MLA Platinum Award Press Release

BookBrowse Reviews Joan of Arc by Helen Castor

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Joan of Arc

A History

by Helen Castor

Joan of Arc by Helen Castor X
Joan of Arc by Helen Castor
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2015, 352 pages
    May 2016, 368 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
Buy This Book

About this Book



In this non-fiction account, Helen Castor brings to life the political volatility of fifteenth-century France and the factors that contributed to Joan of Arc's remarkable role in history.

Most readers will be familiar with the story of Joan of Arc: An uneducated French peasant girl hears voices from God, convinces the Dauphin (the heir apparent to the French throne) that based on this holy mandate she can lead his armies to victory against the English and then does so, is captured by her enemies and burned at the stake as a heretic, and is canonized for her actions centuries later. While many biographies of this extraordinary woman have been written, Castor takes a unique approach. Rather than concentrating on the life of Joan of Arc, readers learn about the historical Joan the Maid (as she referred to herself and was known in her own time), focusing the narrative on the stage on which Joan's drama played out: a France not only at war with England but divided against itself.

Castor maintains that it's impossible to truly understand Joan's role without an awareness of the historical backdrop, and goes to great lengths to explain the complicated relationships that created the political crisis into which Joan emerged. The focus is French history from Agincourt in 1415 to the end of the Hundred Year's War in 1453, particularly on the divide between the Armagnacs – the group of French nobles who supported the Dauphin (who, with Joan's help, was crowned Charles VII of France) – and the Burgundians, who supported the English monarch Henry V's claim to the French throne. It is this divide which shaped the war before and after Joan's time, and the book's concentration is on the interplay between these two factions. Castor is able to summarize the complexities of this turbulent era succinctly, but with enough detail to be entertaining while still keeping those unfamiliar with this period of French history from getting bogged down.

Joan herself doesn't appear in the book until nearly 100 pages in, and her execution is a mere 100 pages after that; this isn't the saint's life story, and readers who are looking for a new biography about her may be disappointed. Aspects of Joan's life that I expected to find here - such as information about her youth or her interactions during her campaign - are barely mentioned; in fact, the narrative only covers the two years of her life between the time that she first approached the French court with her mission, and her death. The author instead chooses to concentrate on what appears in the historical record (missives dictated by Joan and transcripts from her trial, for example), spending very little narrative space on speculation. Nevertheless, because Joan's words were recorded and saved, in Castor's hands her voice comes across in a truly vibrant way that illuminates her personality as few others have managed.

Joan of Arc felt a little like two different books with conflicting goals – early chapters strictly about French history and infighting, then chapters about Joan the Maid and her remarkable success, and then returning to French history after Joan's death. Both narratives are exceptionally well written, and although I have very limited knowledge of the subjects, they kept me riveted. There did seem to be a bit of a disconnect though, or perhaps my own expectations of what the book would be about, weren't met. Joan ends up seeming more like a minor player in a far-reaching, epic drama, and I felt a little like I was duped into reading a history book rather than a biography. I don't regret having read it – the book is eye-opening, engaging, and overall, excellent non-fiction – but readers should go in expecting a detailed account of 15th-century French politics and not a complete profile of Joan of Arc.

The era was certainly an unstable and volatile time, and the story of Joan of Arc a remarkable one by any standards. Anyone interested in learning more about this period will want to read Joan of Arc: A History; Castor's outstanding ability to convey the important events and people that made up the political landscape make this one a winner.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2015, and has been updated for the July 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $12 for a year or $39 for 3 months
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Yolande of Aragon

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten.

Join Now!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Master Class
    Master Class
    by Christina Dalcher
    Christina Dalcher's Master Class shows America sleepwalking into a perfectionist eventuality not ...
  • Book Jacket: How to Pronounce Knife
    How to Pronounce Knife
    by Souvankham Thammavongsa
    Many examples of immigrant fiction dedicate a portion of their storytelling to exploring details of ...
  • Book Jacket: The Easy Part of Impossible
    The Easy Part of Impossible
    by Sarah Tomp
    Teenager Ria Williams is a skilled diver. She is on track to compete at the Olympic level, but ...
  • Book Jacket: Fire in Paradise
    Fire in Paradise
    by Alastair Gee , Dani Anguiano
    On November 8, 2018, a fire started in Northern California's Butte County after 50-70 mph winds ...

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Prisoner's Wife
    by Maggie Brookes

    Inspired by the true story of a courageous young woman who enters a Nazi POW camp to be with the man she loves.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Daughter of the Reich
    by Louise Fein

    A spellbinding story of impossible love set against the backdrop of the Nazi regime.
    Reader Reviews

Book Club Discussion
Book Jacket
The Paris Hours
by Alex George

One day in the City of Light. One night in search of lost time.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Win this book!
Win The House on Fripp Island

The House on Fripp Island
by Rebecca Kauffman

A taut, page-turning novel of secrets and strife.



Solve this clue:

B I T T Water

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.