Saturday, September 15, 2012

"We had none of us girls been born to inherit a crown, and yet it has overshadowed us all our lives--and blighted them."

3.5 stars

From the blurb: England's Tower of London was the terrifying last stop for generations of English political prisoners. A Dangerous Inheritance weaves together the lives and fates of four of its youngest and most blameless: Lady Katherine Grey, Lady Jane's younger sister; Kate Plantagenet, an English princess who lived nearly a century before her; and Edward and Richard, the boy princes imprisoned by their ruthless uncle, Richard III, never to be heard from again. Across the years, these four young royals shared the same small room in their dark prison, as all four shared the unfortunate role of being perceived as threats to the reigning monarch.

First off, I have to say, I'm a bit peeved at this book. According to the blurb, the impression that I got was that the stories were supposed to be told from the viewpoints of Katherine Grey and Katherine Plantagenet (which they were), and the two princes in the tower. Of course, I didn't know how those two princes, Edward and Richard, would be able to tell their story. Through hidden letters perhaps? A secret diary or journal? Who knew, but whatever the case, it would've been a most interesting tale. So, naturally, I was disappointed when I realized the book was only told from the viewpoints of the two women as they worked to solve the disappearance of the two princes.

Anyway, to these two women: The first is Katherine Grey, the prettier, more vivacious sister to Lady Jane Grey, the doomed and ill-used Nine Days Queen. Katherine's story is told in the first-person, in her voice, and while her life story is laid out according to historical sources, Weir slips in imagined instances where Katherine discovers information and artifacts linked to the princes in the tower, which creates a fascination in her to try and solve the mystery of their disappearance. The other Katherine in the book is Katherine Plantagenet, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Gloucester, future King Richard III. Her story is told in the third-person, and because the princes disappeared during her father's reign, her part in the novel has more urgency to it. In fact, she's quite frantic about solving the mystery because, ever the dutiful daughter, as Richard rises to power and as she's exposed to the stories of his behavior, Katherine refuses to believe that her father could've behaved in such dastardly ways and steadfastly tries to prove all his critics wrong.

Though the novel is touted as being one of historical suspense, revolving around the princes in the tower, it didn't feel that way to me. Yes, each Kate tries to solve the mystery in her own way, but that particular "mystery solving" plot device didn't seem to be driving the novel, at least not as much with the Katherine Grey storyline. And with the Katherine Plantagenet storyline, solving the mystery was less about, you know, solving it than it was about a slightly naive daughter trying to clear her father's name. Instead, it was each Kate's life propelling the plot, especially their romantic entanglements, with the only suspense coming when events finally catch up to the girls and they find themselves incarcerated in the Tower of London. Frankly, while I enjoyed the book, I'm not quite sure what the point of it was. After all, Weir has explored the mystery of the princes in the tower in her non-fiction book on the subject (The Princes in the Tower), and if she wanted to explore the lives of the two Kates, she could've written a non-fiction book or books about them as well.

I will say this: Weir did a good job of presenting a fair portrait of Richard III. She drew Katherine Plantagenet as basically a mouthpiece for for the Friends of King Richard Society, those dedicated people who believe that everything written about Richard was a lie and he was actually a very good, downright saintly man. As this mouthpiece, Katherine refuses to accept the evidence coming to her of Richard's actions, searching (in vain) to find alternate explanations and trying to reconcile what she knows about her father with what she's hearing about him. The resulting image is what I believe to be the fairest picture of Richard. It's the image of a man who was ruthless, who wanted power, who (yes) had his nephews murdered, but a man who was also devout, a family man, a man who truly grieved when his brother, Edward IV, died. Basically, a man who was no more evil than any other man (and woman) who came to power and did ruthless things on the way or while there, but who was painted as the blackest of villains because it was expedient to do. A man who was not Shakespeare's deformed hunchback, but a man with a slight deformity who became beaten down by his enemies and history. So while Richard's Friends might not like the resulting picture, I think it's one which will satisfy all but the most obdurate on the subject.

Speaking of representing an historical personage accurately, Weir portrayed Frances Grey, and to some extent Henry Grey, as the abusive parents they've long become accepted as, a view which has come under fire in the past few years.  Some researchers and historians are now saying that that image has been overblown and colored by personal animosity, either on the part of Jane herself or her tutor, Roger Ascham.  Weir addresses this issue in her (detailed) author's note; she explains that she questions the theory that there has been a deliberate attempt to blacken Frances' name down the centuries, and that new research suggests that the traditional view of the Suffolks in indeed correct, though "it is conceivable that a chastened Frances mellowed after Jane's execution, as portrayed in this novel, and that Katherine and Mary never suffered the rigor and expectations that their parents imposed on Jane."  There has been some discussion over Weir's ability as an historian, with some seeing her as lax or sloppy, or pandering to public popularity, but I think this author's note shows her dedication to her research and to seeking out the best, most logical explanation for disputed issues.

In the end, A Dangerous Inheritance was entertaining reading (though the quick back-and-forth between the two Kates got a bit dizzying at times, especially since Kate Plantagenet's interludes were often rather short), but rather pointless, unless you've never heard of or read anything about the two princes in the tower. If that's the case, then you should read this book as it presents an interesting and logical solution to the centuries-old mystery within a fictional framework, making for an easy and well-written read.

Read September 3-11, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program September 15, 2012

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