HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Queen of the North’ by Anne O’Brien

1399: England’s crown is under threat. King Richard II holds onto his power by an ever-weakening thread, with exiled Henry of Lancaster back to reclaim his place on the throne.

For Elizabeth Mortimer, there is only one rightful King – her eight-year-old nephew, Edmund. Only he can guarantee her fortunes, and protect her family’s rule over the precious Northern lands bordering Scotland.

But many, including Elizabeth’s husband, do not want another child-King. Elizabeth must hide her true ambitions in Court, and go against her husband’s wishes to help build a rebel army.

To question her loyalty to the King places Elizabeth in the shadow of the axe.

To concede would curdle her Plantagenet blood.

This is one woman’s quest to turn history on its head.

cover and blurb via amazon

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It’s 1399 and King Edward III’s descendant Elizabeth Mortimer is married to Henry Hotspur Percy, heir of the Earl of Northumberland. Richard II is king, and deposed by Henry Bolingbroke under dubious circumstances. Richard II had no heirs, but he did have someone ready to replace him until Henry IV takes his crown. That is where Elizabeth comes in.

Elizabeth expected her nephew Edmund Mortimer to take the throne, also a descendant of Edward III, a boy born of royal Plantagenet blood.  Elizabeth’s family has just as good a claim to the throne as the new Lancaster king. Whenever there are multiple claims to a throne, blood is certain to follow.

Elizabeth is not a man who can go into battle for the Mortimer claimant. She is not a beautiful young princess to be traded by families and launched into power. Elizabeth is a smart noble woman, who knows her family has a valid claim, who has given her husband the children he needs, and, to history, should be left on the sidelines. But Elizabeth is not a woman who should be cast aside in the battles of men and the throne, for she has the knowledge, skill and education to make a difference in the Mortimer claim to the crown.

 

All sides the early battles had legitimate claims to the throne, and we have a viewpoint in Elizabeth which is valid yet undemanding, unlike the men who surround her. Real life Elizabeth is not a well-known figure of history, so the author has had to use historical detail of others, and weave Elizabeth into the story, which gives new life to an old tale. Percy takes the Lancaster’s side of the war and Elizabeth is rich in the blood of the Mortimers, and nobler than her husband.  But what can a wife do in such challenges? Elizabeth is the wife of Percy, who holds the north. Whether it is from London or the Scots, the Percys have plenty of battles to face and Elizabeth is the northerners queen.
No sooner than choices are made, Elizabeth and Percy find they should be on the side of the Mortimer. Politics, treason and ambition are going to explode, and I am desperately trying not to write spoilers, but all I can say is you really need to read this book! Everyone knows what happened to Hotspur Percy at the Battle of Shrewsbury, part of a plot to overthrow Henry IV, but Elizabeth and her family’s claim carries on.  The Bolingbrokes and the Mortimers are going to need to be friends if civil wars for the throne are to end, and greed is as powerful as blood. This book has historical accuracy combined with beautiful storytelling. I adored this novel.
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HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The King’s Witch’ by Tracy Borman

As she helps to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth, Frances Gorges longs for the fields and ancient woods of her parents’ Hampshire estate, where she has learned to use the flowers and herbs to become a much-loved healer.

Frances is happy to stay in her beloved countryside when the new King arrives from Scotland, bringing change, fear and suspicion. His court may be shockingly decadent, but James’s religion is Puritan, intolerant of all the old ways; he has already put to death many men for treason and women for witchcraft.

So when her ambitious uncle forcibly brings Frances to court, she is trapped in a claustrophobic world of intrigue and betrayal – and a ready target for the twisted scheming of Lord Cecil, the King’s first minister.
Surrounded by mortal dangers, Frances finds happiness only with the precocious young Princess Elizabeth, and Tom Wintour, the one courtier she can trust.

Or can she?

cover and blurb via amazon

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I am a very big Tracy Borman fan. I did not angle for a review copy, instead I went to a store and purchased her first novel myself. The new release stand was full on release day, here on the other side of the world, a rare occasion for the books I tend to review.

