Simone van der Vlugt, Red Snow in December (2012)

I didn’t know the first thing about Simone van der Vlugt or about this book when I found this secondhand copy at our local bookstore. Little did I know that she’s a bestseller writer in the Netherlands, both for kids and adults. It was a totally serendipitous discovery, and given that other historical novels of hers have been recently translated into French, I believe it’s not the last time I read a book by Simone van der Vlugt!

I wanted a historical romance and I got a lot more than what I had bargained for! There are some romance elements but it’s not the main point of this historical novel set in the Netherlands (Leiden) from 1550 to 1570. Let’s just say that 16C history is not my forte, in France or anywhere. The name of “80 years war” was utterly unknown to me, even if my hometown is close to Belgium and just a few hours’ drive from the Netherlands. In short, that period was marked by incessant bloody wars in the name of religion all across Europe. (By the way, that’s one more topic where a French-centered history class hardly makes any sense).

The book centers on the Spanish (Catholic) bloody attacks against the Dutch (Protestant) territories that they owned. The Southern towns (Flemish, now Belgian) were beaten into submission and returned by force into the Catholic (Spanish) fold, whereas the Northern towns (Dutch, now Holland) remained Protestant thanks to William of Orange, and later gained their independence. The book has two story lines: the perspective of an upper middle class family, and the perspective of William of Orange himself.

This structure has the advantage of being extremely didactic: we have the macro view of the prince, and the micro daily events of the people. It made this complex period of European history quite easy to understand and to relate to, albeit with a strong patriotic Dutch slant.

The book starts off with a rather expected love story but the middle of the book takes an unexpected turn with rather graphic events that are not for the faint of hearts! The author goes through a lot of events that span over a few decades, and so she’s doing a lot of “telling” instead of “showing”. It annoyed me at times but as it is an easy read with strong characters and lots of events, I didn’t hold it against the author.

I feel that I have learnt a lot while being entertained by a fast paced novel. I would have enjoyed it even more if there had been a postface with a more nuanced historical perspective, but I’d still recommend it for people who love historical novels.

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