Review: At the Mercy of the Queen by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 448 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: January 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 2.5/5

A sweeping tale of sexual seduction and intrigue at the court of Henry VIII, At the Mercy of the Queen is a rich and dramatic debut historical about Madge Shelton, cousin and lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn.

At the innocent age of fifteen, Lady Margaret Shelton arrives at the court of Henry VIII and quickly becomes the confidante of her cousin, Queen Anne Boleyn. But she soon finds herself drawn into the perilous web of Anne’s ambition.

Desperate to hold onto the king’s waning affection, Anne schemes to have him take her guileless young cousin as mistress, ensuring her husband’s new paramour will owe her loyalty to the queen. But Margaret has fallen deeply in love with a handsome young courtier. She is faced with a terrible dilemma: give herself to the king and betray the love of her life or refuse to become his mistress and jeopardize the life of her cousin, Queen Anne.

"I wish I'd liked this more" were my first thoughts upon finishing, and being incredibly disappointed by, this Tudor-era historical fiction. For all its attempts to do something new within the uber-popular Tudor-prevalent historical fiction genre, this is a totally unmemorable effort. Perhaps "I wish this had just been better" would be closer to the mark with how I feel regarding this novel. The dialogue, the characters, the historical anachronisms --  all were just too much to handle or were just handled wrong. This is the story of Madge Shelton narrating the final three years of her cousin Anne Boleyn's reign as Queen of England - an intriguing and fresh approach for such a popular time and people. The anticipation of reading from a usually ignored/unknown perspective (historians aren't even sure if Margaret Shelton was one person or an amalgam of two Tudor-era courtiers named Mary and Margaret Shelton) had me eager to get my hands on this, but the actual narration and novel itself had me itching for the final page long before I hit the halfway mark.

Madge is brought to Henry VIII's Court at the young age of 15. Madge, unlike her contemporary peers and compatriots, doesn't like the decadent Court of Henry and Anne or its frivolities. I can understand why the author chose to portray Madge so uniquely among her time and place: it's easier to root for Madge before she becomes entwined in the conspiracies and gossip of the court. Her innocence is distinct and causes Madge to have a bit of notoriety attached to her name. My problem was that I just, well, didn't buy into the earlier naivete of her character. For one thing: Madge was the daughter of Anne Shelton (née Anne Boleyn), which made her the Queen's first cousin - a position to be used for much power and influence by using many courtiers/controlling access to the Queen/etc. I simply didn't buy that anyone from the grasping, upward-climbing Boleyns could be that innocent at Court, especially once under the direct nefarious influence of Thomas Boleyn, Lord of Wiltshire and the Queen's father. 

Madge herself is a decent sort of main character, my issues with her incongruent shyness/mousiness aside. She's a bit too wide-eyed and innocent to exist in such a time, but I had no major issues with her as a character. I do find her role as Anne's confidant to stretch believability: in the worst danger of her life, the Queen is going to confess her sex life to a teenaged cousin not known intimately to her before her precarious situation? It strains credulity that Anne and Madge would be so close when Anne was beset from all sides by Seymours, Dudleys, Catholics and their hidden eyes. I also had issues with the handling of the romance with Madge's "true love" at Court. A completely fictional character is created (Arthur Brandon, supposed bastard son of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk) in order to have an additional (compelling?) plotline of forbidden love...  which doesn't really work OR do much to advance the plot. Not only is their romance totally unbelievable for the times, the two don't have much spark or chemistry between them, nor a solid foundation for their "love". They see each other once, he falls in love, she resists till she just can't fight it anymore! - it's as instalove as historical fiction gets. I also have to wonder just why Madge's historical husband(s) weren't used (Sir Anthony Heveningham, or her latter husband Philip Appleyard, Esq.) and one was invented for her in this book. It was just weird, and seemed like messing with facts for nothing but kicks.

So far, reading along, you're thinking: "This doesn't sound too bad; there's definitely a dearth of reasons why this is rated so low. What's with this chick?" Well, here's the stuff that really irked me during my two-day read. 

