The Book Club: “The Raven’s Heart”


The Raven’s Heart is a beast of a book at over 450 pages, and I had never even heard of it before it was nominated for a Lambda, which caused me to research it for April’s book club. But man, am I glad you all voted for it last month.

While I typically don’t jump at stories about royal European history based in the 1500s, this tale quickly swept me up in its soap opera-like twists and turns, its betrayals and loyalties and passions. With so many dramatic storylines ever building on top of one another, in fact, it could’ve been easy to grow muddled and tiring halfway through. And while I think a few of you did feel that way, what was perhaps most surprising to me of all was the strength of Jesse Blackadder’s writing, smart and solid at the same time that it was poetic, and which pulled me the whole way through.

Warning for those who haven’t read: major spoilers ahead!

1. Let’s talk about the Lambda nomination. Do you think The Raven’s Heart was lesbian enough?

A theme of the Best Lesbian Fiction category of the Lambdas recently has been books that only include lesbianism as part of secondary storylines, with many other plots, straight or otherwise, competing for the main purpose of the book. In one way, this can be seen as progressive; one’s queerness doesn’t have to dominate as the main “issue” of a novel anymore. In another way, if the award is called “Best Lesbian Fiction,” it should probably hold a lot of lesbian action, y’know? In this regard, I feel that The Last Nude, also nominated, is the strongest tale this year. The Raven’s Heart certainly does include a healthy dose of lady love, but the middle chunk of the novel also has our protagonist repeatedly banging a man. (Curse you, Bothwell!) This also makes me curious as to why it was included in the lesbian fiction category as opposed to the bisexual one, not that I am particularly mad about it either way.

In any case, by the end of The Raven’s Heart, I did feel that it was one of the best and queerest novels I’ve read in a long time, Bothwell be damned, and I feel a lot of that has to do with the cross dressing. The blurring of gender lines in historical novels, during times when gender roles were even more pronounced than they are now, is so fascinating. It’s like the very rigidness of gender in society made people — particularly people in privilege — even more reckless to defy it. While both the Queen’s and Bothwell’s fascination with our protagonist while she was disguised as either Alison or Robert was a matter all its own, a type of perverse fantasy, Alison/Robert and Isobel actually wanting to pass as men, not for a joke or a thrill but for comfort and safety, was one of my favorite parts of the book.

2. Just how much DO we love Isobel?

I vote we love her THIS MUCH! While I thought I would never get over Angi’s unjust and heartbreaking demise, and while I wanted to slap Isobel when we first met her, haughty and obnoxious at the Blackadder Castle, by the end I wanted Alison to take her red ringlets in her fists and never, ever let them go. And I like to think that’s what happened, as they sailed into the winds of their new lives.

3. So, the Queen. Sigh.

At the very beginning, I was as entranced with Queen Mary of Scots as Alison was, or perhaps I was entranced by Alison’s own infatuation. But Angi’s death was a dark mark for me, and I could never trust her moving forward, as she spiraled deeper and deeper into the messes of the kingdom. I keep thinking of the moment when Alison sees it all clearly, too, with the marriage to the King, how she knows that he will bring her downfall and Scotland will end up in ruins. Yet still, she stays loyal to both the Queen and her father’s own deranged dreams which have become her own. Those who love Alison more than she loves herself literally have to rip her away from the fallen Queen at the conclusion, following true to the Blackadder credo of following through to the very end.

There are points, of course, where the Queen’s tenacity, her cunning, her desire to survive even after all manner of illness and plots and scandals to badass degrees, makes me admire her. But mainly, Alison’s tortured loyalty is frustrating to watch, especially with Angi and then Isobel and Sophie at her side. You just feel all along that Alison is smarter than all this, deserving of more things than being held so tightly by one powerful woman.

Yet at the same time, we’ve all been impossibly drawn to women who aren’t good enough for us, who we will defend even when they’re awful, for the simple, crushing reason of love. Now picture that person being the freaking Queen, who is pretty much the entire country’s #1 fandom back then, and I guess I have to cut the girl some slack.

What other thoughts do you have about the novel? What were your favorite parts? Least favorite? Lingering questions? And when can we all take a field trip to Scotland?

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