When her second husband dies of cancer, Katherine Parr returns to court to attend Lady Mary, Henry VIII’s elder daughter. Though she’s quickly enchanted by her brother’s friend Thomas Seymour, Katherine catches the King’s eye unintentionally and before she knows it, she’s Queen of England, with her every word, step and expression monitored intensely by her husband and the court. Katherine’s life is regularly at risk. One of her few allies is her stepdaughter’s friend, Dorothy Fowndon. Dot is a lowborn girl brought into service for Katherine’s relatively ordinary life, who remains close to the Queen and is raised up by faithful service to be a gentlewoman. But an existence so close to Henry VIII is dangerous, as his previous wives showed, and Katherine and Dot must always be on their best behaviour or risk losing their heads to his whims.
I’ve always known Katherine Parr as the wife that finally survived Henry VIII, probably like most people who have even a remote interest in history. I remembered the framework of her life simply because I’ve been interested in Tudor history for years; I knew who she married and how she died, and that she was close at one point to Elizabeth, not yet too close to the throne at that point. But I couldn’t have imagined what a complex and touching story that an author like Fremantle could weave out of that framework. This is a fantastic book and one that easily transported me to the Tudor history I remember loving before the volume of books became overwhelming.
It was easy for me to feel as though I understood how difficult Katherine’s situation was. No one could escape the king, certainly not by this point; he’s already beheaded two wives for sins which may well have been fabricated and his mercurial moods mean that Katherine could easily be next. She can’t refuse him, even though her head is completely turned by Thomas Seymour. And that means she must endure marriage to him, at this point a much older, diseased, immense man who has been used to getting his own way for decades. And to make matters worse she’s never carried a baby to term. As such it’s a matter of dread that she’ll almost certainly never conceive a backup prince for the king. Eventually that might be her downfall, and there is absolutely nothing she can do to prevent it. I felt very strongly for her.
One aspect that helped this book rise above a lot of the historical fiction I’ve read in the past few years was the secondary story of Dot. Though this part was probably ahistorical, as acknowledged by the author, Dot gave a wonderful second opinion of Katherine and had her own part to play as she grew up at court. It’s a classic outsider perspective that provides value to the main narrative, but I also appreciated her sweet romance (and other sidetracks), simpler by nature than the queen’s but still complex and challenging in its own way. While other books try to provide this perspective, Fremantle succeeded hugely and I became invested in the stories of both women.
Even if you think you’re sick of Tudor historical fiction, I recommend you give Queen’s Gambit a try. It was a welcome breath of fresh air for me, beautifully written and imagined, with an engaging story that allowed me to step right into history. Highly recommended.
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