The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien

Having read six of Anne O’Brien’s previous novels, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from this one, but I was wrong. It couldn’t be more different! I’m not sure that every aspect of it really worked for me, but it’s nice to see authors trying something new now and then.

The Queen’s Rival is the story of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, mother of Edward IV and Richard III. As a prominent member of the House of York, Cecily has an important role to play in the Wars of the Roses, yet she is often just a minor character in novels set during this period. Joanna Hickson’s Red Rose, White Rose is the only other book I’ve read which focuses specifically on Cecily, so I was keen to see how O’Brien would choose to tell her story.

The way O’Brien chooses to tell her story is through a series of letters sent between Cecily and various members of her family, as well as diary entries, prayers, recipes and articles from a (fictitious) newspaper called England’s Chronicle. From Cecily’s perspective we see all of the major events of the Wars of the Roses unfold – the attempts of her husband, the Duke of York, to claim the throne of England for himself; the events that lead to the defeat of Henry VI and to Cecily’s eldest son Edward becoming king; the controversy surrounding Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville; and finally, the end of Edward’s reign and the coronation of Cecily’s youngest son, Richard.

The epistolary format gives the story a feeling of immediacy and intimacy, especially where Cecily is exchanging letters with her sisters Anne and Katherine (both of whom also see their fortunes rise and fall several times throughout the novel). However, as all of the other O’Brien novels I’ve read have been written in ordinary prose, this change in style and structure was completely unexpected and, as I’ve said, not completely to my taste. I particularly disliked the excerpts from the Chronicle, which were written in the gossipy style of a modern tabloid newspaper, but I’m sure Anne O’Brien knew that newspapers in this form didn’t exist in the 15th century, so I do appreciate that it was intended as a bit of fun, as well as a way to provide information that might not otherwise have been available to Cecily.

Still, I did find the book entertaining overall. This is such a fascinating period of history with so much still open to debate, so many mysteries and controversies, that it never fails to interest me – although sadly, the novel ends just as Richard III is coming to the throne, so the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is not explored. Cecily herself comes across as an intelligent, politically astute woman who is loyal to her family, but without being blind to their faults. I did wonder about the title: was she a ‘rival’ to Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s queen, or Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen? It could refer to either or both, I think.

Despite this probably being my least favourite Anne O’Brien book so far, I will still look forward to her next novel, The Royal Game, about the 15th century Paston family, which is due to be published later this year.

Book 3/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

12 thoughts on “The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien

  1. setinthepast says:

    I usually love Anne O’Brien’s books, but I found the way this was written very weird. I get that she wanted to try something different, but I hope she goes back to her usual format for the next one!

  2. Pam Thomas says:

    The ‘modern gossipy tabloid’ would be a complete deal-breaker for me. I like historical novels that I can immerse myself in, like a form of time travel, and the newspaper would be constantly reminding me that I’m still in the 21st century. I won’t be reading this one, I’m afraid, but her one about the Pastons sounds more interesting, as long as she doesn’t include Ye Olde Sunne (though I wonder how she’ll get round the fact they were almost all called John!).. ..

    • Helen says:

      I found the whole style and structure of this book quite distracting and it wasn’t the sort of immersive historical novel I prefer either. As long as the Paston novel isn’t written in the same way as this one it should be fascinating!

    • Helen says:

      I wouldn’t start with this one, but I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by her. Queen of the North is my favourite, so that would be my recommendation.

  3. Lexlingua says:

    Anne O’Brien is a new find for me. Not a fan of epistolary novels because I feel they can get a bit passive, and even prosy at times. Will skip this one, but I see you’ve recommended Queen of the North above as a starting point, so will try that. Thanks!
    ~ Lex (

    • Helen says:

      I don’t particularly like epistolary novels either and I’m hoping Anne O’Brien will go back to her usual style for her future books. Queen of the North is my favourite, partly because it’s set in my part of England, but I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve read by her apart from this one!

  4. jessicabookworm says:

    I’m sorry to hear this new style of novel from O’Brien wasn’t completely to your taste, Helen. It does sound very different to her other novels, that I have read too! There is a copy of this waiting on my Kindle, but I have A Tapestry of Treason I want to get to first. 🙂

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