Friday, February 22, 2013

The Forbidden Queen by Anne O'Brien

Book Blurb  

1415 Katherine de Valois, the jewel in the French crown. An innocent locked up by her mother, Queen Isabeau, and kept pure as a prize for the English king slaughtering her kinsmen on the battlefields of Agincourt. No matter the cost, Isabeau is determined to deliver Katherine into the loveless arms of Henry V. But the Valois blood is worth less than she had brokered. Henry will take Katherine, not for her beauty, not for a treaty of peace - for nothing less than the glittering French crown itself. For Katherine, a pawn in a ruthless political game, England is a lion’s den of greed, avarice and mistrust. And when the magnificent King leaves her widowed at twenty-one she is a prize ripe for the taking. Her enemies are circling, her heart is on her sleeve, her hand in marriage is worth a kingdom. This is a deadly game. The players Duke of Gloucester, Edmund Beaufort and Owen Tudor. Who will have her? Who will stop her? This is the story of Katherine de Valois. England s most coveted prize. The forbidden queen who launched the most famous dynasty of all time...  


I am unfamiliar with the marriage of King Henry V and Katherine de Valois, maybe because it was so short, so I had no preconceived ideas about the characters or their story.  Told from Katherine’s viewpoint, she tells of her youth as a neglected and unloved French Princess, the youngest child of Isabeau and Charles, one mad and the other morally bereft. Katherine and her elder sister, Michelle, are sent to be raised in a convent, where love, affection and even basic companionship is in short supply. Michelle hardens her heart and expects nothing, whereas Katherine retains a longing to be loved, one which she cannot shed no matter how cold people are towards her. At eighteen, her uncaring mother informs her she will marry Henry V of England.

However, instead of relishing her new freedom, and a luxurious life at court, [well, compared to a medieval convent] Katherine only wants Henry to love her.  Unfortunately for her, Henry is polite and considerate, but emotionally cold, ruthless and focused entirely on war. Katherine spends a lot of her time brooding that Henry does not catch her eye when they are in a room full of people, or send for her while away on campaign, and his letters are formal and not filled with poetry. 

The narrative is quite beautiful, and Ms O’Brien is an exceptional writer with an attention to detail, nuance and atmosphere I found enviable. It was her heroine who annoyed me!  For the first third of the story I lost patience with her needy craving for affection, and had to remind myself she was very young and ill-equipped for her role.

Katherine displays a spark of rebellion, and against Henry's instructions,instead of remaining in the draughty, cold Palace of Westminster as Henry decrees, she waits until he is fighting in France to take herself off to the far more comfortable castle at Windsor. She also visits Henry’s stepmother, and discovers he has had the poor woman imprisoned for witchcraft so he could use her dowry to pay for his new bride and fight his wars.

Katherine packs up her entourage and goes to France, but what she finds there changes her life forever. As I read on, I developed a better understanding of the young and naive Katherine, who was ill-equipped for the scheming royal court, and who sometimes worried that in her darker moments, she may have inherited her father’s madness.

Katherine clearly suffers from terrible abandonment issues and when the first man to show the widowed queen some attention declares love, she is willing to give up everything to be with him. Her power hungry brother-in-law, Humphrey of Gloucester, puts obstacles in her way so she cannot marry, which may appear cruel and self-serving, but in truth he prevented her from making a terrible mistake.

When her would-be lover withdraws rather than abandon his ambitions, Katherine is made to see the real man beneath the courtier. Has she learned her lesson, or will history repeat itself and her pathological need for love prove to be her downfall? I won't reveal any more of the story for it deserves to be read.

My only criticism, is that I felt Katherine’s emotional turmoil and craving for attention was overplayed, and the story could have been told in considerably less than six hundred and nineteen pages.

However, Owen Tudor is magnificent and the author’s mastery of the sexual chemistry between them is perfect. Her research is impeccable, although I would have liked an Author’s Note outlining what was fact and what had been embellished. One of the problems with historical fiction is that you have to work with the facts as they exist, so invention becomes a necessity.  

Anita Davison is a Historical Fiction Author whose latest release, ‘Royalist Rebel’ a biographical novel set in 17th Century England, is being released by Claymore Books in early 2013 under the name Anita Seymour
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