Sacred Treason by James Forrester – Book Review

Sacred Treason by James Forrester
Published by Sourcebooks

It starts for Clarenceux with a knock on the door late at night. As a a Catholic in Elizabeth I’s England, he worries about late night knocks at the door; despite his loyalty to the Queen there is always the worry a Catholic subject will come under suspicion by the queen’s spies. On that fateful night, however, the knock is not one of the queen’s men, but Clarenceux’s old friend, Henry Machyn. Machyn looks frantic and has broken curfew to be there and give Clarenceux a book. It is not just any book, but a book with the potential to get both men in deep trouble: Machyn tells Clarenceux that the fate of two queens is tied up in this chronicle and that if anything happens to him, Clarenceux will know how to decipher the text. Unfortunately for Clarenceux, Elizabeth’s spymaster Walsingham is aware of the existence of the chronicle and believes it to be very dangerous. He and his goons will stop at nothing to get the book if it will, as they believe, keep their queen safe.

Forrester accomplished something interesting in Sacred Treason: he made me root for the people involved in a possible Catholic plot against Elizabeth I. Typically my sympathy is unwaveringly with Elizabeth and the men tasked with protecting her. Part of the appeal of Clarenceux, of course, is that he did not ask to become involved in any plot, but is instead pulled in by Machyn’s delivery of the chronicle and the appearance of Walsingham’s henchmen before he has time to figure out what to do with it.

I was not quite as impressed with Forrester’s prose while writing fiction, I prefer his writing style when he writes nonfiction under his real name, Ian Mortimer. In fact, I really like his Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. That being said, Sacred Treason has an engaging plot and good characterization. These attributes, combined with Forrester’s extensive knowledge of the time period make Sacred Treason an easy book to pick up and get lost in for an hour or two.

Recommended.

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Elizabeth I by Margaret George – Book Review

Elizabeth I by Margaret George
Published by Penguin Paperbacks, an imprint of Penguin

Much has been written about Elizabeth I, but the majority of it seems to concentrate on the earlier years of her life. Her alleged affair with Thomas Seymour, her life under her sister Mary’s Catholic rule, and the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley (were they lovers? did he kill his wife in hopes of marrying Elizabeth?) all are highly scrutinized events in historical fiction. The latter part of the reign of Gloriana, however, tends to be largely glossed over. After executing her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, most novelists seem to think that Elizabeth has little else of note, other than the battle with the Spanish Armada and perhaps a few pages about the execution of the Earl of Essex.

Margaret George, however, gifts her readers with an indepth look at Elizabeth’s later years with her latest book, Elizabeth I. George’s book begins with England’s first battle with the Armada, instead of ending there. What follows is the story of a woman at the height of her powers as she begins the decline into old age. Of particular emphasis is Elizabeth’s tumultuous relationship with the Earl of Essex, a man who goes from being a pet of hers to a major threat to her throne.

I must admit, the narrow scope of George’s book surprised me. I’ve previously read her books on Cleopatra and Henry VIII, and they are sweeping epics, covering the majority of the subjects’ lives. Elizabeth I compares to these earlier novels in length, but covering only 15 or so years, it marks a change in style for George; it is not a view of Elizabeth’s entire life, or even her entire reign, but a close look at the events at the end of her life. That period given less than 50 pages by so many novelists is granted nearly 700 pages in George’s work, enabling her to go deep into Elizabeth’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations, as well as those of the people around her.

Of particular interest are the sections narrated by Elizabeth’s cousin Lettice. Lettice is often described in novels as looking very like Elizabeth, but even prettier, which would not have endeared her to the queen. The real break between the cousins came, however, when Lettice married Elizabeth’s beloved courtier Robert Dudley (he of the ‘did-they-didn’t-they’ relationship). What is often glossed over, though, is the fact that Lettice was also the mother of the rebellious Earl of Essex, a role that put her even more at odds with her queen.

It is really quite amazing how much new understanding George is able to bring to such an often memorialized woman, reign, and time period. She excels at spending just enough time on events that she is able to convey the full extent of their significance, but not so much time that she belabors her point or bores the reader. Although Elizabeth I is quite long, it never feels overly so. Margaret George has proved once again that she is perhaps the consummate historical novelist of our time. Highly recommended.

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Source: Library.
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The Queen’s Governess – Book Review

The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper

Kat Ashley, nee Champernowne is well known by those who have read about Queen Elizabeth I. Not only was Ashley Elizabeth’s governess when she was young, but she remained a devoted servant when Elizabeth ascended to the throne. What many may not know – I certainly didn’t! – is that her original sponsor when she arrived at court was none other than Thomas Cromwell. Harper’s version of Kat had her groomed from her relatively poor family as a protege of Cromwell and a sometimes-spy for him at court who grew to love both her first mistress Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth. Kat stood by Elizabeth during many of the greatest trials and scandals of her young life.

Yay! I like the Tudors again! Time and time again recently I’ve tried to read a novel based on the Tudors and I’ve just been bored and sort of annoyed, major Tudor fatigue. I should have known, however, that Karen Harper wouldn’t let me down. While she doesn’t necessarily create a complete air of time and place, Harper’s storytelling ability pulls me right into the lives of her characters. While Kat was occasionally ever-so-slightly modern sounding, she was a strong and engaging main character and I loved the relationships she built with her husband John Ashley and, of course, with Elizabeth. It all seemed to flow in an entirely plausible and convincing series of events, I thought Harper supported her interpretation of these women’s story very well.

There were a few anachronisms, however, one in particular that really jumped out with me was John Ashley quoting a nursery rhyme:

“I hear Humpty Dumpty is heading for a fall, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never put him back together again – or want to” – p. 143

Popular belief is that this nursery rhyme was based on a cannon used in 1648 against the Royalists in the English Civil War.  Ashley is speaking in 1540. Even so, the couple of anachronisms didn’t pull me out of the story as much as it might have done. Other than having to run to Wikipedia after the Humpty Dumpty incident, I was actually able to stay in the story really very well.

Don’t let the anachronisms throw you, this is some of the most engaging Tudor fiction I’ve read lately. Love me some Karen Harper!

Highly recommended.

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This review was done with a book received from Lydia at Putnam.
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