I read Catherine Clover’s deeply-detailed historical romance
The premise of this book, the first in the Maid of Gascony series, is that Isabella, a teenage noblewoman living in late medieval France, falls in love while journeying through the world in the footsteps of the Knights Templar, tracking down lost Christian relics. It’s like an odd mashup of The Thorn Birds and The Da Vinci Code. Did I need this combo? Maybe. I’m not sure. I am sure, however, that the writing style is a smidge less exciting than the premise. This book reads like a master’s thesis in history, which will turn off some people while exciting others.
At least 75% of the novel is exposition on the events, characters and architecture of medieval Europe. An illustrative paragraph:
…our ship was fitted with two triangular lateen sails, positioned on masts at either end of the deck, designed to catch the wind and provide a fast sailing time between ports. In the middle stood a much heavier square-rigged mast. Glancing around, I noticed that none of the other ships in the port had two different types of sails. Once on board, I would discover another important distinction of our ship: enclosed cabins that provided shelter from the piercing winds that would suddenly whip up around us out of nowhere. It was clear that the Salamanca had been selected specifically for her speed and the level of comfort she afforded her passengers.
While I deeply, deeply appreciate a well-researched text and atmospheric historical detail, there are times when it becomes indiscriminate. Yes, that’s the main character describing a boat. She’s on this boat for all of five minutes. How much do we really need to know about this boat? It floated. Imagine if, as Frodo and Sam departed for Mount Doom, Tolkien interrupted their heartfelt declarations of devotion to tell us how many oars were on the rowboat? (Actually, maybe he did.)
Besides the boats, the rest of The Templar’s Garden moves very slowly. The character’s feelings are rendered in sentences as categorical as this:
Alone with a man of such remarkable character in the dark of the hallway, I felt timid: I sensed an intense passion for him developing in my heart.
Has any woman ever said to herself, alone in a dark hallway with someone she feels intensely passionate about; that she “sensed an intense passion…developing in her heart”? I’d rather hear about her breath, her heart rate, her involuntary movements.
Clover clearly cares deeply for history, but like any historical novelist, she also alters it, deftly. Consider the relic at the heart of book one. Clover refers to it as the Mandylion, and also as “the shroud that covered our Lord and Saviour after he was taken down from the cross.” I did find online references to a Mandylion, and also to the Image of Edessa, but I couldn’t find a single relic by that name that matches Clover’s description. Other artifacts do, although their veracity is up for debate. Of course, The Templar’s Garden doesn’t care whether the Mandylion is real, just that Isabella believes it is.
Isabella is protected on her journey by descendants of the Knights Templar, whom Clover posits continued to exist in secret after they were famously dissolved by King Philip IV of France on a Friday the 13th back in the 1300s. Clover says the Knights were dissolved by the King (and later the Pope) because they presented him with a “counterfeit cloth” (ie, a fake Mandylion). Historically, I believe the explanation is that he owed them a lot of money he didn’t want to repay, which is simultaneously less surprising and more shitty. The real moral of that story is that it’s a bad idea to lend money to feudal kings. The real moral of Clover’s story, however, is probably more pleasant and less tangible.
It’s worth a warning that this book contains two extremely graphic rapes. It’s not possible to skip over them, really, because they affect the plot. Rape was a part of women’s lives in the 1400s as it is today, but these two episodes stand out for their extreme violence. Not for the first time, I wondered why we don’t put content warnings on books, because this story probably could have used one. So instead, I’ll offer it to you now.
Thanks to NetGalley and Duckworth Books for providing an early copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.