Thursday, August 11, 2011

The White Queen - Philippa Gregory

the white queen
philippa gregory
c. 2009
445 pages
completed 8/3/2011

read for: historical fiction challenge and read from my shelves challenge

*may contain spoilers*

In the darkness of the forest the young knight could hear the splashing of the fountain long before he could see the glimmer of moonlight reflected on the still surface.

When she walked with two sons to the crossroads to wait for the king, Elizabeth Woodville, a widow at age 27, only planned to ask for her dead husband's lands back. She didn't intend to fall in love and become Queen of England. Despite the rise in prominence and power her new position brings to her family, it also brings political struggles and death. Elizabeth makes instant enemies in those who don't like her influence over the king. Not to mention, the country is far from stable as cousins fight each other, each with a claim to the throne.

I've read all of Gregory's Tudor novels, but this is the first of her new series about the Cousin's War (more widely known as the War of the Roses). I think the third in the series comes out later this year and with (maybe?) a fourth one still to come. For anyone who keeps up with me and is familiar with this series, you can probably guess that it makes me crazy that the series' are not written in chronological order. So I try to look at them as stand-alone novels, and for the most part they can be. This book ends with a slight cliffhanger that hopefully gets picked up in a later novel, but otherwise they can be fairly solitary.

The last two Philippa Gregory books I read were split into three narratives, but this one reverts back to having only one. To be honest, I think this books could have benefited from having other narrators along with Elizabeth. Possibly someone like Elizabeth's brother Anthony or something like that (though I realize Anthony would prove to be a problem as a narrator 100 pages or so before the end of the novel)? My reason for this is that there's a lot of time when Elizabeth's not really doing anything, but there's so much going on politically and militarily. As a reader, I felt those episodes would have benefited from a more first hand account. There was just so much action that Elizabeth wasn't privy to that I felt her lone narration did a bit of disservice to the whole story. It could get a little boring with Elizabeth stuck in sanctuary just hearing about the battles. Not to mention, I honestly found the character of Elizabeth a little...I'm not sure, but I wasn't wild about her. She was a little too ambitious at the risk of her family, a little too calculating. Sadly much of her calculations didn't pan out the way she wanted.

One thing I was genuinely happy about was the relationship between Elizabeth and Edward. So often queens in these stories are so very unhappily married, and it's that unhappiness that adds weight and strength to part of their character. So many royal marriages are just horrible and so depressing to read about, which made the genuine love and devotion shown between Edward and Elizabeth incredibly refreshing. In fact, seeing as Elizabeth herself was not what was really drawing me into the story, upon the death of Edward and therefore their relationship I lost a lot of momentum in reading (the first 300 pages were read in three or four days and then the last 100 pages took me a few weeks). Their relationship was definitely uncommon. Politically, it made much more sense for Edward to marry a European princess, someone who could solidify his position as king. And with another royal family behind his children, I feel the little princes would have had a much stronger chance of surviving his death. Of course this is nothing but speculation...

Speaking of relationships, while I wasn't always wild about Elizabeth herself, I did greatly enjoy her family. Again, sometimes in historical fiction specifically about royalty, families don't act the way normal families do (being as they're not normal families). And that's definitely seen in the tenuous relationships between Edward and his brothers George and Richard. But Elizabeth and her family actually loved and supported each other. I loved her mother and I especially loved her brother Anthony. And I was glad we didn't spend too much time with her children other than her daughter (also named Elizabeth). I think it would have been too horrible to get attached to her sons.

I do have to point out that I could have done without the supernatural elements. I understand the reasons for adding them, that Elizabeth's mother was arrested (though acquitted) for witchcraft and that the women of the family claimed to be descendants of Melusina the water goddess, but I found they detracted from the book. I think I could have gotten behind Jaquetta and Elizabeth practicing witchcraft a little more if the results were more ambivalent, but I didn't like the blatant use of magic.

I think this was definitely a good start to a new series. Gregory does a good job of taking historical questions (such as the mystery of the princes in the tower) and creating very plausible answers for them. Of course we don't know what really happened, but the way the answers are presented make for a good argument or at least an interesting possibility. I'm looking forward to continuing the series with The Red Queen.


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