Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Review: Queen's Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Queen's Gambit
By: Elizabeth Fremantle
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-4767-0306-0


Born into the powerful and religious-reform minded Parr family, the Queen's Gambit opens with Katherine facing the death of her second husband, John Neville. As a supporter of the Catholic Church, and bitterly opposed to Henry's first divorce and subsequent sacking of the wealth and power that had long attended the Catholic faith in England, Baron Latymer's efforts to later reconcile with the king cost both him and his family dearly. The unspeakable horrors Katherine and her stepdaughter, Meg, endured at the hands of Catholic rebels who held them hostage in an attempt to regain Latymer's support birthed within Katherine a passion for the Protestant faith and its tenets, such as the accessibility of the scriptures to all the faithful. Years later, his health failing, Latymer begs Katherine to end his suffering and using her extensive knowledge of herbal medicine, she complies -- and the burden of her secret sin and subsequent widowhood sets her life on a trajectory she never imagined, one where guilt and compassion, faith and fear war within her for prominence. Against all desire and expectation, Katherine gains the attention of the now-single king and is faced with a choice -- hold fast to thwarted dreams or acquiesce to the king's desires, and use her new-found power to change her land and in so doing perhaps atone for her secret sins.

I've always been rather fascinated by Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII -- because of all the women joined to that volatile, larger-than-life figure in marriage, she alone survived. For her debut novel Elizabeth Fremantle examines the life of this extraordinaryand oft-times controversial woman whose intelligence and passion not only enabled her survival in Henry's court, but arguably left an indelible mark on the rulers to come, particularly her step-daughter, the Princess Elizabeth.

As perhaps one of Henry's lesser-known wives, Katherine has managed to avoid the scandalous notoriety that attached to many of her predecessors arguably by simple virtue of playing the game well enough to survive. Fremantle's Katherine is a sympathetic, multi-faceted heroine whose cool, seemingly unflappable regal demeanor masks passions, dreams, and a fierce intellect. Alternately told from the point-of-view of Katherine, her long-time maid and companion Dot Fownten, and friend and doctor Robert Huicke, Queen's Gambit is a fascinating portrayal Katherine the Queen, balancing the documented, public persona with an intimate view of the cost and heartache attendant on subsuming her personal desires to the greater call, the potential influence marriage to Henry placed within her grasp. It is therefore somewhat unfortunate that Fremantle opts to tell her story using third-person present tense, one of my least favorite narrative forms and I believe one of the hardest to successfully achieve. Fremantle comes close, but the awkward phrasing required of this form of narrative constantly serves as a "block," reminding the reader that they are an observer and thus prevented from becoming fully immersed in Katherine's otherwise fascinating life and world.

I loved Fremantle's decision to in part tell Katherine's story from the perspective of her maid Dot Fownten and doctor and confidante Huicke. Where in most fiction one would need -- or choose -- to invent a servant, Fremantle incorporates documented figures like Dot, adding an extra layer of authenticity to the narrative. As a woman who served Katherine from her days in Baron Latymer's household, Dot would be intimately acquainted with the queen -- and yet much remains unknown about Dot's own life, allowing Fremantle the dramatic license to explore the life of a member of the Tudor serving class. The result is a thoroughly engaging blend of fact and fiction, as Dot is a wonderfully realized character and sharp observer of her masters and their manners (or lack thereof). And I adored the manner in which Fremantle re-imagines Dot's real-life cross-class courtship and eventual marriage to court musician William Savage. And Huicke -- his insight, sensitivity, and loyalty to Katherine absolutely broke my heart.

Covering roughly five years, Fremantle keeps the action moving at a brisk pace despite the tendency of third-person present tense to slow the pace of the narrative. The novel's greatest strength lies in its exploration of the delicate, tense dance Katherine is forced to perform for the duration of her marriage. Recognized as a queen capable of swaying the king's views -- particularly as they related to religious reform -- Katherine battled pro-Catholic factions in the council and Henry's volatile, jealous temperament to win the king's favor, serving as regent during Henry's final French campaign and facilitating his reconciliation with daughters Mary and Elizabeth, seeing them restored to the succession.

Katherine's influence on Elizabeth is particularly interesting to consider here, in light of Fremantle's portrayal of the advances her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour, made toward the princess while she resided in their care at the beginning of Edward VI's reign. While the full extent of this "relationship" may never be known -- particularly whether or not Elizabeth reciprocated Seymour's overtures -- Fremantle crafts this moment as a pivotal turning point in Elizabeth's youth, a critical moment wherein Katherine's betrayal serves as a potential seed for Elizabeth's later famously unmarried state. The tragedy of Katherine's one great passion being revealed as a selfish, womanizing fraud is wrenching to experience, but reveals once again Katherine's greatest strength -- her ability, even on her deathbed, to preserve the most intimate part of herself -- her desperate faith and hope of redemption.

Queen's Gambit is an engrossing, thought-provoking portrait of an extraordinary queen and the times in which she lived. Fremantle's affinity for the time period shines, particularly in her characterization of the "rougher" side of the time period via the character of Dot. She makes some bold assumptions regarding Katherine's life (i.e., the manner of Latymer's death), but no matter where one stands on such artistic license, Fremantle constructs a heady, thought-provoking mix of fact and fiction that will leave one hungry for more. Fremantle's entertaining and readable (despite the point-of-view choice! *wink*) portrait of Katherine's life marks her as an author to watch, and I cannot to wait for her follow-up, Sisters of Treason -- the story of Lady Jane Grey's younger sisters -- slated to release Spring 2014.

About the book:

Widowed for the second time at age thirty-one Katherine Parr falls deeply for the dashing courtier Thomas Seymour and hopes at last to marry for love. However, obliged to return to court, she attracts the attentions of the ailing, egotistical, and dangerously powerful Henry VIII, who dispatches his love rival, Seymour, to the Continent. No one is in a position to refuse a royal proposal so, haunted by the fates of his previous wives—two executions, two annulments, one death in childbirth—Katherine must wed Henry and become his sixth queen.

Katherine has to employ all her instincts to navigate the treachery of the court, drawing a tight circle of women around her, including her stepdaughter, Meg, traumatized by events from their past that are shrouded in secrecy, and their loyal servant Dot, who knows and sees more than she understands. With the Catholic faction on the rise once more, reformers being burned for heresy, and those close to the king vying for position, Katherine’s survival seems unlikely. Yet as she treads the razor’s edge of court intrigue, she never quite gives up on love.

*My thanks to Historical Fiction Virtual Tours for the review opportunity, and my apologies for being late with my review! I'm slowly but surely catching up. :)

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