Song at Dawn: 1150 in Provence (The Troubadours Quartet)
On the run from abuse, Estela wakes in a ditch with only her lute, her amazing voice, and a dagger hidden in her underskirt. Her talent finds a patron in Aliénor of Aquitaine and more than a music tutor in the Queen's finest troubadour and Commander of the Guard, Dragonetz los Pros.
Weary of war, Dragonetz uses Jewish money and Moorish expertise to build that most modern of inventions, a papermill, arousing the wrath of the Church. Their enemies gather, ready to light the political and religious powder-keg of medieval Narbonne.
Set in the period following the Second Crusade, Jean Gill's spellbinding romantic thrillers evoke medieval France with breathtaking accuracy. The characters leap off the page and include amazing women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Ermengarda of Narbonne, who shaped history in battles and in bedchambers.
'One of the best historical novels I've read in a long time.' Paul Trembling, Dragonslayer
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I would like to caution readers- this is not an easy read, especially for those of us who last learned world history in high school. We meet many historical figures and places that I didn’t know much about. I took the time to research some of them.
Aliénor of Aquitaine is one of the main historical figures. You may know her as Eleanor. In the book, she becomes the patron of runaway Estrela. But Eleanor really lived and was one of the most influential figures of the Middle Ages. She would eventually become the queen of France, the queen of England and lead a crusade to the Holy Land. You may recognize the name, Richard the Lion Heart- he was Eleanor’s son.
Most of the story takes place in the trading city of Narbonne. Narbonne was founded on a Roman road in 118 BC and continues to this day! Narbonne is located on the coast of southeast France, on the Mediterranean, which made it part of the trade route from the Middle East, or “Oltra Mar” – over the seas. Ermengarde is another main character in the book and she ruled Narbonne successfully.
Readers, as you can see from my brief history lesson, you will learn the history of the times. Author Gill will also present you with a plot of romance, mystery and intrigue. The fictional characters in the book were interesting and life in the grand courts of the Middle Ages provides a rich setting for the book. You will encounter everything from banquets to the Court of Love and you will meet fascinating people from the European, Catholic Church, Jewish and Muslim communities. I commend Ms. Gill for her award-winning historical fiction.
When I started writing the review, it was like retelling a great book or movie to a friend – I kept remembering more details and qualities I wanted to draw attention to, which you can see from the length of the review itself. But bear with me! Song at Dawn made history come to life for me and I love that.
Following the main characters through cliffhanger dangers and passionate romance not once lost its power when the author explained the political and religious turbulences, court intrigue or social customs of the time. Blending fact and fiction into a beautiful painting, with a memorable hero and heroine, each unique and striking in their own turn, is masterful. Missing sleep to chase after Dragonetz and Estela was no problem for me! The rulers, both female and male, are so fascinating, and I was in awe of Ermengarde’s strategy, especially at the end of the book, and found Alienor intimidating (I wonder what she does in book 2).
The author creates such a great concept of the heroine, ripening from girl into womanhood through turmoil. What a brave and interesting idea introducing her attitude towards sexual relationships so that she compares herself to a man and goes after what she wants. At first it is far from what she pictured though. As she searches for her own place under the sun, she makes blunders and successes, and you feel that you too grow with her. One of my favourite parts of the book is Gilles’s lesson to Estela on glamour and true quality using knives as illustration. It is a lovely morality tale, inserted to show the critical thinking Estela was brought into. When she learns about the life of a lady in the Queen’s entourage, this is what she says.
‘You do know how to behave like a lady?’‘Yes,’ but that didn’t mean she would always do so, Estela promised herself. When she first meets Dragonetz and he becomes her mentor, it is quite memorable, and sums her up pretty well.
‘I want to teach you everything I possibly can,’ he told her simply and saw the irritation dissolve. ‘Do you want to learn or to be a table decoration?’
Estela is fearless but not reckless. ‘She was too interested in all that was offered to her hungry mind to take refuge in the coward’s fear of the unknown.’
When she starts being aware of her feminine powers, she is amazing.
‘This favour is mine to bestow where I will. If your spirit is free, would you wear this for me, in token of your loyal service, be willing to protect me should there be need, whether my name or my body, and ,’ she paused and looked him straight in the eyes, ‘and expect nothing in return, nothing whatsoever.’
The way she learns to accept her arranged marriage is a clear sign of her strength, and how she respects true friendship with both women and men is phenomenal. And when she loves… ‘She had learned to read his face and his tone, not just the words he chose.’
