Everyone knows the story of Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who put Charles VII on the throne and spearheaded France's victory over Britain before being burned by the English as a heretic and witch.
But things are not always as they appear.
Jeanne d'Arc was only five when three angels and saints first came to her. Shrouded by a halo of heavenly light, she believed their claim to be holy. The Archangel Michael and Saint Margaret told her she was the foretold Warrior Maid of Lorraine, fated to free France and put a king upon his throne.
Saint Catherine made her promise to obey their commands and embrace her destiny; the three saints would guide her every step. Jeanne bound herself to these creatures without knowing what she'd done. As she got older, Jeanne grew to mistrust and fear the voices, and they didn't hesitate to punish her cruelly for disobedience. She quickly learned that their cherished prophecy was more important than the girl expected to make it come true.
Jeanne is only a shepherd's daughter, not the Warrior Maid of the prophecy, but she is stubborn and rebellious, and finds ways to avoid doing - and being - what these creatures want. Resistance has a terrifying price, but Jeanne is determined to fight for the life she wants.
But when the cost grows too high, Jeanne will risk everything to save her brother, her one true friend and the man she loves.
Not everyone is destined to be a hero. Sometimes you have no choice.
- 1 To Be Read list
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books UK
Tropes: Reluctant Hero, Sword of Destiny
Word Count: 109000
Languages Available: English
The first time that I heard this Voice, I was very much frightened.—Jeanne d’Arc
Before the creatures who claimed to be angels spoke to me, I’d thought their visit was a sign of God’s favour, but I was only a little more than five. I was still innocent and believed all my grand-mère’s stories were true.
Mama had sent me out to collect twigs and small branches for the fire, a task even a child my age could do easily. Two of Papa’s older black-and-white herd dogs guarded me, their ears up listening to every sound and bright blue eyes watching the trees. Anytime I took more than a few steps towards the dryad’s grove, they herded me onto the path again. The box mounted on my small sledge was nearly full when I started back to the house.READ MORE
A thin crust of snow crunched underfoot as I trudged towards home, . Getting the sledge over those patches without spilling all the wood I’d collected was hard. Once, the box did tip too far, and I was near tears before I got the sledge righted and the wood back inside. The dogs stayed close, nervous and watchful as the sun dipped low, and twilight made the tree shadows creep over the path. I hurried as quick as I could, knowing Mama would worry if I was gone much longer and send my oldest brother, Henri, to find me.
The curve in the path ahead meant I didn’t have far to go. I whispered a prayer of thanks to Holy Mary, just as Grand-mère Marie had taught me, and pulled my shawl tighter. As the sun set, the wind picked up and the air got colder. I kept going, too stubborn to abandon the sledge and send my older brothers out to bring it the rest of the way, or leave the task half-done. Mama would fuss and rub warmth back into my fingers once I got inside the house, but Papa would be proud I’d finished what I started.
Both dogs growled as we neared the curve, the sound fierce and menacing, and the biggest dog, Luc, herded me back a few steps. Remi, the smaller dog, stood in front of us, seeming to bark at air. A great light bloomed in the middle of the path, bright as the midday summer sun, blinding me and filling my eyes with tears. The dogs whimpered once and were silent. When I could see again, Papa’s dogs were sprawled on the ground, still and unmoving. I wasn’t sure Luc was breathing, or Remi, and that frightened me.
Three blazing lights stood in front of me, each one vaguely man-shaped and all of them taller than my father. All I could think of were Grand-mère’s stories of angels. Picturing graceful white wings rising up and behind the creatures confronting me was easy. The light was brightest where their faces should be, but some of the stories I’d heard said angels’ faces were too beautiful and terrible to look upon. I couldn’t imagine another reason why angels would hide their faces – but I’d never thought one of God’s messengers would come to me.
I dropped to my knees near Luc, trembling with more than cold, and waited for them to speak.
‘Jeanne d’Arc, God has chosen you to free France and win a king his crown!’ His voice rang with thunder and raging winds, scaring me more. ‘You have a great destiny to fulfil as the Maid of Lorraine. You will lead a mighty army and drive the English out of France forever!’
Little girls didn’t lead armies. I’d listened to enough of the old men’s stories they told on market days to know that armies were led by kings and dukes, not peasant girls. Confused, and wondering why an angel would lie, I stared at his light and didn’t say anything.
The light at his right hand spoke next, her voice full of ice and the return of winter. ‘You’ve been chosen for a great task, but take heart, the prophecy says you won’t battle France’s foes alone! Pledge to obey us, Jeanne, and Saint Michael will teach you to fight and be a fearsome warrior. You need to be ready when the Maid’s sword comes to you.’
