The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Mary, Queen of Scots has been deposed and now relies on the charity of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. As always, I'm thoroughly impressed with Philippa Gregory's ability to bring history to life. The reason this one gets only three stars is:
1) much of the story is told rather than shown, which is probably unavoidable. The main characters are the Earl and Countess who keep Mary, Queen of Scots' court on their own lands and Queen Mary herself. Much of the political action happens offscreen with other figures fashioning revolts and making political alliances. I don't know that it would be possible to choose a cast of characters closer to the action and still have a workable book, but for what it's worth, the telling rather than showing made this hard for me to read at the outset. I found myself skimming passages that I would then have to go back to read.
2) I didn't sense much difference in the voices of the three viewpoint characters. I'd sometimes in the middle of a chapter have to flip back to the chapter title to remind myself who was speaking, and given how different the three characters are, that's a little odd. I love Gregory's voice and style of writing, but in this respect, it didn't put me into the different characters' minds.
3) The prose has a lot of repetition. It's beautifully crafted repetition, but repetition all the same. Whole paragraphs would repeat the same sentiments and dialogue would retread ground already visited. This is an editing issue; most writers I've seen do a lot of repetition in earlier drafts, but I think the final product reads much more smoothly if pared down.
But I do still recommend this book. The characters, especially Bess, the Countess, are fascinating. Gregory puts is squarely into the heart of what's going on in England at the time. Talbot, the Earl, is old nobility, one of the great lords of the North, an area crawling with Catholics and supporters of Queen Mary. Bess is new nobility, a woman who's worked her way up in the world through good marriages and an even better head for business. Protestantism has paid off handsomely for her, and much of her political allegiance is driven by that. And then there's Mary, Queen of Scots, who was born queen of Scotland, married to a Prince to become Queen of France, and as grand-niece of Henry the VIII, has a strong claim on the throne of England. She is at least Elizabeth I's heir, if not the rightful queen in her place.
Never before had I realized how delicate the political balance was in Elizabeth's reign, or how many near misses she weathered from armies both home grown and foreign. If not for a few fortunate coincidences, such as a Papal Bull excommunicating Elizabeth that did not get delivered to England until a year after the uprising in support of it, Queen Elizabeth would have been deposed.
I'm definitely off to get more books in this series on my next trip to the library. Each can stand alone - given they're historical, you don't have to worry about spoilers!