THE PLOT: Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen is the first book in the ‘Six Tudor Queens’ series by Alison Weir. Starting with Katherine’s journey to England to marry Prince Arthur, it goes on to detail her life and, ultimately, her death in a new country. The majority of the novel is, of course, dedicated to her marriage to and divorce from Henry VIII. However, it provides new insights into her first marriage and how she became Queen of England. This is not a new story, it’s one many of us know well, but it is a universal novel about a young woman’s determination, grit and integrity.
RATING: Historical fiction is my bread and butter, particularly the medieval and early modern period, so this is a natural four-stars from me. It’s very well-researched and richly detailed, which provides a solid foundation for a timeless story. I devoured this 600-page behemoth because I simply could not stop reading, even though – let’s be frank – we all know how the story ends. This ability to keep the reader engaged is testimony to Alison Weir’s talent, and I’ll be sure to read the rest of this series.
GOOD BITS: This novel is meticulous yet doesn’t feel too burdened with detail. My favourite bits were the ‘limbo’ periods detailing Katherine’s indeterminate status after Arthur’s death. Although she is technically the Dowager Princess of Wales at this point, it’s very interesting to understand the political manouverings behind-the-scenes so she could marry the new heir, Henry. Similarly, the account of Katherine’s life after the divorce, when she is moved away from court, is often overlooked but was interesting to imagine.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I hate to pit female novelists against each other, but it has to be said – this book isn’t as good as my beloved novels by Philippa Gregory. If we take Gregory’s ‘The Constant Princess’ as a comparison, Weir’s novel doesn’t have the same sense of agency, dynamism and intrigue. I believe it’s because Weir’s third person narrative sometimes dives into Katherine of Aragon’s mind and presents us with her rather simplistic thought processes. The reader is neither wholly with Katherine’s mind nor has space to guess what’s true or false. Instead, the narrator presents us with a fait accompli of her thoughts, in a style which reminded me of novels by Enid Blyton.
I can only explain this via dissecting some examples, which often happen at the end of a chapter or scene.
“It was impossible to tell who was telling the truth and who was lying. On the whole, she was rather inclined to believe Don Pedro.” – Page 51
This example comes after an exciting scene, which gives the reader lots of clues as to whether two characters are lying. The first sentence gives us an insight into Katherine’s mind; however, the narrator then uses the pronoun ‘she’ and tells us Katherine’s thoughts. Personally, I think this could have been omitted as the reader can guess Katherine’s thoughts through the previous interactions.
“And if she bore him an heir, she might yet win back her influence. That was something Wolsey could not do!” – Page 237
In this example, I can’t tell if the narrator is (somewhat annoyingly) presenting me with facts outside of the narrative or showing me Katherine’s inner thoughts. If it’s the former, the writing style seems a bit twee and basic. If it’s the latter, then it could have been expressed more dynamically through her relationship with Wolsey (perhaps a cold look) or desperation to conceive (maybe numb knees from hours praying in chapel).
OERALL: My historical fiction lovers, this is one for you! In fact, I’m surprised if you haven’t read it already because I’m late to the party. If you’re not into the Tudors or complex genealogies, then skip over this one as you might find it too long and tedious. But, if you love the nitty gritty of political intrigues at court, then this should be one to add to your list. This kind of book is my happy place – perfect for when I’m feeling down and need complete absorption in another world – so I hope it can provide that for you too.