It’s no secret that Philippa Gregory novels are all the range these days, especially given the success of her novel The Other Boleyn Girl. I figured it was high time I gave Gregory a chance. Having lacked access to The Other Boleyn Girl, I chose instead to borrow a copy of The Queen’s Fool to satisfy my growing interest in historical fiction.
The synopsis on the back of the book was certainly promising. The protagonist is Hannah Green, a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl fleeing religious persecution in Spain with her father during the mid 1500s. They arrive in England, where her psychic ability, referred to as the Sight, wins over Lord Robert Dudley, who brings her to court to serve Queen Mary as a holy fool. Though her secret duty is to spy on Queen Mary, Hannah finds herself torn between loyalties as she comes to love the queen, while also grappling with her childish infatuation of Lord Robert versus her betrothal to a local peasant boy.
However, the potential of the premise turns up short with one-dimensional characterizations, excruciatingly slow pacing, various instances of deus ex machina, a repetitious writing style and Gregory’s desire to give a history lesson rather than tell an engaging story.
While there was certainly potential in Hannah’s internal struggles, her characterization is bogged down by the shifting of her loyalties at the drop of a hat whenever it’s convenient to the plot. Her blind devotion to various authority figures is both an exasperating trait and a device to move the plot forward. Overall, Hannah is not so much a character as a vessel through which we’re given the historical/fictional accounts of the power struggles within the monarchy, and that leaves the novel as a whole feeling cheap and vapid.
Any one of my English professors could teach Gregory that repetitious dialogue does not successfully drive a point home, and that instead it has the headache-inducing ability of a broken record. During the personal/political battle between the sisters Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth, you could have made a drinking game out of how many times Mary said the phrase “She is my sister,” or the amount of times Elizabeth repeats the word “whore.” At some point, Elizabeth is stricken with a mysterious illness and is forced to travel, and she repeats, “I am ill” more times than readers would care to be reminded. Either Gregory lacks the ability to write dialogue or her characters just have narrow vocabularies.
Gregory should have just written a history textbook instead of dangling all the potential of a good story before us and then jerking it back to reveal the most slow, monotonous read in recent memory. Which isn’t to say I won’t give The Other Boleyn Girl a chance; but overall my first impression of Gregory is less than favorable.