The King’s Sister is a light but enjoyable historical novel set in the 14th century and telling the story of Elizabeth of Lancaster. As the daughter of John of Gaunt, uncle to the young King Richard II, Elizabeth does not have the freedom to marry as she chooses. At seventeen, an age when she is hoping for romantic love, she is forced into marriage with the eight-year-old Earl of Pembroke who is more interested in parrots and dogs than in his new wife.
As she waits impatiently for her husband to grow up, Elizabeth meets the King’s half-brother, John Holland. Holland is charming and charismatic, a man where Pembroke is a boy, and despite the warnings of her friends and family, Elizabeth soon finds herself breaking her marriage vows. An annulment follows and Elizabeth weds again, this time to the man she loves. But when King Richard is deposed and replaced on the throne by Elizabeth’s own brother, now Henry IV, she finds herself in an impossible position. With her husband still loyal to his half-brother, the former king, Elizabeth must decide where her own loyalties lie: with John Holland or with Henry?
I’ve read other novels set in this time period but I’ve never read one that focuses on Elizabeth of Lancaster as a main character. The King’s Sister is narrated by Elizabeth herself so we are able to get very close to her, accompanying her through all the ups and downs of her life, sharing her agony as she is forced to make a decision nobody should ever have to make. She is portrayed as a headstrong, defiant young woman used to getting her own way, who gives little thought to the consequences of her actions. While I understood Elizabeth’s disappointment with her first marriage, I did feel sorry for the little Earl of Pembroke who couldn’t help being young, after all – and I often felt frustrated with her for refusing to heed anyone’s advice and ignoring the warnings she was given against John Holland. However, Elizabeth is aware that she has flaws and that she can be selfish, and she does develop as a person over the course of the novel, which made it possible for me to have some sympathy for her.
Although I didn’t like Elizabeth very much (or John Holland either – I agreed with the general opinion of Elizabeth’s friends that he was untrustworthy and self-centred) there were some great secondary characters. I particularly liked Joan of Kent, mother of both John Holland and Richard II, and Katherine Swynford, the Duke of Lancaster’s wife. These are both women I have read about before, Joan in A Triple Knot by Emma Campion and Katherine in the wonderful Katherine by Anya Seton, and Anne O’Brien draws parallels between their stories and Elizabeth’s. All three are women who had to fight to be with the man they loved, despite the disapproval of everyone around them.
Like the other Anne O’Brien book I’ve read (The Forbidden Queen), this is a novel which concentrates on love and romance, feelings and emotions rather than on politics or battles. However, the author still manages to make the 14th century come alive with descriptions of jousts and tournaments, balls and court gatherings. We are given just enough information on the historical background, the political situation and the ever-changing alliances at court that I came away from this novel with a better understanding of the time period and a feeling that I’d learned something new. With over 500 pages The King’s Sister is a long book and really felt like a long book – even while I was absorbed in the story – but I did enjoy it and look forward to exploring O’Brien’s earlier novels which I haven’t read yet.