As a quasi-historical fantasy set in 13th century France, The Crown Rose is a somewhat surprising first novel from Fiona Avery, whose many credits writing for television and comics—mostly science fiction properties such as Earth: Final Conflict and Babylon 5—have awarded her a certain amount of name recognition. The novel, with its medieval setting and its emphasis on the doings and complexities of the royal family of France and the powerful Church, is a horse of a different color to those shows.
The story centers on Isabelle, sister to Louis IX, although when the story opens he is not yet king. Their mother Blanche is queen regent, aided in her task of ruling the country by three mysterious women who go by the collective title of L'Ordre de la Rose (The Order of the Rose). Early in the novel, young Isabelle is menaced by a large dog; one of these women appears, in the company of an unknown man who frightens the dog away. This is Isabelle's first encounter with a stranger who will appear and disappear as the story progresses through Louis's ascendency to the throne, his marriage, the adventures of Isabelle's brothers, conflict and open war with England, and Isabelle's own growing maturity and journey toward self-determination.
If that last sounds rather modern, that's because it is, and this presents the first major difficulty readers will have with this novel. Although The Crown Rose possesses medieval setting and trappings, it lacks what may be called, for lack of a better term, a medieval mindset. Depending on the author's goals, this is not necessarily a problem; medieval murder mysteries, for instance, are quite popular, and their authors frequently choose to place modern-minded characters in medieval settings, seemingly deliberately. However, given the eventual revelations concerning the Order of the Rose and their mysterious companion, The Crown Rose would be much more powerful if it succeeded more completely in evoking the sensibilities of 13th-century France.
The second problem, paradoxically, lies in Avery's background as a television and comics writer. The novel, relying on narrative, lacks the advantage that these image-driven media confer. Time and again, one is capable of imagining how The Crown Rose would look onscreen, the additional depth that could be conveyed by skilled actors, the weight and emphasis that they could lend their lines, the way the plot would gel via implication and judicious editing. On the page, however, the action in The Crown Rose too often falls flat. Lacking visual images, Avery too often resorts to explaining, rather than showing, what her characters think and feel. The reader may grow impatient with Isabelle's naivete, just when he or she should be enjoying it the most, and the nature of the Order of the Rose and their mysterious companion will become evident to readers long before the characters figure it out. There is nothing wrong with this per se; authors frequently add tension to the proceedings by letting readers in on something the characters don't yet know. This is difficult to do well, however, and here one suspects that it is not deliberate on Avery's part.
This is unfortunate, because the idea at the novel's center is a good one, and Avery's characters are appealing. One begins and ends the novel wanting the best for them (including the story's most obvious villain, who I kept hoping would acquire more depth and texture but who remained depressingly one-note). Overall, though, one is left with an impression of sidelong glimpses when what one really wants is a window into the past.
Genevieve Williams is a freelance writer, an academic librarian, and a Clarion West graduate. She lives in Seattle.
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