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Book Review: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

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Philippa Gregory returns with a brand new series. This time, set in the less well-known Plantagenet era before the Tudors popularly known as The War of the Roses.

The White Queen introduces readers to the Cousins' War through the eyes of Elizabeth Woodville, a long forgotten (and generally disliked) York queen of England. The novel begins with Elizabeth's chance meeting with the young King Edward of York, not long after his defeat of the Lancaster King Henry. Elizabeth, newly widowed, comes to Edward with a financial plea – but ends up getting more than money in return. Elizabeth manages to ensnare the young King with her remarkable beauty, and the two scandalously and secretly marry for love without the permission of any of Edward's advisers.

When Elizabeth is finally presented at court as Edward's wife and the new Queen, the plotting and intrigue begins. Elizabeth, with the help of her Burgundy-born mother, grows from a simple and somewhat naive young woman into a masterful political plotter to navigate the wild English court. Elizabeth quickly moves to raise the status of her family through marriages and alliances while building support for King Edward's claim to the throne – but it isn't long until the old Lancaster threat returns.

Gregory's new series is a breath of fresh air. After so many Tudor-era books (and a barrage of Tudor-related fiction all over the bookshelves and the television waves) it was refreshing to read about another fascinating, turbulent period of English history that is just as engaging (if not more) than Henry VIII's infamous marriage habits. The Plantagenet period, especially the Cousins' War (or the War of the Roses) is the perfect period to pull from, due to its near-constant warfare, betrayal, intrigue, compelling characters, and, most importantly, collection of fascinating mysteries that have never quite been solved.

Gregory admits in her Author's Note that The White Queen has the most fiction of all her novels so far, primarily because the period has scant information available, but this seems to do the novel more of a service than a disservice. Gregory perfectly infuses history with fiction – there's enough history to make the story believable and even educational, but enough fiction to keep readers flipping pages with engaging characters (especially Elizabeth) that are complex and powerful. I especially enjoyed Gregory's take on the mystery surrounding the two princes who disappeared while being kept in the Tower of London. She seamlessly integrates historical fact with fictional speculation in a way that is both logical and intriguing.

The White Queen even includes depictions of battle scenes, some violent. While, I admit, Gregory broke the first-person viewpoint in order to write these scenes with little explanation, this can be overlooked due to the realistic and impeccable quality of the scenes themselves. Gregory's depiction of war is flawless, easy to understand, and adds a new dimension to her writing that some readers will embrace, and others will shun.

Some Gregory fans will also dislike the lack of romance in The White Queen, which I personally found very refreshing. While there is some romance between Elizabeth and Edward, primarily at the beginning of the novel, it takes a back seat position to all of the intrigue and plotting in the novel to the point that it becomes only a minor subplot. There is also some discussion of the king's infamous mistresses, but this is also a minor subplot with little detail and much disdain on the part of the main character, so fans of bodice-ripping, passionate, forbidden love stories between the king and his mistress will not enjoy The White Queen. However, if you are looking for a well-written, detailed tale of a strong woman navigating the turbulent plots of the Plantagenet era, then this novel is perfect for you.

Gregory's skills as a storyteller shine even more in The White Queen than in past novels. Instead of indulging in historical figures or events as she sometimes did in past novels, The White Queen eliminates most of the fat (the beginning is a tiny bit slow) and focuses on creating a great story with amazing characters. Readers should also note that a key plot element of The White Queen is the discussion of an old legend about the water goddess Melusina, whom the House of Burgundy claimed to be descended from. The legend served as the basis for Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid — and later, the Disney film of the same name — but the version in The White Queen is much darker and deeper. The legend of Melusina is used as a jumping-off point for discussion of medieval witchcraft, which is another subplot of the novel that gains steam as the story moves forward. While this adds a unique facet to the story, it feels like the witchcraft thing has been a little overdone in recent historical fiction, so seeing more of it here was a little annoying, rather than refreshing. Thankfully, Gregory approaches the topic in a unique and subtle enough way to keep it from feeling too cliche.

The only major issue I had with this novel was the ending. The White Queen felt like it ended a little too abruptly without a complete resolution. However, since this is the beginning of a new series, I assume that this was done in order to get readers to pick up the next novel, The Red Queen, about the fascinating Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, so I was able to forgive this oversight.

Gregory has proven once again that she is the queen of royal fiction with The White Queen. The novel is a perfect and compelling start to a new series filled with even more intrigue and entertainment than Tudor-era England. While some fans of Gregory who favor bodice-ripping romance may have trouble with this novel, it's ideal for fans of royal intrigue and passionate, powerful female characters.

I devoured this book. Elizabeth is an amazingly portrayed character who grows with each page, and every time that I thought the characters would be safe, a new threat appears. I can't wait until The Red Queen hits the shelves.

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