Book Review: “A Wider World” by Karen Heenan

56860771._SY475_The year is 1558, and Queen Mary I is dying. England is engaged in a war between the Reformation and Catholicism. Caught in the middle is an older man named Robin Lewis, who is being taken to London to face his death as a heretic. Fearful that his story may never be told, Robin Lewis tells his captor his tale through the reigns of three Tudor rulers, Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I. Can his story save his life from certain destruction, or is Robin doomed for all eternity? This is the premise of Karen Heenan’s second book in The Tudor Court series, “A Wider World.”

I want to thank Karen Heenan for sending me a copy of this book. I really enjoyed her first novel, “Songbird,” so I was looking forward to seeing where Heenan would take the series.

We have met Robin Lewis in “Songbird” as the rival of Bess and the stuck-up kid in Music. We don’t see much of his story in the first novel. Heenan has decided to take this side character that is a bit polarizing and write a novel about his life, which I love.

It is a bold choice to start a novel with the protagonist being sentenced to death for being a heretic, but the way Heenan structures this story is brilliant. Heenan begins her novel with Robin’s arrest and his captor, William Hawkins, taking him from the countryside to London to be locked in the Tower. Robin acts like a Tudor Scheherazade to delay the inevitable, telling his story through flashbacks to Hawkins.

What makes this story so unique are those flashbacks that are so vivid and filled with men and women that shaped Robin into the man that he became. Robin is a bookworm who prefers the company of texts to other people, so to see him interact with others is just a delight. They include brothers of a monastery, a servant named Seb, and a beautiful Italian woman named Bianca, who shared Robin’s love of learning. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Tudor novel without famous figures such as Wolsey, Cromwell, and Holbein. Heenan uses these figures as secondary characters to enhance Robin’s story.

At the heart of this novel is the dissolution of the monasteries and Robin’s travels abroad, especially his stops in Italy. Although Cromwell forces Robin to help dissolve the monasteries, his past with monks makes him question the assignment he has been given. Robin’s faith and his relationships with the church in England and Italy are very distinct and shape how he views the charges brought against him at the beginning of this novel.

Heenan has once again made a delightful tale of struggles inside the Tudor court by someone on the sidelines. The blending of English history with elements from other cultures was inspiring. Weave current events with a character’s past is extremely difficult, yet Heenan does it seamlessly. This enchanting novel is the perfect sequel to “Songbird.” If you are a fan of Tudor historical fiction, “A Wider World” is a must-read.

Book Review: “Songbird” by Karen Heenan

57859999._SY475_We all know about the man who would become King Henry VIII. We know about his love life and his ever-changing views on religious reform, yet a side of the infamous king rarely explored; his love of music. Henry’s court in literature is often viewed through the lenses of those who held power in government and the lady’s maids, but what if it was considered from a different perspective? What if it was viewed from the perspective of one of the performers of King Henry VIII’s court? What might their experiences have been like singing their hearts out for the rich and glamorous? Karen Heenan tries to give her readers a better look into the world of Music with Bess, the titular character of her first novel in The Tudor Court series, “Songbird.”

I want to thank Karen Heenan for sending me a copy of this novel. I hosted a book tour for Karen a few months back for this book, so I was intrigued by this novel.

Beth is a ten-year-old girl who has a voice like an angel. One day, her father brought her to the court of Henry VIII to serve the king as one of his majesty’s minstrels. It is there that Bess meets a boy a year younger than her named Tom, who plays numerous instruments, but he prefers the lute. They form a bond that will last for years. Yet, as the friends grow closer, romance enters the picture, and the friends must navigate the ever-changing world of Henry VIII’s court during the time of the Great Matter.

What makes this book sensational is that the Tudors that we are familiar with, Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn, tend to act as secondary characters, quite like a work by CJ Sansom. The focus is really on the music and the lives of the musicians. It shows just enough of the glitz and the glam of court life to get. The songs that Heenan included in this novel are so melodic that I could imagine the scenes without hearing the pieces aloud.

Oh boy, this book was an absolute treat. It was also a ride in the best sense. Bess and Tom go through many hurdles, including death, heartbreak, politics, and a good old-fashioned love triangle as a cherry on top. The world of the minstrels is full of its scandals, and it is just as brilliant as the court they entertain. There were points in this book where Bess or Tom made a mistake, and I just wanted to scream at them, but I couldn’t put this book down. These characters are so loveable that you will get emotionally attached to them.

