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Joanna Hickson, author of The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride - novels dealing with the life of Catherine Valois, ancestress of the Tudors - continues to follow the early days of the Tudor dynasty with First of the Tudors, a novel featuring Catherine's second son, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke.

In First of the Tudors, we see the early years of the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of a semi-outsider. Half-brother to Henry VI, son of a former queen of England and commoner and a Welshman, ennobled by his royal brother's wish but holding lands in rebellious Wales, Jasper is a Lancastrian by blood, and during the early years of the wars, fiercely loyal to his brother Henry.

Though it was Catherine's oldest son Edmund, Earl of Richmond, who would marry Margaret Beaufort and father the first Tudor monarch, it was Jasper's lifelong devotion to Margaret that ensured the survival of the young Henry VII and his ultimate rise to the throne. After Edmund's death - an early victim of the political and military maneuvering that preceded the civil war between Lancaster and York - Jasper took charge of Margaret, a pregnant widow only 13 years old. As Margaret was under the age of majority, Jasper was awarded guardianship of the infant Henry, and served as the young boy's protector and advisor for most of his life, despite a long separation during his nephew's youth, when his guardianship was granted elsewhere during the first portion of Edward IV's reign. Though Margaret maintained contact with Henry, and sought to advance his claim once he became, in essence, the last Lancastrian heir, her fate as a wealthy heiress under royal wardship meant that she was a valuable marriage prize, and was never in a position to raise her son herself.

Jasper's initial period of guardianship lasted for five years, from Henry's birth to the beginning of Edward IV's reign in 1461, when he was forced to flee the country, and the young Henry Tudor's guardianship granted to one of Edward's supporters.

Jasper spent the early years of the York reign either in exile, separated from both Margaret and the young Henry, or fighting against the Yorkists whenever he managed to secure financial backing from his royal French cousins. The novel follows his story up to the brief restoration of Henry VI to the throne in 1470.

Interspersed with his story is the fictional story of Sian - Jane in English - a Welsh woman who is Henry's governess for most of his early life, and also Jasper's lover and mother of two illegitimate daughters. (There is some indication - but little actual proof - that Jasper fathered one or more illegitimate children; their mother is usually identified as Myfanwy ferch Dafydd. Myfanwy who appear in the novel, but as the lover of Jasper's father Owen and mother of his youngest child Daffyd - who was real enough, but the name of his actual mother is unknown.)

The intimate details of Jasper's imagined family life, and Jane'e efforts to keep the Tudor children - young Daffyd and her own two daughters - safe through the turmoil of the civil war and the York reign help to flesh out and humanise the events in the young Henry Tudor's life during the period of Jasper's exile. Jane is loyal, brave, loving, resourceful and devoted to a man she can never marry, and is as much the protagonist of this tale as Jasper is.

One assumes a sequel is in the works, which will cover the resumption of power by the Yorks, the long years of exile in Brittany and France for both Jasper and the young Henry, now the last living male Lancashire heir, though with a tentative claim to the throne at best, and the accession of Henry VII to the throne. I'm looking forward to its publication.

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The Tudor dynasty fascinates me. Perhaps mostly because it culminated in one of England's most remarkable monarchs, Elizabeth I. Perhaps because of its role in history, as the beginning of England's emergence as one of the great powers of Europe in its own right. Perhaps because of the great religious turmoil surrounding the Anglicisation of the English church. And perhaps because of its beginnings in illicit love affairs - one between a widowed Valois princess and a minor Welsh lord, the other between a son of a king and the widow of a simple knight. I'm certainly not alone; the great figures of the Tudor era - Henry VIII, his two most notable wives, the faithful Katherine of Aragon and the enigmatic Anne Boleyn, and his daughters, Queens Mary and Elizabeth - are probably among the most written-about figures of English history.

And so, no matter how many interpretations, fact or fiction, I encounter of these towering figures, it seems I'm always ready for 'just one more.'

Having recently read Alison Weir's novel of Anne Boleyn, it seemed only proper that I read the first in her series about the queens of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen. Weir's research and scholarship gives the novel a richness of detail, and I think in this novel she succeeds in giving us a fully humanised portrait of her subject, something that I found lacking in her book about Anne Boleyn. Katherine's journey from naive princess to a queen who has seen too many betrayals, her love for Henry and growing sorrow over her failure to bear a male heir, her steadfast insistence on the legitimacy of her marriage and her one living child, the loneliness, isolation, and pain of separation from her daughter as the divorce proceedings advanced - all these are written with a ring of emotional truth.

Weir writes in an Author's Note: "I have tried in these pages to evoke the sights, textures, sounds, and smells of an age, a lost world of splendor and brutality, and a court in which love, or the game of it, held sway, but dynastic pressures overrode any romantic considerations. It was a world dominated by faith and by momentous religious change—and a world in which there were few saints. This was Katherine’s world, and we can only understand her properly within its context."

