This review was written February 22 upon finishing an uncorrected ARC proof of Queen of Martyrs. By request, I have postponed the review until April 13, one day following the release of this book.
Full disclosure with apology to the author: I am friends with Samantha Wilcoxson, and I had an unreasonably heavy hand in pushing her into writing this book. My motive was simple enough. I felt that while Samantha’s previous two works in this trilogy are finely written and beautifully characterized, her desire to bring Elizabeth of York and Margaret Pole to sympathetic light contained a rich tapestry that had only just begun to be tapped. These are both highly personal, quality reads, and I encourage all who are interested to check them out. As a champion of Samantha’s work, I wanted to see her push herself as a writer, to go for broke without compromising her hallmark of allowing these oft-silent ladies to speak through her, to tell their stories from their own points of view.
In the course of vocalizing for Elizabeth and Margaret, Samantha tells the end of the Plantagenet dynasty as it gives rise to the Tudor Era. She did this in such a way that an opportunity presented itself, one that I have not personally read in any other historical fiction novel. They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. In the turmoil of the Henry VIII’s reign, his eldest daughter held loyalty for both her discarded queen / mother Katherine of Aragon and the spirituality Katherine nurtured in her daughter. History has vilified Mary I. Her atrocities are well-documented through history, beginning with a book that outsold even The Bible during the Protestant Reformation: John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The legend of “Bloody Mary” speaks volumes. In the whole of the historical fiction realm to date, so far as I’m aware, Mary’s voice has largely remained silent. In fact, Elizabethan propaganda ensured that only the monster gets noted in our popular imaginations nearly 500 years later, with the woman behind the monster otherwise ignored. I encouraged Samantha to let the woman speak for herself.
I laid it on thick, too. I explained my case with the idea that everyone is the hero of their own story and suggested that when you peel back the layers of history, perhaps in the end Mary simply needed a hug. That sounds a bit comical until you learn her story. After all, regardless of what you think about Mary, there’s still a human being behind all of the storm and fury. At first, Samantha pushed back. The Tudors had been done to death, she told me. Haven’t there been many books already written about Mary? Not nearly as many as you might think, and certainly not nearly as many as her sister Elizabeth. Some queens get all the press. And of those books that do exist, how many ever speak for Mary’s defense? It’s such a simple idea, sympathy for the devil. It’s tailor made to ooze drama and character. Such a perspective might challenge both writer and reader alike, but a story like that is hard for readers to resist. And it played right into Samantha’s personal niche as a writer. When she finally said yes to this whole idea, I found myself instantly chomping at the bit to read what she’d come up with.
Even so, I know what a challenge this book had to be to write on a number of levels. To that end, I publicly apologize for opening the mental and emotional battleground that had to be laid waste for this book to manifest. It was a tightrope to walk, I’m sure, but I had faith that Samantha could pull this off while being true to herself, to her personal style, and to her loyal readership. And even more important than the apology for all that back there, big thanks to her for passing along a proof copy before it hits the big, wide world. I was more than happy to drop everything else for a while so I could read it with all due attention.
So now the big question gets answered at last: has faith in my friend’s abilities been rewarded?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Sequel though it is, this book stands on its own as much as it ties into the previous volumes. The first half of the book covers from June 1541, shortly after the death of Margaret Pole at the end of book II, through the end of the reign of Henry VIII and his successor, Edward VI. Much as in her previous two books, this half reads as quick vignettes of character development, spotlighting significant moments, and cementing who these people are in the minds of the reader. For all of the turmoil and heavy lifting this part of the story has to pull off, it reads fast and light. Don’t let that fool you. By the time Mary claims her throne, the stage is set for the real centerpiece of the book. The story expands in both depth and breadth at this point as Mary tries to undo what she perceives as the damage done to her realm. The real battleground in this book is not for political control of the Church of England. For Mary, it’s for the salvation of her people, balanced against her desire for both her Mother’s eternal peace and her own personal streak of vengeance that seemingly every Tudor scion is capable of harboring. The wicked trick is that the facts of history cannot be argued against. Every scholar and enthusiast knows the crimes of Henry VIII and what unfolded in his wake. Samantha uses this to full advantage and weighs every ounce of this on Mary’s soul. Every step that leads her into infamy is grounded in an understanding of who she is, where she’s been, who has influenced her the most, and what she truly believes. The end result is that even if you don’t agree with Mary, you’ll certainly understand and appreciate why she did what she thought she had to do. She comes across as frail but just strong enough at near every turn. For Mary, God is her strength, and His will be done. It is she who must be up to that challenge, to do what no one else can because she has been placed in the position to do so. Divorcing our modern mindset and temporarily embracing that of Mary and her time becomes unspeakably easy in Samantha’s capable hands. I would be surprised if there aren’t some readers ready to defend England’s first queen by the time this is over.
The past is an alien world with alien ideas. What connects people of Renaissance England to our own time and place is the understanding of their humanity. While their ideals might seem strange or even horrible to us at times, their emotions resonate through us when given the proper means to do so. The rest is simply lining up the facts so the story can be told, which is a bit of a nitpick of mine, being so historically-minded. One of the things I’ve readily enjoyed with all of Samantha’s works thus far is that she doesn’t discard the facts to tell her story. She uses them as the necessary framework they are with which to build her characters. And because I’m not fixating on little things that I know are glaringly wrong, I’m able to simply sit back and enjoy the immersion. I even learn a few things along the way. That, my friends, is what historical fiction is all about, at least for me.
Well done, Samantha. Well done.