Thursday, May 30, 2024

Editorial Book Review: Return to the Eyrie by Katerina Dunne

*Editorial Book Review*

Return to the Eyrie

by Katerina Dunne

Honour, revenge, and the quest for justice.

Belgrade, Kingdom of Hungary, 1470

Raised in exile, adolescent noblewoman Margit Szilágyi dreams of returning to her homeland of Transylvania to avenge her father's murder and reclaim her stolen legacy. To achieve this, she must break the constraints of her gender and social status and secretly train in combat. When the king offers her a chance at justice, she seizes it - even if it means disguising herself as a man to infiltrate the vultures' nest that now occupies her ancestral 'eyrie'. Plagued by childhood trauma and torn between two passionate loves, Margit faces brutal battles, her murderous kin's traps and inner demons on her quest for vengeance. Only by confronting the past can she reclaim her honour - if she can survive long enough to see it through. Return to the Eyrie is an epic coming-of-age tale of a young woman's unwavering pursuit of justice and destiny in 15th century Hungary.

“You may be a girl, yet you're a lot like your lord father: brave and righteous, but also impetuous and stubborn like a mule. He was always ready to fight.

Young Margit is raised by Erzsi, and looked after by Imre – her father's appointed guardians – following her father's murder. As she grows up, a strong sense of unfairness at her situation gnaws at her insides. She hates always having to hide her true identity as distant relative to the Hungarian king and the daughter of a powerful lord, falsely accused of treason. She knows her aunt, Anna, and cousin, Márton were somehow involved in her father's murder, and have since taken over Sasfészek, her family castle perched into the mountains like an eagle's nest – the eyrie.

Disappointed that she wasn't born a boy, nonetheless, Margit learns to fight, at first with wooden swords, and later, as she grows into a young woman, with real weapons. Loving nothing more than the excitement of her training, dressed in boys’ clothes, she often finds herself at odds with her guardians.

Margit grows into a headstrong young woman, and as her thirst for revenge grows, she knows she can no longer sit idly by, whilst her relatives occupy her rightful home. Aware she must also clear her father's name, she enlists the help of Imre, by then her father-in-law, in an appeal to King Mátyás, but things go awry, and Margit finds herself tasked with proving her father's innocence before the king can consider her request.

So first, she must do battle.

Will Margit succeed in regaining her inheritance? And will she get her revenge? Well, read the novel to find out!

Return to the Eyrie is a tumultuous ride through late medieval Hungary. Attacked by the Ottomans from the south and east, uncertain of the loyalty of allied kingdoms, King Mátyás has his hands full. The Kingdom of Hungary was vast, reaching from the Polish border to modern-day Belgrade, Serbia. Tensions between the different ethnic groups added to the pressure of medieval Hungarian kings, so as this novel shows, there were plenty of battles, sieges, and skirmishes. And we always find Margit in the centre of the action!

Margit is a brave young woman whose attitude, daring, and outright defiance reminds me of Xena Warrior Princess. I visualised Margit in Xena's mould, and her various hot-headed exploits – some verging on suicidal – are testament to her wilful character. She is no mere medieval damsel. Margit regards herself as a warrior, just like her father was. Only, in the body of a woman...

At times, I wanted to shake some sense into her, just as her young husband Endre, his father – her guardian – Imre, and others likely would have liked to do. Stubborn to the point of doomed, Margit barges into dangerous situations, and more than once, she later realises the risks she took. Risks that also endangered the lives of her loyal friends.

But as soon as she sees sense and seems to calm, her thirst for revenge re-emerges, and she runs headlong into the next melée. This strong sense of revenge makes her determined, brave, and often-times, reckless. Her obvious lack of consideration of those around her has serious consequences, and she slowly realises, over time, that you can't walk over dead bodies of friends to get what you want. Her learning curve is yoyo-ing through the plot, and hers isn't an easy ride.

Margit's sheer determination hides a lack of self-confidence, and we occasionally see glimpses of a more sensitive, uncertain side, particularly when dealing with her husband, Endre, and Adnan, her best, heathen friend.

Both Endre and Adnan are loyal young boys-turned-men who support Margit no matter the consequences. Adnan's unrequited love weaves like a thread through the novel, and I find his sometimes puppy-like devotion moving. Of course, he knows he can never replace Endre, but he still accompanies her, especially when Endre is off fighting for the king, to ensure she is safe.

Young Endre is a more academic boy, keen on learning, whilst Margit sneaks out to train to fight. Finding himself in debt to the king for his father's actions on behalf of her, he joins the king's army in the frontier lands. Margit cares for him, considering him a good man, but not a hardened warrior. Her opinion of him changes through the story, but she is unprepared when he eventually reveals a secret...

Margit's cousin, Márton, is the main antagonist, and, somewhat unsurprisingly, his scheming, cruel nature seems to make her more determined to regain her homeland and free her people from his grasp. He is the archetypical baddie, and we want to see him punished. But he is well-protected.

The research that has gone into Return to the Eyrie is breathtaking. Ms Dunne shows in exquisite detail the rough world of medieval eastern Europe. It was fascinating to learn about the Hungarian kingdom, and the various threats. Her realistic sense of location brings to life the different landscapes that made up the Hungarian kingdom – from lush, fertile lands, to barren steppes, to steep, rocky hillsides.

As we follow Margit's journey across the kingdom, we see the ravages of wars and the randomness of attacks as the Ottomans and their allies try to gain hold of parts of Hungary. We see the harsh living conditions, the mistrust between the ethnic groups living there, but also the combined support for King Mátyás and his quest to banish the Ottomans from his realm. Oh, and we even catch a brief glimpse of the infamous Vlad!

But all through those dangerous adventures, we find steadfast loyalty, selfless friendship, and unconditional love. Margit's supporters have her back, regardless of whatever trouble she gets herself (and them) into, even when the consequences are almost deadly. Her right to take her father's place is undisputed, and together, they support her in her quest, although it sometimes means sacrifices.

Return of the Eyrie by Katerina Dunne is an utterly gripping novel. Fast-paced, with an engaging (and at times enraging!) heroine, strong secondary characters, a plot full of exciting twists and turns, and an exquisitely researched location, it leaves you on tenterhooks as you keep turning the pages to find out what trouble Margit is causing next. The intriguing blend of cleverly-plotted fiction set against the historic backdrop of Hungarian politics of the times make for a highly memorable reading experience. 

If you love historical adventures with an incredible female heroine, a high-quality narrative, fascinating location, and breathless action, you should read this novel.

I Highly Recommend.

Review by Cathie Dunn
The Coffee Pot Book Club

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Katerina Dunne

Katerina Dunne is the pen-name of Katerina Vavoulidou. Originally from Athens, Greece, Katerina has been living in Ireland since 1999. She has a degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Athens, an MA in Film Studies from University College Dublin and an MPhil in Medieval History from Trinity College Dublin. While she used to write short stories for family and friends in her teenage years, she only took up writing seriously in 2016-17, when she started work on her first novel.

Katerina’s day job is in financial services, but in her free time she enjoys reading historical fiction and watching historically-themed movies and TV series. She is passionate about history, especially medieval history, and her main area of interest is 13th to 15th century Hungary. Although the main characters of her stories are fictional, Katerina uses real events and personalities as part of her narrative in order to bring to life the fascinating history of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, a location and time period not so well-known to English-speaking readers.

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