Title: The Lady of the Rivers
Author: Philippa Gregory
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“Descended from Melusina, the river goddess, Jacquetta always has had the gift of second sight. As a child visiting her uncle, she met his prisoner, Joan of Arc, and saw her own power reflected in the young woman accused of witchcraft. They share the mystery of the tarot card of the wheel of fortune before Joan is taken to a horrific death at the hands of the English rulers of France. Jacquetta understands the danger for a woman who dares to dream.
Jacquetta is married to the Duke of Bedford, English regent of France, and he introduces her to a mysterious world of learning and alchemy. Her only friend in the great household is the dukes squire Richard Woodville, who is at her side when the dukes death leaves her a wealthy young widow. The two become lovers and marry in secret, returning to England to serve at the court of the young King Henry VI, where Jacquetta becomes a close and loyal friend to his new queen.
The Woodvilles soon achieve a place at the very heart of the Lancaster court, though Jacquetta can sense the growing threat from the people of England and the danger of royal rivals. Not even their courage and loyalty can keep the House of Lancaster on the throne. Henry the king slides into a mysterious sleep; Margaret the queen turns to untrustworthy favorites for help; and Richard, Duke of York, threatens to overturn the whole kingdom for his rival dynasty.
Jacquetta fights for her king, her queen, and for her daughter Elizabeth for whom Jacquetta can sense an extraordinary and unexpected future: a change of fortune, the throne of England, and the white rose of York.”
Thoughts: For those historical fiction lovers who prefer their historical fiction to be accurate, Philippa Gregory is probably not the author to read. Her flair for the dramatic and focus on the story rather than on the history tends to make historical accuracy somewhat flexible in any of her novels. However, as fans already know, her more fanciful wanderings tend to be the more engaging aspects of any of her novels. This is especially true of her latest, The Lady of the Rivers, wherein the main character is a real-life historical figure who was charged twice for being a witch during an age where witchcraft was punishable by death.
As the prequel to her Cousins’ War series, The Lady of the Rivers gives voice to Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta. Royalty in her own right, she rejects her royal favor and marries the steward of her deceased first husband. As one of the few members of the royal family to marry for love, this makes her a woman of immense interest. Ms. Gregory adds to this interest by infusing her Jacquetta with magical ability. Everything she suggests can be explained by chance, but the mere suggestion of mystical powers as an acknowledgement to her family’s heritage – they consider themselves as descendants of Melusina, a mythical goddess of water – adds a level of intrigue and danger. Gregory is very effective in emphasizing this danger with her opening sequence of Joan of Arc’s trial and subsequent execution by fire, all of which Jacquetta witnesses firsthand.
As far as Ms. Gregory’s canon goes, The Lady of the Rivers is a very quick and entertaining read, albeit one of her more fictionalized stories with its focus on magic and mythology. It is also one of the more politely political novels she has written, which is saying something about an author who prides herself on writing about strong-minded and independent women. Her heroines have always subtly advocated women’s rights. In The Lady of the Rivers, Ms. Gregory’s thoughts on the machinations of men against women is vocal and difficult to ignore. Her indignity at treatment of women by men throughout history gives readers yet another reason to enjoy this charming novel.
Even though some might argue that yet another novel about the Tudors and their predecessors is not necessary, Ms. Gregory’s strength lies in her ability to create a very clear and distinct voice for each of her heroines. While the fine points may be historically questionable, a reader does get a good picture of life during the confusion leading up to and during the War of the Roses, and her historical figures all but come back to life. Each character is distinct, and Ms. Gregory is effective at getting into the mindset of each heroine so that the reader can understand more of the political intrigue and very confusing intertwining of royal relations. Because Jacquetta’s experiences allow the reader to understand how the War of the Roses started, The Lady of the Rivers is a welcome addition to her Cousins’ War series, and fans of Gregory’s will rejoice to know that her latest is a very strong entry to her lengthy body of work.