The main hero, Dragonetz, a charming troubadour and the leader of the Queen’s guards, is a fascinating character, depicted in so many layers and defined by his actions, but what I found particularly interesting about him is his thirst for knowledge, his ability to see the big picture and dream bigger than one might expect. He is a true romantic in all aspects, not just regarding women. Not that everything goes according to his plan, but he truly is a striking man. Details of his behaviour are woven into the story so wonderfully. For instance, this tiny detail in a turbulent chapter when his horse’s death is merely a tiny event in the whole turmoil.
‘…the question for Dragonetz was not whether horses had souls, but whether men did.’
His relationships with his men, his Arab friend, his ability to dance the thin line between the court ladies and his own heart, his assigned enemies and his distinction between right and wrong, are simply amazing. To be able to step back from all that and never yield to arrogance towards anyone shows real strength. Yep, book crush, what can I say!
THE AUTHOR & THE BIG PICTURE
I admire the author, who takes her time to develop the characters, the romance, mystery and intrigue, with no rush, no prescribed writing, not aiming for sales but staying loyal to her characters. In these modern times, writing in such a non-sensationalist way is kind of like riding a horse – you get there slowly, but you do enjoy the scenery. Because sensations, shocks, intense emotion, gore and intimacy are not lacking – they ooze throughout the story, but grow out of the events naturally, not forced.The details are impeccable – from the tender scene of Dragonetz combing Estela’s hair to the horribly striking scene of a girl tortured in noble halls. The author’s style is truly special and I have bookmarked so many beautiful quotes. There is a sound distribution of descriptions, serenity and action, and Jean Gill writes excellent dialogues. Here is an example of that, illustrating the delicate relationship between Queen Alienor and Dragonetz. As he asks her to give him leave from her service, and she summons him to one last task, a really dangerous one…
‘You don’t make my life easy, do you,’ was all he said. ‘I thought that was what you liked,’ she responded but her heart wasn’t in the banter and he left her sitting hunched in her chair , a foreshadowing of the old woman she would one day become.
The silent moments matter too. After a lengthy conversation between the Queen and her close friend, the ruler of Narbonne, this scene is so important. ‘…the silence told as much of the relationship between the two women as their free speech.’
The conflict beween religion and politics is timeless, and the following quote caught my eye. ‘…perhaps today’s heresy will be tomorrow’s reason.’
Jean Gill’s approach to historical details is admirable. There are so many delicate details described lovingly with respect for history, culture, tradition and character. “No doubt some serious application of lemon paste would be part of the royal sojourn at Narbonne. Estela sighed, knowing that she could scrape her skin to the bone and it would remain the same smooth olive she was born with.”
I loved the mention of scientists, artists, farming, medicine and libraries. It reminded me of books by a Croatian author M. J. Zagorka who wrote about Croatian history in a similar, life-like way and made me love learning history.
Historical fiction, if done well, such as this, makes history alive, makes you feel for the people from the period, makes you curious about their customs, achievements and lives. You feel as if you’ve travelled in time and are lost into the book.
Despite the complicated political maze, which I sometimes got lost in (but I do in real life, so that was to be expected), I was amazed by the seemingly little things such as discovering the reason for the huge ladies’ entourage to the Queen – eavesdropping on their gossip to distill information about their families and/or use them as leverage in negotiation. Another shocking revelation was Estela’s attitude towards marriage as freedom, at only 16, because it did mean that at the time for a girl her age, financial security, status and the possibility of court service and proper education she may have not gotten otherwise. I still cannot decide on my favourite character, but Arnaut, Malik and Sancha rank high up there with Estela and Dragonetz. My most hated one is clear, but am not giving away the name – spoiler alert!
What I particularly loved about the book is that it awoke in me the feeling of romance, so dulled by day-to-day activities, and it revived my interest in history. For a historical romance, I believe it achieves its goal perfectly! Book 2 is already in my kindle.
This review will be added to the Readers Review Room and by their ranking system, it deserves (more than) the gold worm.
Inadvertently using her lute and magical voice to capture the attention of Queen Alienor and her famous Commander of the Guard and troubadour Dragonetz, Estela is drawn into the intrigue of the court of Ermengarda in Narbonne. What ensues is a beautifully developed love story and tale of political conspiracies that will keep the reader guessing until the very end. It’s impossible to read this book without falling in love with the characters. Cheering on the heroes, angry with the villains, and shocked by the duplicitous, each character brings the flavor of the time period to the plot, enriching the story with his or her unique personality.
I am so enthralled with this story that I have already begun Book 2 of the series, “Bladesong: 1151 in the Holy Land.” Rarely has an author captured my attention with characters that live and breathe, stepping out of the pages and into my heart. I highly recommend this exquisitely written book. Whether a fan of historical fiction or not, this story will captivate any reader who enjoys a well told romantic thriller.
Definitely a Gold Bookworm for this fine book!