Dunn’s novel is set during the lifetime of Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of England’s ill and aging Henry VIII. A new widow, Katherine now resides on her estate with new husband, Thomas Seymour. Related to the powerful Seymour family, Thomas is neither of noble intentions nor given to altruistic motives, his marriage to the rather plain Parr somewhat suspect, save for the attraction of her fortune.
The story is narrated by Kate’s friend, Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk, who relates Kate’s marriage and subsequent death from childbirth from the perspective of sly witness. Indeed, by the end of Kate’s sojourn on earth, Catherine will have much to regret. But at the start, Catherine views Seymour as handsome and untrustworthy, watching Kate for signs that the newlywed realizes her chosen mate’s considerable flaws. It doesn’t happen.
Young Elizabeth Tudor leaves Queen Mary’s court for respite from her unfavorable position as a Protestant in a Catholic environment. Kate is as fond of Elizabeth as the would-be-queen is of her friend, Parr’s household a happy place. Of course, there are rumors: Seymour’s attention to Elizabeth while at court, and his early morning visits to the girl’s room while she is staying at his home. Can such a blooming young female long resist the charms of an older, sophisticated man?
As history tells us, rumors abound about Elizabeth’s days with Katherine Parr and the close friendship with Thomas. Yet all remains conjecture and rumor, fodder for the spinning of plots about the woman who will later bear the name Virgin Queen. Seymour’s unfortunate fate is also writ on the pages of time, his life of little moment but for the association with Henry’s widow and Elizabeth Tudor.
It is Dunn’s style that is disappointing. Stating “I don’t write historical fiction,” she does, however, create a context for such fiction to exist. Unfortunately, with so little detailed background (“the formidable Margaret Beaufort and the new Spanish one”; “women had a setback. We’d come through difficult times”), the author fails to provide a sense of time and place, a clear historical setting where these characters interact.
The beauty of historical fiction is that much of the scenery already exists, a skeleton on which to hang the people and the story; Dunn fails to take advantage of that framework. Her characters can be dropped into any time with little adaptation. Other authors use this tactic, but for lovers of history and fiction, this approach is a disappointment, the pages of history as alive today as they were centuries ago.
This intriguing, exciting thriller features many twists and turns that most readers will not see coming, and the ending comes with a satisfying, surprising twist.