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Book Review: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

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British historical fiction author Philippa Gregory crosses the line to the Lancaster side in the next installment of her Cousins’ War series, The Red Queen.

The Red Queen tells the story of Margaret Beaufort, a member of the House of Lancaster and, most famously, the grandmother of Henry VIII. At the age of twelve Margaret is married to Edmund Tudor in an effort to create a royal Lancaster heir and help secure the throne. Though Edmund dies shortly into their marriage, he leaves Margaret with a son named Henry, whom she swears to put on the throne as the rightful Lancaster heir. Caught up in a dangerous civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York, Margaret must navigate ever-changing court politics and carefully plot to get her son on the throne. But in a world where the king of England is constantly changing and no line of succession is secure, Margaret must walk a thin line between loyalty and betrayal to get what she desires.

Margaret Beaufort is an interesting contrast to Elizabeth Woodville, the York Queen Gregory discussed in The White Queen. While Elizabeth clings strongly to her mother’s mysticism and witch-like superstitions, Margaret is a strict religious woman, clinging to the belief that she is a British version of Joan of Arc and it is her duty, as well as God’s will, that the House of Lancaster rule England through her son. Gregory’s descriptions of the two women are also at completely opposite ends of the spectrum: Elizabeth is described as a tall, blonde and beautifully seductive woman who becomes involved in politics mostly through her chance meeting with Edward III, and who appears to have no real ambition of her own prior to the meeting. Margaret, however, is described as a shorter, dark-haired woman who is modest and was taught, from the earliest days of her life, that she is descended from a royal line and it is her job to fill the Lancaster cradle with sons, as well as put him on the throne as the rightful heir.

Many of the events that take place in The Red Queen where also documented in The White Queen, though this time there’s a different slant to the events and some information is added — and some is removed. While it was interesting to see the same happenings in a different context from the other side, I couldn’t help but think that I’ve read this book before, so the events weren’t as new and, well, felt a tiny bit recycled.

An interesting twist though, as in The White Queen, was the inclusion of violent battles. It did bug me when Gregory broke the first-person viewpoint of Margaret to shift to some third-person battles without warning, but it did add an interesting and unexpected facet to the story. I personally enjoyed the change, but some Gregory fans may have trouble with it.

Something Gregory fans may also have trouble with is the lack of virtually any romance in the novel, especially fans of The Boleyn Girl and historical romance. Other than a dash of very subtle spark between Margaret and brother-in-law Jasper Tudor, there is absolutely no romance between Margaret and any of her husbands and no romantic subplots between other characters. Seriously, I think this is the first Gregory novel I’ve read that has no romance in it at all.

The pacing in this novel also seemed a little off to me. In fact, I found the first 200-ish pages to be kind of boring, with Margaret doing little else than taking orders from others in charge of her life. Once Margaret takes charge of her own life though and starts to really play political games, things start to get really interesting, eventually culminating in a high-action climax with a highly satisfying, though abrupt, ending.

But as always, Gregory’s storytelling skills shine through. The descriptions of Medivel England are well-constructed and enjoyable to read, and the characters are throughly developed, especially Margaret. Margaret’s transformation throughout the novel from a somewhat spoiled, dramatic child to an intelligent, passionate and ambitious woman is believable and compelling. Fans of biographical fiction will embrace Gregory’s portrait of Margaret Beaufort.

Though many readers and reviewers will disagree with me, I actually found The White Queen to be more enjoyable than The Red Queen. Something about the Lancaster side just didn’t enthrall me as much as the York side. Though not a horrible book, not one of my favorites.

I’m interested to see what happens in the next Cousins’ War novel which, according to Gregory’s website, will be called The Rivers Woman and document the life of Elizabeth Woodville’s mother Jaquetta Rivers, instead of the previously announced White Princess.

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  • I for one is much obliged to state that the White Queen was much more enthralling and my political views in the wars of the roses are still prominent to the White Rose. One that reads the opposite book first would normally sustain the first pair of reasons.