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Book Review: The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

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Philippa Gregory possesses the happy talent of weaving historical fact with historical fiction, a true gift. Effortlessly, she takes us through the lives of notable women of history. Sometimes they are famous (Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn) and sometimes they are obscure. Either way, she treats their lives with compassion, teasing out all the tiny details that make them spring into vivid three-dimensions.

Gregory establishes the benchmark for any historical fiction writer. A historian herself (Ph.D. at the University of Ediburgh), she uses her writing to take her readers into hitherto undiscovered territory. Much historical fiction has been written about the Tudors, but in The Lady of the Rivers, Gregory moves further back, before even the War of the Roses.

The star of The Lady of the Rivers is young Jacquetta (previously encountered in The White Queen). She has visions of the future, a hereditary gift for the women in her family. This gift puts her into the dangerous orbit of the powerful Duke of Bedford. He wishes for her to use her visions to help him discover the Philosopher’s Stone, which allows the transmutation of lead to gold. He wishes to use this gold to strengthen the English army and maintain their hold of occupied France.

Women and power, visible and invisible, is one theme that Gregory revisits in the book. The Wheel of Fortune can throw you very high and cast you very low; to illustrate this, The Lady of the Rivers opens with Jacquetta befriending Joan of Arc, who was imprisoned in her uncle’s home. Because Joan brought the English army to its knees, she must die as a result. As a writer, Gregory is constantly exploring the conflict between men and the women determined to live their own lives.

The novel follows Jacquetta through her life, notably highlighting her influential friendship with Margaret of Anjou that places her squarely in history’s path as the Lancasters and the Yorks begin to clash.

There is a love story with the Duke of Bedford’s squire, Richard Woodville, for those who enjoy their historical fiction with a bit of spice, and there are mystical moments with the gift of foretelling and the goddess of Water, Melusina. In short, all the elements that make Philippa Gregory a giant force in the world of historical fiction.

My one disappointment was that Jacquetta’s life, by necessity of historical fact, was an unending stream of battles. Her husband was constantly being sent off in support of his king. This coming and going occupies a great deal of the book. While Gregory handles this deftly, it allowed my attention to wander periodically. Nevertheless, I am avidly waiting for the next installment in The Cousin’s War series.

(Visit Philippa Gregory’s website at: www.philippagregory.com.)

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