Disney’s got it all wrong: Princesses rarely live happily ever after.
In four new novels about British royalty, they get the crowns and fancy gowns, but along with that comes forced marriages to terrifying old men and, in one case, the king who killed the love of her life.
1. The White Princess , by Philippa Gregory (Touchstone, 27.99).
Even Sansa Stark might spare a moment to pity Elizabeth of York, sister of the two missing princes from the tower. The teenager’s lover, her uncle Richard III, has died at the Battle of Bosworth. (Pop quiz: Whose novels have more incest: Gregory’s or George R.R. Martin’s?) A grief-stricken Elizabeth is forced to marry Henry Tudor, the man who killed Richard. She will do so with a smile, her ambitious mother, Elizabeth Woodville, decrees, thus restoring their family to power. And that smile is not allowed to crack, even though, in Gregory’s version, Henry rapes her daily to ensure she’s pregnant before the wedding. Then there is her mother-in-law, a devout harpy who demands to be formally known as My Lady the King’s Mother. “The White Princess” is the latest in Gregory’s best-selling “Cousins’ War” series, which is the basis of “The White Queen” TV series starting Aug. 10 on the Starz network. It’s not necessary to have read the earlier books to grasp the misery of Elizabeth’s situation, but they help explain why she was in love with the uncle who declared her and her siblings illegitimate, locked up her brothers and executed one of her half brothers. While Gregory tosses in some underdone magic that doesn’t add much to the plot, “The White Princess” features one of the more intriguing theories about the possible fate of the princes. In the past, Gregory’s historical novels have come in for controversy, particularly her portrayal of Anne Boleyn as a cold, incestuous schemer. “The White Princess” comes with a five-page bibliography for those who would like to research further.
2. Royal Mistress , by Anne Easter Smith (Touchstone; paperback, $16).
One of the characters in “The White Queen” has not one, but two novels of her own this year. Jane Shore, the mistress of Elizabeth’s dad, Edward IV, was known as the Rose of London. The king famously called her the “merriest harlot” in his realm. The silk merchant’s daughter was so beautiful that she captivated the monarch’s stepson and his closest adviser, as well. In “Royal Mistress,” by Anne Easter Smith, Jane is a warmhearted, generous soul who just longs to be loved, specifically by Thomas Grey, who she has no idea is a marquess. Instead, her father marries her off to a cold fish, William Shore, apparently the only man in England who can resist Jane’s charms. But if being princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, neither is being a mistress once your protector dies. Jane falls afoul of Richard III, who was aghast at the excesses of his older brother’s court. After a surfeit of princesses, this story of a freewoman makes for a refreshing change, and Easter Smith, who specializes in the mistress subgenre, includes some rich historical text. But “Royal Mistress” is marred by an overly obvious diagnosis of Jane as having daddy issues and a reunion so cloying that the Hallmark Channel would blush.
3. Queen’s Gambit , by Elizabeth Fremantle (Simon & Schuster, $26).
After living through the “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded” parts of the British school rhyme, Katherine Parr doesn’t like her chances as the sixth wife of Henry VIII. In “Queen’s Gambit,” Parr had hoped, after her much older second husband died, to be able to marry for love. Instead, she finds herself shackled to a violent, ill, grossly overweight Henry, while pining for the handsome Thomas Seymour. Parr is too smart to indulge in an affair like her doomed predecessor, but her reformist religious views could just as easily get her killed. Fremantle’s portrayal of Parr’s love for Seymour is a weak spot — the two fall in love after about five minutes’ conversation — but a subplot involving Parr’s maid, Dot Fownten (a real historical figure), is particularly well done. In this case, physical labor aside, downstairs in the palace may be the safer place to be.
4. The Boleyn King , by Laura Andersen (Ballantine; paperback, $15).
What if Anne Boleyn hadn’t miscarried her son? Would Henry VIII have stopped at two wives? Alternate histories can be nifty exercises in “what if.” Alas, “The Boleyn King,” by Laura Andersen, is not. Henry IX is best friends with Dominic, while Henry’s sister Elizabeth is best friends with her lady-in-waiting, the enchanting Minuette. The four endeavor to find the source of a rumor about Henry’s mother that questions his legitimacy to the throne. What follows is the most inept investigation since Inspector Clouseau stalked the Pink Panther. The only way these conspirators will be foiled is if they die of old age. Also, while I don’t require a liberal sprinkling of “Prithee, sirrahs” to be aware that I’m reading history, having a 16th-century monarch say things like, “Sorry, Dom, there hasn’t been time to tell you everything” is a little too CW for my taste.
Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.