Tag Archives: historical fiction

Book Report: Constant Princess

Book 6 in Philippa Gregory’s series is The Constant Princess, about Katherine of Aragorn, first wife of King Henry VIII, and takes place between Autumn of 1501 and Autumn of 1513 (barring a prologue and epilogue set years before and after each). Born Catalina, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Katherine is told from her birth that she is to be queen of England. The time and effort it takes for that to come about gives us the title of the book.

The Story

The journey is not easy. Katherine comes to England to marry King Henry VII’s eldest prince, Arthur, heir and beloved son. The marriage is rocky to start, with neither spouse enjoying the other, but an illness forces them to revisit their relationship and they fall in love. For several months, they spend each night with each other, sharing grandiose visions of what they shall do with England once they are monarchs. Those visions are cut short by Arthur’s death in 1502, after only five months of marriage.

On his deathbed, Arthur asks Katherine to promise to claim they did not consummate their marriage, allowing her to marry his younger brother Henry and rise to the throne for their grand designs. The marriage is promised early, but then Katherine spends years in exile, not allowed to be part of the English court, unable to go home. It takes the death of Henry VII to finally bring about the marriage and her installment as queen.

The Next Generation

With this book, the series has moved past the last of the Wars of the Roses queens and into the next generation of characters. Not only do we see the death of Henry VII, the last monarch of those wars, but we get to see the end of Margaret of Beaufort, the Red Queen.

Margaret Beaufort, as portrayed in this book series, struck so many of my character peeves that I looked forward to every slap in the face or minor setback she received from the characters since halfway through Red Queen. The mentality that any action she does, no matter how heinous, is okay because she’s God’s chosen, is so insulting and juvenile.  I enjoyed the snubs that Elizabeth of York gave in The White Princess, and I enjoyed watching Margaret’s decline and death in The Constant Princess. The decision Katherine makes to cut Margaret funeral plans to a more modest size is just the sort of deserved insult that Margaret would find infuriating, and as a reader I find completely deserving.

As the next generation of English nobles rise, we see that they’re going to be different from the generations we read through the Wars of the Roses with. These leaders are men who have not faced the constant warfare of the Wars, whose position is largely secured. As a result, they are arrogant and rude. Henry is a boy in a man’s position, enjoying life, while Katherine rules the country in his name. He views war as an adventure to advance his position; she views it as a way to advance their country and Christendom.

Knowing what I do about what’s coming next for England, I can see how it’s going to come about.

A Spanish View

Katherine’s Spanish origins come into play significantly during the story, not just in differences in leadership and ideology, but as a way of critiquing English (and in some ways Catholic) life of the period. Spain of Katherine’s time was a battleground for Christian versus Muslim rulers, so Katherine is much aware of Islamic learning –  mathematics, medicine, science –  and artwork. All of which, particularly the learning, is missing from English culture.

‘There is not a University in England that studies medicine,’ Katherine said bitterly. ‘There is not one that teaches languages. There is not one that teaches astronomy, or mathematics, geometry, geography, cosmography or even the study of animals, or plants. The universities of England are about as much use as a monetary full of monks coloring in the margins of sacred texts.’

The comments come into play as Katherine experiences worry over not conceiving a child, and finds no one able to provide even a mote of support. The problem is not confined to England; Katherine mentions how her mother would destroy Moorish universities and evict Islamic scholars under the direction of the Pope. Her spiritual desire to follow papal orders wars with her human desire to understand what, if anything, is wrong with her. The one learned doctor she meets – covertly – is an Islamic doctor who happened to be travelling through London. Even there, the arrogance and conceit of Katherine towards him is embarrassing to read.

As a history major, knowing what I do about the coming dominance of Europe over the rest of the world, it’s hard to understand this sort of reasoning. Willful ignorance makes no sense to me, yet here’s an entire civilization that revels in it. I shake my head at the wonder of it all.

Third vs. First

This book has a new style for the series, that jumps between First and Third person.

The majority of the book is done Third Person, and jumps to other characters who aren’t Katherine more often than previous books did. This allows the reader to experience the story that’s happening beyond Katherine’s eyes, almost a necessity since Katherine spends so much of the book in virtual exile.  

The sections done in First Person follow Katherine’s inner monologue, or describe events that are best seen from her perspective. Some of these are instances where she’s remembering home in Spain and what she misses about it. Others are moments dealing with extreme emotions and worries she can’t let the court see.

The changes can happen multiple times per chapter, giving us the events that Katherine is dealing with, and her internal monologue as she thinks and responds. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this particular mechanism used, but I’ve never tried it myself. Maybe I’ll give it a shot.

