Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens, Book One by Alison Weir

I have been badly neglecting my reviews, but I’m going to try (again) to catch up here a bit. This nonfiction by Alison Weir was released way back in September; it probably won’t be long now until you can get a paperback copy.

Queens of the Conquest front cover (Ballantine Books)

THE COVERAGE: This book covers the first queens of England following the conquest. It starts, fittingly enough, with William the Conqueror’s queen Matilda, followed by Henry I’s two queens, Matilda of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain. Next is Henry’s daughter, Empress Matilda, here referred to as Maud. She was meant to inherit the crown when her brother died, but was passed over in favor of her cousin Stephen. We also get coverage of Stephen’s wife, Matilda of Boulogne. We just get to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and don’t go into Eleanor (who, let’s be honest, really should just get her own book…which Weir has already written).

MY TWO CENTS: People who read this blog know that I love Weir’s nonfiction. I had also looked forward to this book for years, ever since she first announced that she would write it, and then announced she would split it into several volumes. So why did I have such a very hard time getting into it? I will admit that I was sick for much of the fall/winter, and maybe that dulled my excitement over this book. But it took me a long time, and finally the purchase of the audio version, to get through it all.

While some of the lack of interest may have been just about my personal issues, I just don’t remember every struggling with a Weir nonfiction this much before. I felt like right out of the gate, part of the problem is that there are relatively few primary sources about the Conqueror’s Matilda. There’s a lot of “they probably…” and “they might have…” and some stories Weir passes on as legends that probably aren’t true. I felt like, “So what am I learning here?”

Then, there’s a stupid problem that normally shouldn’t have bothered me: too many Matildas. Everyone is Matilda. Four out of five queens here are Matilda, even though Weir smartly refers to the Empress as Maud instead. But we know darn well she’s really a Matilda. Is it Weir’s fault that Matilda was the most popular name of 11th and 12th-century English queens? Of course not, but it still somehow affected my enjoyment, and my attention span. Another problem: a lot of the other names are unrecognizable in present culture. Half the time I felt like I was reading a Star Wars novel instead of English history. Again, that’s just the way it was back in the mists of time.

Overall, I feel that maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to read this book. I intend to reread it at some point, and may even revise my review at that point. But for now, I owe the author and publisher a long-overdue review, and I’m afraid this is it.

BOTTOM LINE:  I looked forward to this book for a long time and then didn’t enjoy it. It might have been the book or it might have been me, so I will probably reread at some point.

TEACUP RATING: I’m going to be fair and give it three out of five teacups, because I really think it just wasn’t a good time for me to read this book.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in hardcover, e-book formats, and audio.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, plus purchase of the audio file.

Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession (Six Tudor Queens #2) by Alison Weir

Noted historian Alison Weir returns to her fiction series based on Henry VIII’s wives in Book 2–Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession. (Book 1 in the series, Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, was previously reviewed here.)

Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession front cover (Ballantine Books/Random House)

THE PLOT: Obviously, this is a very light summary of a pretty big story! The novel starts with eleven-year-old Anne Boleyn preparing to go to the court at Burgundy where she will serve the Regent Margaret. Under Margaret’s tutelage, Anne learns that the world doesn’t only have to be ruled by men; women can be intelligent and hold power, too. Eventually, Anne travels to the court of France, serving the former English Princess Mary who is now Queen of France. After the king’s death, Anne’s sister Mary is violated by the new French king and leaves court. Anne believes she herself will never love any man.

In England, Anne falls in love with Henry Percy, but their betrothal is nixed by Cardinal Wolsey. Mary is once again assaulted, this time by the English king. She reluctantly becomes his mistress and bears him a child. Anne hates King Henry for his treatment of her sister, but then he becomes smitten with Anne. He pursues her despite Anne’s exasperated protests that she will never love him, especially since he is already married. Henry decides this means Anne will love him if he divorces his Queen, Katherine of Aragon. She hasn’t been able to bear him a living son anyway, so it makes sense to have the marriage annulled.

Anne realizes this gives her a real opportunity to be queen, and she grabs it, despite her newfound love for one of Henry’s men, Henry Norris. But the years drag by without the divorce taking place. Anne amuses herself by causing the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey at her family’s request. Finally, Henry breaks from the Catholic Church in order to marry Anne. But when she, too, fails to bear a prince, her days are numbered.

MY TWO CENTS: First thing: this is a work of historical FICTION. If you want facts, you’ll have to read some biographies. I can recommend three by Alison Weir: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, and Mary Boleyn, the Mistress of Kings.

