It seems - if the reviews on both her novels are a guide - that Brandy Purdy's work tends to provoke strong reactions; readers either really like or hate them, there are few who are indifferent. I'm on the whole in the first camp. When I first read this novel, I was so completely immersed in it that had I reviewed it immediately upon finishing, I would have given it five stars. However, on reflection, there were a number of issues with it that nagged at me, and which prevent me from giving it that extra star.
Purdy's Gaveston writes an account of his life, at a time when everything has turned to complete disaster. It is an interesting exercise - it is a consciously self-serving point of view, and I read the character's perspective on past events as being coloured by more recent ones. The way it is written certainly forced me to think: do I trust this character's account, or is there more to it?
What I liked:
Purdy is very good at vivid descriptions and there were passages I reread several times out of sheer enjoyment of her prose. Scenes that have stuck with me include the depiction of the teenage Prince and companion as they slowly fall for each other, and the love scene after Edward's disastrous coronation. Equally refreshing is the depiction of Gaveston showing genuine affection and kindness to his young wife, Margaret de Clare, and his two daughters. There are some flashes of the snarky wit for which the real Gaveston was famous (though I'd have liked to have seen more of it). There is also an extraordinarily powerful passage where Gaveston describes his desperation to be loved for the man he is, not for his looks or other superficial reasons, and how he feels trapped into playing a role of his own making.
Although I have some reservations about it, I found the portrayal of Gaveston as a victim of childhood abuse (and how that influences his behaviour as a man) in the main quite poignant, and his perspective and narration frequently engaging. It is a seductive read, and one which I found difficult to put down. The inevitable denouement is incredibly moving. Purdy certainly doesn't hold back in detailing the more sordid or unpalatable aspects of human behaviour - while I wouldn't describe the novel as overly graphic, there are certainly incidents that some readers might find confronting.
What bothered me:
While I don't pretend to exhaustive knowledge on this period, and I accept that not as much is known about Gaveston as later historical figures, the notion of Rent Boy!Gaveston did not sit all that well; I certainly felt his over-the-top promiscuity was emphasised to a repetitive extreme (at one stage I found myself thinking, "He sleeps around. I GET IT!") and the suggestion that his promiscuity and/or bisexuality was `caused' by his childhood abuse seemed a bit troubling.
If I recall correctly, Gaveston's family was of the Gascon nobility, so the likelihood of him having to endure a poverty-stricken, itinerant childhood (including at one point being dumped with an unscrupulous innkeeper uncle who is the first to sell him into prostitution) seems remote at best. While this premise kind of worked in the context of the story, some effort was required in suspending disbelief. I would have liked to have seen much more about his prowess as a jouster and soldier, something for which the real Gaveston is remembered - we are told about this, but never really shown it.
There is also an element of cliché in the portrayals particularly of the adult Edward II as well as Gaveston - they come across as rather too camp at times (Gaveston "simpers" at Isabella, or flirts outrageously with his male enemies, for example), and the characterisations are often unsubtle. Edward was an ineffectual king, yes, but I would have liked to see more depth to him than the shallow, possessive, spoilt brat ruled by his you-know-what depicted here. He does not emerge as a very sympathetic character, which is fine, provided he is given some complexity, and that unfortunately is not really the case here. Their relationship most of the time appears, to use a modern buzz-word, incredibly dysfunctional, with the long-suffering Piers enduring rather than welcoming Edward's advances, and at time borders on abusive. Perhaps that is a deliberate choice, to show how Gaveston's perspective has become jaundiced now that he is facing ruin and probable death. On the other hand, and perhaps I'm just a closet romantic, I would have preferred an account where Edward and Gaveston are portrayed as two men of their time who just happen to love each other. (Also - Edward inviting Piers to call him "Nedikins"? Seriously?)
Also, the depiction of Gaveston as a Goddess-worshipping pagan seemedunnecessary (as well as having no foundation in fact) and added little if anything to the plot. I also didn't find the fictional character of his loyal old nurse Agnes all that engaging and Dragon was just, well, _there_. They really didn't add a great deal to the narrative.
I would have appreciated an Author's Note at the end, setting out why she chose to write Gaveston and Edward this way, any liberties taken, and what sources she used for her research. For example, the burning of his mother Claramonde is a complete myth, and while it was important to the storyline, this sort of thing should be drawn to the reader's attention. Further, I'm always interested in the rationale behind an author's writing choices and suggestions for further reading. Also, maps would have been really useful, to get a mental picture of where the protagonists were at particular times.
Notwithstanding its flaws - and no novel is perfect - this is a great effort from a first time author. For a novel dealing with some extraordinary events and people, it is remarkably short (only 181 pages), and I felt that some more detail, and more work on characterisation would have made it even better. It won't appeal to everyone, but it's worth giving it a try. It got me tracking down other novels and non-fiction about Edward II, so that can only be a good thing! (On a superficial note - I'm glad to see it finally has a decent cover, too.)