The Virgin’s War (Tudor Legacy #3) by Laura Andersen

the virgins war
This title may be purchased from Amazon.

As the Spanish Armada approaches Irish shores, Elizabeth I feels the full burden of her royal office. She must not let England fall to her former husband, King Philip of Spain. And Princess Anabel, their daughter, has yet to declare with whom her allegiance—and her support—lie.

Exiled Stephen Courtenay is in France with his brother, Kit, who has his own reasons for avoiding England. But rumblings of war, a sinister plot, and their loyalty to the crown call them home. Yet not even Pippa Courtenay, their sister, gifted with divine sight, can foresee the grave danger that awaits them all. As Queen Elizabeth commits her riches, her honor, and her people to the approaching conflict, she will risk everything—even her life—to preserve England’s freedom.

Rating:A

The Virgin’s War is the final book in Laura Andersen’s Tudor Legacy series and the sixth book to take place in the alternate Tudor timeline that she set up back in The Boleyn King, book one of her compelling Boleyn Trilogy. In that series, Anne Boleyn had given Henry VIII a son who lived to succeed him; and the current one picks up some twenty years later, with Elizabeth I having followed her brother to the throne. Mind you, this is no Virgin Queen; here, Elizabeth married – and later divorced – Philip of Spain and had a daughter by him, Anne Isabella (Anabel), Princess of Wales.

With the current vogue for books in series which also work as standalones, it can be tricky to review a book in which it is necessary to have read the others in the set without giving away too much – so there are bound to be spoilers for The Virgin’s Daughter and The Virgin’s Spy in this review.

It’s over two decades since Henry VIII’s reformation, and the political situation in England is still dominated by the religious divide between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. Much of the action in The Virgin’s Spy takes place in Ireland, where English forces are fighting Catholic rebels who have the support of Mary, Queen of Scots. In this universe, Mary escaped from captivity in England and has subsequently married Philip of Spain, thus uniting two of the most important Catholic monarchs in Europe. Philip has had his eye on the conquest of England for some time, but in spite of the continual urging of his wife, he is prepared to wait for the right moment to invade. When news reaches him that Princess Anne and her mother have become estranged and almost openly opposed to each other, he realises that the time to strike is almost at hand. With Anne building her power-base in the north and making concerted efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people there, it seems as though there will be a royal rebellion soon, and Philip plans to take advantage of the split between mother and daughter to invade England. He knows the English will never accept him as king, but now there is Anne, young, lovely and widely beloved, who is obviously sympathetic to the Catholic cause and who, he believes will bring her country back to the true faith.

But Elizabeth and Anabel are two fiercely intelligent, politically astute women and they are playing a long game. At the suggestion of Pippa Courtenay, Anabel’s closest friend and adviser, Anabel makes the move north to Middleham Castle (Richard III’s former home and stronghold) and begins to court the approval of the region’s Catholics by recruiting two of the most high profile of them to her Council. Anabel and her mother deliberately maintain the fiction of an estrangement and take care to have little contact with each other; and over the next couple of years, they carefully orchestrate their preparations for England’s defence.

Laura Andersen has impressed me once again with her meticulous research and her talent for interweaving the threads of her alternative history so cleverly in and out of the existing tapestry of historical fact. Yet for all her skill in mapping out these momentous events, she doesn’t lose sight of the personal stories that are so closely woven through the larger political canvas. Minuette and Dominic Courtenay, Elizabeth’s oldest friends, have roles to play, as do their four children, Lucette, Stephen and the twins Kit and Pippa. Lucette’s story was told in The Virgin’s Daughter and Stephen’s in The Virgin’s Spy, but they have prominent parts here, especially Stephen, who was stripped of his titles and banished from England as a result of his actions in the previous book. Pippa is a mystic and has the gift of second sight; it’s she who sets Anabel’s plan in motion by suggesting she move north, and she who is instrumental in rallying support among the towns and villages of the region. Pippa and Kit share one of those unusual mental bonds so often found between twins, but the strain of keeping some of the things she knows from her brother is starting to weigh very heavy on Pippa and her strength is failing. Meanwhile Kit and Anabel are struggling with the depth of their feelings for each other; a princess cannot marry where she chooses and they have always known this – but with a Spanish invasion imminent, Anabel must do whatever she can to help to secure the throne.