In my view, she has succeeded in her goal.

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Alison Weir's latest novel in her series about the wives of Henry VII, Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession, is Weir's interpretation of the story of Anne Boleyn, the woman who triggered the creation of the Church of England through her relationship with King Henry.

There have been many different interpretations of Anne's life and character, from villainous harlot to innocent and loving victim of Henry's overwhelming desire to have a male heir. Weir takes an interesting path between the extremes, giving us an intelligent and ambitious Anne who may not have loved Henry, but consented to her pursuit of her for reasons more charitable than greed and power-madness, an Anne who did not betray the King in deed, but who may well have allowed the game of courtly love to go too far with a man, or men, for whom she felt greater emotional affinity than she did for her husband. Weir's Anne is an early church reformer, who pressed Henry to break with the Church of Rome, not just to facilitate their marriage, but to give Henry the power to correct abuses of the people by church and clergy.

Weir says about her interpretation of Anne: "In writing this novel from Anne’s point of view, I have tried to reconcile conflicting views of her, and to portray her as a flawed but very human heroine, a woman of great ambition, idealism, and courage who found herself in an increasingly frightening situation."

Weir is, as one would expect, painstaking in her research and she fills her novel with explicit detail, paying close attention to where Anne was, at various points in her life, and the people she was likely to have encountered and how they interacted. From that perspective, the book succeeds in giving us a fairly full picture of Anne's comings and goings, and her known and possible dealings with family, friends, and with members of the courts of three countries - Burgundy, France and England.

Unfortunately, I found this portrayal of Anne somewhat flat, as if, despite Weir's telling of the story from Anne's perspective, we are seeing more of the outward than the inner woman - a license the writer of history cannot take, but the writer of fiction must.

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I have enjoyed reading Robin Maxwell's historical novels, even though I don't always agree with her characterisations of certain persons, or her choices in terms of their actions. The Queen's Bastard is another such book - well-researched and written, fun to read, but not featuring "my" Queen Elizabeth.

Maxwell's premise is that Elizabeth not only consummated her relationship with Robert Dudley, but that early in her reign, she conceived and secretly bore him a son. As difficult as such a thing would have been to hide in the Tudor Court, Maxwell does manage to effectively present a just-barely-possible scenario. The complete disappearance of the child from history is explained by a secret plot-within-a-plot by Kat Ashley and William Cecil to replace the live baby with a dead one, convincing both Elizabeth and Dudley that their son did not survive birth.

The novel is structured such that we alternate between reading sections of a kind of autobiography written by the adult child of Elizabeth - interesting for their look at the life of a child raised as the younger son of a minor country gentleman who follows the path of many younger sons and runs away to become a soldier - and sections from Elizabeth's perspective detailing key points in her reign, with particular focus on the public events that shaped what is known about her relationship with Dudley.

It must be noted that Maxwell has based her novel on a real incident. Not long before the launch of the Spanish Armada, an Englishman giving his name as Arthur Dudley was arrested and interrogated by the Spanish before being placed in prison and disappearing from historical record. He claimed to be the bastard son of Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, and the story he gave to his interrogators formed the basis of Maxwell's story. Most historians have dismissed Arthur Dudley as either a pretender or an English spy telling a wild tale in an attempt to save his life.

Certainly, when cast as fiction, it is intriguing but not quite credible, to my mind. But once one suspends one's disbelief, it makes - in Maxwell's hands at least - a fine and enjoyable novel.

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Karen Harper's historical novel, The Last Boleyn, focuses on the life of Mary Boleyn - or Bullen, as the family was known before their later rise in power. Drawing on what is known and theorised about the older sister of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, Harper creates a highly sympathetic character who, after a lifetime of being manipulated and used by her own family and by the powerful men she is brought into contact with, finally escapes the life others have made for her, and finds happiness with her own choices.

Harper portrays the young Mary as the pawn of an ambitious father and siblings. It begins with a position as attendant to Queen Claude of France, wife of the libidinous Francois du roi, King of France, and the machinations of her father, English ambassador to France, to bring her to Francois' attention as his mistress. Then, at the famous Cloth of Gold, Thomas Boleyn brings Mary to the attention of Henry VIII, who later takes her as his mistress once her father brings her home from France. She is married to Henry Carey, a nobleman from a family that chose the wrong side in the Wars of the Roses, who takes her to wife knowing she is desired by the King, in the hope that she will be able to influence the king to restore his family's lost estates and revenues.

After the king tires of her and Anne comes to court, the family discards Mary except when they see a use for her in the latest plan to elevate the family fortunes further through her younger sister.