To combine the story of the Great Matter with the lives of the minstrels like Beth and Tom is simply brilliant. If you want a historical fiction novel that gives a fresh take on the tumultuous Tudors, you should check out “Songbird” by Karen Heenan. Heenan gorgeously wrote this novel to portray the human experience through the reign of Henry VIII vividly.

Guest Post: “Life at the Tudor Court” by Karen Heenan

I am pleased to welcome Karen Heenan to my blog today to discuss life at the Tudor Court. This is part of the book tour to promote Karen Heenan’s book, “Songbird (The Tudor Court, book 1). Thank you The Coffee Pot Book Club and Karen Heenan for allowing me to participate in this tour. 

“Bess!”

The voice, close to my ear, startled me awake. I’m alone in the bed, and the small attic room shared by the female members of the music is empty but for Flora and one other girl. They are nearly dressed—I’m late. Bolting out of bed, I asked Flora, “Why didn’t you wake me?”

She shrugged. “The rest of us get up when Mistress Edith calls.” Relenting, she said, “Here, I’ll help you.”

I pulled my nightdress over my head and washed quickly at the basin. Flora handed me my shift, then helped lace my kirtle. My hair was braided for sleeping, so I pinned it into a hasty knot and settled a white linen coif over it, hoping I wouldn’t run into Nick Hawkins when I looked so untidy.

Breakfast was served in the great hall, which was filled with trestle tables and benches. Servants brought out great bowls of steaming pottage and pitchers of ale, and there were loaves of bread set along the length of the table, for us to cut with our knives.

When the trenchers have been cleared, and the remaining food was taken away for manners—to feed the beggars at the gate—we make out way to the chapel. I let my mind drift during mass until the choir begins to sing. It is impossible not to pay attention to every sound, every note—my dream, when I first arrived, had been to sing in the choir, but girls were not permitted to offer their voices to God. No one had still given me a good explanation as to why.

If we were at Greenwich—where we would travel in the morning, the king had decided to move from Westminster in London—we could also attend the local church, St. Nicholas. Their choir was inferior, but it was pleasing to get outside the palace. The king had less need of us at Greenwich than Westminster, where we were held constantly within call.

Once mass was done, I was free to do what I liked until dinner. Flora had gone off with friends, so I went up to the practice rooms. Someone might be willing to play for me, but if not, I would sing along. If I was fortunate, Tom would be there. He was my dearest friend, and a talented lutenist and composer, though he would blush and deny that his songs are any good.

Someday it would be known, and his songs would be sung all over the court, and perhaps all over England.

He was there, supervising the packing of the many musical instruments which would be transported to Greenwich, along with all the nobles and a good number of the court servants, and all their varied possessions.

 “Do you want me to play for you?” he asked, swaddling a lute in soft wrappings like a babe. His own instrument, I knew, would travel in his grasp; Tom would not trust it to the rough men who loaded the carts and barges for the trip between palaces.

“I can wait.” I leaned against the window, watching the flurry of activity below. In addition to the carts which would start this day so that things might be in place when King Henry stepped off his barge on the morrow, there were the usual clusters of men and horses, servants scurrying across the courtyard on some errand or another, and, to my delight, a certain gentleman atop a shining black horse. 

I let my eyes rest on him. A man such as Nick Hawkins would never pay any mind to a minstrel girl, no matter how lovely my voice. The fact that he had spoken to me on occasion proved nothing. He was handsome—beautiful, really—and powerful, a friend of the king. A man who could have any woman in the kingdom, save the queen. 

He would never look at me.

I turned to Tom, smiling. He would always look at me, always see me for who I was. But it wasn’t the same, and though I loved him as a friend and a brother, I did not think of him as I drifted off to sleep.

“What will you have me play?” Tom settled on a stool with his instrument on his lap, the light from the narrow window falling on his fair hair. “Bess?”

“Sorry.” I shook away my fancies. “We are to perform this evening for the French ambassador and his party.” 

“At least we will have time to eat.” He tuned the lute carefully. “And we will be in the gallery, so you can watch the gathering to your heart’s content.”

I ignored his words, knowing he was teasing. I did like singing from the gallery so I could watch the crowd, and not just because of Nick. It was more impressive, somehow, from above. Crowded in the narrow gallery with the other minstrels, with the horns and drums and shawms, and Tom’s lute singing a sure line beneath for me to follow, I was at peace and could watch the dancers and pretend I was one of them.

A gathering for the French ambassador was sure to run late; I should go back to the girls’ chamber and pack my things for the morning so that when we were done, I could just fall into bed. “Are you happy about going to Greenwich?”

