Monday, November 3, 2014

The French Executioner by C.C. Humphreys

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Author/Agent
Read: October 28, 2014

It is 1536 and the expert swordsman Jean Rombaud has been brought over from France by Henry VIII to behead his wife, Anne Boleyn. But on the eve of her execution Rombaud swears a vow to the ill-fated queen - to bury her six-fingered hand, symbol of her rumoured witchery, at a sacred crossroads. Yet in a Europe ravaged by religious war, the hand of this infamous Protestant icon is so powerful a relic that many will kill for it... From a battle between slave galleys to a Black Mass in a dungeon, through the hallucinations of St Anthony's Fire to the fortress of an apocalyptic Messiah, Jean seeks to honour his vow.

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If you're anything like me, you're looking at the cover of C.C. Humphreys' The French Executioner and stifling a groan. Titles like Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, To Die For, The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower, The Dark Rose, Dark Eyed Queen, The Concubine, The King's Secret Matter, Murder Most Royal, and The Other Boleyn Girl are flashing through your mind and you're seriously questioning if you've the stomach for more.

Pardon my cynicism, but that's where my association with this title started and it would be difficult to appreciate the depth of my admiration without understanding where I stood prior to picking up the book. Anne Boleyn is a fascinating character, but her story has been done to death and frankly, I'd be hard pressed to give a damn about yet another adaption. Thankfully, The French Executioner is not Anne's story, but that of the swordsman who freed England's magisterial monarch of his second wife... or was it her from him? 

To get right to the point, I liked this book and not just because Humphreys re-imagined Anne's execution as a beginning rather than an end. I think his characterization of Jean Rombaud inspired and I found the intrigue he created around her famous appendage intensely provocative. Anne's legacy is forever intertwined with the history of the English Reformation and I love the idea that her earthly remains might have fed the fanatical fires that burned after her death. 

I'll grant there are some gruesome elements to the story and I felt the pacing dragged during the battle scenes, but I've very few complaints overall. The plot itself is fascinating and Humphreys' characters comprise one of the best ensemble casts I've had fortune to come across. Major and minor players have distinctive roles and I loved how Humphreys was able to bring so many different personalities and backgrounds to the table. Supporting figures like Abraham and Da Costa are as memorable as Fugger, Cibo, Beck, Januc and Haakon and that attention to detail made reading this piece a real pleasure. 

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She glanced around at the embarrassed, averted faces. “Why are you all so glum? Do you not know the relief it is to be a woman again after a thousand days of woe as Queen? My head is lighter for the loss of a crown and soon my shoulders will be lighter— ”
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1 comment:

Tea said...

You're right. We've read quite a few books that take place during this period. It's easy to feel numb when a new book comes out and think more of the same. This one does seem different. I would like to read it.