The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory's long-awaited sequel to her best-seller The White Queen is due to hit the shelves next month and people are already talking about it non-stop all over twitter and various book blogs. So the question is : will it live up to the hype ?
As I said in my recent review of The White Queen, I didn't actually expect to like these tales of The Wars of the Roses because historical fiction is really not my thing. Like most people, I had vague notions of the ruthless ambition of the rival houses of York and Lancaster pitching cousins against each other in their constant battle for the throne, but I didn't really know much about any of the protagonists.
The histories have been told many times before but Philippa Gregory focuses on the her-stories, giving a voice to the female characters who, despite having little power or respect in their male-oriented world, often had a great deal of influence behind the scenes.
I was a bit worried that The Red Queen wouldn't live up to the powerful opening episode that preceded it. Elizabeth Woodville, The White Queen of York that the first novel focused on, seemed to be an ambitious but nevertheless loyal leading lady that we could relate to. She had a mysterious multi-faceted persona as heartbroken mother of the Princes in the Tower, descendant of the strange water goddess Melusina, practising witch, the first commoner to marry a king ... How could the manically pious, ruthlessly ambitious, passionless Red Queen of Lancaster take centre stage without paling into insignificance ? She lacks the charisma, the beauty and the passion of her rival.
Well, surprisingly, she does rise to the challenge. The opening chapters were a bit confusing because I had trouble repositioning myself in history and working out where the story was beginning. We in fact go back in time to before the opening of The White Queen and discover the future Red Queen, Margaret Beaufort, as a fanatically religious nine-year-old, devoted to God, proud of her saints' knees that are rough from kneeling in prayer and convinced that she is the English version of Joan of Arc, her heroine who comes to her in visions. Despite Elizabeth Woodville's scathing criticisms of Margaret Beaufort in The White Queen, we cannot fail to be touched by the childish naivety of this little girl and be horrified by the tales of her marriage and barbaric childbirth just a few years later. The tables are turned and it is now Margaret's turn to give her first-person narrative, including her own harsh criticism and dismissal of Elizabeth Woodville as a nothing, a whore and a witch. Although her loyalty to her unique son is possibly misplaced, we can, once again, empathise with this ruthlessly driven mother who just wants what is best for her child - and what is, she considers, their God-given right to the throne.
Despite a large part of the novel telling the tales of the same battles and historic developments as in The White Queen, we still learn a lot of new information and get a fascinating insight into the life and times of the people both rich and poor. We can draw many parallels between the tales of the two rival queens but we never get a sense of repetition in the stories and we see things from two opposing viewpoints.
Philippa Gregory presents us with a rigourously researched fictionalised account of her female characters. As the womenfolk were so unimportant at the time, I would assume much of their histories are largely unrecorded but she has filled in the blanks with her informative and enthralling narrative.
Unlike Hollywood blockbusters or serialised novels featuring heroes that we all know will never be killed off, this is based on real life and the good guys (if we could even work out who they are) do not always win. If I'd paid closer attention to my history lessons at school, I'm sure I'd have known who would win the ultimate battle but I was glued to the page, enthralled by the back-stabbing and horrific battle scenes and never knowing until the final pages what the outcome would be. In this cousins' war, all is unfair in love and war and the novel is fast-paced and action-packed.
It definitely does live up to the hype and I am now champing at the bit to discover the third novel of the trilogy which will focus on the mystical Jaquetta, mother of Elizabeth Woodville, who is sure to have another passionate and mysterious tale to tell.
star rating : 5/5
RRP : £18.99
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd (19 Aug 2010)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd (19 Aug 2010)
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