How Mary finally breaks away from her family and the politics of the court to become the last survivor of the family of ambitious Thomas Boleyn is a moving story, well handled by Harper.

My only quibble was that Harper chose to use the names by which some characters are historically known long before they came to be known as such. For instance, Jane Parker, who would eventually become wife of George Boleyn, and later be known as Lady Rochford, is incorrectly called Jane Rochford from the beginning. Annoying, but if one can set such annoying details aside, it is an interesting read.

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Raven ​A. ​Nuckols' alternate history ​Had ​the ​Queen ​Lived: An ​Alternative ​History ​of ​Anne ​Boleyn is a most interesting conceit. Written in the form of a history rather than a fiction, it puts forward an imagined Tudor history in which Anne Boleyn was not tried and executed for adultery and treason, but instead lived to be Henry VIII's consort throughout his reign.

Nuckols takes as her point of divergence the fateful tournament held during Anne's pregnancy, in which Henry and his brother-in-law Charles Brandon faced each other in a friendly joust gone seriously awry. In 'our' history, Henry was injured and rendered unconscious - in fact, was initially thought to be dead. It is generally held that the shock of being told this was a major cause of her miscarriage of what appeared to be a healthy male fetus. Losing Henry's desperately wanted male heir left Anne vulnerable to both Henry's fears that this marriage too was cursed, and the political machinations that ultimately led to her trial and execution.

In Nuckols' alternate history, it is Brandon who suffers the near-fatal injury. Anne goes on to bear a healthy son and thus retains her position as Henry's wife and her influence over the governance of the kingdom.

The conceit is interesting, as are the ways in which Nuckols imagines Anne's continued influence would have changed the events of Henry's reign. As a thought experiment, it was enjoyable reading. One might not agree with the path Nuckols imagines for Henry and Anne during the course of a long and tempestuous marriage in which Anne actively sought to influence policy, but the effort involved in researching the possibilities is impressive.

Unfortunately, Nuckols is not the best of prose stylists - to put it mildly - and the book sadly lacks a good proofreader. The text is riddled with grammatical and typographic errors, incomplete sentences, and other issues that make reading a bit of a chore. But I persevered and was not unhappy to have done so.

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And I'm back to my fascination with the Tudors. This time it's Robin Maxwell's novel The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn.

Maxwell begins the novel early in the reign of Elizabeth I, and presents us with a vibrant young woman, so in love with Robert Dudley that she risks her reputation and position to take him as her lover. When an aged lady in waiting to Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn appears with a diary Anne had secretly kept and given to her companion just before her death, this sets up a doubled narrative tracing the progress of Anne's relationship with Henry, and Elizabeth's with Dudley.

It has been suggested by some that Elizabeth's reluctance to marry was in part driven by a deep mistrust of men founded in the relationships of Henry with Anne - which Elizabeth would know about but probably not remember clearly - and with the young Catherine Howard, who was executed when Elizabeth was a young girl. In The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth comes to distrust men after reading her mother's account of her relationship with Henry, which in turn influences her own response when Dudley's wife is found dead.

A quick read that presents the well-known stories of two Tudor women and the men in their lives in a new and captivating way.

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While in the throes of my Princes in the Towers reading binge, a mystery novel by an author I'd never read before, Elizabeth Peters, was recommended to me - The Murders of Richard III. I promptly acquired and read it, and found it to be quite a fun read, if rather on the light side. I gather that Peters has created several series of mysteries featuring different amateur detectives - in this case, the sleuth was the formidable Jacqueline Kirby, reference librarian by trade, which was an immediate plus, as I worship reference librarians, as all academics should.

The setting was an English country house party, the occasion, the discovery of a letter that could prove the innocence of Richard III, lately come into the hands of the head of a society of Ricardians. The American Kirby is in England visiting a friend who happens to be a member of the society, and is invited along to the party.

The unfolding of the murder plot occurs within an atmosphere of intense discussion of the minutiae of the various arguments as to who killed the princes, which I enjoyed quite a lot. The mystery itself, and Kirby's investigation of it, was also fun to follow, despite the relative lightness of the murder plot.

If this is characteristic of Peters' work - and reading some descriptions of several other of her novels suggests it may well be - then I suspect the historical elements of her novels to be at least as much of a draw as the mysteries. Which for a history buff is not a bad thing. An evening of pleasant light reading with some historical interest and a mystery adventure is sometimes just what the librarian ordered.

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I have a Tudor bug now, it seems, and have been picking at the books dealing with that era in my TBR pile. Today's selection, Robin Maxwell's novel Virgin: Prelude to the Throne, is a rather short and somewhat overblown novel dealing with a rather short period of Elizabeth Tudor's life - the two years following her father's death.

