Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Poison Maiden - Paul Doherty

It's 1308 and England hovers on the brink of civil war. Edward II, his wife Isabella and the royal favourite Peter Gaveston Earl of Cornwall, have been forced to retreat to the King's folly. Just an arrowshot away lie the Great Lords and Philip IV of France, who are demanding that the Earl of Cornwall be charged with high treason. Edward is trapped, and worse, he has learnt that Philip has the 'Poison Maiden' on his side, a formidable spy who did untold damage during his father's reign. As Edward tries in vain to unmask the identity of the spy, Mathilde, handmaiden to the Queen, also attempts to identify the source of this threat. Soon the crisis spills over into violence. The Lords attempt to take Gaveston by force and the King and his Court, including Mathilde, are forced to flee. As the enemy closes in, Mathilde finds herself embroiled in a life and death struggle for the English crown.

The Poison Maiden is the 2nd book in the Mathilde of Westminster series where Paul Doherty tells the story of Richard II and Isabella's first years of marriage. I was intrigued by the first book and last week I "found" this one at the bottom of the TBR pile and decided to pick it up.

I have now read some reviews mentioning some historical errors. I must say I didn't notice them while reading as this is a period I'm not too familiar with, but on principle errors annoy me!

Like the first book there is a mystery to solve in this story and it starts with the old Mathilde remisniscing on past events while being interrogated by the king's men. The King is now Edward III, Isabella's son, and it is suggested that the queen took some secrets to her grave that Mathilde is decided to keep.

The story then jumps to the past and the year 1309. First it is a man who is found dead and then a woman. While there are not many clues about why they have been murdered, in the first death the murdered even tried to make it look like a suicide, there is talk about The Poison Maiden, a supposedly powerful spy working for Phillip of France who emerged under the old King and now is once again trying to do the same and destroy Isabella’s husband.

I’m afraid I don't think Mathilde is a very sympathetic character, she seems rather cold and not even her doomed love affair with Demontaigu helped me seeing her on a more favourable light. I must confess that I had less trouble warming up to Isabella who may well be on her way to be the She-Wolf of France but at least has good reasons to complain. Manipulation and deceit are very useful weapons when there's no alternative and considering Isabella's dislike of most people that surround her and how dangerous some of them may be we can easily feel some empathy. I also felt Mathilde moved about a bit too freely for one who should be attending the queen.

I was surprised by the identity of the Poison Maiden and I must admit Doherty did really well with that final twist. However, although I did like the setting and the political information regarding Gaveston, the Templars and the historical context in general,  I’m not sure it captivated me enough to continue with the series…

Grade: 4/5

This is my D entry for The Alphabet in Historical Fiction Challenge.


  1. This sound like a really good series. Nice choice for "D". I still have to decide on my "D"

  2. Interesting--thanks for the honest review! It's too bad the character wasn't more sympathetically rendered, but the read sounds like an enjoyable one nonetheless.

  3. Hmm...this is the second review I have seen where the reader was not sure if they would continue the series. I was intrigued but now I don't know.

  4. This sounds interesting -- I am always intrigued by historical mysteries. But I agree that it's hard to be captivated by a book if you can't connect with the main character. Thanks for the honest and balanced review.


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