Book review: The Boleyn King

The Boleyn King
By Laura Andersen
ISBN: 978-0-345-53409-5
Review copy provided by publisher

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

This book is an historic romance/reconstruction, in the style of Harry Turtledove, an author who enjoys rewriting history by speculating what would have happened if a well-known historic event had never occurred, or had occurred differently. The premise of “The Boleyn King” is: What would have happened if Anne Boleyn had not “miscarried of her savior”? Suppose she had actually given King Henry VIII the son he so desperately wanted?

Let’s go back in time to June 28, 1536. Catherine of Aragon has been dead five months and Queen Anne is in labor. Her first child, Elizabeth, is nearly three years old, hale and hearty, but her husband, King Henry VIII, has no need of more daughters. He needs a son to succeed him. And Anne knows if she doesn’t give him one this time, she’s history. Henry’s already taken Jane Seymour as his mistress, plucked from among Anne’s own ladies-in-waiting, just as she was from among Catherine’s ladies. So it’s a matter of life and death, not only that Anne survives the birth, but the wrath of Henry VIII if the child turns out to be the wrong sex again. After a long, agonizing birth, she finally produces a boy, just as a shower of falling stars appears across the night skies of England. The midwife assures her, “It is a sign, Your Majesty. A sign of God’s good pleasure on you and all England. He has given us a prince. A Prince of Wales to follow in his great father’s footsteps.”

So begins the alternate history of England’s House of Tudor, with the birth of a son from the woman for whom Henry VIII defied the Catholic Church, divorced his loving and faithful first wife, and disowned and bastardized his firstborn child, Mary. Young Henry William Tudor, called William by his friends, succeeds to his throne upon his father’s death ten years later and becomes Henry IX. His mother’s brother George, Lord Rochford, becomes regent, and William is brought up at court with three other young people, his elder sister Princess Elizabeth, his best friend Dominic (son of an accused traitor, the marquis of Exeter, who died in the Tower before he could be tried), and a young lady named Minuette, who is his mother’s ward since the death of her mother, Queen Anne’s favorite lady-in-waiting, a Frenchwoman who married an English lord.

William’s reign is far from peaceful; shortly after he comes of age in 1554, he fights a war with France, ruled by another Henry (Henri II, who married Catherine de’ Medici), and fights another war at home with the Catholics, who keep trying to prove that he’s not legitimate so that they can put Mary on the throne. There’s also the mysterious death of Alyce de Clare, one of Queen Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, who seemed awfully jealous of Lord Robert Dudley, a favorite of Princess Elizabeth despite his inconvenient marriage. And the mystery of the whereabouts of a document called the Penitent’s Confession, an affidavit stating that Henry VIII was not the father of Anne Boleyn’s son, but her own brother George. Hence the title of this book, “The Boleyn King”; someone, either the Catholics or the Spanish, is trying to cast doubts on William’s paternity to prove that Mary, Henry’s firstborn, is the only real heir to the throne. Mary, of course, is a devout Catholic, like her late mother, whose fondest wish is to reverse all her father’s religious reforms and bring England back to the true Church of Rome. Which, to the average Englishman, means inviting the Spanish Inquisition to set up house at court.

So young King Henry IX, who takes after his mother with his dark good looks, but has red streaks from his father’s hair woven through his black hair, must tread carefully with the French as well as with his own people, keeping the Protestants from killing the Catholics and vice-versa, while setting his helpful young friends to find out (1) who killed Lady Alyce and (2) where is the Penitent’s Confession. Because whether it is authentic or not, it can cause a rebellion if it falls into the wrong hands, Catholic or Spanish. Being both (Puerto Rico originally being a Spanish colony), I can’t help feeling a bit persecuted that my peeps are the villains in this story. But it is a good story; it moves fast, with enough plot complications to appeal to the most devout soap opera fan, and sticks close enough to the actual historic facts to make you think that all this really could have happened. Speaking of plot complications, William and Dominic both end up falling in love with Minuette, who must also tread carefully to avoid hurting two men who have been dear to her since childhood while figuring out which one she really loves.

Without a doubt, “The Boleyn King” is a good read, which I recommend for romance and history fans alike, as well as historic romance fans. (Hey, it’s set during a regency period!) My only complaint, aside from the one about the Catholics and the Spanish being the villains, is that it’s too short. But don’t worry, there’s already a sequel called “The Boleyn Deceit” which was released last fall. And another one due out this summer, “The Boleyn Reckoning”. A veritable embarrassment of riches for romance and history fans and historic romance fans. (Now I’m starting to sound like Polonius in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, describing the repertoire of the actors Hamlet hired.) Philippa Gregory and Harry Turtledove had better look sharp, there’s a new kid on the block who can write circles around them both.