So what sets this novel apart from everything else you’ve already read about Anne Boleyn? First, I loved the setup of young Anne in the court of Burgundy. This gives some insight into Anne’s forward thinking ideas about women in power. Second, the idea that her sister Mary was raped, twice, is a different take on “the great whore.” It also feeds into Anne’s ideas that men cannot be trusted, and especially Henry.

What really sets this apart, though, is Anne’s love for Henry Norris! Historians will recognize the name as one of the king’s men who was executed with Anne, but history mostly calls his “love” of her courtly love…i.e., the kind of playful flirting that was common at this time, with no real meaning behind it. Weir recasts theirs as a great unfulfilled love, first because Norris is already betrothed and then married when Anne meets him, and then later because when given the opportunity, Anne deliberately chooses her pursuit of the crown over her love of Norris. It’s clear in this version that ambition leads to Anne’s ultimate downfall.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a version of this story where Anne was plainly dismissive of Henry’s suit of her due to her disgust for him. This Anne never sees Henry as attractive, even when he is a young man. Later, after his violation of her sister, she has a loathing of him that he simply does not take seriously, no matter how much she tries to convince him that she’s not interested. It’s not until she realizes she could be queen that she begins to encourage him. This is a very interesting, different take on the Anne history paints as deliberately leading Henry on so that he would divorce Katherine.

Another twist is with Anne’s brother George. He was executed with Anne on a charge of incest, but this version gives an alternate view on the speech he gave before his execution, stating some degree of guilt.

Finally, do keep in mind that, like the first book, this novel is set entirely from Anne’s point of view. History buffs will probably fill in the gaps of what’s going on behind the scenes, but there are things the reader isn’t privy to because Anne isn’t.

COVER NOTES: I love this cover! The color is beautiful, but also a bit melancholy. Unlike Katherine’s cover, you don’t see Anne’s face full-on, which adds to her aura of mystery. (History says Anne was more captivating than physically beautiful, but it would be difficult to capture that on a cover.) I also love that the style matches the Katherine cover. Series books should all match! Always! Please, PLEASE don’t switch design midway through the series. I hate that. I want a matching set, please.

BOTTOM LINE: A good read, and offers a few twists on this well-known story. I’m eagerly awaiting the next book, which will cover one of Henry’s most overlooked queens, and yet the only one to give him a legitimate living son.

TEACUP RATING: Four out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available May 16, 2017, in hardcover and eformats.

NEXT UP IN THE SERIES: According to the introductory video on Weir’s Six Tudor Queens website, the next novel will explore how “there’s some more to Jane Seymour than meets the eye.” Expect Weir’s fictional Jane to be a defender of Catholicism and Princess Mary. Check out this video and more at www.sixtudorqueens.co.uk.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley and Amazon Vine in exchange for an honest review.

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen (Six Tudor Queens #1) by Alison Weir

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen is the first book in Alison Weir’s new historical fiction series that will cover each wife of Henry VIII.

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen Front Cover (Ballantine Books/Random House)

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen Front Cover (Ballantine Books/Random House)

THE PLOT: The Spanish Infanta Katherine has traveled to England to become the bride of Arthur, Prince of Wales. Arthur is the oldest son of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, and her marriage and future son will help secure the Tudors on the throne. But Arthur is a sickly boy, and his death puts Katherine in an awkward position; stuck in England with no money except her dowry, which she begins to siphon off just to pay for food for herself and her servants. She is betrothed to Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, under the assumption that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated, but there are no guarantees that this marriage will take place.

Upon the king’s death, Katherine is finally married to Henry, now King Henry VIII, and it appears to be a true love match. Henry is young, handsome, and all too willing to produce an heir. Unfortunately, none of Katherine’s many pregnancies result in a live son. Babies are born dead, miscarried, or live only a few months. Only a princess, Mary, survives and thrives.

Katherine begins to worry that their marriage is cursed, perhaps because Elizabeth of York’s male cousin was executed before Katherine’s parents would allow her to marry Arthur. Henry stands by Katherine until she is no longer able to bear children; then he claims their marriage is invalid because Katherine was first married to his brother. It’s a bit longer before Katherine realizes Henry is desperate to take a new wife, and not just to get a male heir. The influence of Anne Boleyn will cause Henry to alter the course of history.

MY TWO CENTS: You may be wondering what sets this book apart from all the other Tudor fiction out there. First, it’s written by acclaimed historian Alison Weir, which means she’s very well versed in what is fact versus what is fiction. Because this is historical fiction, she’s taken some liberties with letters and the timeline; but you know she made those choices deliberately and not out of ignorance.

