Joan by Katherine Chen walks a tightrope that few historical novels manage to do successfully; it is a well-written historical novel yet does not overflow with historical minutiae. The titular Joan has indeed been written with liberties as to her characterization, but it all feels thoroughly believable and, in some ways, more plausible than the story we have all heard.
“There are no happy stories. Just stories that make you grateful you weren’t born somewhere else.”
Joan plays out chronologically, starting from her childhood in Domrémy which begins with a rock fight between the children of her town and a neighboring village. She is a curious and adventurous child, who is viewed as a bit of an outcast. Joan often confides in her ne’er-do-well uncle, Durand Luxart, who is one of the few people that offer Joan true sympathy in her youth; yet, he is often away from the village and is rarely ever there to protect Joan from the ire of her father. Joan’s father Jacques d’Arc is a swindler who hates Joan and often strikes her. He is a man who we as readers are poised to hate; yet even he has some interesting characterizations that are brought to light later in the book. The story ultimately follows Joan’s rise to power and prominence as well as her eventual downfall.
“If I am to scream, let it be in battle. There is no chance for peace, except at the point of a sword”
We, or at least I, gravitate towards grimdark for its propensity to paint the world as it is, not through the lens of escapism that traditional novels aspire toward. This is exactly why Joan by Katherine Chen is so excellent. It tells the story of a tragic hero who challenges all odds to create a better world, only for her life to be cut tragically short. We all know the story of Joan d’Arc, the great commander who rose to prominence and led an army at the behest of religious visions, but knowing her end makes the story all the more devastating. Yet, the ending of Joan is perhaps not what one would expect.
“Once you lift a sword, it is hard to put down again.”
Joan is a character-driven novel that retells a well-known story in a fresh and interesting way. Although the pacing does lull at times, this book is a fantastic and dark historical novel that I highly recommend for anyone who is not disturbed reading a story containing abuse, rape, and harm caused to animals. I give Joan a very strong 4 out of 5 stars.