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The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

Young girl (criminally so, if this weren’t the royal family) is married off to indifferent, wildly ambitious swordsman and widowed before delivering a son. Is remarried to a much nicer and more sedate man, but forced to relinquish custody of son and heir to late husband’s brother, for whom she feels inappropriate emotional stirrings. With departure from mortal coil of Husband #2 she makes a canny choice of third spouse, but comes to suspect she is being double-crossed in her endeavours to install her child on the British throne and fulfill her life purpose.

Such is the stuff of the early to mid-life story of Margaret Beaufort, protagonist of the stirring The Red Queen, the second installment in Gregory’s new series, The Cousins’ War, which focuses on the time of the Wars of the Roses. The first book in the series, last year’s The White Queen, depicted in the author’s usual vivid style the bloody machinations that characterized the tussling for the throne of England back when real power was at stake.

Where the first novel traced the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the widowed mother of two who became a loving and fecund wife to Edward IV and the mother of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ and Elizabeth of York, the second introduces the girl who will become her arch-rival and who in 1453 at age 12 is tasked with producing the heir to the throne and advancing the House of Lancaster over that of York.

It’s all rather confronting for a barely pubescent, pious child whose sole dream is to become an abbess and who fantasizes about emulating the deity-driven acts of valour of Joan of Arc.

However, Margaret proves to possess a stronger instinct for survival than her idol, and becomes one of the most remarkable women of her day. Gregory depicts her as near-obsessive in her drive to see her son, Henry, take England’s throne, and her own name written as Margaret Regina.

Gregory, an historian by trade, has been clear since her earliest forays into writing historical fiction of the Tudor period that her novels are the result of extensive research and literary sleight-of-hand. There are conversations, recollections and interior musings that, absent the detailed diaries of all concerned, cannot be verified.

Thus she can apply a certain amount of poetic license: in telling the story of Margaret Beaufort she omits mention of an annulled first marriage (which took place when Margaret was seven and which she herself never recognized) and takes some liberties in exploring the relationship between Margaret and her former brother-in-law, an intriguing complication which, along with the traumatic depiction of Henry’s birth and his mother’s subsequent longing for her son, lends emotional weight to a story which risks overdoing the plotting and scheming.

It’s a fine balance, and one that Gregory, whose preeminence in her genre is long established, strikes perfectly. Her knowledgeable approach to writing of the royal women of mid-millennium England, and the deft, empathetic manner in which she unlayers their inner lives, is at the core of her appeal.

The next in the series, The Lady of the Rivers, examines the life of a woman who has played a background role in each of the first two novels, and whom Margaret Beaufort loathed and suspected of practicing the dark arts: Jacquetta of Luxembourg, mother of Elizabeth Woodville.

Previously reviewed on CoastFM.co.nz

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones