I received my copy from Penguin/Michael Joseph through Nudge and rated it 4.5 stars.
Set over the course of six years, this is the story of Katherine Parr. Widowed for the second time when she is only 31 years old she is summoned to the court of Henry VIII. Katherine doesn’t really like or trust the world of intrigue, secrets, back-stabbing and ambitious courtiers and would prefer to be anywhere else. It is shortly after her arrival at court that Katherine meets Thomas Seymour. Although she initially doesn’t like or trust him she soon finds herself caught up in a passionate affair with the dashing and handsome young man and hoping that maybe this time she will be allowed to marry for love.
The king has other plans though. As soon as Henry sees Katherine he lets her know that he intends to make her queen. Henry is no longer a young man; he’s grown fat, has a festering wound on his leg and has a temperament that makes him completely unpredictable. Although Katherine has no ambition to be queen, is deeply in love with Seymour and would prefer a quiet life, there is no way she can refuse the king once he has made up his mind to marry her. And so start Katherine’s four years as the queen of England. She soon finds herself caught up in court intrigue with only a few people she can really trust around her. And although Thomas Seymour has been sent away from court, he is never far from her mind. When Katherine allows herself to get caught up in the reformation and makes enemies out of those who would return to the old faith she finds herself in fear of both her husband and her life.
I have, for a long time, been fascinated with Henry VIII, his six wives and the religious upheaval in those days and have read quite a few novels about this subject. Katherine Parr’s story is a fascinating addition to those previous visits to Henry’s court.
The story in this book is told from the perspective of two women; Katherine Parr and her servant Dorothy – Dot - Fownten. Because these two women have vastly different stations the reader gets to see the story from two, very different, perspectives. From Katherine we get an inside look at the scheming and plotting in court as well as the fear that accompanies having to live in an environment where everybody is interested only in what they can do to improve their own prospects. And while Katherine is mostly a sympathetic character, thrown into court intrigue against her will, she is still a product of this world. She may not like the game but she knows the rules and how to play it. Dot, on the other hand, is an innocent bystander, almost invisible to the people around her and as such provides the reader with an honest and objective perspective on what is going on.
The story in this book is very well written. This is a story about emotions and feelings and how the characters deal with them. It is a story about power and what people are prepared to do to get it and keep others from achieving it. All the intrigue at Henry’s court is toe-curling. It is hard to imagine what it must be like to live in an environment where nobody can be trusted and where almost everybody around you is willing to stab you in the back if that means advancing themselves and their families, but the author manages to convey the oppressive nature of such a live with absolute clarity. But mostly this is a book about love; the things we are willing to do for it and how it blinds us to realities that are plain to see for everybody else.
I find it fascinating that almost every character mentioned in this book, including Dot, are real historical figures. Of course the thoughts and feelings these characters have spring from the author’s imagination, but with everything and everybody else on these pages being historically accurate it is all too easy to believe that the characters must have been exactly as described.
Anybody who knows their history will be aware of how Katherine’s story ends. The magic of this book is that even armed with that knowledge the reader will find themselves caught up in the tension in this story, as unsure of what is to come as Katherine and those around her are.
This is an impressive debut and a fascinating book, sure to captivate anybody interested in historical fiction in general and Henry VIII and his court in particular.