Second, this book is told in third person limited from Katherine’s point of view. If you are familiar with Tudor history, you’ll be aware of things going on behind the scenes that Katherine, as our narrator, doesn’t know. For example, it’s a long while before she realizes that Henry VII isn’t to be trusted. The reader realizes that Henry VIII has started cheating on her way before Katherine does.  Even as the reader realizes that first Mary Boleyn and then Anne Boleyn have surely entered the picture, Katherine remains blissfully ignorant. Finally, Katherine remains convinced until very, very late that Henry will ultimately give up Anne, reconcile with the church, and come back to her. The reader feels sorry for Katherine, knowing that she won’t ever get so much as a kind word from Henry ever again.

But at the same time, the reader must admire Katherine’s resilience. First she lives through the horrible poverty between Arthur’s death and Henry VII’s. Then, when faced with her dissolving marriage, she remains absolutely certain of its validity. Even when momentarily tempted to take the easy way out, she remembers that she must stay strong to secure her daughter’s position.

I don’t always love Weir’s fiction writing style. For example, characters “wept afresh” a little too often for my taste. But it’s certainly not as awkward as Weir’s “Captive Queen.” You can lose yourself in the story and the history.

BOTTOM LINE: A long book, and well worth the read; offers a unique perspective entirely from Katherine’s point of view. If you know Tudor history, you’re filling in the other angles of the story while reading what’s presented. I’m very much looking forward to other works in this series.

TEACUP RATING: Four out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available May 31, 2016, in hardcover and eformats.

NEXT UP IN THE SERIES: I hope we in the US get these novellas: Arthur, Prince of the Roses, coming in November 2016, and The Blackened Heart, a bridge story between Katherine and Anne Boleyn, coming in March 2017. Anne Boleyn’s book will probably come spring/summer 2017.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley and Amazon Vine in exchange for an honest review.

The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas by Alison Weir

I can never wait to get my hands on new Alison Weir nonfiction! And look, a Tudor who hasn’t already been done to death. Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Margaret Tudor (Queen of Scotland); granddaughter of Henry VII; niece of Henry VIII; cousin to Elizabeth I; mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots; and grandmother of James I. And despite all that, she managed to avoid execution!

The Lost Tudor Princess Front Cover (Ballantine Books/Random House)

The Lost Tudor Princess Front Cover (Ballantine Books/Random House)

THE COVERAGE: The book begins before Margaret’s birth. It covers how Margaret Tudor was widowed, then remarried Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus (although that seems to be somewhat disputed).

At various times throughout her life, Margaret is endorsed as possible heir to the English throne, which surprisingly doesn’t cost her life. She’s in high favor with her Uncle Henry VIII until a love affair with Thomas Howard—just as Howards are falling from favor (i.e., Anne Boleyn)—lands her in the Tower. During this period, Margaret wrote a great deal of poetry that survives today. After another romance with a different Howard at another bad time (thanks, Katherine Howard), Margaret finally makes a happy, approved match with the Scottish Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox, but only two of their eight children survive. The Catholic Margaret and Lennox are in high favor During Mary I’s reign, but that changes under Elizabeth I. Margaret campaigns heavily for the older surviving son, Henry, Lord Darnley, to marry the widowed Mary, Queen of Scots. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth I is not thrilled by this prospect. Catholics are already calling for Mary to dethrone her, and allowing another Catholic with a claim to the throne to marry her is risky. The risk pays off for Elizabeth when the marriage is a failure. Margaret is devastated when Darnley is murdered at age 20. The marriage does produce a royal grandson for Margaret….the future James VI of Scotland and James I of England. After Mary is forced to abdicate, Lennox serves as regent for his grandson until he, too, is murdered.

MY TWO CENTS: Alison Weir’s nonfiction is always excellent, and this is no exception. Even though Margaret Douglas may be a lesser-known Tudor, there are MANY primary sources about her life. All that research provides great validity to the story presented here, which is pretty wild. It’s actually shocking that Margaret wasn’t imprisoned for life or executed at almost any point during her life, since royal cousins did not tend to fair well, dating back…well, forever. And since she displeased Henry VIII, was strongly Catholic, and actively campaigned for her son to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, she was always in danger of royal wrath.

While the book covers many events of Margaret’s life, it doesn’t go into great depth on Darnley’s possible involvement in the murder of Mary’s secretary Rizzio, or the details of Darnley’s murder. It focuses on Margaret’s reaction to these events and the consequences that affected her. Also note that this is definitely not a book about Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. The repercussions of their actions on Margaret are discussed, but they are supporting characters here.

BOTTOM LINE:  The story of a woman who lived through royal favor and disfavor, imprisonment, poverty, and murder. Enjoyable nonfiction based on many, many primary sources. Now I really want to read Weir’s Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, one of the only Weir books I haven’t yet read.

