Thursday, 18 February 2016

Book Review: At the Mercy of the Queen by Anne Clinard Barnhill

A sweeping tale of sexual seduction and intrigue at the court of Henry VIII, At the Mercy of the Queen is a rich and dramatic debut historical about Madge Shelton, cousin and lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn.

At the innocent age of fifteen, Lady Margaret Shelton arrives at the court of Henry VIII and quickly becomes the confidante of her cousin, Queen Anne Boleyn. But she soon finds herself drawn into the perilous web of Anne's ambition.

Desperate to hold onto the king's waning affection, Anne schemes to have him take her guileless young cousin as mistress, ensuring her husband's new paramour will owe her loyalty to the queen. But Margaret has fallen deeply in love with a handsome young courtier. She is faced with a terrible dilemma: give herself to the king and betray the love of her life or refuse to become his mistress and jeopardize the life of the her cousin, Queen Anne.

My Review:
Madge Shelton, cousin to Queen Anne Boleyn is chosen to serve her at Court. Shy and socially awkward, her only friends are her nurse Cate, a staunch supporter of Queen Katherine and Princess Mary, and the Court poet Thomas Wyatt. She is annoyed by the constant appearance of Arthur Brandon, bastard son of the Duke of Suffolk, but finds him useful when she fends off the unwelcome attentions of Sir Henry Norris, who is determined to marry her, and has the approval of the King. Anne promises to help Madge escape the betrothal when she delivers the King a son. Anne however soon discovers that Jane Seymour is eager to take her husband and crown, and has to ask Madge to help tempt him away from her rival.

Madge is infuriating in the beginning of the book, acting like a childish brat every time Arthur tried to be friendly. I don't understand why she had an issue with him, especially as he helped to keep her safe from the slimeball that is Henry Norris. She is unfit for Court, having had no training in how to behave or serve Anne correctly, and what either man first saw in her is a mystery! I liked snide Cate, although her outbursts about Nan Bullen in the middle of Court could have got them both into serious trouble. Anne Boleyn is a more sympathetic character in this book-a woman who loves her King and lives in a state of high anxiety over giving him the son he demands. She is constantly afraid of losing him to each love rival that comes along, especially the wily Jane Seymour. She is kind to Madge and wants to help her where possible.

Henry Norris is revolting in this version of the story. Madge makes it clear that she has no interest in him, which makes him more determined to have her, arranging a betrothal behind her back. He is happy to resort to rape and poor Madge has a few narrow escapes. Madge is gradually falling for Arthur but cannot be with him without the permission of the King, who is supporting Henry Norris. Anne is no fan of Norris but can do nothing until she secures her place with the birth of a Prince, so when she delivers Elizabeth, Madge is in as much despair as Anne is. Jane Seymour is a very unpleasant and spiteful woman, rebuffing any attempts from Madge to be friends, and is the great seducer, determined to take Henry from Anne. It is obvious that the author prefers Anne to Jane, and I liked the way the characters were portrayed.

As Anne gets desperate to keep Jane away from Henry, she asks Madge to seduce the King as a temporary distraction, and if the King's attentions settle on Anne again through this plot, Anne will find a way to let Madge marry Arthur. Arthur is horrified by the plan but agrees to stand by Madge no matter what, in the hope that they can be together. Having the fictional romance of the couple running alongside Anne's gradual fall from grace was interesting, and the second half of the book was much better than the start.

This was a decent Tudor novel which had a slightly different view of Anne Boleyn's reign. It was nice to see Madge as the star as I liked her character in the Tudors TV series! A good choice for fans of Anne Boleyn.
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