What is historical record is that Thomas Seymour, one of the uncles of the young king Edward VI, secretly married the Dowager Queen, Catherine Parr, within a few months of Henry's death in January 1547. Seymour took up residence in Catherine's household at Chelsea House, where Princess Elizabeth was also living. Later accounts suggest that Seymour was sexually aggressive toward Elizabeth during this period, and that eventually she was sent away from Chelsea House to live in Sir Anthony Denny's household at Cheshunt.

Meanwhile, Catherine Part became pregnant, and died shortly following the birth of her daughter Mary Seymour. Now free, Thomas Seymour attempted to press his suit with Elizabeth. At the same time, Seymour was planning a coup to remove his brother Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector, from power and assume control of the young king himself.

Thomas Seymour was arrested following an attempt to approach the King in his private chambers, charged with treason, and executed. Elizabeth and her staff were questioned, but while the staff reported Seymour's behaviour toward Elizabeth and confessed to promoting the idea of a marriage, no involvement in Seymour's schemes - or participation in what would for the times be thought gross immorality - on Elizabeth's part was ever proven.

Over the years, many authors have taken a variety of approaches to this period of Elizabeth's life. Some have followed the rumours of the time that Seymour and Elizabeth had a sexual relationship and that her removal to Cheshunt was to cover up a pregnancy. Others have held Elizabeth to be an innocent forced by circumstances to endure advances she found wholly unwelcome. Maxwell has taken the position that the adolescent princess was swept up in her first sexual awakening by an ambitious and experienced adult's seduction plan, and that while she was unwise and took far too many risks, she emerged from the tumultuous time still a virgin, and innocent of everything but a dangerous and all-encompassing infatuation. In this story, Seymour is beyond all doubt the villain. I'm not sure I agree with Maxwell's characterisation of Elizabeth in this novel, but it made for a quick and pleasant read.

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Continuing to read books that deal with the fates of the princes in the tower, I turned to another book on my TBR shelf, Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman - a complex novel based in part on the theories of amateur art historian Jack Leslau [1] about hidden meanings in a portrait of the family of Thomas More, painted by Hans Holbein (who was known for the use of multiple levels of symbolism in his mature work).

The theory here is that the two young princes were taken from the Tower, raised for some years by Sir Tyrell, and then given new names and identities through the intervention of Bishop John Morton - in whose household the young Thomas More served as a page. The elder prince, Edward V, is alleged to have been adopted into the noble Guildford family and to have quietly accepted his fate, perhaps due to a belief that the charge of illegitimacy made against him and his siblings was true. (In this context, it's interesting to note that one of his grandsons, Guildford Dudley, was married to Lady Jane Grey in a plot to usurp the throne of Mary Tudor, and another grandson, Robert Dudley, was the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and is believed to have hoped to marry her.) This novel, however, focuses on the younger prince, Richard, who is sent to the mainland to become a scholar under the protection of his aunt, Margaret of Burgundy. Given the name John Clement, he eventually becomes part of the loose circle of humanists that included Erasmus and Thomas More, and on his return to England becomes part of More's large, loosely connected household, and later still, marries More's ward and relative Margaret Giggs.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman, told largely from the perspective of Margaret Giggs Clement, with some sections from the viewpoint of Hans Holbein, is largely the story of Margaret's relationships with three men: her adoptive father Thomas More, as he becomes less the humanist and more the defender of Catholicism against heresy in the face of the growing power of the reformist-minded Boleyns at court; painter Hans Holbein who comes to England with the support of More's friend Erasmus, seeking help from More in finding patrons at the English court; and her husband, John Clement, scholar and physician, a protégé of her father's despite being of an age with him, and secretly the lost prince of York.

Now it's important to note that all these people - not just Thomas More, Erasmus and Hans Holbein, but also Edward Guildford, John Clement and Margaret Giggs, were real people who, insofar as the historical record survives, did the things that they are shown as doing in this novel. The invention lies in the attribution of a secret identity to Clement and the knowledge of it to various of the characters, including More, Erasmus, and eventually Margaret.

Even without the lost princes theme, Portrait of an Unknown Woman works well both as a portrait of the family and inner circle of Thomas More, and, in later chapters, as an introduction to the symbolic complexities scholars have found in Holbein's art - though it must be pointed out that there is little support for Leslau's specific interpretation of the More family portrait. Bennett's portrayal of More as a man driven by deep inner conflicts between secular and spiritual desires, drawn into an almost fanatical persecution of heretics, and an ultimate longing for martyrdom, is a complex and fascinating one, and yet it never overshadows the voice of his adopted daughter Margaret Giggs, whose story of love, faith and the middle road between devout Catholicism and a healer's compassion is compelling.

