We all know what happened to Anne Boleyn: having failed to give Henry VIII the son and heir he needed, the King turned his attentions to Jane Seymour and Anne was beheaded, leaving behind her only child, the future Elizabeth I. But what if Anne had given birth to a living son? What if that son grew up to become King of England? Laura Andersen takes that idea as her starting point for The Boleyn King and weaves a whole alternative history around it.
At the beginning of the novel, King Henry IX, better known as William (the fictional son of Anne and Henry), is approaching his eighteenth birthday. His uncle, Lord Rochford, has been acting as Lord Protector for the last few years but William is now almost ready to begin ruling in his own right. Rochford is a clever, ruthless man and he has not done a bad job of ruling the kingdom, but as William prepares to take over there are still several problems and potential conflicts to be dealt with.
First, there’s the threat posed by the Lady Mary, William’s half-sister, who many of England’s Catholics would prefer to see on the throne. Then there’s the prospect of war with France. Most worrying of all for William is news of a document known as The Penitent’s Confession which claims to throw William’s paternity into doubt and which, if it falls into the wrong hands, could lose him his throne.
Amidst all of this drama and danger, there are only three people whom William feels he can trust: his other sister, Elizabeth, and two more fictional characters, Dominic Courtenay and Minuette Wyatt. Dominic is his best friend and William has come to rely on his honesty and advice, while Minuette, the daughter of one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies, has been raised as a royal ward and is very close to William. Elizabeth, Dominic and Minuette are the people William turns to for help in ensuring the security of the kingdom – and locating the Confession before his enemies find it first.
The Boleyn King is part alternate history, part mystery and part romance. It was the history part that I enjoyed the most; the book raises some fascinating questions and although these weren’t explored in a lot of depth, it’s still very intriguing to think about all the different ways in which just one small change (the birth of one boy) could affect the future of England, Europe and maybe even the entire world. If there really had been a Henry IX, that must mean there would have been no Edward VI. Does that also mean that Lady Jane Grey would never have briefly taken the throne and then lost her life and that Mary would never have become Queen either? What if Henry IX had children of his own? Would the outcomes of wars have been changed? What about the implications for religion, culture, art, literature and exploration? The possibilities are endless.
The mystery storyline, which begins with the death of a friend of Minuette’s and ends with the search for the hidden document, was quite enjoyable too, but the romantic aspect of the book was of less interest to me. Elizabeth, as she apparently was in real life, is in love with Robert Dudley, while both William and Dominic develop feelings for the same woman – who happens to be Minuette. Their love triangle is not resolved in this book but as this is the first in a trilogy, I expect it will continue to play a big part in the next two books.
There was a lot to like about The Boleyn King, but I did have one big problem with it. William, Elizabeth, Minuette and Dominic could have been modern day teenagers – they never felt to me like people who could really have lived during the Tudor era. The way they spoke, the way they thought and the way they behaved just wasn’t right and there was no real sense of the time period. When I read historical fiction I like to feel completely immersed in another time and place but that never happened with this book.
The next two in the trilogy are The Boleyn Deceit and The Boleyn Reckoning. While I would be interested to know how the story develops, I’m not sure if I enjoyed this book enough to want to read two more. Maybe I’ll change my mind if I come across them in the library but at the moment I’m not planning to continue.