#BookReview — Songbird by Karen Heenan
A Novel of the Tudor Court
By Karen Heenan
Bess has the voice of an angel, or so Henry VIII declares when he buys her from her father. As a member of the Music, the royal company of minstrels, Bess grows up within the decadent Tudor court, navigating the ever-changing tide of royals and courtiers. Friends come and go as cracked voices, politics, heartbreak, and death loom over even the lowliest of musicians. Tom, her first and dearest friend, is her only constant. But as Bess becomes too comfortable at court, she may find that constancy has its limits.
“Two days before my tenth birthday, my father sold me to the King of England.”
It was a great privilege, although as she watched her father walk away, Elizabeth “Bess” Davydd could not appreciate it. He had sold her. Her father had sold her to the King.
Growing up in a world dominated by music was a better alternative to the one Bess had been living, but still, it took some getting used to. If it had not been for Tom, Bess did not know what she would have done. From the moment thirteen-year-old Tom, a musician, had taken her hand in front of the court while her father so cruelly abandoned her, he had become Bess’ one constant.
As the two inseparable friends reached adulthood, Bess realised that everything about her life depended upon the whim of the King. There were rumours abound that the King no longer shared his Spanish Queen’s bed. What did this mean? No one knew. But, Bess had other things to concern herself with, for she had noticed how similar she was in looks to the King’s latest mistress’ sister, Anne Boleyn. And nobleman, Nick Hawkins, had caught Bess' eye.
From the squalid conditions of Southwick to the grandeur of the Field of Cloth of Gold and the intrigue and treachery of Henry VIII’s Tudor court during an unprecedented time in English History, Songbird by Karen Heenan is in all ways a Historical Fiction triumph.
I have read my fair share of books set in the Tudor period, but I have never read one from the perspective of the musicians that went wherever King Henry demanded them to go. And never has any book touched my heart as Songbird by Karen Heenan has. Songbird is one of those tremendously rare books that you may only ever stumble upon once in a lifetime. It is a totally bewitching story that enchanted me from the very first sentence, and even now, a day after I have read it, this book is all I can think about. It is an utterly enthralling story that is as beautiful as it is impressive. These characters, and their story, is hauntingly unforgettable.
The narrative is harmonically pleasing, the prose a sweet melody. Heenan has penned, or should I say composed, a story that is lyrically pleasing. It is an incredible success. Heenan has brought the court of Henry VIII gloriously back to life in all its splendour, and all its controversy.
Heenan demands every conceivable emotion from her readers. I laughed, I grimace, I felt embarrassment for young Bess, and at times...at times I found myself reaching for the Kleenex. Songbird is a bittersweet romance, a passionate affair. But above everything else, it is a story of unquenchable and undeniable love — and what a story it is.
Everything about Songbird is victorious, from the historical setting to the characters themselves. At the beginning of this story Bess is this musically-gifted sweet child who is overwhelmed by what she is seeing, where she is, and the fact that her father, of all people, has sold her to the King because she has a pretty voice. The moment Tom takes her hand, however, Bess feels this deep and almost ancient connection with him — as if two souls have found each other, although Bess is too young to understand such feelings. What she does know is that as long as Tom is with her, then she is safe. I absolutely adored Bess. She is a protagonist that you cannot help but love. We, lucky readers, watch this wonderful little girl grow up in the pages of this book. Heenan is candid in her depiction of Bess’ character, and everything that happens in Bess’ life is so incredibly believable. Heenan’s portrayal of Bess has such a sense of realism about it that it is tangible. It almost felt like a privilege reading about Bess’ life. Bess’ portrayal is brilliant. There is no other word for it. Absolutely brilliant.
Which leads me on to Tom. Dear, dear Tom, who is the most loving of children, the most caring of men. I believe Tom may have stolen a little piece of my heart while I was reading about him. He is the most wonderful hero that I have ever come across. Heenan has really outdone herself in Tom’s portrayal. There was nothing I did not love about him. Tom’s patience, his utter devotion makes him worthy. Tom is a character that feels very deeply. He loves completely, or not at all. I thought Tom’s depiction was fabulously executed. Bravo, Ms Heenan. Bravo, indeed.
There are, as you can imagine, many historical characters and events in this book. From Henry VIII, Queen Katherine, Princess Mary, Charles Brandon: The 1st Duke of Suffolk, Thomas Wolsey, and of course Anne Boleyn. Although these historical figures are, for the majority of this book, on the fringe of the story, they are however wonderfully depicted and rich in the telling. Heenan has managed to resurrect the dead back to life and make them breathe again. I mean, WOW! What an achievement. What a book!
Songbird is very luxurious in the historical detail. Heenan has certainly done her homework. She has captured the very essence of this era. Several historical events are depicted during this novel. In particular, I thought the portrayal of the Field of Cloth of Gold was particularly well-drawn. Heenan has captured the rivalry between Henry and Francis magnificently. Heenan seems to have an intuitive understanding of what makes history worth reading, and then she writes about it with such passion. It does not get any better than this.
There are many great Historical Fiction books based on the Tudor era, but Songbird by Karen Heenan is something not only extraordinary but also unique. I have never read a book like it. It is witty and inspired and so incredibly vivid. I loved every word, every sentence. It is a book that deserves to be read over and over again. Songbird is a vastly entertaining read and absolutely impossible to put down. It is tense, and it is powerful — a real treat.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club
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Karen Heenan was born and raised in Philadelphia. She fell in love with books and stories before she learned to read, and has wanted to write for nearly as long. After far too many years in a cubicle, she set herself free to follow her dreams – which include gardening, sewing, traveling and, of course, lots of writing. She lives in Lansdowne, PA, not far from Philadelphia, with four cats and a very patient husband.