The load of imagined secrets gives the later chapters of the book a tinge of melodrama that weakens the otherwise strong narrative, but overall, it's quite a good read.

[1] For more on Leslau's theories, this is a solid but not too exhaustively detailed overview:

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Being violently sick with a vicious cold, I decided to to binge-watch some British historical dramas, which led to a rewatch of The White Queen, an account of the Cousins' War based on Philippa Gregory's novels, which sort of nudged me into re-reading an old favourite, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. Which then started me off looking for other books - fictional or not - that dealt with the question of Richard III's claiming of his brother's throne and the fate of the young heirs, the Princes in the Tower.

I'm particularly fond of Tey's book partly because of the framing narrative she uses to explore the historical evidence pertinent to the matter of the deaths of the young Yorkist heirs in the tower - police detective with a broken leg going crazy from boredom takes on a historical mystery - and partly because her interpretation of the evidence cited supports my own totally unresearched belief that Richard III did not do the vile deed, or order it done. (By unresearched, I mean that I've read a number of books arguing the case this way or that but never sat down to look at all the existing evidence one way or the other and make an unbiased assessment for myself.)

Tey's theory settles on Henry Tudor, the victorious conqueror of Bosworth, as the author of the crime. Tey finds no credible evidence that Richard III had any need of killing the princes. They had been declared bastards once evidence of a pre-contract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler, made prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, was made public. Henry, on the other hand, needed the York children to be legitimate so that his marriage to Elizabeth of York would strengthen his claim to the throne, but he could not claim the throne if the princes lived. Tey argues that the princes were not killed but simply kept closely in the Tower until Henry took power and had them killed.

It's a very enjoyable - and quick - read, and much to be recommended to anyone interested in the mystery of the princes in the Tower, though
I must say that I'm not convinced of the whole of her argument. I find the reasons for holding Richard III convincing, but doubt that the princes could have remained alive in the Tower for the two years of Richard's reign without some indication of their presence. Guards talk. Records have to account for food, clothes, linens. And so on.

Robin Maxwell's To the Tower Born is another enjoyable novel that presents a theory about the fate of the young princes. Maxwell chooses a minor, and mostly unknown, character - Nell Caxton, daughter of printer William Caxton, who was the recipient of royal patronage. Maxwell imagines a close friendship between Nell and the young Princess Elizabeth, which allows her to be present for many of the crucial events surrounding the death of Edward IV, the power struggle between Richard and the Woodville clan, and the time during which the princes are known to have been in the tower. Maxwell suggests that the culprit was the ambitious Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor's mother, with the aid of The Duke of Buckingham, her nephew and the Constable of England - and hence the master of the Tower.

This theory fits the timeline better, as it has the princes disappearing from the Tower early in Richard's reign - though, in order to give the story a happy ending, Maxwell has the young princes rescued from Margaret and sent abroad to live as ordinary men, lost to history.

Maxwell's novel is also interesting reading for its sympathetic portrayal of Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, the older half-brother of the princes, and for its account of the impact of Caxton's press on English society.

While I started reading Vanora Bennett's Figures in Silk because of the Ricardian aspect of the plot, I actually found that part of the narrative rather thin compared to the rich and detailed story of life in the London silk trade which is the primary focus of the novel. Bennett's protagonist Isabel Claver is a young widow who becomes an apprentice to her successful mother-in-law Alice Claver, one of the foremost silk merchants in London. She learns the trade well and, in partnership with Claver and an Italian silk merchant, embarks on a crown-supported endeavour to bring the secrets of the Italian silk weavers to England.

Isabel's access to the court - and to royal patronage and significant commissions - is due to two things. First, her sister is Jane Shore, the mistress of Edward IV. Second, an accidental meeting with an intense young man in a church where both have gone to seek consolation turns ultimately into a secret royal liaison when Isabel discovers that the young man is Richard of Gloucester.

I have to admit that I didn't really buy Bennett's characterisation of Richard III, or the love affair between him and Isabel. Even Richard's contemporary enemies acknowledged that he seemed not only much attached to his wife, Anne Neville, at least up to the point where he became King, but also unusually faithful to her. The infrequent and furtive meetings between the two give us no sense of who Richard is as a man, and thus we have no background for the things that Richard does once his brother is dead.

Bennett presents Richard as laving been loyal to Edward until his death, but then forming an almost immediate plan to seize the throne from his nephew. She does not, however, go so far as to make him the murderer of the young princes. Rather, she has them spirited out of London at his design by the knight Tyrell - who in real life was later executed as the princes' killer - and raised in secret.

Because Isabel learns of most of the major events of the coup through rumour and the accounts of others, the story of Richard and the princes has no strong dramatic impact - we are caught up more in her confusion and growing shame at having taken as a lover a man who she comes to see as capable of disloyalty and cruelty.

