‘You may consider me despicable, my lady, yet you will hear me. I am the King’s mistress.’ How strange it sounded to say it out loud. I lifted my head and held her gaze. ‘He chose me. He sent for me, and I will perform my duty with honour.’
I have always been a fan of historical fiction, although I’ve tended to stick mostly with books set around the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor period. Therefore with The King’s Concubine I ventured even further back to the time of Edward III, the king whose descendants were the central figures in the War of the Roses.
Married and widowed at a young age, and having been brought up in a convent, Alice Perrers seeks to escape the drudgery of a life in poverty. Therefore, when she is plucked from obscurity by the ageing Queen Phillippa to be one of her damsels she is delighted to find her star on the rise. However, it soon becomes clear that Phillippa’s attention is more than it seems, as she deliberately places Alice in the King’s sights, and soon she is performing the wifely duties of which the ailing queen is no longer capable: she becomes the King’s mistress. Whilst Alice enjoys her new power as the mistress to the King (with whom she shares a genuine regard) and the confidante of queen, she is also widely hated at court, and starts to make some very powerful enemies. One wrong move and her very life could be on the line…
I’d never read an Anne O’Brien book before this one, although I had been meaning to. I’m a big fan of Philippa Gregory’s books, and I had heard that these were in a similar vein, as they also tell the tales of some of the most interesting female figures in history. If anything, I actually liked this book better than most of the Philippa Gregory books I’d read. I enjoyed the writing style better, and I liked that I was reading about a period of history I knew less about.
The central female character Alice Perrers was very well developed, and although I went into this book with certain expectations of what a woman who becomes mistress to a king would be like, she completely subverted them!
For one thing, she is not beautiful, and this is emphasised throughout the novel. She is described as having dark eyes and heavy brows, and a prominent nose and mouth. She doesn’t even like to look at her own reflection: when she is given a mirror, she refuses the gift, claiming she wouldn’t like to look in it. This made a pretty big change from the norm, as generally women in historical fiction novels who claw their way from obscurity to great power do so through their looks, which is understandable considering the deeply patriarchal societies they were a part of. Whilst this is understandable, it does grow rather boring, so plain Alice Perrers made quite a nice change! Instead of simply being a pretty face, she is clever and passionate, and even kind, whilst I had thought someone who gained the position she does would have to be fairly manipulative.
I also liked how she develops throughout the book. Once she starts to gain power she doesn’t go on any kind of power trip, but she becomes more assertive, and is very canny, buying property and asking to have land granted to her as a gift from the king instead of jewels or riches.
Her friendship with Philippa, despite her position as King’s mistress was also interesting in the way it is so close and genuine. Despite moments of jealousy and animosity showing through occasionally, Alice is the person that Philippa trusts the most, and Alice deeply respects her. The fact that Philippa knowingly allows the affair between her most trusted servant and the husband that she adores shows a certain strength in character within her, but perhaps also a sense of duplicity. Her husband never learns the part she had to play in his relationship with Alice.
King Edward himself also made for an interesting character, and certainly changes a lot throughout the book. When Alice first meets him, he is already in his fifties, but is still a strong and virile king, widely respected by his subjects and a powerful force in Europe. However, as age and grief begins to fade him, not only does England’s fortunes begin to wane, but Alice’s position becomes more precarious, with her many enemies circling, waiting to topple her from he position of power.
The politics of the court keep the plot moving in this novel, and creates a lot of suspense, as you are never sure what will happen next, both to the country and Alice herself. Even her allies at court can’t be trusted, and different people are forever falling in and out of favour, Alice’s fortunes rising and falling with them.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The characters were all interesting and well-developed, from the main characters to some of the more minor ones, and the plot was full of twists and intrigue. I would definitely read more Anne O’Brien books, which is pretty good seen as I got The King’s Concubine in a 3 for £5 deal with The Forbidden Queen and The King’s Sister from a discount bookshop! If you’re a fan of historical fiction, I cannot recommend this book enough.