The Sister Queens

Written by Sophie Perinot
Review by Ilysa Magnus

Marguerite and Eleanor are sisters, Savoyards living in the 13th century. Each young Provençal girl is married off to a king – Marguerite to Louis IX of France, Eleanor to Henry III of England. They are heartbroken to be divided because, despite their obvious personality differences, they are blood and family, a theme that will play out time and again in this, Perinot’s debut novel.

As Queen of England, Eleanor is adored by her husband and protected by her Savoyard family. As Queen of France, Marguerite is brutally despised by her mother-in-law, Blanche of Castile, and generally, banished to the back burner by her husband, the man who would come to be known as Saint Louis because of his devotion to Christianity. Yet, each woman, in her own right, plays a significant role in the times beyond the norms of childbearing and rearing. And each woman wants the love of her husband and of her sister queen across the Channel.

Each is given an equal voice via a technique that I typically find annoying and distracting – alternating chapters told in first person, but in Perinot’s hands, it is comfortable and workable. Notwithstanding their physical distance and despite their often tumultuous relationship, the sisters survive the rocky times and are finally reunited after 19 years of separation. From the author’s note, it seems clear that this détente was the beginning of a time of true unity between England and France – spearheaded by the sisters.

Marguerite and Eleanor are fully-fleshed out characters; they are products of their time and place, which Perinot establishes in fine form. I even have respect for – if not fully buy into – Perinot’s research about a full-blown romantic relationship between Marguerite and Jean de Joinville, the king’s seneschal. In the end, this is a fine debut, and I will look for Perinot’s next work.