Review: Queen's Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Sunday, May 19, 2013
Title: Queen's Gambit
Author: Elizabeth Fremantle
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 452
Published: March 2013
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 3.75/5

The court of Henry VIII is rife with intrigue, rivalries and romance - and none are better placed to understand this than the women at its heart.

Katherine Parr, widowed for the second time aged thirty-one, is obliged to return to court but, suspicious of the ageing king and those who surround him, she does so with reluctance. Nevertheless, when she finds herself caught up in a passionate affair with the dashing and seductive Thomas Seymour, she believes she might finally be able to marry for love. But her presence at court has attracted the attentions of another . . .

Captivated by her honesty and intelligence, Henry Tudor has his own plans for Katherine and no one is in the position to refuse a proposal from the king. So with her charismatic lover dispatched to the continent, Katherine must accept the hand of the ailing egotistical monarch and become Henry's sixth wife - and yet she has still not quite given up on love.

"You will be Queen. You could not rise higher." 
"Nor fall further." - Queen's Gambit,  p. 106

Katherine Parr is one of the lesser-known and written about Queens of Henry VIII, though lately she has been cropping up more and more in the historical fiction genre. Between this and Sandra Byrd's The Secret Keeper, it's clear authors are becoming more interested in portraying this strong, determined woman. I will still read about the Annes and Jane and the other Katherines, but it's a pleasant change to read about the first English queen to have her words published. More often a peripheral character mentioned in passing in Tudor novels, due both to the short length of her marriage to Henry and the relative dearth of solid information on her life, the newer focus on her as a central protagonist is both refreshing and welcome.

Strong-willed, passionate, motherly, religious, and intelligent Katherine is reminiscent of so many of Henry's previous wives. What sets her apart from her compatriots is her survival skills and escaping nearly in tact from the clutches of one of England's most dangerous and unpredictable men. Though by no means safe from the many plots of her enemies, Katherine negotiates the dangerous waters of Hampton Court, etc. with an ease, skill and maturity not seen since Anne Boleyn was alive and manipulating those around her. As shown here by debut author Fremantle, Katherine is a fascinating woman; one whom clearly draws others to her by sheer magnetism and force of personality. From the royal physician to the common girl she practically adopts to her indecipherable stepchildren, Katherine inspires devotion and love from those who know her best. She's not the covetous girl of Cat Howard, nor the fumbling, shy Anne of Cleves, nor the too-stubbornly rigid Katherine of Aragon. Katherine is a twice-widowed woman who brings a new perpsective to the ongoing tumult of Henry's reign. Heeding the falls of her predecessors due to various reasons, this is a narrator who knows how to survive.

The life of Katherine pre-Henry is lightly touched upon in Queen's Gambit. We first get to know her a noblewoman, though a far step below the Queen she will become. She's introduced while married to her second husband, the 3rd Baron Latimer, in an act that will define her life, her actions and what she believes. Fremantle takes some liberties with the facts, and though I wasn't a huge fan of the way Queen's Gambit diverges from the historical early on, it works in the capacity imagined. In this version, Katherine knows love before Henry, only to have to maneuvered away from her for the King's own satisfaction. Caughte between family ambition and personal desire, Katherine's life is never truly hers while her brother and Henry both want something from her. Her marriage issues, to both Henry and Seymour, are foreshadowed nicely and subtly before either nuptials take place.

Fremantle is a capable writer, though Queen's Gambit is clearly a debut. The pacing is uneven at times, and certain events feel rushed or glossed over in order to get to the next event quickly. The author clearly knows both her history and her characters, but they both can come off as rather flat. The secondary characters in particular, and that of Dot (a rather unnecessary and ill-fitting POV character) especially suffer from lack of characterization. Seymour is painted as he always is: fickle, ambitious, jealous, and with a wandering eye. For an author not afraid to try something new with Katherine's story, I was sorry to see the same version of Baron Sudeley that so many authors have presented. I did think the author captured the essence of King Henry the 8th rather well, however. Unpredictable, dangerous, cunning and not without intelligence, Fremantle shows him  a force to be reckoned with and feared.

I had an enjoyable time reading Queen's Gambit. It's a diverting bit of historical fiction, and one of the better showcasing Katherine Parr. With a little time, practice and finesse, Fremantle has the talent to emerge as a strong historical fiction writer. If she ever returns to the Tudor period, I would be highly curious to see what new ideas she will try out. I would certainly be on board to read another novel from this author and would recommend this to historical fans looking for something slightly different from the usual fare.


  1. Nice review -- I don't automatically go to Tudor-fic, but I the focus on the less well known queen is appealing. Will keep your comments in mind if I do pick up.

  2. I enjoyed this one but felt it fell a little flat... although I had high expectations. I think if the sections told from the POV of Dot had been removed the story would have benefited greatly.


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