Author: Nicole Galland
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 11th Century / UK / Royal Intrigue / Edward the Confessor / Godiva / Historical Figures Fictionalized)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow (7/2/2013)
Source: The publisher.
Did I finish?: I did, very quickly!
One-sentence summary: An 11th century noblewoman finds herself condemned for her flirtatious politicking and must chose between surrendering her property -- the city of Coventry -- or riding naked through it.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: Guiltily, I don't! I appreciate seeing a full face, but she's a redhead! And she's clothed! Which isn't to say Godiva must be depicted naked, but, I don't know, if you're going to do a woman and a horse...
I'm reminded of...: Michelle Diener, Marina Fiorato, Karen Harper, Deborah Lawrenson
First line: In the time it took Godiva to wrest a concession from the young man, she could have easily spun a skein of yarn.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you're curious about the famous Lady Godiva, or want a brisk and fun historical novel
Why did I get this book?: I loved Galland's I, Iago and I've always admired the infamous Lady Godiva.
Review: I'm having a shockingly hard time writing this review given that I had a great time with it and was provoked and amused by our heroine, Godiva.
Set in 11th century England, the novel follows two friends: the titular heroine Godiva, a flirtatious landowning noblewoman; and her best friend, Edgiva, niece of King Edward (the Confessor) and abbess of Leominster Abbey. Both girls grew up together in Leominster, but Godiva knew she would eventually marry while Edgiva, whose possible offspring could be contenders to the throne, was dedicated to the church. She became abbess at 18 without having the chance of deciding if this was her vocation.
It's this lack of choice that Godiva fights, for she is as active and commanding a ruler as her husband Leofric. One of the three most powerful lords in the kingdom, Leofric's wealth and army is a threat to the king, who maintains a harsh tax to pay for a foreign mercenary army to keep England under his rule.
Ostensibly, it is this tax that provides the catalyst for the novel's events. Shifting the legend a hint -- rather than her husband refusing to remove this tax, it is now Edward who levies it -- Galland posits that it might have been Godiva's frank sexuality and political manoeuvrings that provoked Edward into making his shocking demand: that Godiva ride naked thru Coventry.
Godiva, as we see from the opening scene, using her sexuality boldly, wrangling unruly lords into submitting to decisions they might otherwise fight. She will be, I suspect, a polarizing heroine for people because of this. Even I had a very uncomfortable response to her coquetry and impetuous use of her charms to get things done. And yet, as I discussed with Jessie of Ageless Pages Review on GoodReads, I don't believe that wives of rulers didn't use their skills to enact change as needed, wresting power as they could. Godiva's flirtatiousness is no different a strategy for control than a ruler's physical prowess or immense wealth.
Tangled in with Godiva's story is Edgiva's. A competent abbess and Godiva's closest friend, she has her own scandalous challenge, one that is worsened by Godiva's meddling. The two women have a loving and emotionally rich friendship, which is tried when Edgiva learns of Godiva's involvement in, well, I don't want to give away the details. But Galland doesn't shy from having these two fight -- painfully! -- and it brought tears to my eyes.
One of the things that delighted me most about I, Iago was Galland's emotionally resonate exploration of Iago. For Godiva, Galland took her own naked ride on a horse which influenced how she wrote Godiva's own nude ride. That section was particularly poetic, pretty, and moving, I found, and now I understand why!
The style of this book is 'lighter' than I, Iago, which isn't a bad thing; in many ways, the narrative style echoes Godiva: quick, pretty, flirty, surprising depth. Galland takes a brutal era and two stories -- one legendary, one historic -- and creates a novel that touches on surprisingly deep themes.