‘Fate has chosen you to be the Maid, Jeanne d’Arc!’ The third voice was full of pealing bells, but I thought she sounded a little sad. ‘You’ve no choice but to embrace your destiny. The sword will remain hidden until the glorious day you travel with the Dauphin. Do your duty for France and give Blessed Catherine your pledge to obey.’
Papa’s voice came from further down the path, shattering the need to answer without asking questions or taking the time to think. I scrambled away from the angels on hands and knees, closer to the sledge and the dogs. An icy wind ruffled their fur, but Luc and Remi still hadn’t moved.
Tears slipped down my face as I thought of telling Papa how his dogs had died. He wouldn’t believe an angel had struck them dead.
‘No,’ I whispered. ‘My grand-mère says I always have a choice between right and wrong, and I don’t know which this is. I won’t promise until I talk to her.’
Saint Michael grew taller and the thunder in his voice grew deeper, louder. ‘Remind Marie of the promise she made to us and think hard about making the same pledge. You can’t escape your destiny, Jeanne d’Arc. You are the Maid.’
Their light flared, blinding me again, and the three angels were gone. I buried my face in Luc’s fur, horrified at how cold and still he was, and cried.
Papa scooped me up an instant later, holding me tight and safe even if his hands shook. ‘Shhhhh, little one, don’t cry. I’ve got you now, Jeanne. I’ve got you.’
My second-oldest brother, Pierre, bent over the smaller dog, running his hands over Remi’s side and face. He wiped a hand over his eyes before looking at our father and shaking his head.
‘Let’s get you home, little bird.’ Papa pulled his heavy cloak around me and kissed my forehead. ‘Your mother and Grand-mère will be anxious to see you. Pierre, carry the lantern for me. Henri and I will come back for the sledge later.’
Pierre walked a few steps ahead, lighting the way. Our father carried me home in silence, the crunch of his boots on the ice-crusted snow the loudest sound to break the quiet.
My mother and Grand-mère made up for Papa’s silence when he brought me inside. Mama cried, ran her hands over my arms and legs, and asked if I was all right over and over again. Grand-mère prayed and loudly thanked God for bringing me home safe. Pierre sat at the long family table, watching me silently.
Papa said a quiet word to Mama, touched her face and went out the door with Henri. He’d said they’d bring the sledge back, but I knew he’d bring his dogs back too. My father wouldn’t leave them for the scavengers or let them go unburied.
My mother stopped crying not long after they left and set me on a bench near the fire to get warm. Pierre sat with me, rubbing warmth back into my fingers the way Mama always did. By the time Papa and Henri came inside again, my mother and Grand-mère were nearly finished putting supper on the table. No one said much while we ate. After the dishes were washed, we went to bed early.
No one asked me what had happened or how the dogs died. That confused me until I heard Papa whisper to Mama in the dark loft, repeating stories about the Fae being pushed south by the war and what ill luck it was that I was in the wrong place when they’d passed our village. His next words were full of gratitude that the Fae had only taken the dogs. Grand-mère snored softly in the bed we shared near the hearth, at peace, her faith that God had brought me home safe unshaken.
I couldn’t find the courage to tell my parents the truth, or the will to wake Grand-mère Marie to ask if she’d promised to obey three creatures claiming to be sainted angels.
Not while three lights glimmered in the corner near the door, watching.
I have a confession to make; I’ve always hated the mealy-mouthed Joan of Arc of legend, the Maid of Orleans who was driven by angelic voices to lead armies with the aim of putting Charles Vll on the throne of France. I have even secretly thought that she might have deserved being burnt at the stake for being too saintly… This Jeanne, however, is wonderful, a richly drawn woman who is capable of fierce love, of deep friendships, of railing against her fate for as long as possible, until it threatens the lives of those she loves. And her voices! Oh wow – no longer saints, but something akin to the Celtic fae, old and strong and unstoppable, with an unknowable but guaranteed unholy purpose. We follow Jeanne in her struggle against these terrible and terrifying companions from early childhood, each small rebellion bringing punishment, forcing her to take the next step along that preordained path, but building a greater resolve to rebel each time.
This story follows the history as I learned it at school, but with a deep dark undercurrent of evil. It brilliantly takes us along Jeanne’s journey and her fight for the good, to keep those she loves safe, at a terrible personal cost. It goes beyond Charles’s coronation to a new, unguessed-at, but tremendously satisfying ending to the story. I keep wanting to describe it as historical fantasy rather than historical fiction, but the fantasy element is all in Jeanne’s head, and is just as good an explanation for Joan’s actions as the angelic one. I think this is the best book I’ve read all year; the Kindle version comes out in 2020, the paperback in 2021, and I thoroughly recommend it.