The King’s Witch opens with poor old Elizabeth I, in her dying moments. The book follows Frances Gorges, an expert in healing and herbs. King James is now on the throne, a dramatic change for England. Women healing and using herbs and their developed skills, rather than that of a male doctor, are seen as evil, as devil’s work. King James is terrified of witches and witchcraft, so to be a woman with knowledge makes young Frances right in the firing line against puritanical opinions and fears. Frances does have allies, Tom, a courtier, and the Princess Elizabeth. Whether she can trust her own friends is never truly clear to Frances.

This novel starts slowly, showing Frances’ life, indeed lives for ‘normal’ people in this awkward time period in England. What I did see early on was that there would be a twist coming, which keeps you turning the page. Frances grows as their reader gets to know her, from a scared girl into a woman who gets to see behind the lavish exteriors of a royal court for what really lies in individuals.

When reading Borman, you know you are getting historical accuracy with your fiction (I swear some people only read to point out inaccuracies in fiction; you lot will be disappointed with this). It is nice to hear from a new voice, rather than through the eyes of characters done so often before. Being cast as a witch was simple in the 17th century, all a woman had to do was piss off the closest man and she would be accused. So being a woman with knowledge naturally scares the pants off men. While the king is determined to cast out all remaining Catholics in England, religion remains ingrained in all decisions made.

Frances’ biggest issue is that her friend Tom is Tom Wintour, one of the men in the gunpowder plot with Guy Fawkes (shout-out to all of us born on November 5!). Tom is ready to blow up parliament and the attention to the how’s and why’s rather than simply the actions taken in 1603 is beautifully told. The gunpowder plot men are generally thought of as crazies, when they actually had quite an elaborate plan and motive. While we all know what happened to the gunpowder plot, seeing it through the eyes of someone close to these men makes it painful to read through, knowing the conclusion.

I really enjoyed reading this book; I went in with high expectations and was not disappointed. Love, torture, witchcraft, what a combination to write about and get to muse over, knowing that the early 1600’s really was one hell of a cauldron of superstition. Frances’ uncle, the Earl of Northampton, makes an appearance as a sometimes friend, sometimes overly creepy uncle everyone doesn’t want visiting, and don’t forget Lord Cecil, a grump at the best of times, aiding the king’s paranoia for gain but harming Frances’ safety even more.

Some are witches being killed, others are being tortured and executed for trying to change the monarchy. You know it’s all going to end in tears but you can’t stop reading anyway. Thank you to Tracy Borman for humanising those in an often misunderstood piece of history.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Mary: Tudor Princess’ by Tony Riches

From the author of the international best-selling Tudor Trilogy, the true story of the Tudor dynasty continues with the daughter of King Henry VII, sister to King Henry VIII. Mary Tudor watches her elder brother become King of England and wonders what the future holds for her. 

Born into great privilege, Mary has beauty and intelligence beyond her years and is the most marriageable princess in Europe. Henry plans to use her marriage to build a powerful alliance against his enemies. Will she dare risk his anger by marrying for love?

Meticulously researched and based on actual events, this ‘sequel’ follows Mary’s story from book three of the Tudor Trilogy and is set during the reign of King Henry VIII.

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I have read Owen, Jasper and Henry, and also Warwick, by this author, so having a woman as a title character is an exciting addition! But it is not about Mary I, but Princess Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister. That’s when I really jumped for the book, as I love both Mary and Margaret, forever eclipsed by their king brother.

The book starts in 1509, and Princess Mary is but 13 years old. Her brother Henry is only five years older but has just been crowned King of England. Henry knows who he shall marry – Katherine of Aragon, widow of Arthur, and now Mary is going to be an equally powerful princess – powerful in that selling her to the highest bidder will help increase Henry’s power.

Mary has, in the past, been written as a fool, a simple girl interested in princes and gowns, no head for politics. What a silly notion, because Mary is the daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, her sister is Queen of Scots, Arthur was to be king, before Henry took poor Arthur’s place. How could Mary possibly be dim? Here, Mary is educated, confident and a brave young woman at the heart of a very serious political match for her country. Yes, she may break down in private, but her public face is one of total poise, the way only a royal upbringing could provide.

Mary considers Katherine of Aragon a sister when she marries Henry (Mary was very young when Katherine married Arthur). Henry and Mary are close, even though Henry is never an easy man to love, and is often heartless to Katherine. Mary has lost both her parents, and Henry breaks her betrothal to the  Holy Roman Emperor Charles, also just a child, and instead gives Mary in marriage to King Louis of France.

