If you happened to catch author Liz Fremantle's debut effort last year (Queen's Gambit) then you likely already know why historical fiction fans were thrilled to welcome her fresh voice into the genre. Sharp, witty, and full of ironic observations, Fremantle proved she was most assuredly a far cut above the standard, ho-hum historical fiction fare usually bogging down the bookstore shelves today.
So her when her follow up effort, SISTERS OF TREASON, recently arrived in stores, it generated buzz. Sisters of Treason returns to the Tudor era, a period one might legitimately question whether there was anything left worth writing about following the excruciating Tudor-mania that swept the genre over the past decade. Once again, Fremantle is full of delightful surprise. She alights upon the tragic Grey sisters.
Refresher: On July 10, 1553, following the death of England's young and sickly King Edward VI (the only son of Henry VIII), a teenaged Lady Jane Grey was unwittingly raised to the throne via the machinations of her father and father-in-law in an ill-advised power grab. It didn't work out too well. Henry VIII's eldest daughter Mary promptly marched into London, deposed her young cousin Jane, and later lopped off her head. Mary would become known to history as Bloody Mary for her tendency to burn those who didn't toe her Catholic line. End refresher.
So that was the end of poor Jane Grey and many historical fiction novels have been written this tragic figure who lost her head piously clutching her Protestant Bible to the very end. And yet.....did you know that our sweet Jane happened to have two younger sisters? And if you're analytic mind is fast at work, it's already figured out that if tragic Jane Grey had a legitimate claim to the throne of merry ol' England, so too did her younger sisters Katherine and Mary Grey. And this is the fascinating Tudor story that cunning Fremantle presents in Sisters of Treason.
Welcome to a most un-glamorous royal court. Mary reigns with a paranoid suspicious eye trained directly on the two sisters Jane Grey left behind. Keeping her friends close but her enemies closer, the sisters are kept in the Queen's court where the smallest misstep or misinterpretation of a word meant treason. As the years of Mary's reign continued, her suspicions grew with her along with her failed marriage and lack of a royal heir ("...royal blood and a functioning womb is all most care about in a princess"). The Grey sister's relationship with Mary's successor, the legendary Queen Elizabeth I, fared little better.
Fremantle chooses to tell the sister's tale using three viewpoints: Katherine, Mary, and a female court painter, Levina Teerlinc (an interesting choice given that historically, little is known about this fascinating woman other than she is known to have painted a surviving portrait of Katherine Grey) who acts as a surrogate mother to the girls at court. Paying strict homage to historical documents and making interpretations only where she is free to do so, Fremantle presents a vivid portrait of two sisters with Tudor blood running through their veins only to spend their entire life being horribly punished for it.
Ultimately, both Katherine and Mary lived short, unhappy lives, making this well-written story something of a tragedy. Fremantle admirably tries to discover moments of joy they might found in an otherwise bleak existence through no fault of their own, but the reality is that both girls only lived long enough to become women who never experienced a normal life: the events that populate or mark a normal woman's life were - for both of the Grey sisters - so marred with hatred from the reigning Queen that any experience of normal happiness would have proved impossible. In an era when noble birth was the only way a person might experience comfort or luxury, the Grey sisters, I suspect, might have happily traded places with the lowliest of servants in the castle.
Well-written, well-researched historical fiction. Recommended for historical fiction aficionados.