Wednesday, February 8, 2012

At the Mercy of the Queen by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Title: At the Mercy of the Queen: A Novel of Anne Boleyn
Author: Anne Clinard Barnhill

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Tudors / Reformation England / Historical Figures Fictionalized)
Publisher/Publication Date: St. Martin's Griffin (1/3/2012)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did -- this reads quickly!
One-sentence summary: Young Madge Shelton is brought to the glittering court of Anne Boleyn, where she finds love, lust, and court intrigue in spades.
Reading Challenges: A to Z Reading Challenge, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I don't hate it -- I think the cover model looks a bit like Natalie Portman, which is kind of distracting.

First line: Already the grassy fields surrounding Hever Castle were greening, though Easter was several weeks away.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow.

Why did I get this book?: I was intrigued by the familiar Tudor tale seen through the eyes of a lesser known cousin.

Review: Despite my love of hist fic, the Tudors are among my least favorite which is sad since there's a glut of novels on them. However, I'm not opposed to the setting and so when I learned about Anne Clinard Barnhill's novel featuring Anne Boleyn's cousin, I was curious.

Barnhill's premise is that Margaret "Madge" Shelton, cousin of Anne Boleyn, is brought to court as one of Anne's ladies. In the course of her time there she's wooed and wowed and seduced -- and pimped out to the king by her own cousin. I confess, it was that set up that most intrigued me: how do you make such an unsavory story human, real, and the players appealing? I love novels that explore the lives of women, especially in settings like this, where power is tenuous and dependent on, essentially, bartering one's body.

For the most part, this novel works in that regard: Barnhill presents the mix of assumed piety and open sexuality that made up Henry and Anne's court. Her portrayal of Anne Boleyn, as seen through her cousin's eyes, felt real although I found Madge, our heroine, to be a bit too perfect and guileless and pretty.

Barnhill uses dialogue primarily to provide back story and context, so for a good portion of the beginning, we're subjected to awkward lectures and weird speeches to set up the novel. That would be my biggest complaint -- the writing style -- but it grew on me as the story progressed and less explanatory exposition was needed. This volume has great extras to help the reader along (like a timeline, background on Margaret Shelton, and recommended reading) although I would have loved a who's who since I always mix up courtiers and cousins and mistresses.

This would be a great historical novel for someone new to the Tudors or someone who doesn't care much for dates and battles and minute court intrigue. Ultimately, this is a coming of a story during a tumultuous time when a woman at court had to be modest and knowing, when a kiss could make or break one's reputation. Barnhill's focus is on a young woman trying to find her footing in such a world, and its an inviting debut.

** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to be able to offer a copy of At the Mercy of the Queen to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 3/2.

Check out the other blogs on this tour. Learn more about Anne Clinard Barnhill at her website, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.


14 comments:

  1. I am pretty much a Tudor nut, and will read any and everything about them if I can, so this book sounds really appealing to me. I did enter your giveaway, and wanted to thank you for the excellent review and for giving me the opportunity to win. It sounds like such a great book!

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    1. Heather: You'd love this one, I bet -- the subtitle really out to be 'what life is like as Anne Boleyn's cousin' -- very refreshing angle (I thought) and pretty well done. Sexy but not over the top.

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  2. Like Heather, I'm a sucker for the Tudors and haven't read anything about them recently so this sounds wonderful and fun. Thanks for hosting the giveaway!

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    1. Hooray! If you're a historical stickler, just know that Barnhill conflates two Shelton girls into a single character. I appreciated her reasoning why, but some Tudor fans don't.

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  3. I like books about the Tudors, but I haven't been thrilled with some of the last one's I've read. Not sure I want to delve into that again right now.

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    1. I can appreciate that. On the historical novel spectrum, this would be (in my eyes) a 'fluffier' one -- it's no Wolf Hall -- but it's not the sort of bodice ripping madness you get with Philippa Gregory.

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  4. Very nice review! I'm glad you enjoyed this more than I did - I think I got a bit nitpicky on it because I love Tudor hist fic and read a lot of it. And I have to agree: this is one of the more realistic portrayals of Anne Boleyn I've read recently.

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    1. I really appreciated all your criticism and thoughts on this book because I could see much of that -- thankfully, not being wild about this era means I've got a little distance and can not care (unlike, say, medieval novels, where I can get wildly picky!). Madge didn't do much for me, but I did enjoy this exploration of sex and Anne Boleyn. I'm not a Boleyn fangirl like many others, but I do appreciate what she must have had been like to do what she did (wow, awkward sentence, my apologies!).

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    2. I just started a historical fiction (on an arc tour, funnily enough) set in 1234 and I feel quite lost historically! I may have to dig out some old college textbooks for verification, since I feel unmoored in making judgements.

      Madge was too perfect. It's just hard to relate and root for such an obvious character. What also struck me about ATMOFTQ is how religiously Anne is portrayed as, particularly near the end. While I obviously didn't love this, it was nice to have a new version of the Queen. I love the Tudor era very much, though not particularly for Anne or Henry. I love reading about Elizabeth I the most, but that era in England is just so captivating to me. That and the War of Roses. Whoops, I'm rambling! Off I go.

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  5. Thanks, Audra--I love me some Tudors, (and ouch--I absolutely LOVED Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl!--the book, not the movie), so I find myself wanting to see what Madge gets up to...

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    1. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you do read it -- folks seem very split about this one! I love me some tawdry sex in my novels, but for a book that explores the impact of being a mistress, the sex is pretty downplayed -- which is good for some readers, I know!

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  6. Same with me, I am not a Tudor fan, there are too many about Anne, Elizabeth and all the rest.

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  7. I am a sometimes Tudor fan - I think it is more of just an oversaturated Tudor reading list lately that is causing me to put off reading more for awhile. I do like the premise of many books coming out not starring the big named historical figure. It can make for interesting reading. I will keep this one on my list, but it will probably be awhile. I too think the cover looks like Natalie Portman. Great review.

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