Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dissolution, faith, and love: Roses in the Tempest by Jeri Westerson

Isabella Launder is a yeoman farmer's daughter living in a Staffordshire village in 1515. A tall, plain woman who strikes up a close friendship with Thomas Giffard, the son of her father's overlord, Isabella makes the surprising decision to join a nunnery rather than be forced to marry someone else.  As a novice, holy sister, and finally prioress of Blackladies, she finds joy in caring for the convent's roses as well as a new kind of family life, though she never forgets Thomas, nor he her.

True to their era and their class, both are refreshingly honest about why a marriage between them would never have worked.  Still, their love for one another – strong, unreciprocated at first, always chaste – endures over the years, through Thomas' troubled marriage to an heiress; Isabella's adjustment to convent life, including the envy and abrasiveness of a fellow nun; and Henry VIII's decision to proclaim himself head of the church.  Repercussions from the latter bring even an inconspicuous, poor convent like Blackladies to the notice of the king and his greedy advisers.

Told in the alternating voices of Thomas and Isabella, Roses in the Tempest is decidedly different fare from Jeri Westerson's previous release, Cup of Blood, a fast-moving and suspenseful medieval mystery with a sexy outcast hero and plenty of witty banter.  However, while less action-oriented, it's just as engaging, and the contrast in styles demonstrates her versatility as a writer. 

In keeping with his family's position, Thomas is often at court, while Isabella remains enclosed within her small priory. The changing scenes provide a varied view of Tudor life.  Both protagonists show wonderful growth over time, and unlike many other novels set in the period, they come to share a deep-rooted and abiding faith, one that refuses to be dislodged on a king's whims.  This isn't inspirational fiction, but the prose has a spiritual richness that meshes perfectly with their outlook on the world.  Here is Isabella:

"Raising my head to inhale the remnants of summer, the bells sounded again.  Listening, I reflected on their timbre, how they called each of us to that quiet house of God's, and even how they were part of the landscape, like a tree or a fence.  How natural they were to the environment, as natural as I in my garden."

Westerson states up front that the relationship she posits between Isabella and Thomas is fictional, although the larger historical events are true, and all of the characters once existed. According to the introduction, the novel was first written 14 years ago, before her mystery-writing career began.  If she has others like it sitting in a dusty old drawer, let's hope they'll also be pulled out and released.

Roses in the Tempest was published in April by Old London Press ($13.99 pb / $5.99 ebook, 280pp). This was a personal purchase.

11 comments:

  1. I don't get to read much historical fiction. I must say, it sounds like a good read!

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    1. It was - and very different from the usual type of Tudor fiction.

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  2. You've drawn my attention to another author I've not heard of before! Roses in the Tempest looks like a novel I would enjoy. After visiting the author's website, her Crispin Guest medieval mysteries grabbed my attention too. Thanks, Sarah!

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    1. The Crispin mysteries are a lot of fun. I haven't read them all yet, so I have some catching up to do!

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  3. I'm always looking for books with "spiritual richness" that aren't strictly inspirational fiction, and the relationship between the two protagonists sounds fascinating. I'll be adding this one to my TBR list (you realize it's largely your fault that my list is getting so long, right?!)

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    1. Oh good, I'm happy to hear that :)

      I've read so many Tudor novels that ignored or minimized the religious sentiments of the time and was glad to find a new novel where this wasn't the case.

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  4. I've read a couple of her Crispin novels, and enjoyed them very much. This seems quite a departure. I'm interested, and adding it to my list!

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    1. From what I understand, she wrote mainstream historical fiction well before getting started with historical mysteries, but publishers didn't know what to do with those books at the time. (This one is self-published, as was Cup of Blood, the Crispin prequel.) Goes to show how rigid the industry can be sometimes.

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  5. Much thanks for the review, Sarah. And to your readers for giving the books a try!

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    1. Enjoyed it very much, Jeri!

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  6. Sounds like the book is much better than the title. Best of luck to her.

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