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on 14 April 2013

Philippa Gregory

The White Queen is the first book in Gregory's trilogy about the Wars of the Roses. Elizabeth Woodville is already a widow with two young sons as the story opens. Her family has always supported the Lancastrian side and her husband was killed fighting for them; but when she sees the new King Edward of York riding past she falls instantly in love with him, and he with her.

This was the first event that made me feel that there was an element of unreality to Gregory's version of the story. Whatever the fairy stories say, and whatever story Elizabeth may have told in later life, I find it hard to believe that two people can fall in love so finally at first sight. Some credibility is provided by the suggestion that Edward is an attractive man who expects to have his way with any pretty woman and Elizabeth is wise enough to keep him at arms length until they are secretly married. But given the real politique of the day I wonder if it could have happened so easily.

In the history books the Woodvilles are generally portrayed as scheming parvenues whose determination to promote their own interests makes Edward unpopular and foments rebellion. Gregory's clever angle on this is to show the situation through Elizabeth's eyes. She has been brought up in a country in turmoil and both she and Edward know how shaky his hold on the throne is. So it makes sense to promote her family and their kinsfolk to high office or marry them off to powerful people, so as to surround themselves with reliable supporters. Quite subtly, Gergory shows us how Elizabeth develops from a romantic woman, a beautiful and beloved Queen, to a schemer who will stop at nothing to retain power.

This first person view point has its strengths in that it allows us to share in the heroine's emotions and understand her state of mind; but it has its drawbacks. Since everything has to be seen through Elizabeth's eyes, many of the important events such as battles can only be reported at second hand. Gregory counteracts this by suggesting that she is gifted with second sight. Her mother, Jacquetta, believes herself descended from Melusina, a mythical goddess half-woman half-fish, and thinks that she has inherited her magical powers. She does not insist on their efficacy, only that they might, perhaps, work. To begin with, Elizabeth is also sceptical but as the story progresses it relies more and more on this element. Elizabeth 'sees' the outcome of battles; sees her husband take flight by boat after a defeat. She and her daughter breath a fog that will roll up the Thames valley to conceal Edward's army from their foes; they call up a storm to prevent Warwick from landing in France; and they call up a flood to prevent enemy forces from reaching London. Finally, she puts a curse on Richard, Edward's brother who has usurped the throne in the place of their young son, tying a thread round her own arm till it goes numb so that his sword arm will weaken in the crucial battle; and when she believes her son has been murdered she curses whoever has done it that he will lose his own first born son and pass on the curse to his descendants so that in the end his line will die out. With the benefit of our knowledge of history, we can see that this is indeed the fate of both Richard and his rival Henry Tudor. We also know that Richard comes to his end in exactly the way Elizabeth foresees. What Elizabeth does not understand, however, until too late is that her magical powers are a two-edged sword. The storms she conjures up prevent potential rescuers from reaching her; and her own daughter is likely to be married to either Richard or Henry, the two most likely candidates for the murder of her son.

Richard 111 receives a more sympathetic portrayal then he gets in Shakespeare's tragedy. He is not a hunchback, just smaller and darker than his brothers, and the question of whether he is responsible for the deaths of the princes in the Tower is left open. Here, incidentally, Gregory goes along with the legend that one of the princes did not die but was smuggled away to Flanders, whence he will one day return as the Pretender, Perkyn Warbeck.

This is an ingenious story and one that involves the reader from the start. If you are prepared to go along with the magical element it is a satisfying and enjoyable read.
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on 30 August 2014
This is my first (and last) taste of Philippa Gregory and whilst the book is well written and researched. The style is very Mills and Boon. You never get "under the bonnet" of any of the characters as you would with say with the great Ken Follet nor is there the historical feel of say a Hilary Mantel. The inexplicable "mermaid fantasy" becomes really tedious quite quickly and detracts from the flow of the narrative. If you enjoy the type of romantic approach of Barbara Cartland, where the lovers wander off into the sunset hand in hand and the scene moves instantly to the following day where the sun shines and the birds sing, then this may well suit you. Me I prefer a larger portion of realism and more attention to detail in the character building and human interrelations.
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on 31 December 2009
As a huge fan of the Tudors, and subsequently Philippa Gregory's work, I thought I would go back in time a bit further and learn the story of Elizabeth Woodville, mother of the Princes in the Tower.

