When it comes to rating historical fiction, I always feel like I’m supposed to compare a novel to other historical fiction writers. I could do that, I suppose, but that seems cruel. Let’s just say that when it comes to the Tudor period, Margaret George sets the standard for me with her Autobiography of Henry VIII, and I will never read anything by Philippa Gregory again. How’s that for personal objectivity?
My measuring stick for this sort of thing is and always will be history itself. We know a lot, but there’s also plenty of wiggle-room for a writer to be creative and fill in the gaps on a story like this based on personal interpretation. In some cases, there’s even more freedom to work with in a setup like this than there is when working with a well-established fictional character, odd as that seems. This, of course, also becomes a potentially messy issue because the Wars of the Roses era pretty much requires the writer to step up their game and keep everything straight for the reader in clear and concise terms. The alternative is that the reader has to break out a scorecard and team roster. Even then, it’s unavoidable for novices, and this era in particular always seems to attract the vultures that will try to pick it apart until there’s nothing left to appreciate. My criteria, then, is based on known facts and character portrayal.
In other words, I’m looking for a novel with an understanding of who and what’s going on, not the kind of wild fan fiction nonsense that’s become prevalent in pop culture today. Again, looking at you, Ms. Gregory.
Essentially this book is first and foremost a romance novel, and Elizabeth of York is our primary POV character, just as the title suggests. Since we start with her at age 5 and work through to her death, this means that the quality of the POV will change in short order as she grows and events progress. It also means that the author is burdened with trying to get across a lot of factual setup to the reader through eyes that are potentially too young to understand. From the outset there is a mix of “show this, but tell that,” and I always find that a bit distracting. However, credit where it’s due, the personality of Elizabeth – and every other character in the book – comes shining through, and the narration becomes far more reliable as the story progresses. That’s a fine line to walk, so hat’s off there.
Where Elizabeth is concerned, the other potentially messy aspect to her character is that she’s overshadowed by personalities far stronger than her own. Her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and Margaret Tudor are the ones that come immediately to mind for me. This is unavoidable because anything less would make for substandard portrayals of these powerful women. Seeing them through the younger Elizabeth’s eyes, however, makes for a more direct reminder of who the book is about, and it allows the details and biases to come forward befitting a character in Elizabeth’s position. Both Woodville and Tudor met with my expectations without either one of them being turned up to 11 for dramatic effect, and I suspect they were fun to write. I also think it demonstrates the kind of pressure Elizabeth had when standing on her own and proving herself. It certainly comes across here.
Henry Tudor is the one that’s most surprising here. History often paints him as a cautious and sometimes vicious miser, the prototypical Ebenezer Scrooge. The trick for me is to always separate the persona from modern expectations and put a given character within their own time, and all that implies. Before the book’s release, I was able to converse with author Samantha Wilcoxson on Booklikes and read a guest blog she wrote on her approach, so admittedly I walked into this with a rough idea of what to expect. It doesn’t make it any less surprising to see the fully-realized character step off the page. It’s pretty much him against the world, and Elizabeth is his only port in the storm, apart from his domineering and doting mother. Likewise, Henry is Elizabeth’s safety net as well. It’s only natural that the two would find romance. It’s one thing to know that, which the extravagant proof their tomb and records from their infamous son, Henry VIII, provide. It’s another thing to see it expressed. To me, this is where this book is a win for those who are looking to see that aspect.
All in all, this is one that burns slowly, but steadily. It invites you into Elizabeth’s world without pushing, but by necessity of the narration, it also holds back enough to make it believable from her perspective. There will no doubt be those who object to details or portrayals here and there as that’s inevitable, but I think on the whole this one’s got it where it counts.