The Last Tudor (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels #14) by Philippa Gregory

I loooooove Philippa Gregory novels! Let’s just get this out of the way: they’re not 100% historically accurate (because they’re historical FICTION, people; big difference between that and nonfiction) but they always suck you in and make you feel like you’re in the middle of the action. This one is called The Last Tudor, I think for two reasons: Gregory has finally run through every Tudor who ever existed. She therefore claims this will be her last Tudor novel. One of the working titles of this novel, announced years ago, was The Grey Girls, and that title would have been accurately descriptive.

The Last Tudor front cover (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster)

THE PLOT: The book is presented in three parts, following each of the Grey sisters— granddaughters of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, who was Queen of France and then scandalously secretly married to Henry’s friend Charles Brandon.

First, we get the story of Jane Grey, the most famous of the sisters, who ruled as queen for nine days after Edward VI’s death. Jane was the legitimate Protestant heir after Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth had been deemed illegitimate. Poor Jane is the victim of her family’s machinations as well as those of other members of the nobility. Jane is married off to Guildford Dudley in an effort to bind the two families together.  Jane wants only to continue her religious studies and be left alone, but she’s forced to become queen, and then abandoned to a terrible fate once the country rises up for Catholic Mary Tudor.

The second and longest part of the book follows Jane’s middle sister, Katherine, who has none of Jane’s serious nature. While she’s eager to be named Mary Tudor’s heir to the throne over Elizabeth, all she really wants is love. Mary ends up naming Elizabeth next in line anyway. Mary dies, making Elizabeth queen, and perhaps Katherine is now the volatile Elizabeth’s heir. But vain, jealous Elizabeth doesn’t want any courtiers paying more attention to the next-in-line than they do to her. She also craves all male attention, not allowing her ladies-in-waiting to marry because it would mean a man chose someone over her. In her never-ending manipulative game-playing, Elizabeth refuses to make Katherine her heir. She’s focused on romancing Robert Dudley but refusing to marry and bear her own children, which would diminish Katherine’s claim to the throne. Katherine finally decides to marry her true love in secret and worry about punishment later. But circumstances conspire against her, and she ends up paying a steep price for defying Elizabeth.

The last part focuses on Mary Grey, the youngest of the sisters and a person of small stature (she was referred to as a dwarf in Elizabethan times). No one pays much attention to Mary; everyone assumes she won’t marry and provide a possible Tudor heir to the throne. Gambling on her unimportance, Mary secretly marries her true love as well. Unfortunately, her love story is no happier than her sister Katherine’s.

MY TWO CENTS: Strangely enough, I have never been as much of a fan of Elizabethan fiction as I am of stories of Henry VIII’s court. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because so much of the action relies on Elizabeth’s mercurial temperament. You might admire Elizabeth’s ability to keep everyone dancing on the edge of a knife—never actually making decisions; always keeping people guessing or changing her mind. That ability may have helped make her a great queen, but it does make for tiresome reading after a bit. Her paranoia, her jealousy of any man’s admiration of any other woman over her, is in complete opposition to her extreme intelligence and cunning. (Or was the paranoia just a manifestation of the cunning?)

To an extent, that colored my reading experience of this novel, but that is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. There is always a danger when reading historical fiction that you’re not going to stay engaged when you know what’s coming. That’s especially true when you know the outcome isn’t going to be a happy one. But that did not happen with this book. I couldn’t put it down, even though I knew it wasn’t going anywhere satisfying to the characters.

I have to admit, I found Jane as written a tiresome character. There was absolutely no fun to her at all, just extreme religious piety and a cold disregard for her sisters. So frankly, I was glad to get her story out of the way immediately, even though her shadow lingers over her sisters for the rest of the story. Somehow, I still managed to care what happened to her, and did feel bad when she realized, at the last minute, that she really didn’t want to die. In those last moments, she was finally more like a teenage girl than a robot.

I enjoyed Katherine’s story much more, inasmuch as anyone can enjoy the story of someone who lives most of her adult life locked away from her husband and children and then dies at age 27. Although Jane’s perspective of Katherine was of a silly girl, Katherine seems much more accessible to the reader. Yes, she can be silly, but she also shows many more human emotions than Jane. She loves her pets. She falls deeply in love and risks everything for it. In her naivete, she just honestly didn’t think Elizabeth would punish her for very long, much less forever. Katherine has absolutely no allies or parental figures after her mother dies, so you sympathize when she doesn’t even know for sure if she’s pregnant because no one has told her how to tell. A great part of the book is Katherine not giving up hope that Elizabeth will release her from captivity. Feeling that hope from Katherine’s point of view carries the reader along, even when her hopes are dashed time after time. It’s when Katherine finally realizes that she will never, ever be free that the story switches to Mary’s perspective.

I like Mary, the most practical of the Greys, except for one thing: having witnessed what happened to her sister, mostly because of Elizabeth’s jealousy, did she honestly think she would get away with a secret marriage herself? Did she really believe she wasn’t risking her freedom? But maybe that was the point. Maybe having lost her father and one sister to the executioner, and another sister to prison, she was willing to risk everything for even a short period of love.

This book overlaps somewhat with some of Gregory’s other novels: The Queen’s Fool, The Virgin’s Lover and The Other Queen. There was quite a bit about Robert Dudley and Mary Queen of Scots in this book.

AUDIO NOTE: If you enjoy audiobooks, I highly recommend listening to Gregory’s Plantagenet and Tudor novels in audio format. Bianca Amato has been the reader on many of Gregory’s books, and I enjoy her performances greatly. I’ve had this on pre-order on Audible for months and will enjoy listening to it even after reading it.

COVER NOTES: This cover is pretty bland; just some golden Tudor roses over a silhouette of the Tower of London. Probably better than trying to show all three protagonists. Plus, the typical historical fiction “headless” woman has already been done on Alison Weir’s novel of Katherine Grey, A Dangerous Inheritance.

BOTTOM LINE: Not my favorite Gregory book, but still a very good read. If you’re a fan of Gregory’s, you’ll gobble this up. If you’re not already a fan, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one.

TEACUP RATING: Four out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available in hardcover, eformats, and audio on August 8, 2017.

NEXT UP FROM THIS AUTHOR: I think we’re finally, FINALLY, getting the fourth and final book in the “Order of Darkness” series! Just this week, the title Dark Tracks has shown up on Amazon, with a release date of March 6, 2018. I don’t know what Gregory has planned after that now that she’s finished writing about the Tudors, but I’ll be watching to find out.

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

 

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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.

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