Monday, 10 June 2013

What I've Been Reading:
'Queen's Gambit' by Elizabeth Fremantle

The US cover art for 'Queen's Gambit' by Elizabeth Fremantle
I was kindly given a free copy of this book by Simon and Schuster for review purposes.

It isn't often that I read historical novels (although between the ages of 15 and 18 I became slightly obsessed with novels set in and around King Arthur's Camelot) but there was something about Elizabeth Fremantle's novel that really attracted me. I have vague memories of studying the Tudors in both Primary School and Secondary School and the time period always captured my imagination, especially the reign of King Henry VIII. There were certain things about him that fascinated me such as the amount of wives he managed to work his way through, the fact that he refused to acknowledge his daughters as legitimate, and perhaps most importantly, his role in the Reformation and as head of the Church of England. So of course, I couldn't miss an opportunity to read a novel set in the time of his reign.

Elizabeth Fremantle's debut novel, 'Queen's Gambit' is the tale of Katherine Parr, King Henry VIII's sixth and final wife. Widowed for the second time at the age of 31, Katherine dreams of marrying again, for love this time rather than the match-making that is rife in the court of King Henry. When she meets Thomas Seymour, brother-in-law to the King and close friend of her brother, Will, she thinks she's found herself the perfect match. She has begun to feel things she never felt for her previous husbands, is enjoying life and love. But the King has other plans.

On the lookout for his next potential wife, Henry Tudor finds himself drawn to Katherine's intelligence, wit and kindness. And so he begins an attempt to seduce her, showering her with lavish gifts and attention. When he eventually requests her hand in marriage, Katherine can do nothing but say yes. To refuse would be impossible and could cost her her life. And so she must once again marry a man she can not and does not love and cast the handsome and charming Thomas Seymour aside. And so begins Katherine Parr's tumultuous marriage to one of the most hot-headed monarchs in England's history. 

'Queen's Gambit' covers a span of five years and follows Katherine from the deathbed of her second husband Latymer to her own deathbed several years later. And what a crazy, action-packed five years those were for Katherine. Being wife to Henry Tudor isn't all that glamorous. He's a flabby, ageing grump with ulcerous legs who leaves the stench of decay in a room long after he's gone. Katherine must be both nurse-maid and bed-mate to Henry as well as the gem on his arm to be paraded in front of his court. She must be mother to his three children (all of whom lost their own mothers to Henry's short temper) and Meg, the stepdaughter she raised with Latymer, as well as trying to give Henry another son. But most of all she must be careful. She must not let Henry see her secret desire for Thomas Seymour, but most of all she must keep her Reformative notions private.

Katherine is a staunch Reformationist. She doesn't believe in Transubstantiation, she wants the bible to be printed in English, no longer only accessible to those of the highest education. She reads the banned texts of Luther and other Reformationist thinkers and meets secretly with Anne Askew, who would later be burnt at the stake for her opinions.

Katherine is a brave woman, a strong woman who manages to stay true to her beliefs and succeeds in outliving her tyrannical husband. And despite everything she goes through, she manages to never give up on love, on her love for Thomas Seymour.

Elizabeth Fremantle's depiction of the chaos, intrigue and romance of the court of Henry VIII is exquisite. Reading her novel, I felt as though I had truly been transported back in time, was getting a sneak peak into the lives of  public figures who have always felt so distant, so faded when presented to me in non-fiction format. I can't imagine just how much research must have gone into this novel. It felt flawless, seamless. There wasn't a single point where I paused in my reading to wonder if something was factually accurate. I simply suspended my belief and went with the flow, which is something only the best novels can get me to do.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, even found myself staying up late into the night to finish it, which is something I haven't done in a long while and is a good marker of how much a book manages to grip me. I would recommend this novel to anybody with even the slightest interest in the history of the Tudors. And I think it's a great gateway into the genre for anybody who doesn't usually read Historical fiction.


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