Friday, November 25, 2016

The Snared Nightingale by Geoffrey Trease

Geoffrey Trease was the author of multiple historical novels for children, and growing up, we thoroughly enjoyed some of his books, like Seas of Morning (reviewed on Vintage Novels here) and Cue For Treason (on the other hand, his version of the Robin Hood myth, Bows Against the Barons, was incredibly depressing). When I discovered that Trease had also written a novel for adults, The Snared Nightingale, I was interested enough to get it off Open Library - but I'm sad to say I found it rather hard going.

Brought up in the lap of luxury and the cradle of Renaissance humanism in Urbino, Niccolo Bray is Italian in all but fact. In blood he is an Englishman, the offshoot of an obscure branch of a noble family; but when an English bishop appears to offer Niccolo the inheritance of an earldom on the Welsh Marches, Niccolo instantly smells a rat. Indeed, with the Wars of the Roses in a lull, King Edward IV fears that the earldom could be dangerous in the wrong hands, and is keen to give it to a supporter.

Installed in the grim old castle of Kyre, half a world away from the beloved scholarship and dalliances of the Urbino court, Niccolo wonders what he's got himself into - and that's before he begins to suspect that someone may be trying to kill him.

The writing in this book is great, and Trease does a really fine job of showing a very worldly and sophisticated young man coming to genuinely care about this place that seems so crude and savage to him. When I think of what I liked about it, I think of the vividly evoked world Trease has conjured up, the countryside, the weather, the buildings, and the clothes.

When I think of what I didn't like, I'm left with almost everything else.

As a story, the most obvious shortcoming is the plot, which doesn't begin to move visibly in any particular direction until the midpoint. The book seems uncertain whether it's about Niccolo's various romantic pursuits, or whether it's about the attempts of the rival heirs to supplant him. It finally finds a way to weave these two things together, but not until it's committed one of the most common plotting sins in existence: failed to convey any sense of immediate threat from an identifiable quarter in the whole first half of the story.

The meandering plot is not helped by the fact that Niccolo spends the whole first half of the book chasing a romantic false lead. This subplot was the main reason I didn't like the book, on ethical grounds as well as plotting, as the bored and unscrupulous Niccolo sets about trying to seduce the daughter of his seneschal. I found this whole plotline incredibly creepy and offputting, as Niccolo works, for instance, at accustoming the girl to his touch and maneuvering her into his room. It turns out that she is by no means as innocent as Niccolo thinks, but I felt that it was an author's saving throw to keep Niccolo sympathetic. Well, it didn't work. It was incredibly predatory, and the attempt to justify it only made it more so.

(Is it just me, or are the mores these days in many ways more conservative than those of the '50s and '60s? True, you'd never have something like 50 Shades of Grey back then, but at least these days our characters tend to be basically monogamous).

Finally, perhaps the biggest complaint I had with this story was its attitude toward medievalism. This somewhat surprised me, since Trease spent so much time writing about the medievals. On the other hand, perhaps Bows Against the Barons should have warned me. As we all know, I have perhaps too much of a love for medievalism, and it's been good for me to challenge that from time to time. Late medievalism did get into a mess, and I felt some of Trease's jabs were justified. But the Renaissance was hardly the age of love and light. Many of the negative things modern people associate with the middle ages - grotesque torture machines, blind superstition, witch hunts, and the fettering of scientific advance - were in actual fact Renaissance inventions. Meanwhile, the Greek and Roman classics, and learning as a discipline, were by no means lost during the middle ages. The Snared Nightingale, with its regular paeans to the supposed enlightened humanism of the Renaissance, lost no time at all in peeving me to the back teeth.

To conclude, I don't recommend this book. The plot is weak, the main character is sleazy, and I didn't agree with the theme. It's a shame, because I really enjoyed some of Trease's children's books, which did not have any of these problems. Stick with them, and keep away from The Snared Nightingale.

3 comments:

Joseph J said...

What are your top recommended books for aspiring writers? Christmas is coming...

Suzannah said...

Good question. I actually don't generally recommend a lot of writing books, thinking the best approach is simply to study great literature and do a lot of writing oneself, but here are some that I've found helpful:

1. WORDSMITHY by Douglas Wilson
2. THE RHETORIC COMPANION by ND Wilson
3. BRIGHTEST HEAVEN OF INVENTION: A CHRISTIAN GUIDE TO SIX SHAKESPEARE PLAYS by Peter Leithart
4. STORY by Robert McKee
5. CONFLICT AND SUSPENSE by James Scott Bell

Joseph J said...

Thanks, I'll send the list along to my secret Santa.

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