The King's Witch
by Cecelia Holland
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The King's Witch revolves around the fictional Edythe, informally adopted by Eleanor of Aquitaine after a massacre of Jews in France. As the novel opens, she is on a mission for the queen in Cyprus with the Crusading Richard the Lionheart. Though she loves and feels indebted to the queen, she resents having to spy for her. "Eleanor never asked anyone's leave. 'I trust you, Edythe - watch over my children. And keep me informed. You can use the Jews for that; they have connections everywhere.'" The instruction about the Jews stirs up anxious grief Edythe would rather keep buried.
Though she learned some medicine from her father, Edythe knows her limits. When Richard falls ill and she struggles to save his life, they form a tenuous bond, learning each others' secrets without developing the trust that makes it comfortable. Richard's obsession with regaining Jerusalem arises from the fear that his attraction to men makes him a monster. Edythe is a monster of another sort, an unbaptized Jewish convert to Christianity. "If I take Jerusalem," he tells her, "we're all saved, you with me."
When she begins falling in love with Richard's illegitimate half-brother, Edythe has more to lose if Richard reveals her secret. Meanwhile, her search for medical knowledge leads her to consult Jews, and she begins yearning for her lost heritage. Her two growing desires seem hopelessly opposed.
Readers who like to be swept off their feet by a character's passions may not engage with this emotionally restrained novel. The power in Holland's writing comes from how convincingly she portrays people of the past, who likely suppressed emotions their society frowned on, as many people still do. An important addition to the many novels about Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade, The King's Witch offers an illuminating portrait of a man so focused on earning redemption that he neglects his earthly kingdom. (2011; 313 pages, including an Afterword separating fact from fiction, and Discussion Questions for book groups)
More about The King's Witch at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Other novels about Richard the Lionheart on Crusade:
Shadow of the Swords by Kamran Pasha (2010), about Saladin and Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade and the beautiful Jewish woman with whom both men fall in love. See review or more info at Powell's Books
The Lute Player by Norah Lofts (1951), about Berengaria, who became Richard the Lionheart's wife, and Blondel, a minstrel who accompanied Richard to the Crusades. See review or more info at Powell's Books
The Heart of the Lion by Jean Plaidy (1977), about Richard the Lionheart; #3 in the Plantagenet series. More info
Nonfiction about Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades:
Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade by James Reston (2001). More info
Richard the Lionheart: King and Knight by Jean Flori (1999). More info
Richard the Lionheart: Mighty Crusader by David Miller (2003). More info
Richard I the Lionheart at the English Monarchs website.
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