Review: Lord James by Catherine Hermary-Vieille
This was a bad book.
I usually really like Hermary-Vieille's historical fiction, but this is the second stonker of hers I've read in the past year (her Le Siècle de Dieu, which I read last year and is nominally about the start of the spread of Protestantism in Paris, was awful). It was nominally about James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the third husband of Mary Queen of Scots, and was supposed to trace his life and focus especially on his relationship with Mary and his unraveling in captivity in Denmark after he flees Scotland when the Queen is taken captive at Carberry Hill.
I hate, hate, hate novels that do this - that cover the entire span of someone's life by focusing on specific scenes and using that to trace the story. It's so, so hard to pull that off, because if you're not a spectacular author, all that achieves is a book that drags, has no momentum, and jumps around so much you never get to actually spend time with the characters and learn what makes them tick. That is definitely what comes through in this book - we jump around so much we get whiplash, and things that are meant to develop over several years (chapters) are instead thrust into our faces in three pages and we're meant to just accept it as fact (think the disaster that was Game of Thrones final season and you'll get an idea of what I mean here). We're supposed to believe that James and Mary fall passionately in love and yearn for each other over several years, and that they each see something in the other that no one else has ever seen - but it's so rushed, and so sloppily written, in the pivotal moments before the two that Hermary-Vieille ends up having to do an awful lot of telling rather than showing to make that stick, and it just falls tragically flat.
Also, the central character - James - himself is just a palatably unpleasant man. I think the author was trying to paint him as a tragic hero blinded by his patriotism and love of Scotland, but that is definitely not what comes through. Instead, James comes across as a petulant, whiney, entitled man who wants to marry Mary and be King of Scotland not because he'd be the best at the job, but because he deserves it when no one else does. He claims to have supreme political judgment and intelligence - but he makes such catastrophic mistakes throughout the entire novel, never evinces any sort of sound judgment, is gullible and incapable of controlling his temper, and certainly never accepts any responsibility for his own choices or actions. And, and this is what pissed me off the most - is a significant chunk of the novel is dedicated to him completely taking advantage of and screwing over Anna Throndsen, who he steals away from Denmark and promises to marry if she'll bankroll him for a few years. And the only way she is painted - when, let's remember, he's the one who behaved in a massively shitty manner - is as someone who's not worthy of being married to him because she's clingy and doesn't interest him. And then, when she turns back up at the end of the novel to sue him for fraud - which he did do, let us not forget - instead of accepting responsibility for the fact that he screwed her, he blames her for ruining his life. Bothwell is the prime example of a gaslighting, manipulative man who thinks he's due far more than what his talents or capabilities actually earn him - and everytime something bad happens to him, it's not his fault or the fault of his bad judgment, but the fault of everyone around him for not believing in him.
And it's bad writing. Everything is overwrought, the dialogue is painfully obvious, everyone in this book is stupid when they're meant to be intelligent; the pacing is wildly off; the descriptions are so cloying and over-the-top nothing feels natural. By the I got halfway through it was almost unreadable, it was so melodramatic with nothing even close to redeeming it (Dorothy Dunnett is melodromatic - but at least she's a damn good writer and has got some interesting, legitimately intelligent characters).
Ugh. This was such a terrible book. Don't ever read it. I regret the two days I spent with this.