Let me begin this review by saying that I began this series with zero knowledge of the Plantagenets. That is perhaps one of my favorite parts of reading Historical fiction…at least, in the way Philippa Gregory tells them…knowing nothing about a piece of history and indulging sinfully upon the story, and only when it’s finished, and I’m wiping my eyes, do I acknowledge that the story was based on true events.
(No, not everything is 1,000 factual, for how can it be? There is exaggeration and some dots are fancifully connected, but the basic and most important plot points are historically accurate, and they are cited for further evaluation).
Only after I read the loose, perhaps more enthralling renderings, do I then dig into history as it is recorded. And thus my new obsessions begin. The Plantagenets are now one of them.
I began this series without realizing that it was a series. My husband bought me The Lady of the Rivers back in 2012, and I fell so in love with Jacquetta of Luxembourg and her husband Richard Woodville…and their 14 children…and I remember my wistful 21-year-old self wishing the story could continue so I could learn more about their lives and lineage.
I eventually forgot about the lineage, my interest, and---fast-forward to 2020---when I was perusing the Philippa Gregory section in the library for a new sultry read, and decided to go with The White Queen without reading the blurb, I was awe-struck after reading the first few pages at every (much-desired) red-light on my drive home. The main character of The White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, is the eldest daughter of Jacquetta and Richard Woodville…and perhaps the most pivotal of figures of the lot of them.
The White Queen is one of the most thrilling books I’ve read in years. I will spew the classic cliché, but, truthfully, I could not put it down. I loved that the mysterious and resourceful (witch?) Jacquetta had a large role in the story, that Elizabeth Woodville was so easy to root for, and that there was a constant heart-beat thrumming of suspense and romance on every page.
Without going too much into the events that take place, which are obviously well-known as they are English History, Elizabeth Woodville defies all law and reason when she snatches the love of Edward IV, the King of England himself. But this is seen as a low match to many, especially the Kingmaker, the Earl of Warwick, who had created an alliance with France by promising King Edward’s marriage to the French Princess. Now that France will not have its alliance due to the King’s reckless love for a low-ranking widow (who has children with her late husband), the already war-torn country is upheaved into even more chaos as brother turns on brother (turns on brother). Enemies spring up out of every shadow imaginable, battles rage and crowns are exchanged…it is truly a "Game of Thrones", and perhaps an inspiration for the fantasy series.
The book ends with a mystery that I was not expecting, but most anyone who knows enough history will likely know about the mystery that is The Boys in the Tower. I went onto the next book in the series, The Red Queen, hoping the delicious energy of the previous book would continue…only to find that the main character here is a cold splash of water of contrast to the alluring, witchy Elizabeth Woodville: a sickeningly devout woman, so brittle and cruel and cold, Margaret Beaufort. And the pacing? More of a horse’s walk than an adrenalized gallop.
I did not think I would like The Red Queen at all. It is a mirrored retelling of The White Queen. All the events are mostly the same, but told from the perspective of Margaret Beaufort, who has lived, not so indulgently, on the other side of the war. Most of the story is of her praying on her prie-dieu for her son Henry Tudor’s (yes, even I knew that name!) right to the throne. What I particularly came to love about this rendering is Margaret’s psychotic denial of her own ambition. She was truly a unique character to read and I ended up loving this book. Most of all, I ended up loving Margaret, who is such an unlovable character. She made me laugh many times and I can’t recall taking photos of passages of a book in a long while.
Then, I begrudgingly went on to The Kingmaker’s Daughter, as it is yet another retelling of the same events, only through another perspective. This time, the unlikely perspective of the younger daughter of the Earl of Warwick…The Kingmaker. Yes, this is where the series begins to collapse. I found myself very bored reading this…though there were many parts I loved. Of course, that is Philippa Gregory’s gift. She can make even the dullest tales magical.
The Kingmaker’s Daughter follows yet another fascinating woman of this time, Anne Neville, who was also, briefly, known as Queen of England. Through her facet in this shattered mirror, her perspective is one of pure terror and suspicion of the queen Elizabeth Woodville, and from the beginning vowed to see the low-born queen’s downfall. Like Margaret Beaufort, but on a third opposing team battling for the throne through their husbands, The Kingmaker’s Daughter has her own deadly ambition.
I will admit that I forced myself through this one. I skimmed through nearly a hundred pages, cursing my devotion the entire time. I wanted more than anything to get onto the subsequent book. But, finally, I finished The Kingmaker’s Daughter with a tender heart. No, it is not a spellbinding book, but it does have its sweet spots. It’s truly hard to dislike anything written by Philippa Gregory, though I’m not sure another would have such loyalty as me.
At last, I reached The White Princess, which is one I had been the most excited for after finishing The White Queen. As the title suggests, this book is centered upon the eldest daughter of Edward IV and his queen Elizabeth Woodville. (And not a retelling of the same story). I was hoping this book would be just as tumultuous…but it was far from it. In fact, this book was the dullest of them all. I read each of its preceding books quite quickly, but this one took me nearly six months to complete. And with that, a lot of it was skimmed-through because I could not bear to read it in earnest.
This is not the fault of the storyteller, however. Philippa Gregory simply chose to center a 500 page novel around a figure who knew very little about what was going on around her. This figure is the beautiful and serene Princess Elizabeth of York, who is the reluctant wife of the new “pretender” king, Henry Tudor. Mother of Henry VIII.
I will not reveal any “spoilers” (even though you cannot spoil history) in case there are those who are interested in embarking upon this series and want to be surprised by everything. Let me just say that the entire book is cold, unfulfilling, and the sentence “I don’t know” is repeated about 50 times. However, I cannot see how this story would be written any other way without completely fictionalizing it.
I really did try my hardest to enjoy this book, but with all the mysteries surrounding it and the constant theme of deprivation and confusion, I simply felt repulsed. That is, until close to the end. Finally, the book began to warm up and invite me in…just as the story was closing.
There is another book that follows this one and leads away from the Plantagenets to the Tudors, The King’s Curse, which I will eventually read. But I am done for now and wanted to cap off the review here. I do not feel like that book, which trickles into the reign of Henry VIII, would belong in the same Plantagenet-themed post as the others. But who knows, maybe one day soon I will read it and add the review for it to this.
I want to say that no, you do not need to read The Lady of the Rivers in order to understand the rest of the books, but I do suggest reading them in the order in which I have them. Altering the order may alter your own bias for the overall story, (which is fascinating and might be fun to experiment with if you so choose). I happen to love The White Queen the most, and because of my enjoyment of it, I had more momentum to read the others.
In all, I am happy to have read each of these books. There were times when I wanted to surrender but I am pleased to know Philippa Gregory’s reconstruction of these fascinating events. Obviously, some were better than others, and I will likely read some over again while neglecting the rest, but no two historical figures are the same. I will say, though, that each of these women are some of the most interesting I’ve learned about. I am happy to feel like I have an intimate knowledge of their lives (through a fictional lens).
If you have not read any other books by Philippa Gregory, there are many wonderful ones to choose from to help you change that. If you have seen any film adaptations of her work and have based your judgement off of that, please reconsider. One of my favorite books of hers is The Other Boleyn Girl and the movie is a heinous adaptation of it. I plan to share more of my reviews of her work here, so stay tuned. If it isn’t obvious, she is one of my favorite authors and an immense influence of mine.
Thank you for reading this review of mine. It is almost 1 in the morning…I finished The White Princess little more than an hour ago. My grammar may be a bit spotty and I’m too lazy to go over it before posting, so if you have judged me for it, you may release those judgments now. Kidding... judge all you want. Like I said, I'm too lazy to care.