Friday, July 8, 2016

The Heirs of Melusine

In my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, I talk with Hana Samek Norton, author of The Sixth Surrender and The Serpent’s Crown. We are both historians by training and inclination, and we talk a lot about history and where historical fiction fits into what we might call the range of ways to approach history, in this case through entertainment. But our initial focus on facts and documents will not, I hope, obscure the reality that these are first and foremost great stories with fascinating and well-developed characters who move seamlessly in and out of the historical environment to which they have been assigned. And oh, yes, that cover is gorgeous.

Guérin de Lasalle, former leader of a band of mercenaries, has quite mixed feelings about the marriage into which his service for Eleanor of Aquitaine has pitchforked him; and his doubts are more than matched by his educated, pious, and somewhat mousy wife, Juliana. At the beginning of The Serpent’s Crown, Guérin allows himself to be lured back to the Holy Land, leaving Juliana behind. But when her father-in-law forcibly removes her child from her custody, Juliana sets out in search of her husband, hoping he can help her reclaim their daughter.

The rich emotional framework of these books utilizes the real and imagined history of the barons de Lusignan, descended—by their own account—from the half-serpent/half-woman Melusine. In a variant of the Cupid and Psyche (and, coincidentally, Swan Maiden) myth, Melusine’s husband fails to keep his promise to trust her, and she flees their home, returning only to wail for her children during every windy, stormy night. Her heirs establish a reputation for duplicity and valor, loyalty and rebellion, competence and scheming. The politics of France, England, Cyprus, Jerusalem, and Armenia are changed as a result.

The rest of this post, as always, comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

In the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, the grip of European knights on the Holy Land has begun to loosen. The Muslim forces under Saladin have won a major victory, and the crusaders have so far forgotten themselves as to besiege, then sack, the imperial Christian city of Constantinople—their nominal allies. In the confusion thus created, two warring clans—the Lusignans and the Ibelins—at times cooperate but more often compete for supremacy, spurred on by the marital and political maneuvering of Maria Komnene, queen of Jerusalem. The conflict expands to include Cyprus, Armenia, the Levant, and the Eastern Roman Empire as a whole.

The plots and counterplots sweep up Juliana de Charnais, in distant Poitou. The legitimacy of her marriage is in question, a male relative captures her daughter, and her unsatisfactory husband has chosen to obey another relative’s summons to defend the Lusignan cause in the east.

To reclaim her child, Juliana follows her husband. A former novice, Juliana seeks first and foremost to remain true to her conscience. But in a world where assassins lurk in every corner, just staying alive may prove enough of a challenge.

From central France to Nicosia and Jerusalem, Hana Samek Norton weaves a rich and fascinating tapestry of love, loss, loyalty, betrayal, and deceit. Fans of Dorothy Dunnett’s sweeping historical sagas should not miss The Sixth Surrender and its sequel, The Serpent’s Crown (Cuidono Press, 2015).

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