Mary may be a queen, but is also Europe’s most beautiful princess of 18 years when she marries the frail 52-year-old Louis. Mary does as she is bid (and has a child Anne Boleyn in her household, just a little side bonus) and marries the old Frenchman. But first Mary told her brother – I shall marry Louis if  can choose my second husband.

That is where Mary is so grand. Louis kicks the bucket three months in, and kings and dukes are clamouring for Mary less than a week into widowhood. But Mary has her suitor all ready, Charles Brandon, Henry’s best friend and (while the Duke of Suffolk) not at all good enough for her. Secretly married, Mary defies her brother and King, and is banished from court and from his kindness.

Never mind all these details; Mary is written as a woman, a wife, a mother, a sister. She becomes a queen of France (who killed her old husband with too much sex, so they gossiped, eww), then a woman who married for love, then a wife who had to endure infidelity, the births and deaths of children, the heartache she felt for Queen Katherine and the fortunes of all around her. Mary also suffered with her health for her whole life.

Mary was an important princess in the royal history of the time, and is not prone to being frivolous, and so is written as an educated woman. While the Tudor world is filled with politics, law, religion, it is also filled with love, friendship, parties and jousts, colour and excitement, and the book weaves all together.

Did Brandon love Mary back? The book gives hints about such as Mary’s life is followed. Mary’s death is beautiful and tragic, and the process starts over, as Brandon marries a child as a firm alliance just a few months later (he was a lucky man to capture both Princess Mary and Catherine Willoughby!). Mary’s granddaughter Jane would become queen for nine days many years later, and must have had the blood of THIS type of Princess Mary in Jane’s veins.

Thank you, Tony, for a wonderful novel!

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About the Author Tony Riches is a full-time author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Goodreads as well as Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Raven’s Widow: A Novel of Jane Boleyn’ by Adrienne Dillard

The river was as calm as I had ever seen it. Ordinarily, the tide would have been wild by this time of year, and woe unto any man unfortunate enough to fall into the fierce currents of the Thames. Tonight the tides were still, and the surface of the water appeared glassy. When I peered down into the dark depths, I saw my tired, drawn face wavering in the reflection. I quickly turned away as I fought back a wave of nausea, frightened by the anguish I saw etched there.

“Only a few moments more my lady, the Tower is just ahead.”


Jane Parker never dreamed that her marriage into the Boleyn family would raise her star to such dizzying heights. Before long, she finds herself as trusted servant and confidante to her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn; King Henry VIII’s second queen. On a gorgeous spring day, that golden era is cut short by the swing of a sword. Jane is unmoored by the tragic death of her husband, George, and her loss sets her on a reckless path that leads to her own imprisonment in the Tower of London. Surrounded by the remnants of her former life, Jane must come to terms with her actions. In the Tower, she will face up to who she really is and how everything went so wrong.

cover and blurb via amazon

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No one with the name Boleyn has fared well through history or fiction, and Jane Boleyn is definitely no exception. In recent times, Jane has been pained as a snitch, a mean, meddling and jealous woman, one who helped get her husband beheaded. Here, Dillard sets out to paint a very different woman.

Jane Parker was born in around 1505 to Henry Parker, Baron Morley and Alice St John (so through her mother’s family, a distant relative of King Henry). By 1520 Jane was in service to Queen Katherine, and considered an attractive woman for her time. By 1525, marriage had been arranged to George Boleyn, brother of two women, Anne and Mary Boleyn, whom also served Queen Katherine. As the Boleyn family were of little consequence at the time, little is recorded about the marriage, or Jane herself. It seems they had a loving marriage, though no children were ever born to the pair. Here, possible miscarriages and losses are added to the book to gain a different insight with artistic licence.

After Mary Boleyn’s time as the king mistress ended, it was Anne’s turn to fall prey to Henry, whom loved her deeply right through the 1520’s, and it was then that the Boleyns rose in the court and public eye. By 1533, Anne was queen of England, and Jane was in her service, now Viscountess Rochford. No part of Jane’s life could have prepared her for such circumstances. Jane is written as caring, emotional, irrational but interesting through the trials of being the queen’s sister-in-law, through the eyes of a courtier not often chosen as a main protagonist.