TEACUP RATING: Four-and-a-half out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in hardcover, e-book formats, and audio.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


The Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I by Alison Weir

Everyone knows that Elizabeth I never married. Instead, she wielded her marriageability like a whip as part of her foreign policy for as long as she could. But were there other reasons she avoided making the commitment?

The Marriage Game Front Cover (Random House)

The Marriage Game Front Cover (Random House)

THE PLOT: The book follows Weir’s first historical fiction about Elizabeth, The Lady Elizabeth, and picks up shortly after she becomes queen. Her advisors want her to marry and secure an heir, but Elizabeth is too busy flirting with Robert Dudley and handing him accolades. Robert is already married, but his wife is ailing. Maybe if Elizabeth puts off everyone who wants her to marry a foreign prince, she can have Robert for herself once Amy Dudley is dead.

But does she really want him? Elizabeth was molested as a young girl by Thomas Seymour, and she’s skittish about physical love. She also has the past to influence her: her own mother and a stepmother executed by her father, who claimed to love them both at one time; and two stepmothers dead from childbearing. If Elizabeth chooses a husband, she may lose the power she has as queen to her husband, as husbands naturally hold dominion over their wives. If she bears a son, people may try to overthrow her in order to have a male on the throne.

The book follows Elizabeth from her coronation, through her complicated affair with Dudley and other various suitors, through the years up to Dudley’s death.

MY TWO CENTS: Reading about Elizabeth’s “marriage game” in nonfiction can get a little tedious, but Weir found a way to bring it to life in fiction by bringing Elizabeth’s emotions front and center. And this Elizabeth is extremely complicated by her (again, partly fictionalized) dealings with Thomas Seymour in Weir’s first book. While she longs for love (or, more accurately, adoration) from male admirers, she is completely unable to commit to any one man…physically or otherwise.

One could argue that this Elizabeth is a bit weaker than she should be, since she comes across as being ruled by her emotions instead of her cleverness. What history might see as craftiness in staying in the marriage market as long as she did can be explained by Weir as nerves and changeability.

BOTTOM LINE: Another successful fiction outing from Weir. I don’t know if it’s as good as A Dangerous Inheritance, but she definitely adds dimension to Elizabeth’s story.

TEACUP RATING: A solid four out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Will publish in hardcover and eformats in the USA on February 10, 2015. It’s already available in the UK.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss/Amazon Vine in exchange for an honest review.

Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World by Alison Weir

Alison Weir writes my absolutely favorite nonfiction. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this timely biography of Elizabeth of York: daughter, sister, niece, wife, and mother to kings, and she perhaps should have been queen of England in her own right.

Elizabeth of York Front Cover (Ballantine Books/Random House)

Elizabeth of York Front Cover (Ballantine Books/Random House)

THE COVERAGE: The book begins with a quick summary of the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. It’s not enough to give a lot of details or overwhelm the reader, but glances over Henry VI, the Kingmaker Warwick, and how Edward IV got to the throne. Elizabeth’s story then begins with birth of Edward’s first child, a princess. It continues through her trips into Sanctuary, engagement to the French dauphin, possible romance with Uncle Richard III, marriage to Henry VII, riding out various pretenders who claim to be one of her lost brothers (the “princes in the tower”), birth of royal children (including Arthur, first husband to Catherine of Aragon; Margaret, queen of Scotland; Henry VIII; and Mary, queen of France), and eventual death and burial.

MY TWO CENTS: The good thing about Elizabeth of York is that as a person in the middle of significant historical turmoil, there are a lot of primary sources about her family, so we have quite a lot of fairly accurate information about her entire life. (Of course, some information can never be “accurate,” such as the fate of her brothers or her and Henry’s private true feelings for each other.) The bad thing about Elizabeth of York is that, unlike her mother, she was a person to whom things generally happened as opposed to someone who made things happen. While her story is very interesting, keep in mind that she’s pretty much never the master of her own fate.  I call this a “timely” biography in that The White Queen has just been airing in the USA, and Philippa Gregory’s last bestseller was The White Princess. (For what it’s worth, the historical Elizabeth is a much less wishy-washy character than Gregory’s fictional Elizabeth.)

TEACUP RATING: I give this five teacups, but remember, I generally love Alison Weir’s nonfiction. (Her fiction can be hit-or-miss for me, although I found the last one, A Dangerous Inheritance, very good.) Some readers may be tempted to skip over lists of Elizabeth’s accounts…I personally find that primary source fascinating.

ON SALE DATE: Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World will be on sale in the USA on December 3rd.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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