The Boleyn Reckoning
As a long-time reader of historical fiction, I didn’t think a book which explored an “alternative” historical time-line would be my cup of tea. So I approached the first book in Laura Andersen’s Boleyn Trilogy a little apprehensively, but determined to keep an open mind. I was very quickly sucked into the story, became invested in the characters – both fictional and non-fictional – and was impressed by the author’s excellent grasp of the history of the period.
It’s one thing to write a “history” in which your characters are completely your own invention, but it’s quite another to write one in which the fictional blends seamlessly with the factual, while also retaining a sense of authenticity and without rewriting history completely. But Ms Andersen manages to do – and not do – all those things at the same time as she has penned a compelling story full of political intrigue and romance.
(On a side note – the publishers proudly trumpet that these books will appeal to fans of Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory. Please don’t let yourself be put off reading these books because of those comparisons – I dislike the work of both of those authors, while I enjoy Ms. Andersen’s very much!)
The trilogy takes as its premise a most intriguing “what if?” – suppose Anne Boleyn had given Henry VIII a son who had lived to succeed his father? The fall-out from that idea is very interesting: There would have been no Edward VI, no Bloody Mary, perhaps even no Virgin Queen, and extrapolating further, possibly no Stuarts, no Civil War… the possibilities are endless. But from the outset, the author stated her intent for the trilogy to see Elizabeth ascend the throne in 1558, which is probably just as well, because thinking about all those possible ramifications is enough to make one’s head ache!
A number of plot threads run throughout the series, so it’s advisable to read the books in order. The first, The Boleyn King, sets up the dynamics between the four central characters. William Tudor is in the last year of his minority and is determined to make his mark and be a good ruler. He knows a king needs people around him he can trust, and there is no one he trusts more than his sister Elizabeth, his closest friend, Dominic Courtenay (who is, like William, a great-grandson of Edward IV), and Geneveive (Minuette) Wyatt, daughter of one of his mother’s closest confidants. Lively, witty, and clever, Minuette is the peace-maker among the four, while Dominic is the steady hand, quiet, considered and fiercely loyal, his reticence and the soundness of his advice often acting as a curb to Will’s more impulsive nature. The four are united through ties of close friendship, but it’s clear, towards the end of the book, that is going to be sorely tested. Dominic and Minuette have fallen in love but they are prevented from taking things any further when Will also shows a more romantic interest in Minuette. Knowing Will will need all the friends he can get as he fully assumes the reins of power, the lovers decide to wait to declare themselves, believing Will’s feelings to be nothing but a passing infatuation.
In The Boleyn Deceit the secret romance comes more to the fore in the story, as it becomes clear that William’s infatuation is not flagging, but is becoming more intense. Various intrigues and plotlines are picked up from the previous book; the threat of civil war looms over the religious divide so his advisers want Will to marry a French princess to appease the Catholics and prevent a French invasion, and Elizabeth meets two men who will play a large part in her eventual government – the astrologer and scholar John Dee, and the wily Francis Walsingham. She also falls more than a little in love with Robert Dudley, even though, unlike her brother, she will allow her heart to rule her head in the matter. Will wants none of the French marriage because he wants only Minuette, and he starts to show signs of the stubbornness and cruelty which came to characterise his father. Towards the end of the book, Will betrays Dominic’s trust in an unforgivable manner which is the catalyst for much of the storyline of book three. Furious and hurt by his friend’s deceit and unable to bear the frustration of his love for Minuette any longer, Dominic and Minuette are married in secret, fully intending to confess to Will upon their return to court. But after a few idyllic weeks spent at Minuette’s home in the country, they learn that smallpox has struck the court and that Will is seriously ill.
In The Boleyn Reckoning, William has survived his illness, but has emerged from it a changed man. He is quieter and less active, but that doesn’t mean that he is any more considered in his actions. Like his father, he is intelligent, shrewd, and an expert manipulator, but also like his father, he is blinded by his desire for a woman and makes poor decisions for England because of it. Refusing the French marriage, he determines to marry Elizabeth to Philip of Spain in order to cement an alliance there instead. But Spain does not want this, and proceeds to ally with France.
Dominic and MInuette are struggling under the weight of secrecy and guilt. Each time Will indicates his trust in him, Dominic feels it like a knife to the gut, and Minuette is exhausted by the continual need for pretence. Will looks to her for comfort and understanding and as someone to lean on, and she is finding it increasingly difficult to be that person. With William planning a Christmas wedding, all opportunities to confess the truth about their marriage have passed them by, and time is running out. There is only one option – they must leave England.
But their plans are thwarted – and amid a Catholic rebellion led by Will’s half-sister Mary, the loss of Calais and the constant threat of invasion by the French, what is, in his mind, the deepest of all betrayals by the two people he has depended upon the most unbalances William and sets him on a path of vengeance and tyranny. No longer restrained by Dominic’s sage advice or consoled by Minuette’s soothing presence, he turns his attention to revenge rather than to the protection of his country.
Behind the scenes, Elizabeth waits and listens, and watching her come into her own is one of the highlights of the book. Elizabeth loves her brother very much, and hates the disastrous course he is pursuing, but without the steadying influences of Dominic and Minuette, he has gone so far beyond reach that she can do nothing but bide her time.
Something I enjoyed very much about all three books was the complexity of the plotting and the development of all the different lines of intrigue. In Reckoning all this reaches a fever pitch and it’s fraught with tension, right from the first page. I had to take regular breaks while reading because I was so tied up in knots! All the principal characters have to make difficult and unpalatable decisions; Elizabeth hates the idea that she must work against her brother, and Minuette and Dominic know there is no way they will escape Will’s wrath – and he exacts a truly horrible revenge upon them which broke my heart into little pieces.
But I think the real tragedy of the book was the story of potential wasted. Will begins the trilogy as a beacon of hope – young, handsome, and intelligent, he has the makings of an exceptional ruler, but ends up following a similar path to his father and allowing his own desires to come before England’s best interests. And the thing is that no matter how much I found myself disliking him for his actions, I couldn’t help feeling desperately sorry for him, too, as he became crueller and harder and more isolated from those remaining few with his best interests at heart.
It’s difficult to say much about the plot without giving too much away; I’ll just say that it’s satisfyingly complex, and anyone familiar with the period will recognise those moments where Ms. Andersen has very skilfully overlaid her own take upon actual historical events. When I finished the book I felt as though I’d been wrung through the emotional mangle, but the author ties up all her threads adeptly and brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. The ending is bitter-sweet, but fits the tone of the story completely – romance might always need a happy ending, but history doesn’t quite work that way.
I’m going to end by recommending all three books most highly. I’m giving The Boleyn Reckoning a B+ (which is in keeping with my ratings for the others), but wouldn’t advise reading it before the earlier books or unless you are familiar with them and/or the history of the period.