Conclusion

The Constant Princess is a book that leads itself to a lot of ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ questions aimed at the characters and the world they live in. I’d rate it pretty good; it’s not great, but the critique of English life from a foreign view point and the death of Margaret Beaufort both raise my appreciation for the book. We’re not yet halfway through the series as a whole, and the book stands as a transition from the Wars of the Roses to the Tudor era.  I expect to see a lot more of Katherine of Aragorn over the next few books.

Show Report: Last Kingdom

The title card from the show

This month I decided to give The Last Kingdom another chance.

The Last Kingdom is a TV series by the BBC and Netflix, based off the Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell. The Saxon Stories follow the fictional Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a warlord born to the Saxons but raised by the Danes. Forced into exile in Saxon Wessex, Uhtred fights against the Danes and helps build the modern England.

The Saxon Stories is one of my favorite book series, so when I first heard they were doing a show about it I was excited. It came out, I sat down, watched it, and was very disappointed.

I had two large complaints. One, the story had become more about how Uhtred to show the Saxons how to fight the Danes. In the books, they’ve already managed several victories before Uhtred joins them. Second, they kept cutting my favorite scenes! The first season covers the first two books, Last Kingdom and Pale Horseman (Pale Horseman is one of my favorite books), and I had a mental list of what I was looking forward to. Of the seven scenes on that list, they did one.

I didn’t pay much attention to the next seasons coming out, but friends who watch the show tell me it gets better. I’d always thought about returning to give it another shot, so I prepared myself, sat down and re-started.

Initial Re-Reaction to the First Season

I must admit; on the second viewing, the first complaint fell largely flat. Sure, story they were telling was shallow compared to the books, but that’s largely a function of medium. Movies and TV can’t reach the same depth as a book can.

As I was considering the impact of the medium switch on the story, I also realized that the viewpoint had shifted. The books are almost universally First Person, from Uhtred’s POV as he recounts his story in his old age. He recounts events beyond his knowledge as they were told to him later, which makes sense in a book but in a TV show, having Uhtred tell you what happened would be boring. So the show is Third Person, and we now watch those scenes happening. The switch changes the nature of a lot of the characters and gives the show a different feel.

Still bugged they cut my favorite scenes. Le sigh.

Second Season

The second season of Last Kingdom roughly covers the third and fourth books of the series (Lords of the North and Sword Song). Again, they cut out most of the scenes I was looking forward to. Two of them they did include, but they changed them and removed what made the scenes stand out to me.

Beyond that, this is where the show begins to really come into its own. By that, I mean that yes, they diverge from the books, but they’re getting more comfortable telling their own version of Uhtred’s story. They embrace the differences in characters, give them the room to develop their own plots. They condense and consolidate events to streamline the story, and even consolidate characters.

Third Season (Spoilers)

Again, one season covers two books (The Burning Land and Death of Kings), but the series does the two stories simultaneously instead of each book in half a season. The plot is now different enough that it’s hard to fault them for not doing the scenes I was looking forward to, though there is still that small disappointment.   Except when it comes to the dominating event of this season, the Death of  Alfred the Great. This is probably the only event in the story  that I think the show does better than the books.

In the books, Alfred converses with Uhtred on his deathbed, and just before his death confers upon Uhtred a significant amount of land in order to bind the warlord to his son and presumptive heir, Edward. It’s a nice reward for the often snubbed and disregarded Dane-slayer.  

In the show, the third seasons contains a lot of conflict between Uhtred and Alfred. Alfred has Uhtred banished and his children seized, while Uhtred tries to return to the Danes before his oaths bring him back to  the Saxons. Alfred still wants Uhtred bound to Edward, but cannot force Uhtred to do so. And with his death coming,  Alfred is facing the uncertainties of a future without him.

The Specific Scenes

The scene, cut up into several
bits, is fantastic. It is Alfred the Great and Uhtred of Bebbanberg speaking as
equals. Alfred acknowledges his debt to Uhtred, apologizes for his errors and
mistakes, and salutes the man ‘without whom I would not die a king.’ Uhtred’s
part in the conversation is to minimal; this is a scene for Alfred to shine. It
ends with Uhtred receiving a pardon.

Uhtred’s time to shine comes after Alfred’s death. His political enemies moving against him, threatening him with banishment on pain of death. He forces the issue in public, asking for Edward to confirm his pardon (strengthening Edward’s claim to authority). His responses to the accusations are moving. He confirms his respect for Alfred, his commitment to the cause of Wessex. ‘He was my king!’ Uhtred yells before the Wessex court, gaining the support of many while infuriating his enemies.

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There’s an emotional response to these scenes that the books lack. The books have Alfred’s death as a catalyst for the chaos of succession early in Book 6, while the show has it as the culmination of the season’s plotlines. As far as  I’m concerned, they worked really well.

Season Four and Five

The latest two seasons break from the two books per season mode, and with good reason: the books after Book 6 sent to get repetitive.

