Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book review: A Triple Knot, by Emma Campion

There are few historical novels set during the fifty-year reign of England's Edward III, maybe because his position on the throne was stable. This doesn't mean, however, that the era lacked political turmoil, drama, or strong personalities. This was the time of the Hundred Years' War, a series of international conflicts based on Edward's claim to be France's rightful king through his mother, who was born a French princess.

Using this tumultuous period as a backdrop, Emma Campion's welcome new novel A Triple Knot reveals the tangled marital history of the king's beautiful young cousin, Joan of Kent. (Although not explicitly stated, the title may refer to this aspect of her life.) The daughter of a Plantagenet relative beheaded as a traitor, Joan is taken in by her royal kin. The story follows her as she adjusts to her difficult position, forced to depend on those who caused her father's death and who want to use her to further the king's ambitions. Some of the novel's most vivid scenes take place in the Low Countries, where she and the court travel in an effort to bolster support for the king among local noblemen.

It's on the boat to Antwerp where Joan first meets Sir Thomas Holland, the man who will become the love of her life. Although she's only twelve, Joan sets her heart on him. (This is, needless to say, based in history, and those readers who can’t get past Joan’s age here probably shouldn’t be reading novels about real-life medieval women in the first place.) Campion shifts perspectives frequently to give readers a rounded impression of events and of Joan's character. When her own viewpoint is presented, Joan appears to be remarkably mature, but when the story moves to her mother's view, we understand how young she really is.

Because her family has other plans for her, Joan and Thomas are kept apart for a good long while, and in that sense the novel is a touching tribute to their steadfast love. And often – too often – the man waiting in the wings is Joan's cousin Ned, the king's eldest son, a fascinating and complicated man. As Joan grows from a naive adolescent to a strong, confident, yet still naive woman, she sees Ned's ruthlessness firsthand, but his good looks and gallant behavior blind her to his darker qualities.

For readers mainly familiar with the “Black Prince” through his heroic military victories, this will be an unexpected interpretation of Ned’s temperament – but it's a convincing one. It's also a risky move to make readers aware of flaws about a character that the heroine doesn't pick up on, and this doesn't always work here.  Readers may find themselves wishing time and again that Joan was more observant.  There are admirable aspects to Joan's nature, though: she seizes what power she can take and makes the best of her circumstances.

Campion's writing style has a poise about it that assures readers that they're in good hands. The detailed historical backdrop, with its knightly tournaments, hawking parties, and glimpses of 14th-century merchant life, feels as rich and sumptuous as the queen's red brocade gown.  Queen Philippa is another woman given more complex treatment here than history remembers.  While she's a loyal wife and mother, her devotion to her children means she's not always a good friend to Joan.

The most noticeable flaw, however, is that the storytelling is so smooth that some potentially emotional moments feel muted. Many characters die horribly of the Black Death, but the true sense of the plague's devastation doesn't penetrate. Likewise, Joan's and Thomas's enduring love story isn't as poignant as it could be, especially early on when they barely know each other. Still, this is a lush, skilled portrait of a courageous woman who unwaveringly pursued a match of her own choosing in an age in which all the odds were against her.

A Triple Knot will be published in July by Broadway/Random House ($16.00, trade pb, 480pp).   I received my ARC from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers.


  1. I read this recently and liked the narrative style. My review also up

    1. Enjoyed your review and left a comment. Have you read her earlier novel, The King's Mistress?

  2. Imma gonna weigh in, in agreement, with the assessment both of you made about the cover.

    Most of all, I'm beyond tired of book covers presenting us with women who are barebacked and have no heads, most of the time, much less faces -- even when the book is about a woman!

    Love, C.

  3. Agree with Foxessa. The Headless Woman is becoming a troubling (and boring) meme in book-coverdom.