Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The King's Mistress by Emma Campion — 464 pgs


Book CoverAlice Salisbury is a prosperous English merchant's daughter who is soon to be wed. When her father arranges a marriage with the much older and very winsome Janyn Perrers, Alice is overcome with nervousness and hope. Janyn and Alice begin to build a beautiful life together and share a passionate love, but there are secrets about Janyn's family that will soon tear them apart. The Perrers have had an unfortunate shared past with the former queen, Isabella. After Isabella had her husband murdered and her son Edward put on the throne, the Perrers became indispensable to her for the secrets they kept. Now these secrets threaten to resurface, and the only way to protect Alice and her young daughter is to engage Alice in service to the new queen, Phillipa. As Alice comes to understand all that she must give up for the protection of her family, she begins to realize that King Edward has his eye on her for a role much different than the one she hopes to play as Phillipa's serving woman. Soon Alice is caught up in the heady love of a king and must fight to keep the public from labeling her as a dangerous woman who has the king's favor and ear. Weathering the storm in the castle, she becomes the light of the king's life but also the sworn enemy of Parliament and the commoners, her future hanging over a dangerous abyss of uncertainty and poverty. For the love of King Edward cannot sustain her indefinitely, and even before tragedy arises from her strange union, Alice is forced to make some very difficult and painful choices that will change the shape of her family's future.

I admit that going into this book, I knew very little about King Edward, nor Alice Perrers, for that matter. I have come to realize, after reading this book, that little is actually known about the woman. Except for the inflammatory and malicious accounts of her from those in Parliament, the woman's life is shrouded in obscurity and gossip. The main reason this book appealed to me was the similarly in style to the books of Phillipa Gregory, yet in this book, Campion shies away from most of the bodice-ripping aspects of the story and instead chooses to focus on the difficult conundrums of Alice's free will and intention.

The book begins with a fourteen year old Alice's growing concerns over her upcoming marriage. There is a definite undercurrent of hostility running through her home that takes the form of her mother's jealously. Alice's mother is a cold woman who can't easily manage the fact that she has a beautiful daughter who is a grace to the family in her own right. When Alice discovers Janyn is the man intended for her, she begins what is only the first of her struggles to accept what fate has in store for her. Though Alice admires and grows to love Janyn, she feels ever constrained by the fact that she cannot choose her future, and this comes as a bitter disappointment when she realizes that her safety can only be assured with her removal from the life she shares with her husband. Alice laments the fact that Janyn's family is so indebted to the royals and fears for the safety of her new daughter, as well as her husband. In the palace, her feelings of imprisonment only grow, and though she loves the queen, she can't help but feel like a bird in a gilded cage, constantly moving to a rhythm that she does not set herself.

When Alice realizes that she is to be the king's mistress, she is thrown into confusion and fear. She realizes that once again, she has no control over this matter and is horrified to discover that Queen Phillipa herself is grooming Alice for Edward's bedchamber. That the king and queen are in collusion to deliver Alice to his bed confuses her and sets her in a world of barely concealed guilt and remorse. Edward, for his part, will not be denied, and spends great amounts of time and money wooing the still innocent young woman, who feels lost without Jaynyn and her family. This love affair between the girl and the king is by no mean ordinary, and as time progresses, Alice becomes more powerful and well regraded in the royal palace, a situation that brings danger from all sides. Alice is ever aware that she is currying disfavor from those around her, but the king refuses to see this and brags about her to every open ear, creating a shame and fear in her that cannot be forgotten.

When the affair between Alice and the king is threatened due to his failing health, Alice is beset by betrayals and spies, and once again, she must give up her freedom to do what is expected of her. Though she is in great danger, she's unable to protect herself, for the royal vassals control her every move. In this regard, Alice is merely a prisoner with royal favor, and though she has borne the king's children, she has no say over their lives or her own. At the mercy of those in power, Alice becomes a chess piece to be played with at will. What's interesting in this tale is the lengths Alice goes to escape her fate. She begins to collect property and rents and tries to build a life that she can retire to when the king lets her go, never knowing that she will never be released from her engagements. The public outcry against her is indeed loud and vicious, and Alice must watch as her life is stripped away piece by piece. She laments over and over again that she has had no choice in the affairs of her life and wonders aloud how she could ever have prevented these things from happening.

Alice's story is just one of many women at that time. Though trapped, she sometimes is able to find happiness in her life but she never forgets that she is at the whim of others. Women during this time were mostly at the mercy of their husbands and fathers, but Alice takes her orders from a much more noble captor. This obviously creates an inner panic in her, yet she sees no way to release herself from the chains that bind her. Time and time again, freedom is but a ride away and Alice can never take that ride. She is beset by plagues of inconsistency and grief for a life she never lived, and it seems no one wants to acknowledge this. The arrogance with which the king deals with her is frightening and all-encompassing, and Alice is forced to watch as her life and prospects slowly drain way. Alice is cruelly used for all she is worth, and in the end, though she does find happiness, it comes at great cost to her and her family.

As historical fiction goes, this was one of the better examples of the genre. The description of royal life was certainly not lacking and the book gained a lot of depth by engaging itself primarily in the mindset and perspective of the ill-used Alice. I read a lot of this book with trepidation, because although Alice willed her life to be different, I couldn't help but see her spinning closer and closer to destruction at the king's hands. I think this book would surprise many readers of the genre because the narrative was very tight and the storyline was very tense. I would definitely recommend this book to readers of historical fiction and especially those wishing to learn more about the infamous Alice Perrers. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

14 comments:

S. Krishna said...

I really enjoyed this book, so I'm glad you did too! I'm also happy that Campion chose to stay away from the bodice ripper aspects.

Daphne said...

I liked this one as well. There's really not much written about this time period which is too bad.

Suko said...

This is another very well-written review, Zibilee. It sounds like quite a good book!

bermudaonion said...

I've avoided the Tudor books - I think I suspected they were all bodice rippers. I may have to give this one a try - I have a feeling I would empathize with Alice.

Amy said...

This sounds like a great book. I like that it isn't as much bodice-ripping, it is more about her and her life and lack of choices. Great review1

Sandy Nawrot said...

I have virtually no experience with this genre. I keep telling myself I need to dabble, but I never seem to have time and I never know where to begin. Somday!

Jenners said...

I'm sure this will be a big hit with historical fiction fans from what you've described.

And it is books like these that make me glad I live when I do.

Lisa said...

Wow--I've seen this one and really just passed over it. But when someone that reads as much historical fiction as you do, enjoys it so much, I've got to give it a look. I like that it's going down a path that's not written about all of the time.

Marg said...

Like Lisa, I have seen this mentioned plenty of times, but have just passed over it! I am thinking I should reconsider.

Marie said...

Sounds neat :-) Glad you liked it, and that it exceeded your expectations.

Nymeth said...

I love the sound of this, especially the gender angle. As always, thank you for the thoughtful and detailed review :)

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

i am not really big on historical fiction but this one sounds like a great read! again, i love your review! you make this book sound as though i could spend the day curled up enjoying it all day!

Melissa M said...

This one sounds really good. I enjoy HF, but don't know many of the figures. Glad to hear this one avoids the bodice ripper though.

Jules said...

As much as I like historical fiction set during this time, I feel once you've read one you've read them all. Same affairs, scandals, evil monarchs....

This one does sound more like it focuses on the heroines, if you can call her that, turmoil. But I don't think it's the book for me. Thanks for such an in depth review!

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