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HFC Editorial Review for "Lotharingia: Charlemagne's Heir" by Lara Byrne - "Highly Recommended"

A sweeping medieval drama - Star-crossed love, power, prophecies, and Machiavellian intrigue at the dawn of the second millennium. Barely known in the English-speaking world, Countess Matilde of Tuscany was a trailblazer who defied the gender expectations of her age to become the most powerful woman in the Holy Roman Empire. Lotharingia weaves history and story-telling to recreate the conflicts that shaped her youth, as she grappled with the constraints of femininity in her quest for self-definition, power, and love. This thoroughly researched novel brings to life the fascinating historical personalities that shaped European politics at the time of the Investiture Controversy. 1062. After the untimely deaths of her father and brother, Countess Matilde is the sole heir to Tuscany, but she is a woman. Despite being a descendant of Charlemagne, and a trained warrior, the rules of the game are clear. She should marry, letting her future husband rule on her behalf. Even her formidable mother's mysterious relics and diplomatic nous cannot change Rome’s mind about her betrothal to the duke of Lotharingia, a man who fills her with dread. Determined to choose her path in life, Matilde enlists the support of powerful players, leaving no stone unturned to secure her freedom to love and rule. Across the Alps, Matilde’s overlord, King Heinrich of Germany, is coming of age, in a court rife with intrigue. His request to divorce sends shock waves through Christendom, and Rome, alarmed at the potential political consequences, decides that Matilde's marriage can no longer wait. When, after a chance meeting, Heinrich rescues Matilde from her abusive husband, friendship blossoms into forbidden love, a love with unexpected consequences.

This is a book of historical fiction lover’s dreams or, at least, of my dreams. In truth, this book needs to be categorised in the historical literary section (if there was one) because of the sheer magnitude and outstanding development of the research done by Lara Byrne. There are so many adjectives to describe this book: rich, quality, immersive, captivating, enthralling, meaty, intriguing, educational, and more. As a fan of classic books such as Les Miserables, or War and Peace, or books from Edward Rutherford, or Margaret George, this is the next book for you, and the next author to follow.

From the captivating opening incident, the finding of lost holy relics, to the realization that Beatrice, the Margravine of Tuscany, through her political alliances and marriage, has secured the right for her daughter, Matilde, to succeed her father and rule as a margrave and count, thus spurring a vast web of Machiavellian intrigue, is portrayed to perfection in this book. Each and every character is developed in an astounding way and no one is left without a full embodiment, even Matilde’s maid is fleshed out in a way that you feel and hear her voice, and see her face.

This time period in history is so often portrayed with books about Eleanor of Acquataine, and the turbulent history of Henry II of England – but this one takes you on a journey to what was happening in Italy and Germany during the same intriguing era. I must admit, I knew very little about these people before reading this, and Ms Byrne does an excellent job of educating in a way that feels very authentic and flows with a skill worthy of classic storytellers. Ms Byrne is one to watch on the historical fiction scene!

When we are introduced to the characters of Matilde and Heinrich, the actual history of these two people is woven into a story befitting Shakespeare, himself – a tangle of two star-crossed lovers whose lives are mapped out at their birth and love is out of play when they are betrothed at an early age to people chosen for them. Matilde is married to a knave, a horribly selfish and brute man, the Duke of Lotharingia, as a means to quell and satisfy the underlying political current between Italy and Germany. Heinrich, the King of Germany and the future Holy Roman Emperor, is married to woman who cannot match him in intellectual and political skill. After Matilde’s husband brutally attacks her, she runs away and seeks asylum within the sheltering walls of Heinrich’s castle. There, the attraction is almost immediate, and you are reminded of a “Henry and Eleanor” type relationship, as they rush headlong into an affair they know might bring excommunication and all the political chess pieces falling to the floor.

What they don’t know is the secret that both Heinrich’s mother, Agnes (the Holy Roman Empress), and Matilde’s mother, Beatrice, know – and that is, about the holy relics (the Holy Spear, and Christ’s blood) and a prophecy spoken by Charlemagne about his heir-to-be. Both Heinrich and Matilde are from Charlemagne’s bloodline, and some see their illicit union as a threat, while others see it as fulfilling the prophecy. The problem? They are both married to people they hate. The solution? Because of their high standing, it appears to be a matter of manuevering to obtain a release through Pope Alexander since he is Matilde’s confessor and confidant (she is the daughter he never had); and Heinrich’s loyal assistant, Adalbert, the Archbishop of Bremen, will do anything to help his “son”.

As the two young people wind their way towards obtaining divorces, and falling madly and deeply in love, they are thwarted at every turn by Ildebrando de Soana, the man who engineered papal elections, and the one who orchestrated the couple’s marriages, all with his own agenda of control over the entire empire, as well as his lust for the holy relics belonging to them both.

Matilde emerges as a powerful young woman at a time when most women were viewed as chattel, as disposable pawns. Her character is bold, strong, believable, and Bryne develops her in a way that you are completely satisfied with her journey, even wanting more, as if you were following behind her like a shadow reliving the true history of Matilde’s life. Byrne notes in her author notes that very little is actually known about these people, the medieval records are scant, but her ability to tell this story makes you feel that you are reading the actual historical facts. This book goes beyond just mere storytelling, which is a hallmark to the author’s skill with words.

Matilde’s influence, leadership skills, and beauty nearly topples a kingdom, and puts her soul at risk according to the Church. Heinrich transforms from a foolish boy into a powerful King offering protection, vanquishing enemies, playing men like moving chess pieces across a board, and showing incredible love for a woman who is his equal in every respect.

Ultimately, tragedy strikes them both, and after discovering their part in the prophecy, they are left wondering if their relationship can survive and fulfil the foretelling.

Again, I cannot give enough praise for this book and I am eagerly awaiting the next in this series to continue following Matilde and Heinrich on their journey. This is a classic historical literary book that will be talked about for generations, a book worthy of praise for all lovers of rich, detailed historical stories. If a book could get ten stars, then this is one of them!


1 Comment

Malve von Hassell
Malve von Hassell
Aug 14, 2021

Great to see this book and to read this review. There are not so many books dealing with the German kings and Holy Roman Emperors, and yet there is a goldmine of stuff there for authors. I will have to check this out.

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