4 out of 5 stars
Catherine Howard is not a Henry VIII wife I've given much thought toward. My initial introductions to her were not very positive, nor did they go into much depth. Basically, Catherine was a fluffy headed wonton who died because she cheated on the king. The end.
Except, when is a person ever that simple?
Well, shame on me for not putting much thought into Catherine beyond that. But, thankfully, Alisa M. Libby decided to look deeper.
The King's Rose follows Catherine's first person perspective starting at the very end of Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves and covers her marriage to the king straight until her death. The chapters are very short and that, combined with the lower page count, make this a pretty quick book to read.
The events aren't all that spectacular or exciting, so readers who aren't historical fiction fans, and in particular historical biographical fiction, will likely be pretty bored with Catherine's story. While there is romance, it is not particularly romantic and definitely not swoony. Also, Catherine has a lot of sex, so this one is much more YA and up. But that's all pretty much a limitation of, you know, historical fact.
Mostly the book focuses on Catherine's feelings, and in this Alisa M. Libby excels. It's easy to judge Catherine's situation from the outside looking in and it's easy to conclude she was stupid and got what she deserved (a sentiment seared into my memory by wife number six in Ann Rinaldi's excellent Nine Days a Queen).
But how would you feel if you were a child, trapped in a marriage you didn't ask for, pressured by your family, forced to sleep with an old man, blackmailed, in love with someone else, desperate for a son, and terrified by the example of four prior wives—two of whom were rejected, one who died in childbirth, and one (your cousin!) who was beheaded?
That's a pretty sucky situation. In The King's Rose, Catherine's emotions are vividly portrayed. I felt consumed by constant fear and desperation and finally, finally I felt like I could understand why Catherine would do what she did. Of course we don't know if that explanation is what actually motivated her, but it makes sense and I imagine even if that wasn't the actual impetus she was probably still feeling those things to some degree.
I'm a big fan of historical biographical fiction, so The King's Rose was a hit with me. I appreciated this closer look at Catherine as a person and I finally feel like I sympathize with her and her situation. Alisa M. Libby humanized Catherine and I now care about her as a person instead of brushing her off as "the silly fifth wife, now moving on." I hope Alisa M. Libby writes more historical fiction.
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