Just a Queen by Jane Caro

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Just a girl to those around her, Elizabeth is now the Queen of England. She has outsmarted her enemies and risen above a lifetime of hurt and betrayal – a mother executed by her father, a beloved brother who died too young and an enemy sister whose death made her queen.

Not knowing whom she can trust, Elizabeth is surrounded by men who give her compliments and advice but may be hiding daggers and poison behind their backs. Elizabeth must use her head and ignore her heart to be the queen her people need. But what if that leads to doing the one thing she swore she would never do: betray a fellow queen, her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots? 

My entire knowledge of Tudor England has been sourced from two TV shows: The Tudors and Horrible Histories. Being that The Tudors ends pre-Mary's rule (and employs creative license pretty liberally), and Horrible Histories is a comedic kids' show (the best ever, but pretty light on for detail), I came to this novel knowing not very much at all about Elizabeth I. So I can't comment as to the historical accuracy of Just a Queen, but I can say it read as very authentic. I'm really interested in reading more about Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart - historical fiction, non-fiction, anything! - which hopefully conveys how much I enjoyed this novel, despite not being a great reader of historical fiction. (Lately, I am not a great reader of anything other than legal cases, unfortunately. I'm very much looking forward to binge-reading all the novels in my to-read pile over the summer.)

Just a Queen recounts events from Elizabeth's perspective in the aftermath of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, retelling her reign from her coronation through to her decision to have Mary executed thirty years later. Mary is a central focus for Elizabeth - her only real peer, but also someone she is forced to compete with and whom she felt threatened by - and the way she tells it, events conspired to lead inexorably to Mary's death, despite Elizabeth's desires to the contrary. The narration is at times unclear - jumping from the present, where Elizabeth is middle-aged and wracked with guilt over killing a fellow queen, to significant events in the past - but reflects her mindset from the point at which she's telling the story well, I think. The large time period being covered in a relatively short book means that there is depth and insight when significant events are retold, but other aspects can feel like they were covered in only a cursory fashion. The good thing about this is that it's inspired me to read more. I think it'll be great as a historical resource for young people to be introduced to this era.

Despite Elizabeth not always being a likeable character, she makes for an engaging narrator. She's nuanced: I love her aggressive independence, but not her narcissism. As I mentioned, it's told from the perspective of an ageing Elizabeth, and recounts her reign which began when she was twenty-five - so though the preceding novel, Just a Girl, is a YA title, I'm not sure the same can be said of Just a Queen. It's historical fiction that's accessible to young readers, but not exactly YA. It's a very interesting, thoughtful exploration of what it is to be a powerful woman in a sexist society. I would love to read Mary Stuart's version of events, as written by Jane Caro.

(Though I love the cover, the girl pictured seems a little too glam and blonde to be Elizabeth I, going by her Wikipedia page. And her depiction on Horrible Histories, obviously.)

Just a Queen on the publisher's website
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