Based on substantial historical research, author Jane Stevenson's scholarship is immediately evident in The Winter Queen, an exotic romance set in 17th-century Holland. Widowed Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, meets and falls in love with the erudite theologian Pelagius van Overmeer, an African prince by birth who was brought to European soil as a slave. Given his freedom after the death of a patron-mentor, Pelagius turns his efforts to scholarship and is baptized as a Calvinist, a strict sect of Christianity gaining a large following in Holland. Holland is undergoing tremendous political turmoil, torn by the Thirty Years War, as well as a great resurgence of art and culture.
From their first encounter, Elizabeth and Pelagius sense an affinity for one another, but neither expects the passion that will bloom from their friendship. Approaching middle age, they are surprised by the strength of their feelings and marry in a clandestine ceremony. Purely themselves once night falls, they are free of artifice or pretension.
Pelagius poses as Elizabeth's Latin tutor and physician; their secret is known only by her ladies-in-waiting. Even when Elizabeth is with child, she is able to conceal her condition by feigning illness during the dank winter months, a time when she regularly suffers from poor health. After their son, Balthasar, is born, Pelagius carries his child on horseback in the deep of night to a couple they previously contracted to care for it. Although the baby is necessarily safe in this distant home, Pelagius is torn between love for the child and its mother, distressed at leaving the infant with strangers.
Unfortunately, as the daughter of King James I, the future of Elizabeth's children is contingent upon the Queen's circumspect behavior. Her obligation as their mother is to safeguard their alliances with her brother, Charles I. Continued good relations are crucial to any marriages made by her sons and daughters. With considerable grief, Elizabeth refuses the affections of her beloved husband after already tempting fate with the birth of Balthasar. Pelagius, nearly inconsolable, transfers his excess of affection to his small son, purchasing a house nearby and gradually assuming his daily care. Both Pelagius and Elizabeth must make peace with their difficult circumstances -- restricted by her royal bloodline, hostage to her royal fate.
In prose that transcends the boundaries of race and position, Stevenson lifts her two central characters to another plane of existence where they are joined in marriage and mutual affection. This novel is the first of a trilogy, and as such sets the stage with the tale of clandestine romance between the Queen of Bohemia and her African prince. For this extraordinary couple, at least for a short time, love is blind. Elizabeth's warmth and good humor are a catalyst to the reserved Pelagius, offering him unexpected happiness and renewal. Balthasar, the fruit of their union, is their gift to the future and the subject of the second book of this trilogy. This reader can't wait.