Henry IX, known as William, is the son of Anne Boleyn and now the leader of England, his regency period finally at an end. His newfound power, however, comes with the looming specter of war with the other major powers of Europe, with strategic alliances that must be forged on both the battlefield and in the bedroom, and with a court, severed by religion, rife with plots to take over the throne. Will trusts only three people: his older sister, Elizabeth; his best friend and loyal counselor, Dominic; and Minuette, a young orphan raised as a royal ward by Anne Boleyn. But as the pressure rises alongside the threat to his life, even they William must begin to question-and to fear….
The Boleyn Deceit picks up more or less where The Boleyn King left off and is, I have to say, even better than its predecessor. With William now king in his own right, the stakes are higher and friendships are going to be tested further than ever.
At the end of the previous book, William had prevented all-out war with France and arranged his betrothal to the young daughter of the King of France as a way of appeasing the Catholic faction in England. His friends Dominic and Minuette helped to avert a Catholic rebellion by discovering the whereabouts of a document purporting to prove that William was not his father’s son. The document turned out to be a forgery, but the religious divide in England is as dangerous as ever with powerful families ranged against each other and ready to tip the country into civil war with little more than the slightest provocation.
Close to the end of the book, Dominic and Minuette had at last admitted the depth of their feelings for each other and had been about to seek William’s permission to marry – when William dropped the bombshell that he loved Minuette and wanted to make her his queen. Knowing that William trusts very few of the people around him and that he needed them and their support at this difficult period in the early days of his reign, Dominic and Minuette opted to stay silent, believing that William would soon outgrow his infatuation.
By the time The Boleyn Deceit opens, however, that shows no sign of happening and people are starting to talk about William’s marked preference for his childhood friend. The rumours have even reached the French court, where the king has the suspicion that Will is going to renege on his betrothal to the princess, an action which would also enrage the English Catholics.
Where the first book concentrated on the friendship of Will, Dominic, Elizabeth and Minuette, this one brings the romance to the fore with Minuette and Dominic desperately in love and unable to be together, and Elizabeth and Robert Dudley in a relationship that is just as frustrating, albeit for different reasons.
For Robert Dudley is married. And Elizabeth knows, deep down, that even had he not been, she would never have been allowed to marry him. I liked the picture Ms Andersen paints of Dudley – he’s so often depicted as an evil schemer, out for his own ends – and while there’s no doubt that he certainly did have an eye to the main chance, it’s made clear here that he’s very much in love with Elizabeth (or as much as a man of his ilk can be in love with anyone). Elizabeth is terribly torn – knowing nothing can come of her fondness for Robert she is simultaneously annoyed with herself for falling for him and unable to resist his attentions. She’s very much the Elizabeth we know – intelligent, learned and devoted to her country. Like Will, she has her father’s temper, but unlike him, she is better at dissembling and able to see more clearly where her own desires are concerned.
Although it is clear that William is a very shrewd young man, well able to weigh his own decisions and to hold his own amid all the intrigues of the court, it’s also apparent that he has inherited his father’s talent for self-deception and his inability to see beyond his own desires when it comes to the woman he wants. Ms Andersen draws many parallels between William’s desire for Minuette and his father’s for Anne Boleyn, and the way that his desperation for one woman caused him to completely disregard the best interests of his country. His passion for Minuette is driving William along the same path and he is unwilling to give her up, believing that if he offers his sister’s hand to Spain, the Catholics will be appeased and that everyone will accept Minuette because he wants them to. But his rashness and his inability to hide his feelings very quickly combine to make Minuette the subject of court gossip – and then worse, a target for those who wish to get the message to Will that she is not an acceptable choice for queen.
While William is the titular focus of the book, the real hero of the story is Dominic, now created Duke of Exeter. Courageous, honourable and fiercely loyal to those he loves, he’s by nature reticent and unobtrusive, despite having been raised to one of the highest offices in the land. He’s the one person Will knows will not flatter him and sometimes it falls to Dominic to say the things that nobody else will. But he hates the deception he and Minuette are having to perpetuate, a deception that seems in danger of tearing them apart. For me, their relationship was the heart of the novel, and I felt for Dominic especially, as he struggled to maintain his customary composure.
And the backdrop to all this is the constantly shifting, constantly hazardous world of sixteenth century court politics and intrigue which our characters must navigate. Will’s uncle, the Duke of Rochford is now Lord Chancellor, and although his power has been somewhat lessened, he is still pulling the strings in the shadows. We are introduced to the man who will become known as Queen Elizabeth’s Spymaster, Francis Walsingham, and also to John Dee, the astrologer and astronomer who also served as one of Elizabeth’s personal advisors.
Minuette is still searching for the man who murdered her fellow lady-in-waiting, Alyce de Clare; Dominic is trying to guide and advise the young king, knowing all the while that he and Minuette are living on a knife-edge; the French king contemplates allying himself with the Scots in order to teach Will a lesson and unrest at home is fostered by some of the oldest families in the land.
Ms Andersen’s meticulous research and her skill in weaving together the strands of reality and fiction sent me running to my history books on more than one occasion, because the action and events evolve so naturally and feel so completely plausible that I started to wonder which was which! I was very impressed indeed with the way she managed to preserve the integrity of certain events in her alternate version of history, and with the way in which the historical figures she employs in the story are still recognisable and very much the people we have come to know through the historical records.
Like The Boleyn King, The Boleyn Deceit ends on a nail-biter of a cliffhanger which left me howling and scrambling to the computer to check when the final book in the trilogy will be coming out (sometime in 2014). You don’t have to have read the earlier book in order to enjoy this one, but I would strongly suggest doing so in order to familiarize oneself with all the different courtiers and characters.
Ms Andersen’s writing is intelligent and well-paced, and all the characters – real and imagined – are well and consistently drawn. The Boleyn Deceit is a terrific read and one I have no hesitation in recommending most highly.