Review: The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Genre: historical fiction
Series: The Cousins' War #3
Pages: 466 (uncorrected nook ARC)
Published: expected October 2011
Source: publishers via S&S Galley Grab
Rating: 2/5

Though not nearly as hair-pullingly irritating as its predecessor The Red Queen, (which irritated me so much I didn't even review it. Who wants to read four+ paragraphs of "UGH" and "WHY DOES SHE DO THIS!" and "Shouldn't Margaret of Anjou be the Red Queen NOT Margaret Beaufort?") The Lady of the Rivers has its fair share of problems. This time the story follows Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Dowager Duchess of Bedford, historically remembered most as the mother of Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of King Edward IV of England. This novel has an additional focus on witchcraft/charms/herbs that the previous novels lack (exception: The Queen's Fool [Tudor Series #4] has a supernatural element for the main character as well, but less hackneyed and also less of a deux ex machina) - and a move I cannot fully support. Using the legend of the mermaid-like Melusine/a as an ancestor to Jacquetta's House (a "fact" which was repeated ad nauseam - one reviewer was keeping a count of mentions and I stopped paying attention after #20) to justify this fantastical element, Jacquetta is shown to be quite adept as well as having considerable powers. I felt that reducing Jacquetta's hard-won influence and knowledge to a charlatan-like propensity to "read the cards" did the character a serious disservice. If the author wants to write a strong, determined historical fiction about a woman in the 1500s - by all means do so! But don't reduce her accomplishments and feats by flavoring the success with "magic". I also was out off by some inconsistencies within the novel (I am not even touching historical inaccuracies) such as Richard being referred to as a squire, a knight, and then a squire once more without any mention as to a knighting ceremony or why he would've been reduced to the status of a squire after achieving knighthood.

Self-important and strident, Jacquetta is not the typical woman of her times (the novel begins in 1430) and the message that she, and strong, commanding women like her, are not welcome and face death for their knowledge. Gregory uses several famous women to illustrate this point - repeatedly - throughout the novel. Joan of Arc(!), Duchess Eleanor of Gloucester, and the even the proud Cecily Neville are all brought low before her eyes, seemingly just to teach Jacquetta caution. I can't say I cared too much for this version of Jacquetta, though I did warm to her particularly in the last fifty pages of the book. She rarely demonstrates a feeling or idea, most of this entire novel is "told" rather than shown. Having married her first husband's squire (Robert Woodville) for love, I found a sad lack of chemistry between the two. Example: how do I know Jacquetta loves Richard? She says she does. That's it, that's all; no real emotion or demonstrances of genuine affection. Stiff and awkward dialog along with clunky exposition do the two lovers no favors either. The first-person perspective was well-used, and Gregory even manages to show a battle scene without randomly/abruptly changing perspective and locales. It also helps that Jacquetta, though often annoying and slightly ridiculous is far easier to read than Margaret Beaufort's cold arrogance in The Red Queen.

Gregory does a fine job with the atmosphere of the story, as she usually does. There's a decent amount of tension constantly teeming around Jacquetta: her witchcraft/magic abilities, her illegal marriage, her husband is far sent away (again and again), birthing 16 (!!!!) children, running from battles, her fear of persecution, etc. For all my complaints, I will say that this is far from a staid novel; the kickoff to the War of Roses is excellent fodder for suspense and ridiculous amounts of tension between royal houses. The frequent and bloody battle scenes add much to the feel of the novel, creating a dark and foreboding air. Intrigue among the court is what Gregory does best and the novel succeeds the most when it is within the confines of the scheming court. While the writing itself can be stiff and overly formal, I noticed less and less over the book. Whether it's because the quality of the writing itself improved or I adjusted to Gregory's "style" is up for debate. I do find the random jumps in the chronology (a year here, three years there) to be very distracting from the flow of the narrative and also FULL of info-dumping. Short, very pointed chapters explain away the missing years but left me feeling very dissatisfied. For instance after Jacquetta marries Robert without permission (a rather big no-no for a Duchess), the story completely skips over the intervening years of poverty and struggle and instead flashes forward to when the newlyweds are re-welcomed at Court. I felt slightly cheated by this particular jump; Jacquetta struggling to earn a living versus the entitled pampered life she led before would have provided a nice dichotomy between the lifestyles of the rich and the poor of England.

A novel that both entertains and irritates, Gregory uses a lot of the same "tricks" that so many deride her over. There is the constant repetition of names with titles, of past accomplishments, who is related to whom... as if she has no faith in her readership to tell characters apart. Added to explanations of "why" and "how" people do things instead of showing them, Gregory can be frustrating to read. I know it's frowned upon to quote from an ARC but this passage exemplifies many readers issues with Gregory:

"'Edmund Beaufort Duke of Somerset...'
'You mean Edmund Beaufort Duke of Somerset? The man who lost us Normandy [...] but for the King's unswerving belief in his kinsman and the Queen's misplaced affection...
         'I'll be commanded by the man who gave away Normandy. '"

Instead of just using "Edmund" or "Beaufort" or even "Somerset", the man's name has to be supplied twice, along with his title and his most recent accomplishment in the novel. Furthermore, the author even explains why the Duke is so beloved instead of showing so and trusting her readers to pick up on the plotline. Gregory clearly buys into the "Somerset + Margaret of Anjou = Edward, Prince of Wales" theory so why not try to SHOW such instead of having a character narrate the information? I understand this is a historical fiction, so dates/events might get mixed around and changed but underestimating your readers to the point you have to hammer in every title, every detail is insulting.

The ending felt, to me, rather abrupt and uneven. The finale of this novel transitions to the very beginning of The White Queen: with Jacquetta's beautiful daughter Elizabeth Woodville standing by the road looking to enchant King Edward IV. I had hoped for more time with Jacquetta. I would've preferred less focus on the early years in order to see what Gregory would do with this character later on in the century; I was much more interested in what would happen after the Rivers family switched from Lancaster to the York side. I also wonder why this novel was published third, when it would make the most sense to read first in the series. Not only is it chronologically first,but it is a stronger effort than The Red Queen or the The White Queen. I think I may be running out of time and affection for Ms. Gregory. I loved her Tudor novels when I first read them sixish years ago (though I'd probably not in a re-read now) but this series has so far done little to make me fall in love. With such a drama-filled, absolutely interesting and dynamic era, I can't help but feel there should be more substance and less drama/dresses to the Lady in the Rivers.


  1. What an honest and interesting review. I have not read this book, nor The Red Queen- but I have read other books by this author and enjoyed them. I had heard from a friend that The Red Queen wasn't their favorite, so I put off reading it. Philippa Gregory is coming to a bookstore near me in a month to do a book signing for this book, so I was thinking of reading it. It sounds like it has it good and bad points. Thanks for your review.


  2. Why thanks! I actually like PG novels - or I used to. I wonder is she getting worse or am I pickier now? - but this series is just off. The Other Boleyn Girl was far from accurate, but at least it was fun to read!


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