Philippa Gregory is a giant in her corner of historical fiction, which seems essentially “Aristocrats and Nobles of 15th and 16th century Britain (particularly Women).” Even though I had never read her books, I had a detached respect for her as a well-researched author whose fictionalizations garnered generalized interest for the history her books cover.
That impression holds true, and I still appreciate her doing her thing. I get that because she’s working from a record of stuff that actually happened, she can only embellish or editorialize so much before she risks becoming simply inaccurate. However, I still have fresh in my mind the Kushiel books, which, though completely fictional and thus not beholden to the constraints on Gregory’s books, are so completely superior in subtlety and character cleverness that the scheming of Gregory’s Lancasters and Yorks falls flat by comparison. I was so used to the motivations of all the players being only spelled out between the lines, with each person covering their butts so well that if their plans went sideways, they had plenty of plausible deniability. In The White Queen, everyone says pretty plainly what they think and want most of the time, so it’s no wonder when the latest plot against the throne turns out to be helmed by that person, because they made it pretty clear they were going to do it. Again, Gregory is the historian, so for all I know she’s basing all of this candor on reality. After all, the Wars of the Roses didn’t exactly go on as long as they did, with so many changes in power and attempts on the throne, because people were quietly acquiescent to the current regime.
With the acknowledgement that it’s unfair to base a whole review on a comparison to another book, I’ll add that The White Queen is not short on its own drama and tension. This was a chaotic time for England, and that is reflected in the book, with a chessboard of uniquely motivated people making moves around each other, only sometimes in actual service of the King and Queen they are supposed to be serving. Elizabeth Woodville is not someone who I knew much about historically, but here she is presented as a sympathetic, if arrogant and rash, character, who fights for her family and the power she believes she has rightfully earned for them through her marriage to Edward, the York King. Accused of that thing that seems to have been the popular epithet against any powerful woman in those tymes — witchcraft — Gregory has her lightly dabbling in curses via her mother’s bloodline descending from a river spirit. It’s an authorial choice I can get behind, primarily because it’s fun, but also because of course everything that was possibly attributed to witchcraft is even more easily explained by a) the Court being a viper pit full of people with ulterior motives, so failure to watch one’s back likely meant your own death or at least a plot against you, or b) plain poor health.
The White Queen may not be a must-read in my estimation, but it did get me on Wikipedia reading up on the War of the Roses. So as a foray into a period where my knowledge is very foggy, I have to give credit where it’s due to Gregory for piquing my interest.