by Alison Weir
Pretty little Katherine Grey can’t help but be jealous when her older sister, Jane, is chosen to inherit the throne of England after the death of their cousin, King Edward VI. She is comforted by the fact that, unlike her sister, Katherine loves her new husband, Henry. Unfortunately, Jane’s reign lasts only a few days before Mary Tudor sweeps into London and claims the throne as rightfully hers. Jane is thrown into prison, and Katherine’s marriage is hastily annulled. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters the life of another Katherine is told – Kate Plantagenet, the bastard daughter of King Richard III. Like Katherine, Kate falls in love with one young man but forced away from him, and she is persecuted because of her connection to unpopular monarchs. The two young women share something else, too. Both Kate and Katherine become obsessed with the mystery of the two princes who disappear in the Tower during the reign of Richard. Did he have the two boys killed, or is that merely bad press? Although separated by nearly a century, the two Katherines live parallel lives as they rise and fall from power in the machinations of the English court.
At times, it can be difficult to remember which Katherine is currently “on stage”. Both are quite young in their opening chapters, and remain of an age throughout the book. The two girls come off as quite silly in the beginning and their gradual maturity results from disappointment and personal tragedy. But the fast pace of these early chapters, as the throne rapidly changes hands through Plantagenet and Tudor heirs, are enjoyable. It matches well with the breathless giddiness of the Katherines, exposed to power for the first time.
The second half of the book really started lagging, especially as the two young women spent more and more time obsessing over the princes in the tower. Katherine Grey and her jailer spend many an hour discussing their disappearance, but it feels less like a conversation and more like info-dropping for the sake of exciting the reader’s interest in the subject. (Weir has also written a non-fiction book on the topic entitled The Princes in the Tower.) Since both Katherine and Kate spend many of their later years locked up and isolated, there’s little action to enliven the narrative. The inability for either woman to conclusively solve the princes’ disappearance only adds to the sluggishness of the final chapters.
Throughout the book, there are hints of the supernatural. Kate Plantagenet sees a shade of a “young girl” – undoubtedly the future Katherine Grey – off and on in the shadows, while eighty years in the future Katherine is haunted by the voices of the dead princes. These ghostly elements don’t quite gel with the otherwise straightforward historical narrative, and since they ultimately lead nowhere I didn’t find them useful or necessary.
Although I wasn’t particularly sold on combining the lives of Katherine Grey and Kate Plantagenet into a single narrative, I began the book with enthusiasm and enjoyed much of what I read. But the longer the book ran – and at over 500 pages, it’s a hefty tome – the harder it got to go on. There’s just too much story for one book.
For a different account of Katherine Grey’s life, I recommend The Virgin’s Daughters by Jeane Westin. I can’t remember any other books about Kate Plantagenet off the top of my head, but Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War saga covers the same time period and many of the same characters.
For more Alison Weir, I’ve also reviewed her non-fiction book Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2011: We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
2010: Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
2009: The Virgin’s Daughters Giveaway Winners
2008: Vivaldi’s Virgins by Barbara Quick