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Book Cover Image: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

Title:  The Red Queen

Author:  Philippa Gregory

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “Heiress to the red rose of Lancaster, Margaret Beaufort never surrenders her belief that her house is the true ruler of England and that she has a great destiny before her. Her ambitions are disappointed when her sainted cousin Henry VI fails to recognize her as a kindred spirit, and she is even more dismayed when he sinks into madness. Her mother mocks her plans, revealing that Margaret will always be burdened with the reputation of her father, one of the most famously incompetent English commanders in France. But worst of all for Margaret is when she discovers that her mother is sending her to a loveless marriage in remote Wales.

Married to a man twice her age, quickly widowed, and a mother at only fourteen, Margaret is determined to turn her lonely life into a triumph. She sets her heart on putting her son on the throne of England regardless of the cost to herself, to England, and even to the little boy. Disregarding rival heirs and the overwhelming power of the York dynasty, she names him Henry, like the king; sends him into exile; and pledges him in marriage to her enemy Elizabeth of Yorks daughter. As the political tides constantly move and shift, Margaret charts her own way through another loveless marriage, treacherous alliances, and secret plots. She feigns loyalty to the usurper Richard III and even carries his wife’s train at her coronation.

Widowed a second time, Margaret marries the ruthless, deceitful Thomas, Lord Stanley, and her fate stands on the knife edge of his will. Gambling her life that he will support her, she then masterminds one of the greatest rebellions of the time all the while knowing that her son has grown to manhood, recruited an army, and now waits for his opportunity to win the greatest prize.

In a novel of conspiracy, passion, and coldhearted ambition, number one bestselling author Philippa Gregory has brought to life the story of a proud and determined woman who believes that she alone is destined, by her piety and lineage, to shape the course of history.”

Thoughts:  Having just finished The White Queen, the first in Ms. Gregory’s Plantagenet series, the history behind The Red Queen was very familiar.  However, that does not mean that my overall enjoyment of The Red Queen was diminished in any way.  Rather, it provided a fascinating contrast and lesson on the importance of context.  As I was reading, I could not help but think how truly interesting it would be to do a side-by-side comparison of the events, as told from each point of view.  If anything, the two novels drive home the point that history changes drastically depending on the point of view telling it.

The portrayal of each woman is shockingly different.  Whereas Elizabeth, according to Ms. Gregory, is beautiful and beloved, politically savvy and well-informed, Ms. Gregory portrays Margaret as cold and calculating and rather clueless about the politics involved to wrest power from the reigning family.  She is surprisingly unsympathetic as she masks her grab for power as piety and rather scary in her unwavering belief that she alone is correct in her opinions and beliefs and everyone else is wrong.  Also, the mystical elements that appear in the novel – Margaret’s holy visions – are harsher, less visually lovely than Elizabeth’s conjuring of water goddesses.  Even the colors, white versus red, invoke a good vs. bad mentality between the two women.  Overall, one walks away with the impression that Ms. Gregory was Team Elizabeth all the way. 

Yet, from a historical story-telling perspective, Ms. Gregory is still on top of her game.  I could feel the pain in my knees as I sat with Margaret for hours on end in prayer.  I could smell the unwashed bodies of the poor and the soldiers, feel the anxiety at having to wait days and even weeks for news.  The story itself is easy to understand, which in itself is a huge accomplishment because of the complexity and confusion of the era itself.   As a counterpoint to The White Queen, The Red Queen accomplishes what it sets out to do.  More importantly, The Red Queen is more effective at setting the stage for the third book and ends in such a way that waiting until The White Princess release date will be difficult.

Margaret herself is intriguing without the historical backdrop.  Her extreme piety started at a young age, while subsequent tragedies all but forced her to become even more devout or lose faith in humanity completely.  Married at age twelve, a mother by age thirteen after facing a prolonged and almost fatal delivery, her mother abandoned her to her fate after each of her marriages, all of which were for political reasons rather than for love.  Most people would by crying foul if even one of these occurred to a young teenager today.  Put together, they helped Margaret form into a formidable and power-hungry, if rather naive, woman. 

It is a testament to Ms. Gregory’s writing ability that I read the book in an entire weekend even though I personally did not like Margaret.  Not only is it engaging and utterly thrilling, it is surprisingly suspenseful.  With all the political maneuvering, it feels like the entire set-up is one big chess match, where the winner takes all and the loser faces the ultimate punishment.  In a way, it really was a chess match to the real-life Elizabeth and Margaret, as one false move could have found them guilty of treason and hanged or worse.  This constant threat is was very real, and Ms. Gregory does an outstanding job of making that threat a very prominent presence.  The end result is a novel that propels the reader forward, eventually arriving breathlessly at the stunning ending anxious for the story to continue.  The Red Queen is a treat for any historical fiction fan, let alone any Philippa Gregory fan.

A huge thank you to Ally at Simon and Schuster UK for this review copy!

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