I found the books strangely compelling. You knew what was ultimately going to happen but had to keep reading.

Up until about the last 100 pages I thought the whole book was excellent (apart from the strange flashback type things to the Goddess Melusina, which were few and far between). However, the last 100 pages did let the book down somewhat but then it rallied in the final pages and makes you question what did really happen to the Princes in the Tower.

A good read, but not one of Gregory's best, having said that I am looking forwards to the second and third books in the series.
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on 14 November 2010
This book is incredibly poorly written. I have enjoyed a number of Gregory's other books and was very much looking forward to this and the rest of the series but this was such a disappointment. We rarely get to experience anything in this book, instead the narrative jumps to a point after the action and told what happened. Sentences are repeated and repeated throughout the book. We are told about what happened and how the characters reacted again and again.

I really enjoyed her Tudor novels, they painted such a great picture of the era. They were infused with atmosphere, I just flew through them. This book is devoid of any of that warmth and detail. It's been such a drudge to complete it.

Worst of all I had been even more eager to read The Red Queen than I was to read this. Now I shall be avoiding it.
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I know I'm late to the party reading the historical fiction of Phillipa Gregory but after walking past the print edition of her books numerous times in supermarkets and coming across them on Amazon I decided to give the first book in the Cousins series a try. It didn't disappoint and was filled with political intrigue. It's a long book some 13 hours on Kindle I think and I did fall asleep reading it at times and it took longer to read than my usual fare but none of those things is bad.

The book engaged me, held my interest and left me wanting more. It set the historical scene well but didn't dwell on the details. I was moved to sorrow and relief as the plot twisted and turned, I will no doubt read the next one.
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on 27 July 2009
Before I begin I do want to say the book I read was an uncorrected proof so the story I read may be subject to change. Saying that though, if it is changed by anyone they must be mad!

There is no way I'm giving any of this books plot or story away! It is brilliant full stop. It's written by Philippa Gregory. Who wrote some others I've read in the past and wasn't too sure about like, The Favoured Child and The Other Boleyn girl. BUT this one was brilliant. The fact that it rained for a couple of days which forced me inside to read, did me no harm either,

This book follows the Princes in the tower and is a fantastic murder mystery and one that has genuinely gone unsolved for hundreds of years.

As I said I will not give even the slightest allusion as to the story line or what happens. All I will say is don't literally judge this book by the cover. I wouldn't have thought a murder mystery set the thick end of 600 years ago would have been my kinda thing, I couldn't have been more wrong.

I wouldn't recommend sitting down and reading it in 2 or 3 sittings as much as you may want to, make it last, think of it like a fine wine or 30 year old single malt treat yourself, some books I read are the literary equivalent of big dumb action movies, others are more like dramedy, drama/comedy. This is like the 3hr BBC costume drama that everyone watches only to be later surprised that they like it.
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on 19 May 2013
This book is very mediocre. The character is whiny and annoying, and not particularly interesting. The hero is very two-dimensional. He's a horny guy who likes to fight. That's his whole personality.

The magic sub-plot feels trite in a generic fantasy medieval sort of way. I say this as a Neopagan who loves fantasy books. It was just so generic, trying to add a magic and goddess in this. Gregory, you're not Marion Zimmer Bradley. You can't pull this off.

I loved the Boleyn books. This one is boring.

It's fine for the beach, bathroom, or airplane.
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on 18 September 2009
I bought the White Queen by Philippa Gregory for one reason and one reason only. The subject, Elizabeth Woodville, was a local girl and came from Northamptonshire, where i have lived all my life. I knew her story well and was therefore interested to see how Miss Gregory brought Elizabeth to life in the form of a novel. I had not read any of her work before, maybe, as a bloke I was frightened by the 'romanticisation' of history. Well, yes. The White Queen is romantic both in the sense of slightly amorous content and also in the way the story is built up; but Gregory does it with such skill, I was captivated and was carried along as though I were to be reading a thriller rather than an historical novel. She admits to having filled in some gaps and selected her course of history where alternates exsist and she deals with the unbelievably complicated political machinations exceptionally well. She doesn't make you feel you are being taught history, simply being entertained with colour and clarity.
Sadly at Garfton Regis in Northamptonshire, where the opening of the book is set, there is nothing to see and nothing to comemmorate Elizabeth and her King. The Queen's Oak is slightly spurious but is worth a visit, but apart from this, one of England's most important historically romantic villages can never be a tourist resort, more's the pity. And Northampton Castle, where Edward so often stayed is no more either.
I liked the book very much, even though it is not the sort of thing I would normally have read. I hope this helps.
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on 28 March 2015
This is the first book I’ve read by Philippa Gregory, and although it only scratches the surface of a truly dramatic period, I respect the author’s attempts to convey shades of gray, rather than making her characters all good or all bad. It’s better than the TV series based on it, which in my opinion was cheaply made, poorly written, and completely failed to mine the drama of this period. For what it’s worth, I’m very familiar with the Wars of the Roses (the term “Cousins’ War” is not generally used by historians) and have read extensively about the period, both nonfiction and fiction.

