Well-written and well-researched, but lacking in drama and repetitive: 3/5 stars.
What it’s about: Mary, Queen of Scots was the “guest” of the government of Elizabeth I from 1568 to 1587. This novel focuses on her captivity from 1569 to 1572, the point of view alternating between that of Mary herself, and those of her two hosts: the Earl of Shrewsbury and Bess of Harwick, his new wife.
The book is very well-written and researched. From that alone, I can guess that Gregory had written better novels and understand why she has such a loyal following. However, in the case of The Other Queen, I think the core problem is the point of view from which she chose to approach her subject.
The long captivity of Mary, Queen of Scots and the many plots and rebellions which occurred using her as a focal point, would provide a great deal of material for anyone writing a historical novel. Personally, I’d like to be following Walsingham and his spy-takers or deep inside the Tudor court as Elizabeth I reacted to the threats to her life and reign. However, Gregory chooses to turn this into more of a domestic drama by giving us the viewpoints of Mary herself, and those of her two hosts: the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife, Bess. The biggest issue this throws up is that none of these people are particularly sympathetic. The Earl is a gullible fool. Mary comes across as a self-centered, scheming cow. Bess is the most likeable of the characters, but even she can grate sometimes.
Things also become rather repetitive. Between plot after plot, the characters thoughts run in circles which can be summarized as follows:
Mary: “I am a Queen, no-one would dare harm me. All these people are peasants. I am half-divine. Why aren’t I treated better? How soon can I bust out of here and kill everyone? Mon dieu (or another bit of random French to remind us she was raised in France).”
Bess: “Having this woman to stay is ruining us. Money, property, money, property…”
The Earl: “Oh, isn’t Mary just lovely? She’s like some kind of angel…”
The book could have been 100 pages shorter by cutting unnecessary chapters which are full of nothing but the thoughts above. We get it! Move on and stop forcing me to skim-read!
Despite its shortcomings, I think fans of historical fiction and Gregory’s work would enjoy this book. I’d like to read more of her novels because I’m guessing the court of Henry VIII provides more sympathetic characters.
I’ve had a good run of historical fiction lately 🙂 Here are some more reviews in this genre:
Jamie Ford: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (1940s California).
Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (occupation of Guernsey by the Germans during WWII).
Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests (1920s London).