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Review: The King's Mistress, by Emma Campion

The King’s Mistress is an enormous book, in terms of both physical size and scope. Covering the period from 1355 to the 1380s, this novel is the story of Alice Perrers, mistress to King Edward III. Upon her marriage to Janyn Perrers, Alice finds that her husband has connections to the Dowager Queen Isabella, a woman who once incited rebellion against her husband. After her husband’s disappearance, Alice enters the royal court, valued by Queen Philippa for her knowledge of textiles, capturing the attention of King Edward in the process. It’s pretty amazing, too, how closely Alice’s life parallels that of Troilus and Criseyde—in fact, she even suggests that Alice was in some part the inspiration for Chaucer’s poem.

Alice sort of has a Bad Reputation, fabricated by her enemies at court and fostered over the years. Certainly in Emma Campion’s Owen Archer mysteries (written as Candace Robb), Alice really doesn’t come off very well, so it was interesting to me to witness how the author handles her narrator in this book. In The King’s Mistress, Alice comes alive, as an outsider in an atmosphere where she has many enemies. From her early marriage to Janyn Perrers up through her death, Alice narrates her story, proving herself to be a strong, courageous woman, even though she had few options.

It’s a long book—nearly 550 pages and a large trim size, and it’s taken me a while to finish. It’s a tough novel to categorize, primarily because it’s so huge in scope. There’s some fabulous character development here, as Alice grows from being a naïve young wife to the canny mistress of a king, feared and detested by all. And yet, it’s clear that she doesn’t have many options—as she says over and over, when had I a choice to be other than I was? From the moment she catches the King’s eye, purely by accident, she also catches the enmity of other people at court, not the least of which is the King’s son, John of Gaunt.

And yet this novel isn’t a “woe is me” whine-fest about how other people are jealous of her; instead, Alice comes across as a woman who didn’t want the life into which she was pushed. At the same time, though, I’m led to wonder about Alice’s behavior: she’s not totally an innocent in all this, flattered by and welcoming of the King’s attention. Alice is a complicated character, at once a loving mother and shrewd lover, companion, and business partner to King Edward. It’s a well-researched novel, too. It seems as though the author does expect her reader to know about John of Gaunt’s affair with Katherine Swynford (it’s referred to several times in passing), but since they’re more or less minor characters, it doesn’t matter so much. It’s a shame that this book isn’t more widely available; it’s excellent and I highly recommend it.

Also reviewed by: Tanzanite's Shelf


Serena said…
That's a large book! WOW...more power to you for finishing it. I have a hard time larger books.
dolleygurl said…
Great review - this sounds like a very interesting book. I haven't read anything about this period.
Daphne said…
I finished this last week (hope to post my review tomorrow) - I really liked it as well.
Gwendolyn B. said…
Great review -- I want to read it! Guess I'll have to start tracking down a copy.
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