‘The King might be praying for me but it was three years and more since I had last seen him. Three years and more since I had been married and widowed. Three years during which I had rejected the possibility of this union.
Yet now I stood on the threshold of a new life.’
As an avid fan of historical fiction, I was really pleased to discover a new historical fiction writer last year: Anne O’Brien. I read two of her books, The King’s Concubine and The Forbidden Queen, and really enjoyed them. Her writing puts me in mind of Phillipa Gregory, but I love how she tends to tackle lesser know historical figures, leaning more towards the medieval times than the Tudors. However, I wasn’t quite as enthralled with this book, for a number of reasons, although the history behind it was certainly interesting.
The Queen’s Choice tells the tale of Joanna of Navarre, the widowed Duchess of Brittany who has inherited control of her husband’s lands until her son comes of age. With more power and agency than most women of her time, she holds an enviable position, and so when an unexpected proposal arrives she is faced with an impossible choice: rule Brittany and keep her power and independence, or abandon her children and her homeland for the man she loves, Henry IV.
My main problem with this book was that I just didn’t buy the supposedly epic love between the two main characters, which in a historical romance novel is kind of a big problem. Literally within the first chapter Joanna and Henry had clapped eyes on each other, exchanged fairly banal conversation and supposedly fallen irrevocably in love (cue eye roll!), and I just wasn’t buying it. They don’t even seem to meet many more times before they are parted for years, in which time Joanna is widowed and must come to terms with her new role as Regent of Brittany, and Henry successfully takes the crown from his cousin Richard. After so much time, and so many things happening it just wasn’t convincing that their ‘love’ would endure to the extent where Joanna would give up everything to be with him, although I know this is supposedly what actually happened. I just felt like I needed more explanation!
Plus when Joanna actually gets to England and marries Henry, they seem to spend most of their marriage sniping at each other and not trusting each other, yet they always seem to reconcile, essentially because ‘love trumps all’. Most of the time it seems like they hate each other, so it was hard to buy their reconciliations ‘in the name of love’, and I began to dislike them both as characters. Henry comes across as sullen and secretive, whilst Joanna often comes across as whiney, and somehow seems to take every situation and make it worse.
However, I didn’t know much about Joanna of Navarre before reading this, so it was very interesting to get her story. I was especially interested in the later part of her life where she is imprisoned by her son in law on trumped up charges of witchcraft: Henry V is generally portrayed as a great and gallant king due to his victory against the odds at Agincourt, so I liked getting an insight into some of the murkier sides of his character and seeing some of the less heroic things he did in his time.
I think this book possibly just struggled with its’ subject: Joanna of Navarre is certainly an interesting (and lesser known) historical figure, but from what I have read around her since reading The Queen’s Choice, she doesn’t come across as particularly likable and that’s how I feel she was portrayed in this book. There wasn’t really any characters in the book that I particularly liked or felt any attachment to, and that combined with the somewhat lacklustre love at the centre of it meant I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to. I would still happily read Anne O’Brien’s books, as I loved the other two that I read – I just feel like this book and these characters weren’t for me.