Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sisters of the Bruce, 1292-1314 by J.M. Harvey

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: November 7, 2013

Set against the wild and perilous background of Scotland in the late 13th century, the adventurous lives of Robert the Bruce’s five sisters come to life through their own words in a series of letters. Courage and tenacity are often associated with Scotland’s great hero, but few appreciate the enormous challenges experienced by these remarkable sisters. Their intimate account of family life resonates still with love, loss and hope. Isa leaves home to sail to the land of the Vikings to become Queen of Norway whilst her sister, Kirsty, finds herself Countess of Mar and chatelaine of the great Kildrummy Castle in Scotland’s far northeast. Danger looms and the younger sisters, Mathilda and Margaret, escape to Orkney with Kirsty’s children. As Scotland spirals into war, Robert’s sisters face the wrath of King Edward of England, whose vengeance wrought the brutal death of William Wallace. Kirsty is incarcerated alone in an English nunnery, whilst Mary endures years of misery within a cage hanging from the walls of Roxburgh Castle. Under Robert’s kingship, old wounds heal and Scotland’s fighting force achieves a resounding victory at the Battle of Bannockburn. Only then are the fragile, traumatised women released, through the ransoming of English nobles, to return home to rebuild their shattered lives… Sisters of The Bruce is a captivating work of fiction that weaves family history with a gripping narrative through the social and political landscape of medieval Scotland, Norway and Orkney. J. M. Harvey has been inspired by Sharon Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick and Sigrud Undset.

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Despite my intense interest in the subject matter, J.M Harvey's Sisters of the Bruce didn't work for me. The content had potential, but the style and mechanics of the narrative were so awkward and unpolished that I found it impossible to enjoy the time I spent reading the book.

In looking at my notes, I think my difficulties stem from Harvey having bitten off more than she could chew. The language/prose is tedious and dry, the overall tone left me indifferent to both her characters and their experiences and I was greatly disappointed by the story's lack of theme. The author did not properly develop her cast, relies heavily on macro level conflicts - practically ignoring those personal arcs that would have added depth to the narrative - and pads out the text with an excessive amount of filler.

All told, the end result doesn't feel like fiction. A dense fact-based rehash of the trials and tribulations suffered by Robert and his siblings, the narrative lacks the spirit and dimension I associate with this particular genre and fails to achieve the promise touted so prominently in the jacket description. 

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Never had our violent past seemed so real. If I was to flourish as Queen of Norway, it would serve me well to follow Grandfather's creed. Fierce courage had been his greatest defense. 
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