09 September 2010

The White Queen/Red Queen (Philippa Gregory)

Available at all good bookstores and on the Amazon Kindle.

Philippa Gregory’s latest two pieces of historical heaven are so tightly (incestuously, in true Tudor fashion?) intertwined as to warrant simultaneous review. So here it is…

First, The White Queen – Book I in the series Gregory calls The Cousins’ War (the original name for the War of the Roses, which pitted Lancaster against York).

Elizabeth Woodville, a young Lancastrian widow of exceptional beauty and ambition, catches the eye of the handsome, virile and newly crowned king – and marries him in secret. She is The White Queen; the York queen. But, rising to the demands of her position, Elizabeth is forced to fight, sacrifice and bewitch for the sake of her family. And, as the intrigue unfolds, her two sons – ‘the missing princes in the Tower’ – become central figures in a mystery that has confounded historians for centuries.

(Incidentally, for the historians among us, Elizabeth is indeed mother to a royal dynasty, just as her father and mother hoped she would be. She is mother of Henry VIII and her granddaughter is England's greatest queen – Elizabeth I.)

Then, there’s Elizabeth’s arch-enemy, The Red Queen, who makes a tantalising appearance as a shrewish matriarch in Book I, but earns a novel to herself in Book II.

Margaret Beaufort grows from a pious nine-year-old who wants to be Joan of Arc into a conspiring courtier who stops at nothing to see her son on England's throne. The opposite of her alluring rival, plain Lancastrian heiress Margaret Beaufort weds warrior Edmund Tudor at age 12 and pours her ambition into his only son, Henry.

While England seethes with discord during the turbulent War of the Roses, Margaret transforms from powerless innocent into political mastermind – so that rival heirs to England's throne are killed in battle, executed or deliberately eliminated.

And now, onto the actual review…

What I have always loved about Gregory’s books is their overlaps: the fact that the evil one-dimensional bitch from one book is sometimes the ditzy heroine of another. And because The Red Queen and The White Queen cover roughly the same period from different perspectives, the reader really gets a voyeuristic sense of insight; of peeking through a dusty keyhole into a secret room in which dark things happen.

So, a thumbs-up from me. However

Gregory is veering away from the sexy and intricate historical fiction – and here I emphasise ‘fiction’ - that she championed in A Respectable Trade, The Queen’s Fool and The Other Boleyn Girl, and towards a more accurate, sensical historical fiction – and here I emphasise ‘historical’. I like it better when she makes stuff up.

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