“What does it matter?” he asked. Seeing my expression, he said, “I am if you must know. The stables are closer to the palace.”

Tom loved horses, and though our indoor lives gave us little contact with the beasts, when we were at Greenwich or visiting the cardinal at Hampton Court, he always found his way to the stables. I was glad he was happy, but prolonged time in the stables made me sneeze, and I preferred to walk in the gardens if I was to take my scant free time outdoors.

Other minstrels came in and we went over our evening’s program until the bells chimed eleven; then we all streamed downstairs to dinner. I stayed with Tom; even if the others left us after the meal, we would probably sing and play together until it was time to get ready for the evening’s entertainment. Despite my dreams of greater things, singing with him was when I was happiest, and when I knew that my father had done the right thing. 

I belonged in this place.

 Several hours later, changed into a green gown and clean coif, with my few things packed into a small chest for the morning, I reassembled with other members of the Music in the gallery overlooking the presence-chamber. The vast room was hung on all sides with vivid tapestries depicting scenes both secular and religious, interspersed with gold and silver plate that reflected the hundreds of candles lighting the space.

The king was all aglitter himself, clad head-to-toe in cloth of gold studded with diamonds and pearls. His queen, Katherine, was dressed more soberly, though her fabrics were equally rich. They sat on their thrones under the gold cloth of state, speaking quietly, until the music started. Then the king stopped, mid-sentence, his ear cocked toward the gallery. How fortunate that Tom had instructed the others to begin with one of Henry’s own songs. 

He leaned over to the French ambassador, who stood near the throne, and gestured toward us. I imagined he was telling the Frenchman that he’d written the song—though he praised us lavishly, it was much more likely that he was taking credit for the song.

I sang while the people below mingled and preened, showing off their finery for the king and each other. When the dancing started, I would step back; my voice did not lend itself to the stately pavanes which began the dancing each evening. Those were for the musicians—Tom, Harry, and Gilbert would play their instruments and the courtiers would parade slowly down the length of the room, bowing and circling, flirting with their eyes and their hands, the only parts of their bodies which touched during the dance.

King Henry began the dancing, leading Queen Katherine down from the dais and onto the floor. The jeweled crowd stepped back to give them room, and they traversed the floor alone, the focus of all eyes before the king raised his hand and called for everyone to join him. Then the courtiers paired off, men swiftly bowing before ladies and taking their chosen partner to join the king. 

Nick was there, I noticed almost immediately. He danced with the prettiest women, and once arrived before a woman at the same time as King Henry, bowing deeply and giving way to his monarch, who would dance until dawn if allowed. The queen would retire early, taking her women, though some of them crept back after Her Majesty had been settled for the night.

It was after midnight when the chamber finally began to empty. I sipped from the ale which had been set aside for us; my throat was dry from singing for hours in the stuffy gallery. Tom was yawning behind his hand, and several of the other looked as though they were asleep on their feet. I was still wide awake, but perhaps it was excitement: it was spring, and tomorrow we would journey to Greenwich, where I had begun my life with the Tudor court.

[Illustration #1 – Palace of Westminster, Wikipedia]

[Illustration #2 – Minstrels, Nikki Piggott, photographer, used w/permission]

[Illustration #3 – Greenwich Palace, Wikipedia]

Blurb

She has the voice of an angel…

But one false note could send her back to her old life of poverty.

After her father sells her to Henry VIII, ten-year-old Bess builds a new life as a royal minstrel, and earns the nickname “the king’s songbird.” 

She comes of age in the dangerous Tudor court, where the stakes are always high, and where politics, heartbreak, and disease threaten everyone from the king to the lowliest musician.

Her world has only one constant: Tom, her first and dearest friend. But when Bess intrigues with Anne Boleyn and strains against the restrictions of life at court, will she discover that the biggest risk of all is listening to her own stubborn heart?

Buy Links:

Amazon UKAmazon USAmazon CABarnes and NobleKobo

Audio Buy Links:

Narrated by Jennifer Summerfield

AudibleAuthors DirectNookHooplaApple BooksKoboScribdGoogle PlayAmazon

Author Bio

Karen Heenan

Karen Heenan was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. She fell in love with books and stories before she could read, and has wanted to write for nearly as long. After far too many years in a cubicle, she set herself free to follow her dreams—which include gardening, sewing, traveling, and, of course, lots of writing.

She lives in Lansdowne, PA, not far from Philadelphia, with two cats and a very patient husband, and is always hard at work on her next book.

Connect with Karen:

WebsiteTwitterFacebookInstagramPinterestBook BubAmazonGoodreads