History remembers Jane as the one who told Cromwell that Anne and George were committing incest to gain a child to claim as King Henry’s. But Jane n reality was a woman married to a man who was a womaniser (though is portrayed as kinder and more chaste in this book), and, when George lost his head, she had to plead and bow to regain favour.

In this book, as in life, Jane is a character who manages to survive, to serve Anne of Cleves and then Katherine Howard as queens, before Jane too loses her head for helping Queen Katherine set up dates with her secret lover in 1542. The twist in this book is how Jane is not written as the scheming bitch who happily served her husband and sister-in-law to the axe so she could continue to survive. Also, Jane’s breakdown right before death is also given a fresh look. A book for those who are on the look out for something new.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Jane the Quene’ by Janet Wertman

All Jane Seymour wants is a husband; but when she catches the eye of a volatile king, she is pulled deep into the Tudor court’s realm of plot and intrigue….

England. 1535. Jane Seymour is 27 years old and increasingly desperate for the marriage that will provide her a real place in the world. She gets the perfect opportunity to shine when the court visits Wolf Hall, the Seymour ancestral manor. With new poise born from this event, it seems certain that her efficiency and diligence will shine through and finally attract a suitor.

Meanwhile, King Henry VIII is 45 and increasingly desperate for a son to secure his legacy. He left his first wife, a princess of Spain, changing his country’s religion in the process, to marry Anne Boleyn — but she too has failed to deliver the promised heir. As Henry begins to fear he is cursed, Jane Seymour’s honesty and innocence conjure redemption. Thomas Cromwell, an ambitious clerk who has built a career on strategically satisfying the King’s desires, sees in Jane the perfect vehicle to calm the political unrest that threatens the country: he engineers the plot that ends with Jane becoming the King’s third wife.Jane believes herself virtuous and her actions justified, but early miscarriages shake her confidence and hopes.

How can a woman who has done nothing wrong herself deal with the guilt of how she unseated her predecessor?

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Jane’s story begins in 1525, where at age 18 is still unmarried and becomes a maid of honour for mighty Katherine of Aragon. Jane is a quiet girl, keen to be part of the court instead of being a lowly spinster at home. But Jane’s tuition at court is placed in the hands of two other maids to the queen – Anne and Mary Boleyn. They are distant cousins to Jane, but quiet Jane finds the pair to be disingenuous – Mary is already the king’s mistress, and rumours swirl of Anne’s virtue also. Jane, who sees herself as fair and perfect, considers her cousins to be intimidating and foolish, and they care not for the company of boring Jane. Years pass and Jane works in the court, slowly rising in favour until poor Katherine is ousted.
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 But then Jane’s cousin Anne Boleyn is finally elevated from mistress to Henry’s side as queen. Jane is still unwed, a seemingly boring woman in the company of Queen Anne, who sees nothing in her lady. But trouble soon comes when Anne gives birth to a daughter for Henry.
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Jane isn’t the only Seymour at court; her young sister Elizabeth found a husband quickly and the Seymours decide to swap out Jane for another sister, Dorothy. Quiet Jane needs a plan; she goes home to Wolf Hall, where the king plans to stay on summer progress, to host the royal party, and in return her brother will find her a decent husband.
 But while everyone thinks they know Jane Seymour, quiet Jane is a totally new woman. Only she can interest Henry; not brash like Anne Boleyn, but no weakling as her family assumes. Jane has a plan all of her own. Jane goes into training; she will be no whore, and she will be no Anne Boleyn either. Jane wants better for herself and she is no pawn any longer. Jane is ready to stand up, and play her part at court, all to claim what she wants – the crown itself.
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Jane is always written as the boring queen and I enjoyed reading a book where she was anything but. Jane plays the games at court well, ready to scheme her way onto the throne, rather than being shoved on by her brother. Her brother Edward is a likable man, a product of his time, and young brother Thomas is a cad, as history suggests. Everyone knows of Edward’s second wife Anne, the bitchy sidekick of her husband. This time, Anne is a kinder woman, while my book-husband Thomas Cromwell is a man who can work with anyone, always ready to come out on top. Cromwell’s POV is used a little too, which was a bonus for me.
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 It was fun to read Jane’s perspective, who is sometimes seen as appearing from nowhere to take a king, when she was instead in the background, understanding court politics. And this book is the first in a series, so make room on your shelf!