Review: Cecily by Annie Garthwaite (2021)

Blurb

‘Rebellion?’
The word is a spark. They can start a fire with it, or smother it in their fingertips.
She chooses to start a fire.

You are born high, but marry a traitor’s son. You bear him twelve children, carry his cause and bury his past.

You play the game, against enemies who wish you ashes. Slowly, you rise.

You are Cecily.

But when the king who governs you proves unfit, what then?

Loyalty or treason – death may follow both. The board is set. Time to make your first move.

Told through the eyes of its greatest unknown protagonist, this astonishing debut plunges you into the closed bedchambers and bloody battlefields of the first days of the Wars of the Roses, a war as women fight it.

Review

Cecily was our @Squadpod3 Book Club Pick for August, and I want to say a big thank you to Viking Books for sending me a beautiful finished copy for the readalong. The cover, designed by Julia Connolly absolutely deserves a shout-out – it is stunning, and so perfect for the bold, dramatic story contained within it.

There are a lot of ‘feminist retellings’ around at the moment, and I am a massive fan of many of them. However, I think it’s worth stating that it’s not a cohesive ‘genre’ – there is as much variety and difference between the books that get thrust under this label as between any others. Cecily, in particular, stands out as very much its own type of book. Yes, it introduces us to a lesser known character from history, and centres her rather than the male characters, but what I found most interesting is how bound up in the ‘male’ world of power and politics Cecily actually is. The history, which I was only vaguely familiar with, of her husband’s problematic relationship with the King is not pushed to the side to allow for a more ‘domestic’ narrative – rather, Cecily IS a part of that history, a powerful figure in her own right, just as devious and cunning and in control as any of the men – if not more so at times. The book is not so much saying “but lets look at what the women were doing while history was being made,” rather, “lets look at how the women made the history itself.” It’s fascinating, and it really opened my eyes – I was not aware that a noblewoman at the time could wield such influence.

There is a lot of political intrigue in this novel, and I think it would appeal to fans of the Wolf Hall trilogy – there is that same sense of the author knowing her source material inside out, weaving fictional conversations out of what the records state actually happened. It’s quite a dense read, but the punchy present tense and the high stakes keep the energy going, so that even as I occasionally had to go back and double-check names and places (NB there are handy family trees at the back of the book), the momentum was never lost. The writing is sharp and immediate, and I really enjoyed Cecily’s direct way of speaking, her assertiveness and confidence – in many ways it was Richard who came across as the more hesitant of the two. Their relationship is so well done – it is refreshing to see a marriage that, while not a love match, actually transforms over the years into a real partnership, and the scenes between the two of them were my favourite.

I also need to give a shout out to Marguerite – I think I was one of the only people in our Twitter chat who actually really liked her as a character! She has the same fierce survival instincts as Cecily, and in a lot of ways, the two women are at the heart of the power wrangling at play here. I probably would have read a dual narrative that also gave Marguerite’s perspective, but Garthwaite has already packed so much in that this was not the place for it!

The ending is fabulous – both satisfying and leaving it open for the story to continue, which, I believe, is on the cards. Annie Garthwaite is an author to watch – I have a feeling this is just the start of an incredible writing career. Historical fiction fans, get her firmly on your radar!

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite is published by Viking and is available to purchase here.

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