Skip to main content
the daily review, wednesday, sept. 2

When I was a girl, I used to imagine going back in time to straighten out King Henry VIII. I even wrote a sort of science-fiction/historical novel, where an intrepid preteen (one with considerably superior physics skills to my own) invented a time machine and travelled back to 16th-century England to give Bluff King Hal a piece of her mind. I was indignant, centuries later, that he had killed Anne Boleyn, when it wasn't even her fault that she didn't have a son! I pictured myself walking into the Tudor Court and letting Henry have it. It was a delicious fantasy.

Speaking of delicious fantasies, let me tell you about The White Queen, Philippa Gregory's latest foray into the past, this time to the Court of King Edward IV. Edward married the commoner Elizabeth Woodville (said White Queen) after she confronted him with a plea for her dower lands. It's the sort of historical nugget that strongly suggests that there's a good story behind it. And a good story this is.

Anyone who enjoys historical romance will eat this book up, for it has everything the aficionada of the genre might desire: colourful characters created by a knowledgeable historian, page-turning action, clear designations of heroes and villains, and lots of rich detail. It also has some surprises for the purist: the subplot, for instance, that Elizabeth's mother was a witch turns out to have some basis in fact (half the fun of a historical novel is reading the notes at the end and finding out that the stuff you thought had to be made up was, in fact, real). And then there's all that business about just how huge Edward is. Well, guess what - he was 6 feet 4 inches tall. In those days, he was a giant.

The White Queen is the first in Gregory's planned series called The Cousins' War, which - if this first book is any indication - will delight the fans. Gregory sets her players up like chess pieces, moving them around skillfully and swiftly, with wonderful results. There's never a dull moment in this tale - provided one isn't looking too hard for recreation of period-specific dialogue or even cultural accuracy. It's modern-sounding people in a 15th-century setting, which makes it fun, unless one is fussy about a historical romance having to mimic the period's speech patterns. But if the reader has no problem accepting the fact that the repartee exchanged between Elizabeth and her lover, or her brother, or her witchy mom, often sounds a bit too 21st-century to be believed, then there won't be any problem.

As someone whose recollection of English history has sadly deteriorated over the years, to the level of 1066 and All That, I also appreciated historian-author Gregory's ability to keep track of all these people and deliver a sound history lesson while playing dolls with her characters. She did excellent detective work, but the facts don't jump out at the reader, screaming "This part really happened!" The fact blends into the fiction seamlessly.

By fleshing out these people, dressing them up and putting them through their pre-ordained paces, she also makes them memorable. When we first meet Elizabeth, for instance, she is standing by the side of the road with her little boys, waiting for the King's entourage to ride by. It's such an outrageously brave thing to do that it's hard to believe it actually happened, especially when Elizabeth's little boys' hands are described clutching at their mother's, and you realize how desperate she must have been. But it did indeed happen, as did all that business about Elizabeth being descended from a lamia. For those of us who'd only encountered Melusina in the work of A.S. Byatt and various stoned Romantic poets, finding out that there was a Queen of England who was rumoured to have a lamia for a grandmother was quite the kick.

As for King Edward, he's all man, the quintessence of romance-novel hero. History having accepted that King Edward married Elizabeth for love, Gregory makes it clear that we readers are expected to love him too. Sometimes he's just a little too formula-romance in terms of the typical love interest for our bold heroine, but that's okay. The book isn't about him. It's about her. Besides, when his giant form enters Elizabeth's bridal chamber and he growls, "Wife, to bed!" he'll have all the women swooning.

There are some writing quibbles to make - some repetition, some unoriginal or even bizarre phrases (since when does it take huge strength to "throw a cat"?) - but these are swept away by the fast pace and engaging narrative, as well as by some surprisingly strong writing. Indeed, the best writing work in the novel is Gregory's breathtaking recreation of the battle scenes. Her description of the treetops emerging from floodwaters, barring the advance of an oncoming army, is an image that sticks with the reader. It might be historical fact, but it's also now indelible story.

This is as close to a trip in a time machine as it gets, and a lot safer than confronting Henry VIII. Hop aboard and enjoy.

Diane Baker Mason is a Toronto author and lawyer whose most recent novel is Last Summer at Barebones.