Monday, August 31, 2009

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

Historical fiction is my guilty pleasure reading. I don't like all historical fiction (some of it can come a little too close to romance for my taste), but I've always enjoyed Philippa Gregory's books about the Tudor period. And I eagerly wait for her new historical fiction to be published. Her newest book, The White Queen, is the first book in a new series by Gregory which will deal with the Plantagenet kings who preceded the Tudors as England's rulers.

The White Queen deals with the time period in English history known as the War of the Roses - when the Houses of Lancaster and York were fighting for control of the crown. Elizabeth Woodville, a young widow with two small sons, catches the eye of new Yorkist king, Edward IV. She spends the next 18 years (or so) in the tenuous position of trying to help her husband retain possession of the crown. When Edward IV dies of an illness, Elizabeth must do everything she can to be certain that the crown passes to her and Edward's eldest son, also named Edward (of course!). This is no small task, as the King has two brothers who have been plotting for years to take the crown away from him and there is always the threat that the (defeated) Lancasters will try to reclaim the crown for themselves. Not to mention, Henry Tudor, a young boy who is the son of Margaret Beaufort, herself a member of the Lancastrians. Elizabeth does all she can to keep her son Edward and his younger brother, Richard, safe. But their fates have been a mystery for centuries. Even today no one is absolutely certain what ever happened to the "Princes in the Tower".

I was very excited to learn that Gregory's newest book was going to deal with the War of the Roses and the Princes in the Tower. I've done a little studying of this time period, and I've never been completely clear on the details of the war between the Lancasters and the Yorks. The books I've read have been non-fiction and I tended to get a bit bogged down in the details. I'm happy to report, that after reading The White Queen, I now have a firm grasp on the basics of that time period in English history! Of course because this is fiction, I was sure to go back and check Gregory against the history books, and I'm happy to report that in all the important, verifiable details she was accurate.

I will say, however, that there were some elements in this book that I didn't really appreciate at first. The very beginning veered too far into the romance genre for my taste and I was afraid that this would continue throughout the book. I'm happy to report that it did not. I don't remember Gregory's other books doing this. Maybe I'm mistaken, but if this is something new she is doing to draw in more readers, I, for one, think it's a mistake. The other thing that bothered me about this book is that it has an element of mysticism to it that I have never encountered in Gregory's other books. Again, this is a matter of taste, but books with too much mysticism or magical realism do not appeal to me. The mysticism was not gratuitous, there was a reason for it, but it still irked until I read Gregory's notes at the end of the book. Apparently, Elizabeth Woodville was descended from the "dukes of Burgundy who cherished the tradition that they were descended from Melusina, the water goddess. " So, there was a legitimate reason for this being included in the book. I felt better knowing that. The other thing that really bothered me about the book (until I read the author's note) has to do with the Princes in the Tower. I don't want to spoil the story so I won't go into any detail, but I had never read the theory that she presents here. She explains this in the notes and that appeased me. I do know that this is fiction, but I think that it's important for historical fiction not to play too loose with history. Gregory's explanation in the note explains why she chose to write it this way, and she does alert the reader to the fact that this element of the story is not based in fact. Good enough for me.

Overall, I liked The White Queen. Mostly because it gave me a better understanding of this period in English history. It's not my favorite Philippa Gregory book, but if you are interested in this subject or if you are a Philippa Gregory fan, it is worth reading. I am definitely looking forward to the next book in the Plantagenet series.

I would give The White Queen 3 stars - I liked it.

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