrying Catalina for love. Therein begins the reign of King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine.

Readers are privy to the subsequent pregnancies and miscarriages of Queen Katherine, such as the son who died from an illness just a few months old, and how this estranged the couple and turned Henry to his womanising ways. The story also highlights how she valiantly defended the country against the Scots while the king was in France fighting another war. But as we all know, Katherine of Aragon’s story has a sad end, and this fate does not change even in this piece of historical fiction. There is no doubt, however, that she was a queen to the very end.

Verdict

The Constant Princess reads like most of Philippa Gregory’s other books – a world filled with deception, power struggles and manipulation. We see how Catalina, a young and fiery princess with absolute belief that she is a child blessed by God and destiny, blossoms into a sombre womanhood, hardened by death and despair.

 

The first half of the story tells of a sweet and innocent romance between her and Arthur – how at first they disliked each other before hopelessly falling in love – so it hits the reader even more when he dies and she loses her greatest love. This loss changes her into someone determined to fulfill her ambition and promise at all costs, to the point of lying about her virginity. We pity her because she is alone and friendless, caught in an intricate web of lies and deceit, betrayed by her own parents for the ‘greater good’ of securing alliances, and we admire her courage for doing whatever she can to survive in a dangerous court. In this, Catalina shares characteristics of the heroines in many of Gregory’s novels: women who are forced to make a choice, torn between their hearts and ambition.

The only thing that could be a flaw for the novel is that the ending seems rushed, especially the part where Catalina as Queen Katherine takes up arms against the invading Scots. While all accounts should be taken with a pinch of salt, since the story is highly fictionalised, The Constant Princess is still a good read and introduction for those unfamiliar with medieval English history.

Verdict: 8/10

Book Review – Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani

I’ve always been a horror/fantasy novel fan, but since hitting my 20s, I’ve taken to reading historical fiction. I like history, but the way it’s presented is often bland, boring, blah. This is where novels like Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani, come in.

Set in 16th century Iran under the rule of Tahmasb Shah, the story kicks off with the Shah’s sudden death, without leaving an heir. The court is thrown into disarray, as each noble threw their support behind different princes to ascend the throne, and sought to wrest control for their respective clans. The situation might have spiralled into civil war if not for one Pari Khan Khanoom, favourite daughter of the late Shah and a smart and powerful leader in her own right. Pari harbours ambitions to rule, but as Iran is a patriarchal society and would never bow to a woman ruling openly, she puts her faith in banished half-brother, Ismail, who was sent away after being found to have been plotting against the Sultan.

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Ismail turns out to be a bad choice. Once established as Shah, he refuses to listen to Pari even though it was she who made it possible for him to become Shah. Instead, he is afraid of her strong personality and wilfulness – made worse by Pari’s pride which refuses to let her bow down to his show of authority. Paranoid by his years of imprisonment, he goes on a merciless campaign to kill princes and nobles suspected of plotting to overthrow him. The nobles are at their wits end, but have no guts to end his tyranny

Life at court and Pari’s story is told through the eyes of Jahaver, a eunuch who entered the palace in order to find his father’s murderer. He becomes the princess’ right hand man; her eyes and ears both inside and outside the palace, and worships and adores his mistress as a loyal servant would. Together, they navigate a dangerous and delicate court, where one wrong misstep might mean death.

The reader is also taken through Jahaver’s own life, his sacrifices, his desires and dreams. Despite being a eunuch, he has fallen in love with a lady of the court, Khadijeh. He worries about his sister being married away by relatives before he can bring her to court, he is afraid but ready to lay his life down for his mistress’ plans (even dressing up as a woman for espionage!), all whilst trying to investigate the murder of his father.

Jahaver’s story is interesting, and his part vital in the grand scale of things, but the real heroine of the story is Pari.  The author’s excellent use of first person narration and using a servant to tell the story creates the effect of a character that is aloof but endearing, as befitting a royal princess. We know she is smart, wily and ambitious, but we also catch glimpses of her tender moments and desires (it is implied that the princess has a relationship with her maid).

While Jahaver is a fictional character, many of the characters in the book, such as Pari and Ismail are actual historical figures. The book is a good introduction into 16th century Iranian politics, history, culture and arts. The descriptions of the settings, such as the royal palace and chambers, are beautiful.

There is a good combination of suspense and drama, peppered with elements that have always intrigued commoners about ancient court life: murder, deception, power and love. Good read.