Legacy by Susan Kay
4.5 out of 5 stars
I'm not a big Elizabeth I fan. Respect her, sure. Feel for her over her many crappy situations? Definitely. But like her? No, sorry, I don't think she was a very nice (or sane!) person.
So, Legacy really worked for me, because Susan Kay makes a really compelling case for why we should all feel bad for poor Elizabeth and her difficult situations (true) while still portraying Elizabeth as off-her-rocker crazy and cruel. And, also, admirable, shrewd, and cunning. All of the facets of Elizabeth are captured here.
There's also a ton of historical detail packed into this very large book (over 600 pages! My gosh was that hard, but it was consistently engaging!). I still felt like some things were glossed over more than I would have liked (particularly her later years and politics, this book is more front heavy), but I feel like that's a little quibble in the face of everything I did get.
I started reading Alison Weir's Elizabeth I biography right after finishing Legacy and I ended up DNF-ing it because it didn't offer anything that Legacy hadn't already given me. It also didn't contradict anything. So, high praise.
I've read several books on Elizabeth now and I'll probably pick up a few more at some point, but for now I'm comfortable with keeping Legacy as my go-to Elizabeth book. I read a library copy, but I'd like to have a copy of my own.
The Queen's Handmaiden by Jennifer Ashley
4.5 out of 5 stars
I read this book before I read Legacy and up until that point I would have considered this the book that really cemented an image of Elizabeth in my head (and she's not a nice lady in this book either, though she is sympathetic and smart). That's still true, but Legacy took the foundation built in The Queen's Handmaiden and expanded on it. Though, this book is also very front heavy and focuses a lot more on Elizabeth's pre-queen (living with the Seymours) and early queen years.
The Queen's Handmaiden focuses on Eloise a fictional seamstress who is responsible for concocting Elizabeth's famed dresses and, through these clothes, public image. It's like Queen of Fashion (awesome heavy historical non-fic about how Marie Antoinette's fashion affected history) meets The Winter Palace (so-so lite historical fiction about Catherine the Great's early years as observed by a fictional maid) and falls somewhere between the two in terms of historical details and likability.
Deceptively filled with historical details, The Queen's Handmaiden was a fun way to learn about history and Elizabeth. I'm definitely the type of reader who enjoys learning about history through fashion and how the fashion choices of monarchs influenced their public image. Jennifer Ashley did a great job showing this, and making Eloise the main character helped create a tense atmosphere as I waited with baited breath to see if her latest concoction would aid in Elizabeth's political gambits.
While I usually don't love the "fictional third party observer" approach, Eloise was an endearing character in her own right and I liked following her story just as much as the hard historical parts. Some of it bordered on a little too conveniently sweet, but I appreciated that both because I like sweet stories and because it helped balance out Elizabeth's loveless life.
I read this book through the library, but I'd like to own a copy someday.