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Book Review: The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

10 Oct

I found this book at a used book sale, I believe. When I started going through audiobooks of books I owned, it made it to that list. When I was getting worried about the When Are You Reading? Challenge this year, I chose this one to help me finish up some hard-to-fill time periods. I always enjoy Gregory so it was no hardship for me!

Cover image via Goodreads

The Other Queen (Plantagenet and Tudor Novels #16) by Philippa Gregory

Other books by Philippa Gregory reviewed on this blog:

The Boleyn Inheritance (4/5)
The Lady of the Rivers (3/5)

Summary from Goodreads:

Two women competing for a man’s heart.
Two queens fighting to the death for dominance.
The untold story of Mary, Queen of Scots.

This dazzling novel from the #1 New York Times bestselling author Philippa Gregory presents a new and unique view of one of history’s most intriguing, romantic, and maddening heroines. Biographers often neglect the captive years of Mary, Queen of Scots, who trusted Queen Elizabeth’s promise of sanctuary when she fled from rebels in Scotland and then found herself imprisoned as the “guest” of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and his indomitable wife, Bess of Hardwick.

The newly married couple welcome the doomed queen into their home, certain that serving as her hosts and jailers will bring them an advantage in the cutthroat world of the Elizabethan court. To their horror, they find that the task will bankrupt them, and as their home becomes the epicenter of intrigue and rebellion against Elizabeth, their loyalty to each other and to their sovereign comes into question. If Mary succeeds in seducing the earl into her own web of treachery and treason, or if the great spymaster William Cecil links them to the growing conspiracy to free Mary from her illegal imprisonment, they will all face the headsman.

As always, Philippa Gregory makes history come alive in her historical novels. She has great figures, like Mary, Queen of Scots, speaking in a way that makes her feel real and relatable. She makes sense of a history that at times seems twisted and outlandish. I love that about Philippa Gregory. What I didn’t like about this one is that it felt too strongly settled in history with no fun to it. There seemed to be written accounts of everything Mary said or Bess referenced that stand today. Not much seemed invented and fun. I wished for a little more scandal and maybe a few fewer characters. I miss Gregory’s storytelling that you see in her earlier novels. This one felt a bit too much like a history book.

I’m certain the three narrators are as historically accurate as possible. There’s an author’s note at the end that talks about how the Queen Mary we see in this book is based on new evidence about her plotting and life in prison with the Talbots. I’ve never doubted that Gregory does her research. The three have distinctly different personalities and the audiobook narration did a wonderful job of accenting that. The two women are night and day of each other and George was given a rather distinct, though not admirable, personality.

Bess was my favorite character. George was so weak that he was hard to like and Mary was such a liar I found her hard to like, too. Bess, on the other hand, was smart. She was always thinking of her future and her children’s inheritance. She knew what she wanted and would go after it. She wasn’t afraid to say what she thought, either. I take care of finances in my home and it was fun to see a woman doing that 500 years ago and the pushback she got for doing it!

I think Bess was the most relatable character in the book. She had a great rags-to-riches story and I think she appeals to a modern woman. She was very ahead of her time with how concerned she was about her share in a marriage and amassing wealth. It made her unusual in her own time but someone a modern reader could relate to very well.

Philippa Gregory
Image via Fantastic Fiction

Bess’s back story was fun to read about. She endured a lot to get to where she ended up and it made her easy to root for. I have to imagine there were few people like her in England at that time and it makes it understandable why she liked Cecil and why she would treat Queen Mary the way she did.

I found this book a bit dull in places. It seemed like Gregory was so determined to use all of the historical research she did and include every note between Queen Mary and her friends, conspirators, and lovers, that there was so little action for long stretches of the book. She would sit in the castle and plot for chapters at a time before another plot would come and fail. I felt this should have been sped up a bit and could have done with a few chapters removed. Though, when you get to the sixteenth book in a series, your publisher is probably about done editing you.

The audiobook had three narrators. Jenny Sterlin was the voice of Bess. I thought she did an amazing job. Bess was authoritative and bossy while still being submissive and demure when needed. Sterlin got the anger in Bess’s inner thoughts just right. Stina Nielsen did the voice of Queen Mary and was my favorite of the narrators. She was cunning and sweet at the same time, just marvelous. Ron Keith did the voice of George and I have to say he did well because I hated George as I was supposed to do. He was weak and whining. Ugh. The three narrators together had a tremendous effect and were very helpful for keeping straight if it was Bess or Mary narrating.

Though in school we learned about all the great things Queen Elizabeth I had done, this book shows her darker side. We also see a woman who was executed for treason and a murderous plot and how her deepest wish was to be freed. There are two sides to every story and two sides to many people. While this book shows the dark sides of each woman, it’s important that it shows a positive side to Queen Mary, who history painted in a very dark light.

Writer’s Takeaway: Historical research is paramount for a historical novel but I feel it was overdone here. When I research for my historical book, I only end up putting about 30% into the story. The rest is for me to know and build a back story for my characters. I think that’s important to remember and sometimes, authors seem too eager to throw everything into a book and I feel the plot can suffer for it.

Enjoyable but a bit dense. Three out of Five Stars.

This book fulfilled the 1500-1599 time period in the When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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