The Queen’s Midwife by Lozania Prole

The Queen’s Midwife was a fascinating look at the people around Henry the VIII, especially the common people affected by his obsession with leaving a legitimate son. While the main character is a midwife, the focus is on her life rather than the mechanics of childbirth. So if you’re squeamish about the latter, relax.

The author, Lozania Prole, paints a vivid picture of life at the time.  At the midwife’s first visit to the castle, “A massive henchman opened the door to her, and beyond him she could see the halberdiers in gold and scarlet, king’s colours, and she smelt the heavy smell of the palace, of sprayed perfume, of orange flower water and of the flowers themselves, mingling with all the odious pungency of unwashed human bodies.” Cultural expectations of the time are seamlessly interwoven with the story – “In these days there were large families, a woman hoped to be abed with child at least seven or eight times, and Catherine expected it with the rest.”

Prole also does an excellent job of placing the events in their historical context:

— “It was at that moment that the whole of the future history of England was changed, and the road turned. Had young Henry lived the country would have continued in the faith by which it had always abided, into the future. There could have been no change, no string of unhappy queens coming one after another, no more pregnancies and miscarriages… This is where the whole of the reign changes; the hour when it begins to meet disaster. Centuries ahead people will know it, and remembering it say, “This was the hour”.’

The king appears infrequently in this book. When he does, he is not viewed kindly. — “Even whilst still so young he had run to seed, for he ate and drank too well. He was a man who lived entirely for himself, and had no appetite that he did not pander to.”

Prole has clearly done her research. The book is steeped not only in the details of the time, but in its language as well.  Unless you’re an expert in this era, you’ll want to read this book someplace with good Wi-Fi so you can make use of not just the dictionary lookup feature on your Kindle, but also the like to Wikipedia for terms not included in the dictionary.  Some of the more interesting terms you’ll encounter: pillion ride, charger (as in equine, not cell-phone), kirtle, panoply, bier, gavotted, possets, capons, Michaelmas, haws, roisterer, paroxysm, jocose, siroccos, martinet, sloes, titivations, laurustinus, tambour, wassail, etc….

The phrases were colorful and for the most part easily comprehensible. For example, “a good maid who demanded bell, book and candle.” Although truthfully, I never did figure out what she meant by “pepper-pot King”.

Overall, I found this a relatively easy read (with dictionary assist) and a fascinating view of a bizarre historical period.

Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by Johanna Craven

This is a fantastic book. The controlling captain slowly losing control of virtually everything. The mulatto slave, desperately loyal to the father who spurns her. The repentant soldier, dreaming of the fiancée (and life) left behind. The rebel noblewoman, determined to choose her own path. Literally, this book has everything. PIRATES. WITCHES. VOO-DOO. Even SWIVING (which is apparently 17th century slang for a word that Amazon doesn’t actually allow in reviews….)

The writing is elegant, even when it’s not. Case in point, “Harry feels her eyeing him, taking in his calloused hands, scruffy hair, dungaree breeches with the faded arse. He feels like the palace sh*t-shoveller being watched by the queen.”

Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend this for reading on a plane or anywhere else where the Wi-Fi’s been disconnected. The author’s gone to great lengths to include terms appropriate to the period. I found the Kindle feature that brings up a definition if you highlight the word immensely useful for archaic nautical terms like davits, capstan, orlop, hawser, and mizzenmast. Not the mention clothing terms like justacorps.

My only real complaint was a handful of instances where the author included phrases in Creole that she didn’t translate in the text. For example: “Bata!” cries Serafine suddenly. Archer jerks in his seat. Her eyes are flashing. “Ou merite yo mouri!” Unfortunately, the translate option doesn’t include Creole.