Negatives first:
• Not enough sensory detail to put you in the scene; lacks richness.
• Lazy writing (as another reviewer noted).
• Often seems rushed, with poor development of some characters (Hastings, Warwick).
• The witchcraft theme/descent from Melusine didn’t interest me, which is a matter of taste, but I also consider it odd that Ms. Gregory has never acknowledged a previous author’s use of the theme. I refer to Rosemary Hawley Jarman in her book “The King’s Grey Mare,” published approximately 35 years ago (and much better written in terms of style and sensory detail).
• I found the relationship between Edward and Elizabeth undeveloped and unconvincing. Where’s the sexual or dramatic tension? One reviewer called it “sweet and romantic,” but that’s the problem: the author can’t make up her mind whether to be sentimental or hard-headed about relations between the two. She begins their story begins with an attempted rape, fails to develop the attraction between them, and then portrays Edward as relentlessly promiscuous (historically true) while only touching on Elizabeth’s possible feelings about the situation.
• The book as a whole lacks depth and power – the intensity doesn’t ramp up until the end.
• Not altogether accurate historically, which is fine as long as readers aren’t under any illusions that it is.

• Ms. Gregory provides quite a clear exposition of this very confusing period (unlike “The King’s Grey Mare,” mentioned above).
• As individuals, Edward and Elizabeth are portrayed with sympathy but without illusions. Both are deeply flawed human beings – sometimes likeable, sometimes not – whose actions often result in exactly the opposite outcome from what they intend (especially Elizabeth). This is one area where the book is much better than the TV series based on it. As another reviewer noted, in the TV series Edward comes across as a buffoon, which he emphatically was not, either historically or in Gregory’s book.
• Richard III is portrayed as neither a monster nor a saint, and because of that is a much more interesting character than his portrayal in most fiction.
• Elizabeth’s struggles toward the end of the book have a good deal of emotional power.
• Ms. Gregory’s “solution” to the mystery of the princes in the Tower is interesting and thought-provoking.

To sum up, the book is better than the TV series, which has garnered numerous five-star reviews on Amazon (especially in the U.S.) for reasons that escape me. But despite its good points, this is not one of those big, sumptuous historical novels you can get lost in. I would have given it two stars, but the author’s attempt at nuance merited a third.

For a big juicy read, with much more drama and intensity, try “The Sunne in Splendour” by Sharon Key Penman (if you can overlook the sometimes awkward and anachronistic writing style and a too-good-to-be-true portrayal of Richard III).
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on 11 October 2014
My remarks here cover the other books about the Cousins' war as well as this one. I see many reviewers quibbling about the accuracy or otherwise of historical details in this series. Personally, I read the books as novels, fictional narratives set in a specific period. If you want 100% accuracy read biographies or histories!

I have enjoyed the books very much as exciting narratives and above all as attempts to see the world of that time through women's eyes - a nice complement to most other accounts. It is true that this works better with some characters than others. I especially loved the Red Queen's own story, I think Gregory succeeded very well in capturing the perspective of this woman, and showing how extreme religious devotion can turn into complacency, self-aggrandisement and bigotry (there are many contemporary examples of this, and I found this character curiously up-to-date!). The White Queen's tale, on the other hand, is often about the men around her, and this problem seems most noticeable in the White Princess, where the story really seems mainly about 'the Boy', though it is told only through a woman's eyes. But on the whole I really appreciate her attempts to show us a period as experienced by women.

I also really enjoyed reading the same incidents as seen by different characters, particularly when the White and Red Queens' stories are juxtaposed. I think the whole series is an interesting experiment in perspective. But above all these are highly readable, gripping stories, to be read not for edification but simply for entertainment.
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