While the greater political matters of the time are given a less than satisfactory treatment, it is as an account of life among the merchant class of London, and of the spirit and determination of a young woman to succeed in her craft despite many personal and professional setbacks that Bennett finds her voice and makes the book worth reading.

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I read The Agincourt Bride, the first volume of Joanna Hickson's fictional account of the life of Catherine de Valois in 2013, and was quite taken by it. Told through the eyes of Catherine's (fictional) wet nurse and lifelong companion Motte, it was a well-researched, well-written, and quite engaging account of Catherine's early life, ending with her marriage to Henry V of England. The Tudor Bride completes Catherine's story - and Motte's - with the same skill and charm.

This novel covers Catherine's brief marriage, the birth and childhood of her son Henry VI, who was only in her care for a few years before being taken into the care of the members of the young king's regency council, and the course of her romance (and likely marriage, although no documentary evidence of a marriage has survived) with Owen ap Meredydd ap Tudwr, descendant of the princes of Wales and progenitor of the Tudor dynasty. In the background of Catherine's personal life as the dowager queen, Hickson also tells the history of the resurgence of French rule in the person of the Dauphin Charles (Catherine's brother), the rise and fall of Jeanne d'Arc and the unravelling of the English claims to the throne and kingdom of France.

A sweet love story, and a solid historical novel that sets the scene for the tempestuous times of the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty that would rise from the ashes of the houses of Lancaster and York.

I understand that Hickson's next planned novel will be based on the life of Cecily Neville, the mother of the Yorkist Kings, and I am looking forward to reading it.

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I first read Anya Seton's novel Green Darkness when I was a teenager, and I haven't had the opportunity to reread it since then. Nonetheless, the story of reincarnated lovers drawn together by their karmic debt to each other, fated by memories from 400 years before their birth to either relive their tragic past lives, or transcend them, struck a deep chord in me, and I've never forgotten that aspect of the book. What I had forgotten, as unbelievable as it is to me now, was that the couple's past lived had been played out against the years of the rapid succession of Tudor monarchs from Edward VI to Mary, and finally to Elizabeth I. So the person I was then was already familiar with the theory of reincarnation, but not yet a Tudor Dynasty fanatic.

Upon rereading, I note that the modern sections of the novel seem a bit forced, with psychiatrist Jiddu Akananda being perhaps too mysterious at the beginning and his explanations too didactic at the end of the book. But the sections set in the past are so lyrically written, so wonderfully rich with detail and so well researched that I have no other quibbles. Indeed, my enjoyment of the book was perhaps greater now than when I first read it, because the supporting cast of characters (many of them, particularly the families of Anthony Browne and his second wife Magdalen Dacre, real people who did most of the things we see them doing in the novel) and the turbulent period of constant religious and political upheaval are so well portrayed, and the story of the fictional lovers Celia de Bohun and Brother Stephen Marsden so delicately woven into what is known about the historical Browne family.

A rediscovered treasure.

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The Tudor Vendetta is the third and final (one assumes) volume in C. W. Gortner's Spymaster series, featuring Brendan Prescott, secretly the illegitimate son of Henry VIII's younger sister Margaret.

In previous volumes, Prescott has been in the service of William Cecil, working undercover to preserve the Tudor line of succession - first Mary, then Elizabeth. In The Tudor Vendetta, Prescott, forced to flee England for his own safety following his role in taking down the Courteney Plot, returns - in the company of his mentor Francis Walsingham - to take up his role as protector of Elizabeth, now queen of England. Though Mary, her sister, is dead, Elizabeth faces many challenges and dangers, not the least of which is the continued animosity of Catholics both at home and abroad.

It is Cecil's plan to keep Prescott close to Elizabeth, both as an intelligencer and protector, and to keep Elizabeth from going too far in her relationship with Robert Dudley, risking her crown and her life through indiscretion. Elizabeth, however, has other plans for Prescott.

An assassination attempt gives Prescott reason to suspect that a Spanish agent he believed to be dead is still alive and plotting against the new Queen, but Elizabeth fears that an even greater danger is marshalling against her, and sends Prescott to investigate.

An enjoyable tale, drawing on what most historians consider to be no more than gossip arising from the circumstances of Elizabeth's early relationship with her step-father Thomas Seymour (who married Henry VIII's widow Katherine Parr) - but again, there's just enough room in the gaps of history to make the plot a plausible one.

His mission accomplished, Prescott is finally free to settle down to a quiet life in the country with his lady love Kate - but I can't help but hope the Elizabeth will need him again.

