'The Girl King' is a historical fiction novel by newly debuted author and journalist, Meg Clothier. This is another library rental which I picked up due to a positive review on the blog 'Medieval Bookworm'. Set in 12th century Georgia, its setting is different and very refreshing from the swathes of English historical fiction based in the same period. So I put it at the top of my 'To Read' list and dove into 'The Girl King' with high expectations!
Tamar is the rebellious, tomboyish princess of Georgia, a kingdom fraught with rebellion and unrest from enemies inside and out. Coming towards the end of his life, the indomitable King Giorgi decides that his daughter will become the next heir of the throne- the first queen of Georgia.
However Tamar's ascension to the throne isn't easy. The court elders don't really want a girl ruler, especially given her father's tyrannical reputation. It seems the only way she can establish loyalty and avoid conflict among them is to marry an approved noble of their choice. Yet Tamar has fallen for Soslani, a mountain noble whom she met when sent away from the palace during a rebellion against her father. Among all this strife, will Tamar choose a man for her country or for herself?
Georgia isn't a country I'm familiar with- all I really know is that's it's close to Russia and was formerly part of the Soviet Union, but I could tell you nothing about its early history. However, Tamar of Georgia is a real historical figure there and I think this book really brings her to life as a formidable character and one whose rise to power was not an easy task. In 'The Girl King' Tamar not only has to deal with dissent for being a female ruler over men, but also for being in the shadow of her father, whose approach to ruling has a strong influence on his daughter. Several people want to take advantage of her situation behind the scenes, yet Tamar manages to persevere over her obstacles and as a reader I was rooting for her to hold her own. Her character also matures from an idolizing daughter to a determined queen in her own right.
As a place that is probably unfamiliar to some, Meg Clothier does an excellent job of immersing us in Georgia's history. It's a country that is surrounded by various nations, including the friendly and powerful Byzantium (of whose family Tamar's sister marries into), the hostile Seljurks and the 'Rus' to the north, all of which are distinguished culturally in the novel. We get a clear impression that Georgia is a kingdom in uncertainty with several designs on it from certain neighbours; hence it is one of the clear problems Tamar has to resolve upon becoming queen.
The other characters are also very well-developed and rounded as they all try to serve either their own interests or their queen's. The other main lead is Tamar's love interest, Soslani (nicknamed Sos) and like Tamar he is a frustrated character with expectations from his father that put him at odds with the queen's ambitions. He eventually matures to become a reputable character in his own right, and throughout the story I could connect with him well. Sos's relationship with Tamar is realistic for the most part, especially when you almost think it will end badly at some points, but I do think that perhaps their first times together in the mountains could have been elaborated a bit more by the author, as it seems to jump to a friendship a bit too fast for me.
The only other drawback is that Meg Clothier's descriptions sometimes veer into purple prose territory, especially with weather or time changes. For example: 'The grass turned a pale-green brown, notched with little dust tracks as if a giant had idly scratched his fingernails on the ground as he passed on his way north.' Some readers might like this kind of vivid narrative, but I personally just found it a bit over-the-top. This is the only real drawback of Clothier's writing style, which is otherwise engaging throughout.
If you'd like to try some historical fiction not set in the usual places then I highly recommend 'The Girl King' and see how Georgian history fares for you. It is an enjoyable book about a historical figure that I might never have learned about otherwise, while balancing action, romance and intrigue for a great read.
(Review also on Ciao under the username Anti_W.)