Instead, Season Four and Five each revolve around the death of a Saxon ruler and how that death is used to further the idea of a unified England. Uhtred is involved, of course, as his personal relationships with the Saxons and reputation amongst the Danes comes into play. A lot of the high points of the later books are fused together or touched upon in their own way, but by this point it’s hard to get upset that the show isn’t doing my favorite scenes or is using a character differently.

SPOILERS

Someone I like

One thing I’ve come to really enjoy is what the show does with Lady Aelswith, widow of Alfred the Great. In the books she kind of disappears after Alfred’s death, mentioned in passing when she’s mentioned at all. She was always an enemy of Uhtred’s, even after all he does to protect Alfred’s family and further the Wessex cause.

In the show, she remains a character, either trying to counsel Edward on his decisions as king, or protecting her grandchildren from the cut-throat politics of the kingdom. She and Uhtred are not friends, but there is a grudging respect between them.

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Conclusion

I’m glad I gave this show another shot, and that I took the time to enjoy it as it’s own story instead of holding it to the books. While it doesn’t have the depth of the books, it does have a much wider and more inclusive story to tell. One that’s worth enjoying as complimentary to the books. I look forward to the last installment when it comes out.

Book Report: White Princess

Philippa Gregory’s White Princess follows Elizabeth of York from autumn of 1485 to the winter of 1499. The daughter of Edward IV, her marriage to Henry VII is a means to unify the country. Her relationship with Richard III must be forgotten. Her duty now is to protect her family by being a dutiful queen.

Rough Start 

As a York, Elizabeth starts the book with many worries about the reign of the Tudors. She worried of her cousins, including the last male York heir, Edward of Warwick. She worries about the revenge of the Red Queen, her future mother in law who’s known for her zealotry. And she worries about Henry, who has lived outside of England for so long. 

Her worries are not without substance. Edmund is quickly taken into custody, and the Red Queen begins to force her will upon the court. Henry is quick to force himself upon her, wanting to know she’s capable of bearing children before committing himself to her (with the full consent and direction of his mother). Henry does not come off well in this story. 

Reign of the Tudor King 

In all the books so far, there is a reoccurring concept about a wheel; the idea that ones fate will rise and fall, up and down. In White Princess, Elizabeth’s fortunes rise and fall, but there is rarely any safety for her. Henry and his mother, used to decades of scheming and plotting, retain their paranoid vigilance through the book. Every minor upset is investigated, and Elizabeth is always under suspicion. Even when she and Henry begin to grow close, the next crisis tear down their connection. 

Elizabeth is caught up in some of the moments, as her relatives are among those plotting against King Henry. But while previous characters in this series have had influence over events, Elizabeth’s story is marked by her lack of it. Most of her actions are taken to protect her family members from facing cruel charges and unjust treatment, even when their actions may warrant it.  

About the only enjoyment Elizabeth has – and that I, as a read reader, get to experience – is watching the Tudors panic when things go wrong. Given my dislike of Margaret Beaufort as she earned the name ‘Red Queen’, watching her panic is amusing. Elizabeth is able to push some buttons along the way, some pointed barbs that strike home. For every exchange where the Tudors come off as pompous, there’s an exchange where Elizabeth leaves me chuckling..  

The Princes in the Tower (Spoilers) 

In The White Princess, the story of the Princes in the Tower continued on to the next chapter; that of Perkin Warbeck. Historically, Perkin claimed to be the lost Richard of Shrewsbury, the younger of the two princes. He gained some support and invaded England a number of times before his capture. The Tudors imprisoned Warbeck for two years before his execution. His true heritage was never proven one way or the other. 

Gregory strongly hints that Perkin is the young Richard: he bears a strong resemblance, has the natural York charisma, and is ‘confirmed’ by several persons who were close enough to have met the prince. Elizabeth never outright confirms it; she is aware that her brother escaped the Tower, but does not know if this man is her brother or not. Even after his capture the question remains.  

This ambiguity does pose a problem for Elizabeth. When she and her mother heard the death chimes (presumably for Edward IV) they levied a curse against the man who killed him. The curse was that his line would die out after a short time. Now, with her husband Henry on the verge of executing the possible prince, her worry is that Henry’s line, which now includes her children, may fail. Even if he was not responsible for the first death, he may be responsible for the second.  

With the execution of Perkin Warbeck, White Princess may be the last book in the series to address the Princes in the Tower in any real manner. If the next book takes place concurrently, then maybe we’ll see the same story from a different angle. Guess I’ll find out next book. 

Final Thoughts 

White Princess is a pretty good book by itself; middling in terms of the stories so far. Elizabeth is a very sympathetic character overall, a victim of the Tudor family, fighting to save what lives she can. The Tudors do not come off well in this story, nor should they. As frustrating as I found her experience, I feel this is a good wrap up for the War of the Roses. I look forward to the next installment.