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A reasonably good interpretation of the life of the oft-forgotten elder sister of Henry VIII - Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland (in fact, she was completely excised from the recent TV series based on the Tudors). A pivotal woman in the royal dynasties of two countries, she was the grandmother (by different husbands) of both Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband Henry Lord Darnley, twice over the great-grandmother of James, king of England and Scotland, closest heir to Elizabeth of England.

Sent to marry a Scottish king in an attempt to make peace between the two countries, she was often torn between her loyalty to her father and brother (Henrys VII and VIII) and to her husband (James V), especially when the hoped-for peace failed to materialise. Indeed, Scotland and England would be at odds until united as one kingdom in the person of her great-grandson, James I of England.

I found it enjoyable reading. I also appreciated the prominence given to her lady in waiting, "black Ellen" - one of at least two free women of African heritage known to be in the courts of Scotland around this time.

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Second in a series of novels by Gortner set in Tudor England. The protagonist is a completely invented character, Brendan Prescott, an unlikely (but just barely plausible) bastard son of Mary, duchess of Suffolk and younger sister of Henry VIII. Prescott, raised in ignorance of his pedigree, becomes a protegee of William Cecil in the first volume, The Tudor Secret, in which he plays a significant if behind-the-scenes role in Mary Tudor's ascension to the throne. In this installment, he has become the sworn man of Elizabeth Tudor, who is unaware of the fact that he is her cousin - a secret which he has uncovered.

The novel is set just prior to Mary's marriage to Philip of Spain. The country is in a state of unrest, sparked by Mary's restoration of the Roman Catholic faith and fear of the consequences of marriage to a foreign prince. Plots abound. Tasked by Cecil to help protect Elizabeth from Mary's suspicions of his mistress' involvement in conspiracies against her, Prescott insinuates himself into Mary's court and finds himself seving multiple masters while investigating the designs of Edward Courtenay, another Tudor cousin, on Mary's throne and life.

A fun read, and the events of the novel are compatible with what is known about Courtenay's plots.

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I read quite a few historical novels last year, most of them set during the Wars of the Roses or the Tudor dynasty. A few were by authors I've read before, but most were by writers new to me, and thanks to judicious reading of reviews prior to acquisition, they were all good reads - and a few of them were excellent.

One of the most delightful discoveries in terms of new-found authors in the genre was Margaret Campbell Barnes. Born in 1891, most of her historical novels were published in the 40s ans 50s. After her death in 1962, most of her books went out of print, but she has been "rediscovered" and a number of her books have been recently republished. Barnes' novels are well-researched, detailed, and have a realatively "modern" feel to them, which should make her as popular today as she was 60 years ago. I've certainly found the books I've read to be just as entertaining as anything by Philippa Gregory, or any of Alison Weir's historical novels. So far, I have been able to obtain and read:

Margaret Barnes Campbell, The Passionate Brood. Originally published as Like Us, They Lived, this is a novel of the fractious Angevin Plantagenets - Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children - focusing primarily on Richard (later called Lionheart), his younger siblings Joan and John, and his wife Berengaria. Barnes also brings into her tale a decidedly ahistorical relationship between Richard and the legendary Robin Hood.

Margaret Campbell Barnes, The Tudor Rose. The story of Elizabeth of York, daughter and niece of the last Yorkist kinss Edward IV and Richard III, wife of the first Tudor king Henry VII.

Margaret Campbell Barnes, King's Fool. A portrait of Henry VIII through the eyes of his fool, Will Somers.

Margaret Campbell Barnes, Brief Gaudy Hour. The story of Anne Boleyn's marriage to Henry VIII.

Other historical novels read and enjoyed during 2013 included:

Vanora Bennett, The People's Queen. A fascinating take on Alice Perrers, businesswoman, mistress of Edward III, and friend (if not more) to poet and merchant Geoffrey Chaucer, who is thought to have used her as the inspiration for the Wife of Bath.

Vanora Bennett, Blood Royal (published in the US as The Queen's Lover). Catherine of Valois. Daughter of the mad king Charles VI of France, wife of Henry V, mother to the infant king Henry VI who would be the last Lancastrian king, lover and probably wife to Owen Tudor (a descendant of Welsh princes), ancestor of the Tudor dynasty. 

Joanna Hickson, The Agincourt Bride. Another perspective on Catherine of Valois, this first volume of a duology covers Catherine's early life, marriage to Henry V, and early widowhood. The second volune, which I am eagerly awaiting, will cover her relationship with Owen Tudor.

Philippa Gregory, The White Queen. A sympathetic view of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Yorkist king Edward IV and mother of the princes in the tower and Elizabeth of York.

Anne O'Brien, The Virgin Widow. An engaging portrait of Anne Neville, daughter of Warrick the Kingmaker, wife to the last Lancastrian heir (Edward of Lancaster) and the last Yorkist king, Richard III.

