Review: ‘Child of the Phoenix’ by Barbara Erskine

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Monday, December 13, 2010 - Save & Share - 2 Comments

Title: Child of the Phoenix

Author: Barbara Erskine

Published: Harper Collins, 1994, pp. 1086.  Originally published 1992

Genre: Historical fiction

Blurb: In 1218 an extraordinary princess is born, whose mystical powers and unquenchable spirit will alter the course of history…  Raised by her fiercely Welsh nurse to support the Celtic cause against the predatory English king, Princess Eleyne is taught to worship the old gods, to look into the future and sometimes the past.  However, unable to identify time and place in her terrifying visions, she is powerless to avert forthcoming tragedy…  Remarkable events follow Eleyne all her life as, despite impassioned resistance, her world is shaped by powerful men.  But her tempestuous life and loves tie her to the destinies of England, Scotland and Wales…

When, where and why: Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons is one of my favourite historical fiction novels, and so when I saw that this book dealt with Llewellyn’s daughter and would revisit all the characters I loved so much I knew I had to have it.  It caught my eye as I was browsing my shelves and so went into my bag to be read on the train.  It counts as book 32/50 for my Books Off the Shelf Challenge.

What I thought: Caveat emptor!  This may look like an innocuous historical fiction novel (albeit a rather chunky one) but halfway through it mutates horribly into a paranormal romance.  Now, if you happen to like stories of people falling in love with other people who are, in one way or another, dead, then you’d probably love this book.  Were I a publisher I’d probably suggest republishing this book and repackaging it with a greater emphasis on the paranormal element, because goodness knows that’s popular at the moment.  However, I am not a publisher, I am merely a disgruntled reader who feels disappointed in the author for choosing to throw this element in for no apparent reason and cheated out of what would have been a good, slightly trashy historical novel.

Initially, Child of the Phoenix was a fairly solid example of the historical fiction genre.  It’s a bit cliched (can we say beautiful and willful heroine?) and nothing spectacular, but the story races along quite well and I found it an engaging and quick read despite its size.  True, it suffers in comparison to Here Be Dragons, the reason I read it, but I was enjoying it nonetheless.  Even if the writing isn’t as good, I found it interesting to see the different perspectives that the two authors use to present the same events, giving wildly different motives and emotions surrounding them.  Characterisation is patchy and inconsistent: Eleyne is described throughout as an independent, opinionated, fiery woman and yet she submits without question when her first husband beats her to punish her for her actions, then has willing sex with him and snuggles up to him for comfort, which is utterly unbelieveable.  I would have expected, shock, anger and hurt, not the strange meekness which Erskine suddenly gives her.  I could live with that though, as most of the enjoyment of historical novels for me is in the plot rather than the characters.

Halfway through, however, the book runs into major problems.  The story goes round and round in circles as similar events happened repeatedly with seemingly no attempt to differentiate between them.  Then the paranormal romance strikes!  Now, I have nothing against a bit of magic in books, particularly the occasional use of the Sight or references to the old gods which seems to be ubiquitous in any historical novel with an even vaguely celtic setting, but this combination of strange visions and a ghostly love triangle was far too much for my tastes. 

Erskine explains in her afterward that very little is known about her central character.  In fact, she may even be two entirely different people that Erskine has erroneously combined, historical records are that vague and incomplete.  To me, the paranormal subplot which quickly takes over is a lazy way of attempting to inject excitement into the times when very little was happening in Eleyne’s life without having to develop the story and characters in a more difficult way without such instant appeal.  The paranormal occurrences are noticeably absent at times when important and interesting historical events are occurring, and so they really do just seem like a way to fill in the gaps without trying. 

Ultimately, I would have preferred this book if Erskine had avoided the problem of long periods when nothing happened by making the book much shorter.  There are plenty of examples of time being skipped over, just indicated by a dated heading, and so, at over 1,000 pages, I feel that she could have trimmed a lot of fat from this book and made it a much tighter read, without the need for a silly ghostly lover.

Where this book goes: I’ve lent this book to my mother, who will probably really enjoy it.  After that, though, it’s going straight to BookMooch to find a new home, not to mention to give me about three inches of clear shelf space.

Tea talk: I was recently given some tea as a belated birthday present from a good friend of mine, so I’ve been trying that out.  First on the list was some Golden Snail Tea!  It’s so named because of its shape, not its provenance, and makes a really delicious, light gold cup of tea.  Plus the name is just great.

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2 Responses to “Review: ‘Child of the Phoenix’ by Barbara Erskine”

Comment from PolishOutlander
Time January 2, 2011 at 7:50 pm

Despite my bad experience with the one Erskine book I have read, Daughters of Fire, part of me wants to give this author another chance. But based on your thoughts, maybe I won’t be so quick about it. I feel like you turned those 1,000 pages of reading into everything I need to know about the book, and maybe I’ll try another one of hers instead.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 3, 2011 at 12:11 am

I’m glad you found the review helpful. Despite my reaction to that book, I feel like I should give her another chance too and already have ‘Lady of Hay’ on my shelves, so I’ll be interested to see if your experience is any better.

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