This is a deliciously complex story that builds gradually and reaches a breathless climax that is full of both triumph and sorrow. Ms Andersen has created a set of wonderful characters for whom I came to care and whose joys and heartbreak (seriously – I cried more than once) I experienced right along with them. She does a terrific job with the characterisation of Elizabeth in particular, exploring the burden of sovereignty, her necessary isolation and how she continues to face decisions head on, no matter how difficult they may be. I enjoyed the insights into her relationship with her two closest advisors – Burleigh and Walsingham – and her long-term and sometimes uneasy friendship with Minuette Courtenay. And if, like me, you fell a little bit in love with Dominic in the first trilogy, you’ll be pleased to see him at Elizabeth’s side once more as he responds to her call to arms and takes his place as one of the nation’s most trusted and respected military leaders.

Unlike the earlier Boleyn Trilogy, however, this one ends firmly in its alternate timeline, which feels perfectly right given the struggles and personal tragedies this set of characters has endured in order to get there. Perhaps it’s a teeny bit too perfect, but by the time I reached the epilogue I really didn’t care. I was so strongly caught up in the story and the experiences of the characters had impacted upon me so viscerally that I felt they absolutely deserved the ending they got. The Virgin’s War is a splendid end to another superbly written and researched trilogy by this author, and I am eagerly awaiting whatever she comes up with next.

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Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Freemantle (audiobook) – Narrated by Georgina Sutton and Roy McMillan

watch the lady audio

The daughter of the Queen’s nemesis, Penelope Devereux, arrives at court blithely unaware of its pitfalls and finds herself in love with one man, yet married off to another. Bestowed with beauty and charm she and her brother, The Earl of Essex, are drawn quickly into the aging Queen’s favour. But Penelope is saddled with a husband who loathes her and chooses to strike out, risking her reputation to seek satisfaction elsewhere. But life at the heart of the court is not only characterised by the highs and lows of romance, there are formidable factions at work who would like to see the Devereux family brought down. It seems The Earl of Essex can do no wrong in the eyes of the Queen but as his influence grows so his enemies gather and it is Penelope who must draw on all her political savvy to prevent the unthinkable from happening.

Told from the perspective of Penelope and her brother’s greatest enemy the politician Cecil, this story, wrought with love, hatred and envy, unfolds over two decades in which we see the last gasps of Elizabeth’s reign, and the deadly scramble for power in a dying dynasty.

This audiobook can be purchased from Audible via Amazon

Rating: A-/B for narration; B+ for content

Watch the Lady is a fascinating piece of historical fiction based on the life of Lady Penelope Rich, the sister of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Penelope is widely believed to have been the inspiration for Sir Philip Sydney’s famous sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella; and her life was an unconventional one, to say the very least. She was beautiful, possessed of a fine mind, took a keen interest in politics and, for a woman of the time, was able to live life on her own terms, sustaining a long-term relationship with a man to whom she was not married while at the same time retaining the favour of the queen, who was not a woman tolerant of any sort of impropriety among her ladies.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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Captured by a Laird by Margaret Mallory (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

captured laird

THE DOUGLAS LEGACY

The Douglas sisters, beauties all, are valuable pawns in their family’s bitter struggle to control the Scottish Crown. But when powerful enemies threaten, each Douglas lass will find she must face them alone.

CAPTURED BY A LAIRD

Haunted by his father’s violent death, David Hume, the new laird of Wedderburn, sets out to make his name so feared that no one will dare harm his family again. The treacherous ally who played on his father’s weakness is dead and beyond David’s vengeance, but his castle and young widow are ripe for the taking. The moment David lays eyes on the dark-haired beauty defending her wee daughters, however, he knows this frail-looking lass is the one person who could bring him to his knees.

Wed at thirteen to a man who tried daily to break her spirit, Lady Alison Douglas is looking forward to a long widowhood. But when the fearsome warrior known as the Beast of Wedderburn storms her gates, she finds herself, once again, forced to wed a stranger. Alison is only a pawn to serve his vengeance, so why does this dark warrior arouse such fiery passion and an unwelcome longing in her heart?

With death and danger looming, these two wounded souls must learn to trust each other…for only love can save them.

Rating: B- for narration, C for content

Albert Einstein defined insanity as being the act of “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Well, I’ve said several times that “Highlander” stories aren’t really my cup of tea, yet I still read and/or listen to the odd one or two and end up saying the same things, which, in the light of the above quote, probably says more about me than anything else.

