Review: The Sixth Surrender by Hana Samek Norton

The Sixth Surrender

Hana Samek Norton

Plume, to be published July 2010

480pp

WARNING: SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS SECTION!

I finally finished The Sixth Surrender this weekend.

In thirteenth-century France, Juliana de Charnais–aka Sister Eustace,  novice at the abbey of Fontevraud–feels stifled by the rule-laden world of the convent. She is clever and learned and longs to regain her inheritance of the viscounty of Tillieres and experience the outside world of excitement and intrigue. These adventures come at a price though, as she chooses to become a pawn in Alienor of Aquitaine’s scheme to safeguard the crowns of Normandy and England for her last-born son, John. Alienor marries Juliana to the mercenary rogue Guerrin Lasalle, under condition of loyalty to John Plantagenet, and the battle begins…

A long book (480 pages), this novel was bursting with glorious medieval detail. It is labeled as a romance but is truly  much, much more. Political schemes and counter-schemes, battles between prominent families, and the convoluted politics under the reign of King John during the years of his nephew Arthur’s rebellion and his conflict with  King Phillip II of France take center stage in this story. These political events, entwined with the decisions and fates of the characters, create a  complex plot, unpredictable twists and turns, characters you love to hate, and ones you wish you could rescue.

That being said,  I did find the plot to be a complicated, twisted labyrinth that could have used some clarification. I found myself lost in all the swirls and curves, wondering if something was wrong with my brain for not understanding what was happening to whom and why.  I wonder if it ultimately comes down to the author having the story so thoroughly worked out in her head that she perhaps assumed her readers would understand it as well as she did without added explanation. That would be completely understandable–I see this often with my own authors, especially when it comes to specialists in a particular field, who forget to speak to “lay-language” (such as it is) or to add in details that a nonexpert would need to grope his or her way around an unfamiliar environment.  Obviously the plot was intricately laid but at times the connections were left open-ended.

This problem, however, didn’t distract my attention enough for me to dislike the book at all. I enjoyed delving into this world, living in it, and struggling with it. The characters were alive and vibrant, the history seemed to me (a lay person in that field!) to be well researched, and the writing flowed beautifully.

I am decidedly mixed in my overall opinion of this book. It was hugely atmospheric, but the plot kept slipping out of my grasp, to come back into focus only to become blurred again, making this an entertaining yet frustrating read.