Ashe presents a jousting first installment of a four-volume fiction on the deeply contentious founder of parliament, Simon de Montfort.
Historical novels allow writers to braid fact with fantasy, and Ashe’s work is a smooth result of this flexible license. This first volume deals with Simon’s meteoric rise, fall and rise again in the intrigue-ridden Plantagenet Court, where he starts out as an unpopular foreigner from France and grows to be the king’s go-to man. Ashe conjures up a fanatically religious but tormented youngster who marries King Henry III’s nun sister, cuckolds the king, is banished from England and joins the Crusades. While his warts, such as the tyrannical violence visited upon Jewish money-lenders, are not elided, Ashe clearly empathizes with her hot-headed knight and plays up his positives, be it his dexterity on the battlefield, his loyalty to Henry (deftly portrayed as a weak, willful sapling on whom Simon refuses to spy for Louis of France) or the manner in which he tries to scour his sexual guilt by lashing himself with a nail. If the novel is thoroughly researched as Ashe’s is—from descriptions of medieval latrines and houseboys called “Garbage” to the decadence of Europe’s emperors—it is all the more thoroughly imagined. The slightly salacious plotting that makes Simon into the queen’s stormy lover and thereby biological father of Edward, heir to the seemingly impotent Henry III, is worthy of Hollywood, but Ashe, a playwright and screenplay writer, presents the affair persuasively, allowing the reader’s inner-romantic to be seduced. A riveting prophecy by Simon’s archbishop-mentor that Simon and his firstborn will die on the same day and by the same hurt, and the veiled announcement by Henry that he wishes Edward to be brought up by Simon “as his own son” so that he can be schooled in the art of warfare, inject a frisson into the narrative that make the second installation worth waiting for.
A lively, emotionally charged medieval trot.