Over the last decade or so, one sub-genre in historical fiction that has really failed for me has been the Tudor period of English history (1485-1603). So much very bad fiction has been published, and I have read a great deal of it -- so much so that I became burnt out on it, and discovered that I knew enough about all of these monarchs through fiction to essentially put the door closed on them.
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Then I found out that an old favourite of mine, Susan Kay's Legacy, was being reprinted by Sourcebooks. Well, being that my original copy had vanished somewhere into the basement, and that I dimly remembered that it had been a pretty good historical read, I decided to give it another go. And oh, am I glad I did!
The novel starts with the birth of Elizabeth to Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII. Henry has moved heaven and earth to ensure that his second wife will give birth to a legitimate child, divorcing and abandoning his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and breaking with the Catholic Church and Rome. Now all of that effort has not resulted in that longed for son, but a mewling brat of a daughter. Anne is devastated but determined that she will not be set aside as her predecessor has been. Grimly she holds on while Henry moves on to other women, but meets her fate when Henry decides that death is best way to dispose of an unwanted wife who can not bear a healthy son.
Elizabeth, not yet three when her mother's execution occurs, is a bright and lively child, and quicker than most of her peers. She is confused and miserable with the sudden loss of her mother, and her own royal rank. Coupled with the disinterest of her father, and an elder half-sister who is fond of her but sees her as a bastard, Elizabeth very quickly learns to keep her secrets to herself, and the only people that she trusts are her governess, Kat Ashley and a nurse, Blanche Parry. While the next two wives of Henry are not much more than dim memories for her, it is the last two that make the most impression on Elizabeth's life and her future.
The fifth wife, the flighty, flirtatious Katherine Howard's reign is a short one, but she easily makes a pet of the impressionable child, showering her with affection and gifts. But when her infidelity to the king is discovered, Henry is just as swift and brutal as he had been with Anne Boleyn, giving Elizabeth a strong reminder that men are the ones who hold the real power over women's lives, and that they are just as fickle as the wind. The last wife, Katherine Parr is a far quieter wife, devoted to her three stepchildren, but learns that even being a gentle helpmate to the aging king does not always mean safety either. When Henry finally dies of illness and excessive living, Elizabeth finds herself taken into the Dowager Queen's household and starts to know the first security in her life. But the Queen is also in love with the ambitious Thomas Seymour, uncle of the new king, Edward VI, and a vivid man in Elizabeth's life.
She is just fourteen, and finds herself dazzled by the Admiral, joining in the romps as this handsome, witty man starts to flirt with her. While Queen Katherine seems to be oblivious, all is well, but when the romping starts to turn into something more dangerous and serious, all hell breaks loose, and Elizabeth finds herself banished to join her sister Mary. Quickly the first of many plots erupt and Elizabeth starts to see the folly of losing her head and heart over a man...
But Thomas Seymour isn't the only man that catches Elizabeth's affection. There's Robin Dudley, a younger son of the Earl of Warwick, darkly handsome and full of mischief. The pair meet as children in the royal schoolroom, and the pair make plenty of trouble together, and Elizabeth finds the first real friend in her life, ties that will last to the end of both of their lives. But when Robin's father, now the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king, and now Duke of Northumberland, finds out what greed and ambition lead to. When he tries to seize the throne for his youngest son, Guildford and daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, the fall of the Dudley family is terrible. And Elizabeth is once again embroiled in plots that seek to destroy her as her elder sister becomes Queen Regnant, and England starts the bloody conflict between Protestant and Catholic...
Yes, there is quite a bit to this novel, and hardly anything is wasted as we follow the path of Elizabeth's rise and how she transformed England from being a second rate kingdom on the edge of Europe into the growing superpower that would later dominate the world. Plenty of conflicts arise, from her rival claimant, Mary Stuart, who makes all of the mistakes that Elizabeth cleverly sidesteps, the various French suitors for her hand, and the ladies and people around her. Particular attention is paid to William Cecil, Elizabeth's most trusted advisor and friend, whom Elizabeth would call her 'Spirit.' I rather liked how the rivalry between he and Robert Dudley was played out here, and the author makes it all very believable.
One of the best parts of this book is the dialog that just snaps and sparkles with liveliness and energy. People speak here with passion and conviction, without any stilted formality or 'forsoothness' that most modern authors tend to bungle. Too, events unfold pretty much as they are known, with a few exceptions. The way that the mystery surrounding Amy Robsart, Robert Dudley's most unfortunate first wife, is handled in a unique way that I found very believable and chilling.
Most of all, the best part of the book is the Elizabeth that we see here. She is clever, thoughtful, and not at all above doing manipulation of her own to see England become strong and independent. Unlike many depictions of this queen, Ms. Kay shows both the dark spots in Elizabeth's soul, as well as her weaknesses. While there is some narrative in the book where things are told to the reader rather than shown, there is so much to this story that I can forgive the author for making this usually fatal mistake.
In short, if you want a smart, well-written, fictional look at Queen Elizabeth I's life from the cradle to the grave, give this one a try. It's an excellent book, with plenty of bite and fire to it, memorable characters, and history that reads like fiction -- until you realize that it all really happened.
In addition to the narrative, this new edition has a reader's group guide and list of questions for discussion.
Five stars, and a not-to-be-missed read if you like historical fiction.
Legacy: The Beloved Novel of Elizabeth, England’s Most Passionate Queen and the Three Men Who Loved Her
1985, 2010; Sourcebooks Landmark