Book review: Devil’s Consort by Anne O’Brien

The young man who travels to a palace deep in the heart of Bordeaux in 1137 might be the next King of France but his 15-year-old future wife holds all the aces.

Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, is powerful, wealthy, sophisticated and beautiful and will bring vast tracts of valuable and well-governed land to her union with Prince Louis Capet.

It’s a marriage made in political and dynastic heaven...or is it?

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Anne O’Brien is fast becoming one of Britain’s most popular and talented writers of medieval novels. Her in-depth knowledge and silky skills with the pen help to bring the past to life and put the focus firmly on some of history’s most fascinating characters.

Her much-acclaimed debut novel, Virgin Widow, gave us new insight into the doomed Anne Neville, wife of King Richard III and daughter of ‘Kingmaker’ Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick.

In Devil’s Consort, O’Brien adds yet more colour to the spectacular life of one of the most influential, charismatic and ruthless figures in the rich tapestry of European history.

Eleanor was no ordinary woman, wife of two kings and mother of another two, she changed the face of England forever.

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We meet O’Brien’s spirited young Eleanor as she waits to meet Prince Louis. Brought up to know luxury, sophistication and the arts, she needs and expects a husband with ‘a strong sword arm’ who will give her an heir, ‘lead men and demand the obedience of the power-hungry lords who would snatch what was mine’.

But Louis is not the forceful partner she had expected, even when he inherits the throne of France. Eager to win her approval, the monkish young man embarks on a doomed campaign at Champagne which serves only to highlight his many shortcomings.

Unable to conceive an heir and with Louis increasingly withdrawn into the world of the church, Eleanor becomes determined to rule her own lands and sets out with the men of Aquitaine on Crusade.

Her march to Outremer causes a scandal and she unwisely seeks comfort in the arms of her own uncle, Raymond of Antioch.

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When she discovers that her marriage to Louis could be illegal, she is tempted to seek an annulment and take her chance on longed-for freedom.

And when fortune throws up a chance meeting with the witty, intelligent, charming and tempestuously passionate Henry Plantaganet, Eleanor’s fate is sealed.

In much the same style as Philippa Gregory, O’Brien likes to use a first person narrative to get inside the head of her characters and Devil’s Consort presents a memorable Eleanor – ambitious, headstrong, ruled by her senses and dangerously capricious.

A rich and gripping historical page turner.

(MIRA, paperback, £7.99)

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