Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Review: The King's Concubine by Anne O'Brien

One marriage.  Three people.  Proud king.  Loving wife.  Infamous mistress.  1362.  Philippa of Hainault selects a young orphan from a convent. Alice Perrers, a girl born with nothing but ambition. The Queen has a role waiting for her at court. 

‘I have lifted you from nothing Alice. Now you repay me.’ 

Led down the corridors of the royal palace, the young virgin is secretly delivered to King Edward III – to perform the wifely duties of which ailing Philippa is no longer capable.  Power has a price, and Alice Perrers will pay it. 

Mistress to the King.  Confidante of the Queen.  Whore to the court. Her fate is double edged; loved by the majesties, ostracised by her peers. Alice must balance her future with care as her star begins to rise – the despised concubine is not untouchable. 

Politics and pillow talk are dangerous bedfellows.  The fading great King wants her in his bed. Her enemies want her banished.  One mistake and Alice will face a threat worse than any malicious whispers of the past.

Synopsis courtesy of amazon.co.uk

My Review

4.5 Stars

Infamous mistress Alice Perrers is best known for being the long-time lover of England's King Edward III.  Reviled by her contemporaries for being too ambitious and over-stepping her station, history has not been kind to Alice.  Despite her notorious reputation, little is actually known about Alice's life, or about how she managed to catch and keep the eye of a king.

In The King's Concubine, historical novelist Anne O'Brien vividly brings Alice Perrers and the era in which she lived to life.  Rather than being portrayed as a manipulative, power-hungry schemer,  O'Brien's Alice Perrers is a fiercely loyal, able and determined young woman who puts the needs of her monarchs above her own, even if her reputation could suffer for it.  Although I'm not usually a fan of first-person narratives, the use of Alice as narrator of her own tale works brilliantly for The King's Concubine.  This choice of narrative technique enables the reader to really come to know Alice and understand the reasons behind the choices she made.  Through Alice's eyes the reader sees how Queen Philippa, stricken with illness, struggles to come to terms with both her physical condition and her decision to purposely place Alice in the path of the king.  Throughout the novel the reader is able to witness firsthand the gradual physical and mental decline of the once great King Edward III, a man whose later years were marked not only by the loss of his beloved wife, but by the illness and eventual death of his son and heir, Edward the Black Prince, and the significant loss of English territories in France.  While always considerate of her own future, the Alice Perrers of this novel consistently demonstrates her willingness to protect the king during his decline and, though surrounded by enemies, she stays devoted to the him until his death. 

In addition to O'Brien's wonderfully sympathetic characterization of Alice, what makes this novel such a worthwhile read is that this fictionalized account of Alice's life comes across as entirely plausible.   While it is likely that we'll never know who the real Alice Perrers was, I would like to believe that her true character is consistent with her portrayal in this novel. 

I highly recommend The King's Concubine to fans of historical fiction, especially those interested in reading about the medieval period and those who enjoy books with strong female protagonists.

Note: The book comes from my own personal collection.