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Philippa Gregory continues compelling saga in 'Red Queen'

| Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010

Philippa Gregory, author of "The Other Boleyn Girl," continues her saga of the Wars of the Roses with a fictional biography of Margaret Beaufort, the grandmother of King Henry VIII.

The wars between the Houses of York and Lancaster involved on-and-off fighting for about 30 years. They ended when Margaret's son, Henry Tudor, killed Richard III in 1485 and married his niece, joining the two families.

After a half-dozen novels focusing on the Tudor dynasty, Gregory stepped back into England's medieval period last year with "The White Queen," about Elizabeth Woodville, the matriarch of the House of York. "The Red Queen" is both a follow-up and companion to that novel, covering the same period from a different perspective. The novels share some of the same scenes, rendered different by the characters' opposing views.

"The Red Queen" starts when mad King Henry VI marries Margaret, his 12-year-old cousin, to his half brother, Edmund Tudor, who is twice her age. Their son, born while Margaret is still a child, comes just as the wars are starting. She vows he will become king and spends the next several decades plotting to return England to her family's control.

Gregory's Margaret is an egomaniac who believes herself chosen by God and aspires to be a holy warrior like Joan of Arc. Unloved by her mother and left vulnerable by her father's suicide, she's insecure and jealous. Elizabeth Woodville in "The White Queen" gives her little thought, but homely Margaret obsesses about the beautiful woman she believes has taken her rightful place as England's queen.

Edmund dies quickly, and Margaret's mother marries her off in short order to another English lord. When he, too, is killed in the wars, she marries treacherous Thomas Stanley, who will turn the tide of battle in her son's favor.

There are moments when Margaret could be a sympathetic character: Married at 12, she's raped repeatedly by a husband intent on producing a potential heir to the throne. Having endured an agonizing birth at the hands of inept midwives, she can't conceive again.

But, instead, Gregory chooses -- much as she did with Woodville's power-hungry queen in "The White Queen" -- to go against the grain. Her Margaret is self-absorbed, cold-hearted and grandiose in her ambitions. She sacrifices her relationship with the one person she might love, her brother-in-law, Jasper Tudor, to marry and plot with Stanley. Near the end of the novel, Margaret reflects that she wouldn't have much use for her son if he weren't the focus of her plan to gain power.

Although Margaret is a sour pill, Gregory's novel is not. She again brings insight to English history, recreating the power struggle between two of the nation's most notable women in a tale fresh for modern readers. There's no question that she is the best at what she does.

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