The Queen's Handmaiden, Jennifer Ashley
I was not impressed with this book but it wasn't completely awful, though I'm glad I only checked it out from the library. This is a rather lukewarm telling of Elizabeth's rise to be Queen of England.
The story is told from the eyes of Eloise Rousell who is sent to her aunt, Kat Ashley, when her new stepfather wanted her out of the way. She is an expert seamstress and quickly becomes close with the Princess Elizabeth. Eloise stays with Elizabeth throughout her time in Catherine Parr's household and the mess caused by Thomas Seymour, and throughout her time as her sister Mary's prisoner. Eloise becomes a close friend and confidante to the Princess and takes many risks to help some of the plots to rescue Elizabeth and put her on the throne. She also meets her future husband while involved in these plots. After Elizabeth's triumphant coronation, Eloise remains a close friend and when Kat Ashley dies, she steps into the place of Elizabeth's closest confidant.
The whole story just fell flat for me. I thought the whole thing could have been written much better. There really wasn't anything that interesting in it that made me want to keep turning pages and find out what happened to the characters. Eloise did not seem very well rounded to me; there just was nothing interesting about her, nothing that made her stand out. In fact all the characters, perhaps with the exception of Elizabeth, seemed dull and lifeless most of the time; there was nothing about any of them that made them remotely interesting. Throughout the story Eloise is able to take part in the plots and remains unsuspected because she is "a mere seamstress." It would seem that those in power would eventually figure out who was working as a go between even if it was just a seamstress, but Eloise constantly says that she can take part because she'd never be suspected. She is eventually arrested but released a few months later. And for her being a seamstress there really is not that much about her craft in the story, which would have been fairly interesting to read about. There is also nothing mentioned about how she manages to get messages between Elizabeth and conspirators until something slips in a chance sentence much later in the story. Eloise's method of communication is rather brilliant and it would have been interesting to see it explained in more detail.
I also had some issues with the way the story flowed. There were some instances where things are moving along and then we find out something pretty important has happened but we were never told about it and Eloise pops in with something like, "Oh, let me tell you how this came about." The most glaring example of this was her own marriage to James Colby. Eloise is called to meet with her mother and stepfather and is told she is to be given in marriage to a much older man. Eloise says she can't do that because she is already married! The author then has Eloise tell the reader:
I must retrace my steps and explain how it happened that when my stepfather was ready to bind me into an unwelcome match, I was already legally sworn to a more welcome one.
Yes, there had been a friendship between Eloise and James Colby leading up to this point and I could already tell that they would end up married before the end of the story, but there was no hint that they had married. Eloise kept it secret because she didn't want to disappoint Elizabeth and I suppose the author decided to keep it secret from the reader as well to make it seem like Eloise was indeed keeping it quiet. While I found the scene amusing as she stood up to her stepfather, I just don't like the way episodes of this sort popped up in a few places throughout the story. It just doesn't help with the flow of the story and it seems like the author got to a place where she needed to change something in the past to fit with what was happening at that moment.
The only other small issue I had with the story was the ending and it really isn't a huge problem, just something that caused a raised eyebrow. The story pretty much ends after Kat Ashley dies and we have a final scene where Eloise is watching Elizabeth across the room, thinking about what a glorious Queen she is, and then we find out that Eloise puts herself in Kat's old place as sole confidant to Elizabeth:
Across the great hall, her eyes met mine, and she gave the barest twitch of lips. We would do it, she and I, she the ruler, and I her conscience.
Like I said, its not a big issue but from most things that I have read about Elizabeth, once her trusted Kat Ashley died, she took no one else into her confidences the way she had with Kat. I have come across references to this in several different spots and here we have Eloise setting herself up as Elizabeth's right-hand man. Like I said, not a huge issue, but it didn't sit quite right with me, though I understand the author had to close the story in a nice, tidy way and so it appeared that Eloise would "live happily ever after."
For me this was a very mediocre novel, so much so that there really wasn't that much to discuss in a review besides the dullness of the characters and the uninteresting story. It was not a BAD novel, just not a good one. My perception could be a bit biased as I have read so much about this period of time that most anything I read might seem a bit dull as I already know the whole story so well. I gave this one 2 roses because while I didn't really enjoy it, I could read it again if I had nothing else around; it certainly wasn't a wall-banger for me. I would suggest this one to those that don't know Elizabeth's story too well or just want some light reading.