Or perhaps I’m just an eternal optimist and hope to find one that works well for me.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

chalice

England, 1538. A bloody power struggle between crown and cross tears England asunder. Young Joanna Stafford has already tasted the wrath of the royal court, seen what lies inside the king’s torture rooms and escaped death at the hands of those desperate to possess the power of an ancient relic. After seeing such sights, the quiet life is not for Joanna. Soon she risks arrest and imprisonment again, when she is caught up in a conspiracy scheming against Henry VIII. As the powerplays grow deadly, Joanna must realise if her role is more central than she’d ever imagined. As one fateful night at the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket proves, she must make a choice between those she cares for most and taking her place in a prophecy foretold by three different seers, each more powerful than the last. To learn the final, sinister piece of the prophecy, she flees across Europe with an amoral spy sent by Spain. As the necromancers complete the puzzle, Joanna realises the life of Henry VIII as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands; hands which must someday hold the chalice that lies at the centre of these deadly prophecies…

Rating: A

This is the second historical novel to feature Joanna Stafford, niece of the Duke of Buckingham and formerly a novice at Dartford Priory. The first was The Crown, in which Joanna was forced into the service of the powerful Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner in order to save the life of her father.

I don’t think it’s essential to have read that book first in order to fully appreciate this one, as the story stands alone, even though many of the historical figures we encounter appear in both. I regret to say that I haven’t read The Crown, but definitely intend to do so in the near future.

In The Chalice the English Reformation has led to the destruction of the religious way of life and Joanna, while still referred to as ‘Sister’ is no longer a novice nun. She continues to reside in Dartford, intent on starting a tapestry-weaving business; but as a member of a prominent family, related to both the King and the Duke of Norfolk, the powerful factions around her are not willing to leave her to a peaceful life in obscurity.

The story hinges on a prophecy made about ten years before the action of the book, in which Joanna was told that she would be the one to bring about a change in the fortunes of the Catholic Church in England and to undo all that Henry VIII had done to crush it. Despite her devotion to her faith, or perhaps because of it, Joanna wants nothing to do with the prophecy and in any case, does not see how someone as insignificant as she could possibly be destined for such an act.

The prophecy also tells that Joanna will need to meet with a further two seers in order to discern her course of action, something that she is determined never to do. But as events ten years later bring her into contact with the Exeters, Norfolk, Gardiner and the Spanish ambassador, it becomes clear that she is never going to be able to escape her destiny.

The plot is complex, but never confusing. Bilyeau’s writing is superb, and for the most part, well-paced; and in the character of Joanna Stafford, she has created an extremely likeable, multi-faceted heroine who is shown to be fallible as well as heroic. Joanna is devout, but it’s clear that she would have probably had trouble with vows of obedience. She has problems controlling her temper at times, and has an inquiring mind; perhaps not the best qualities in one expected to conform and submit without question. She is kind without being sugary-sweet, intelligent, but not all-knowing. Her impetuosity and honesty lead her into dangerous situations and attract the wrong sort of notice – yet she is brave, determined and self-possessed.

She has faults – the way she continually denies her attraction to a man who loves her passionately and instead turns to one who, while also loving her, is a much less ‘dangerous’ choice – is a huge self-deception on her part, as well as being somewhat frustrating for the reader. But although there are strong threads of romance running through the book, it is not the main focus. Joanna knows she has more to do than fall in love and finally, having been rather beaten down by circumstances, she makes the decision to hear the final prophecy and meet her destiny.

The Chalice is a superb read, full of suspense and intrigue. The author’s attention to historical detail is excellent – from the conventions of Court life to the day-to-day existence of the lower echelons, and she presents the reader with a fascinating glimpse of the intricate power struggles and politics of Henry’s court. She also raises an interesting question concerning the fate of those expelled from religious orders due to the Reformation; no longer able to serve God in their chosen manner, they were also forbidden to marry and were forced to live on the fringes of society, banned both from a purely religious life and a secular one. If I had an issue with the book as a whole, it was with the fact that the final section which deals with Joanna’s journey to and escape from the Low Countries felt a little rushed, but that didn’t in any way spoil my enjoyment of it.

I can think of no higher praise than to say that this was one of those rare occasions when the fact that the story is told in the first person didn’t bother me in the least – which just goes to show how gripped I was!
Highly recommended – and I hope there are more of Joanna’s stories to come.