Alison Weir, A Dangerous Inheritance. Weir does something quite interesting in this novel, which tells the story of two women, both close to the throne but on the losing side of dynastic struggles - Katherine Plantagenet, illigitimate daughter of Richard III, and Katherine Grey, younger sister of Lady Jane Grey, focus of a plot to set aside the succession of Mary Tudor. Weir links them togethet, despite the 100 years that separate them, through the device of secret papers exploring the fate of the Princes in the tower - young royals who lost, like the two Katherines, status and liberty, but unlike them, also lost their lives. 

Susan Higginbotham, Queen of Last Hopes. The story of Margaret d'Anjou, wife of the last Lancastrian king, Edward VI, and her long and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to first regain her husband's throne, and later to win the throne for her son, after the victory of the house of York.

Karen Harper, The Queen's Governess. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I through the eyes of her governes and later personal confidante, Kat Astley.

Margaret George, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. Novel of the tempestuous life of Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scots.

Stephanie Dray, Lily of the Nile and Song of the Nile. First two novels of a trilogy based on the life of Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra of Egypt and Mark Anthony.

Michelle Moran, Cleopatra's Daughter. Another portrait of Cleopatra Selene.

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Tess Gerritsen, Girl Missing
Kathy Reichs, Bones of the Lost
The Detection Club, The Floating Admiral
Rory Clements, Martyr

I'm never quite certain what is going to make a mystery series interesting to me. Obviously, the protagonist matters quite a bit, the setting and time period matters as well, and I seem to prefer crime-solvers who actually have to make observations and reasoned deductions rather than just race about with a gun until they find a killer. Even knowing that, some characters that you'd think would intrigue me, just don't.

However, two series that do appeal to me - at least in part because the sleuths are female and forensic science is a key part of the equation - are Kathy Reich's Temperence Brennan novels and Tess Gerritsen's Rizzoli and Isles series.

So naturally, I devoured Reich's most recent novel with dispatch and delight. Gerritsen did not have a new nivel out last year, so I thought I'd try one of her medical thriller standalones, Girl Missing. Protagonist was a female medical examiner, so I thought it likely that it would appeal to me, and it did.

I also read and enjoyed a rather unusual detective novel, The Floating Admiral. Wikipedia has this to say about it:
The Floating Admiral is a collaborative detective novel written by fourteen members of the Detection Club in 1931. The twelve chapters of the story were each written by a different author, in the following sequence: Canon Victor Whitechurch, G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane and Anthony Berkeley. G. K. Chesterton contributed a Prologue, which was written after the novel had been completed.
The various authors did not know who their collaborators had tagged as the killer and no loose ends were allowed. These strictures were ably dealt with, producing a consistent and highly readable mystery with both a number of plot twists and a fully satisfying conclusion. Fun read.

Having enjoyed historical mystery series such as the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Edith Pargeter (writing as Ellis Peters) and much more recently the Dame Frevisse and Player Joliffe mysteries by Margaret Frazer, I went in search of other series set in interesting time periods. My first choice was Rory Clements' John Shakespeare novels, set in my beloved Elizabethan England, in which the master playwright has a brother in the service of the Queen's spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. And It was a good choice. Well-written, with a good sense of the history and politics of the time - including the religious turmoil - and a finely realised protagonist. I will be reading more of the investigations of John Shakespeare.

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Life's been too much of a bitch for me to keep on writing about books much, but I still read, and I may as well at least post lists of what I read this past year. Here's the first list.


Much of the of the non-fiction I read was a bit of a hodge-podge. Cultural/political studies, feminism, history, biography. All in its way interesting and nothing I regret reading.

Helen Merrick, The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms

Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender

Adam Kotsko, Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television
Arundahti Roy, Talking to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy
Tim Wise, Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority

Lillian Faderman, Naked in the Promised Land

Alison Weir, The Wars of the Roses
Leanda de Lisle, Tudor: The Family Story

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Sometimes I do read things that are not science fiction or fantasy. In 2010, I read some historical fiction based on the lives of Jane Austen and on the lives of various women in the court of King Henry VIII - two of my favourite subjects. I also read a very funny modern feminist novel. And I decided that since I had read Alcott's Little Women so many times, I really ought to read the other books she wrote about Jo March. While reading Little Men, I encountered reference to a play by Edward Bulwer Lytton which was somewhat pivotal to a full understanding of what was happening, so I hunted it down on the Gutenberg Project and read it.

Syrie James, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen

Philippa Gregory, The Boleyn Inheritance

Molly Hite, Class Porn

Louisa May Alcott, Little Men
Louisa May Alcott, Jo’s Boys

Edward Bulwer Lytton, The lady of Lyons, or Love and pride: a play in five acts


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