Bogdon has an engaging writing style, beginning her novel with the precipitous fall of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, in the angry ranting of a man betrayed by his second wife, Elizabeth Stafford; his traitorous son, Henry, Earl of Surrey; his opportunistic mistress, Bess Holland; and his daughter, Mary, wife of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son. Truth be told, the once-noble Thomas has become enslaved to the pursuit of power, only one of many to feel the scorn of dancing too close to the throne of England.
The chapters alternate, beginning with idealistic young Thomas wed to Anne Plantagenet, sister to Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII and daughter of Edward IV. Tragedy stalks this first marriage, the loss of all Thomas’s children with Anne and eventually his wife. His second marriage is to Elizabeth Stafford, a less romantic and outspoken woman who, as time passes, remains a staunch supporter of Katherine of Aragon while Howard throws his allegiance behind Henry VIII and his desire to be rid of Katherine and wed Anne Boleyn. The result is increasing enmity in a once-promising union, each tragedy that befalls the couple driving a wedge between them: “He is all too happy to do anything that involves a ship, a sword and an oath of destruction.”
The other narrative voices are that of Elizabeth Stafford and Bess Holland, who becomes Howard’s mistress at a tender age, her naiveté and ambitions reflected in her lack of conscience when usurping Elizabeth’s husband. By this time, Howard has become less noble, seeking to better his family status, a more entrenched political animal, taking advantage of opportunities for political advancement in the field and as Henry’s faithful servant in all matters Tudor.
Though Bogdon seeks to create intimacy through her characters’ revelations, their explanations and rationalizations instead become tedious. Women predictably bemoan Howard’s lack of support, ever more entrenched in their own positions; Howard is filled with self pity and self-justification, a shell of his former self - the one who courted integrity as assiduously as his first wife’s affection.
The book covers significant historical distance, from Edward IV through Henry VIII’s wives to the reign of Edward VI - lots of meat for Howard’s stew from that perspective, from the uncertain fate of the Princes in the Tower (though Bogden makes her point of view clear) to Howard’s victory at Flodden and Henry’s need for a legitimate male heir. All the more aggravating, then, to slog through Elizabeth Stafford’s endless marital complaints or Bess Holland’s simpering self-promotion. Even Thomas Howard’s sense of betrayal as he awaits his fate in the Tower fails to evoke sympathy.
While the novel starts out well and with spirit, by the middle I was bored, craving more depth from these characters, none of which was forthcoming. This is plentiful historical material, many volumes written of the Tudor court and its great dramas. There must be a new twist or element of interest to rise above standard fare and the gossipy rehashing of those who would have history favor them kindly.