Don't read this if you want a detailed bio of the Maid of Orleans life. Do read it if you want a clear, well written account of her life and actions within the context of the late Hundred Years War.
Unless you are a student of the late medieval period (and perhaps even if you are) the time between Agincourt in 1415 and the collapse of English rule in France in the 1450's can be a complex and confused. What Castor has done has been to provide a clear explanation of what the war was about, how it had divided France and then give a clear focus on the main players highlighting the political as well as military pressures each was under. Only then is Joan introduced and her actions presented. This enables the non-specialist reader to better comprehend how she was able to have such great military and psychological impact on the French and then why they then gave her such half-hearted support once she was arrested, put on trial and finally executed by the English. Joan's intervention – divine or not – did provide impetus at the crucial time for France's Charles VII which eventually led to pushing the English back to the Pale of Calais.
Castor does not enter the debate as to who exactly Joan's voices were or whether Joan was saintly or not. What she does is lay out the available historical evidence to reveal a troubled personality, but one in many ways firmly planted in the real world. Her voices told her to don male attire but as she later explains, this wearing of men's clothes was an attempt to ward off male advances, even although she must have known her persistence in doing so and admitting to it was condemning herself in the eyes of a Catholic Church inquisitors who saw such behaviour as heresy.
Castor's book (as one might expect given her earlier work) makes clear the role played by strong women in events. Not just Joan, but also Yolande of Aragon, protectress of Charles VII and early and strong supporter of Joan when others had doubts, suggesting a key role in orchestrating Joan's appearance on the scene.
If there is a problem with this book it is the paradox that in making its greatest strength the focus on context rather than on Joan herself it sadly underplays the degree of attention given to Joan's cultural and theological legacy. An epilogue (four pages) attempts to draw attention to this but I would have liked to read more about how her beatification played out as well as the way writers as diverse as Schiller and Shaw placed her in their dramas. Nonetheless Castor has provided a very readable introduction to not just Joan of Arc but also the Hundred Years War. One of the comments on the cover stated the book was amongst "......the best of popular history". Can't argue with that.