Book review: The Girl King by Meg Clothier

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The relatively small state of Georgia in the Russian Caucasus is not the first place that springs to mind when reflecting on the history of the feminist cause.

But former Cambridge classics scholar Meg Clothier has unearthed a real-life gem in her exhilarating novel about the forgotten 12th century Queen Tamar.

Clothier stumbled across this intriguing monarch and her torrid reign in a fragile, medieval kingdom while working for the Reuters news agency in their Moscow bureau and decided to recreate Tamar’s unique life and times.

The Girl King is a thrilling adventure story which combines brutal conflict with heart-stopping romance as well as opening the door onto a fascinating history that has passed many of us by.

Tamar was a true feminist icon; the eldest daughter of ruthless King Georgi who failed to produce a male heir and great-granddaughter of the legendary King Davit, she ruled the country she loved against all the odds.

Beset by enemies, betrayed by those who should have defended her and pursued by power-hungry suitors, Tamar was an indomitable queen in an age when aristocratic women were expected to remain indoors with their embroidery.

Raised on stories of her country’s blood-soaked wars, the young Tamar revels in mock battle games and sword practice with her father’s men at arms but approaching womanhood in 1177, her life is set to change to one of tedious domesticity.

Determined to be mistress of her own fate, the indomitable and fearless Tamar convinces her father that having seen ‘cruelty and blood and death’ at close quarters, she is a worthy successor to his throne.

‘Sons,’ Georgi tells her, ‘if their fathers are strong they resent them...and if they are weak, they despise them. Maybe there’s something to be said for daughters after all.’

But when a revolt threatens her life she is sent to live in the mountains dressed as a boy and it is there that she meets the reckless and handsome teenager Soslani, heir to the lord of the Osset lands.

A devastating betrayal places her in the hands of her enemies, but with some unexpected help and through her own courage and initiative, Tamar makes a miraculous escape.

While her father still lives, she is protected from the hostile forces around her but once he is dead, she is truly alone and has to find renewed strength to control the bitterly warring factions at court.

Queen Tamar must win the respect of the doubting nobles, engender fear in her enemies...and marry a man of whom her lords approve.

It’s a momentous task for a woman facing rebellion at home, enemies on her borders and who has secretly given her heart to a man from the Caucasus.

The Girl King is as refreshing as a mountain stream; with a fast-flowing plot, sparkling characters and awash with high drama and captivating romance, this Georgian adventure story opens up a welcome new tributary for historical fiction.

(Century, paperback, £12.99)