Since the death of her brother, William, Elizabeth I has ruled England. She’s made the necessary alliances, married Philip of Spain, and produced a successor: her only daughter, Anne Isabella, Princess of Wales. Elizabeth knows that her beloved Anabel will be a political pawn across Europe unless she can convince Philip to grant her a divorce, freeing him to remarry and give Spain its own heir. But the enemies of England have even greater plans for the princess, a plot that will put Anabel’s very life and the security of the nation in peril. Only those closest to Elizabeth—her longtime confidante Minuette, her advisor and friend Dominic, and the couple’s grown children—can be trusted to carry forth a most delicate and dangerous mission. Yet, all of the queen’s maneuverings may ultimately prove her undoing.
I have always enjoyed reading historical fiction, but I tend to stick to books about “actual” history – so when Laura Andersen’s The Boleyn King came out a few years ago, with a storyline based on the premise – “what if Anne Boleyn had given Henry VIII a son?” I was sceptical, and didn’t pick it up immediately. Eventually, however, curiosity won out, and I’m glad it did, because if it hadn’t, I’d have missed out on what have been some of my favourite books of the past few years. I reviewed the final book in the Boleyn Trilogy – The Boleyn Reckoning last year, knowing that Ms Andersen’s next venture would be a series of books featuring the daughter of Elizabeth I.
So yes, The Virgin’s Daughter takes place in another alternate Tudor timeline, this time one in which Elizabeth actually married Philip of Spain and had a daughter by him. The book takes place some twenty years after the events of The Boleyn Reckoning; Elizabeth’s daughter, Anne Isabella, is eighteen years old and in full possession of the famed Tudor temper and her mother’s – and grandmother’s – cleverness and guile, and the queen and her Spanish husband have long been estranged and are about to divorce.
While it’s not absolutely necessary to have read the Boleyn Trilogy in order to appreciate this story, I do think potential readers would benefit from having a knowledge of the events that took place in those books and a familiarity with the principal characters – especially Dominic and Menuette Courtenay, whose daughter Lucette is the principal protagonist in The Virgin’s Daughter.
At the beginning of the book, Elizabeth summons Lucette and asks her to undertake a particularly difficult and delicate mission, which will require her to travel to the French estate of the LeClerc family. The LeClercs and the Courtenays are very close; Renaud LeClerc is one of Dominic’s closest friends and it was he who provided shelter to Menuette when she fled the late king’s wrath, and it is at his family home of Blanclair that Lucette was born.
Elizabeth’s wily spymaster, Francis Walsingham, has reason to suspect that one of the LeClerc men – Renaud or one of his sons, Nicholas and Julien – is the brains behind the Nightingale plot, which aims to free Mary Queen of Scots from English custody. Elizabeth wants Lucette to visit the family on the pretext of being interested in marrying either of the LeClerc sons, and to try to find out who is behind the plot. Lucette is both wary and intrigued. She has known the LeClercs all her life so the idea that one or more of them could be working against Elizabeth is abhorrent to her – yet she is restless in England and is willing to go to France, even though she knows her mother and Dominic are likely to be less than enthusiastic.
Once there, she renews her acquaintance with Nicolas, with whom she’d been dreadfully infatuated as a child, and his younger brother Julien, whom she had always found rude and dismissive and had never liked. It’s not long before she realises that both brothers are keeping secrets – but which one is the traitor and which one can she trust? Nicolas, now a widower with a young son, is as handsome and amiable as he ever was, but Julien, reputed to be a rake of the first order, clearly deeply troubled and who hasn’t been home in eight years is the man to whom Lucette is inexorably drawn.
I’m not going to spoil the plot, which is enjoyably complex without being confusing, and will just say that I loved all the background detail, the intrigue and the skilful way in which Ms Andersen weaves her various plot strands together. I was particularly invested in the gradual revelation of the truth that lies behind the LeClerc brothers’ tortuous, complicated relationship, and how it ultimately plunges both Lucette and the Princess Anne into a dangerous game of treachery and deception.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Virgin’s Daughter, which grabbed me from the first page and quickly became a book I couldn’t put down. The amount of research that has gone into the story is evident, because the majority of the historical figures who appear in the story actually lived and many of the events described actually happened; and it’s sometimes difficult to tell fact from fiction. It takes a great deal of knowledge and skill to “get it wrong” in such a way as to be completely believable and the author does just that in a very readable and captivating manner.
The main plotline is well executed, but I also very much enjoyed the Courtenay’s familial relationships and found the complicated relationship between Elizabeth and her daughter to be very plausible; two very strong-willed, clever women, both knowing that they hold the fate of a kingdom in their hands are never going to be completely easy in one another’s company.
The romance between Lucette and one of the LeClerc brothers plays a large part in the story, although it’s not the main focus. It does seem to spring into being almost fully-formed, but there is a depth of feeling from both characters that makes it work within the larger context of the story.
As this is an ongoing series, there are plotlines left to be wrapped up in the following books. This one ends with an almighty cliffhanger, which left me with a big smile on my face (at Ms Andersen’s audacity!) and I’m eagerly awaiting the next in the series this autumn.