1. The dialogue

Stilted, awkward and unrealistic, the dialogue weighed down the narrative, the flow, the pacing, everything of At the Mercy of the Queen. It was just bad; the rest if the novel flowed rather well but the speech was just off-putting. I have to give the author props for "trying" to make the characters speech authentic for 16th century English, but major demerits for how heavily it was employed. There's a fine line between a touch of authenticity and "Ye Olde Towne" cliches. Far too many "dost thou"'s and an egregious amount of "Think you this" had me playing Yoda from Star Wars everytime a character had a question. I also found how the characters spoke to one another to be either too obvious or too transparent. "If I don't do what the King wants I shall be in danger with no allies and then I shall have to marry dreadful, oily Henry Norris!" is pretty much how Madge expresses herself. It comes off totally false - it's an obvious way to clue the reader into the perils of action/nonaction within the Tudor Court. Characters feelings are relayed by their speech, not by any action or "showing".  At times, it's just irritating because no one talks like that, at other times it can be a bit condescending, as if the author doesn't think the readers intelligent enough to suss out the repercussion or who is who. Though the author falls short of Phillipa Gregory standards, it can feel a bit irritating to be constantly reminded of things I already know or figured out already.

2. Word anachronisms

This ties in with my above complaint about dialogue, but it bothered me enough to merit its own shiny numeral. I'm a history major obsessed with 15/16/17th century England (and Europe), so I know many of the things I find bothersome and obvious won't be noticed by and large. Some might think me pedantic for not being able to just gloss over them and enjoy the other aspects of reading. But part in parcel of my love for historical fiction is the feel of history that is created by a good one - a feel easily ruined by missteps like in this one. Errors I caught? "Zounds" - a medieval curse formed from shortening "God's wounds", but one that didn't come into the language until 1592 not 1536. "Pimp" is also used in the novel, as in "Anne pimped out her cousin Madge to Henry VIII" - again a word first used in 1607, not 1536.

3. Historical inaccuracies

Along with diction and speech, actual historical fact goes a long way to establishing credibility within a historical fiction. For the most part, Barnhill does a good job with chronology, actual events and such for the duration of the book. Some parts, however, were just dead wrong. For one, the book implies that Sir Thomas Wyatt died in 1537 in the wake and as part of Anne's downfall - ignoring the actual fact that Wyatt was imprisoned, released and died in 1542 peacefully as a free, innocent man.  Another error is the at-least-twice offering to "take tea" during this time mentioned in the book. Tea wasn't introduced into England until the mid-1600's- a full 120 years after Anne Boleyn's death. Thus Madge's offers of tea to settle Anne are just laughable. Lastly, Anne mentions the famous song "Greensleeves" as being written for her by King Henry VIII. This is just a myth - though a popular and prevalent one - and a little Googling research would've made that apparent to the author.

4. The title "At the Mercy of the Queen"

I think this title is just "off" - much as I found "The Winter Palace: a Novel of Catherine the Great" to be a misnomer for the contents within. The title "At the MERCY of the Queen" implies a power and influence that Anne just doesn't have in the last 3 years of her reign (aka the exact time the novel takes place during.) "Spy of the Queen" , "Envoy of the Queen" , "Sheltered Innocent Cousin of the Queen" or something along those lines would be much more indicative of the tone and events of the novel. For it is not Anne but Henry who sets the tone of everyone's actions within the novel - any power Anne accrued by his years-long pursuit has long waned before the beginning of the novel. Henry is the center of things in England, and Anne is at his mercy and whim long before her head is cleaved from her body. The only possible example of Madge being at Anne's discretion is when she is "pimped" out to service King Henry. However, had Anne said no to the scheme and been against the plan and had Henry desired Madge on his own (as is obvious and fact), the conclusion would've been same: Henry would've got his way and Madge would've been in his bed.

For all those gripes, At the Mercy of the Queen definitely - and easily - gets the fear and tension of this time down pat. Life, uncertainty and fear were the daily staples of life within Great Harry's Court, especially as he aged and was further disappointed. I wish Henry had more of a presence within the book - both him and his actions are usually removed from the forefront, with the focus of the novel on Anne and Madge reacting to whatever happened. If Madge had been more dynamic or Henry more involved, this might have been a mroe entertaining read. As it is, this is at times bland, at times frustrating and wholly unmemorable for fans of the genre. Anne Boleyn's story has been told much more intricately, much more historically correct and much more fun to read. Last word on this one: pass

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