Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory: a tale of two women, if not more …

Philippa Gregory’s dazzling new novel looks at the captive years of Mary Queen of Scots. Mary, in flight from rebels in Scotland, has trusted her cousin Elizabeth I’s promise of sanctuary; but she finds herself imprisoned as the enforced guest of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and his dominant wife, Bess of Hardwick. The newly married couple welcome the doomed queen, certain that serving as her hosts and jailors will bring them nothing but advantage in the competitive world of Tudor England. To their horror they find that their home becomes the epicentre of intrigue against Elizabeth, and even their own loyalty comes under suspicion. If their marriage is threatened by George’s hopeless admiration for the beautiful young queen, they will face ruin. But if his devotion to the Queen of England is compromised by his love for the Queen of Scots, he will face the gallows. The English lords conspire with Spain, the Duke of Northumberland and the Northern earls to free Mary from imprisonment, a plot that will be the greatest threat Elizabeth has ever faced. But then the great spy-master Cecil sets the trap to catch them all, setting the Scots queen on the road to her death at Fotheringay. Here is a story of two women fighting for one man, of two queens competing for dominance, and of one remarkable woman who is prepared to die rather than deny her principles or need for freedom.

With grateful thanks to the path forged by Good Kirsty and Bad Kirsty at Vulpes, here’s my review:

Nice Anne: Goodness me but that’s a very meaty blurb …

Nasty Anne: And you haven’t included all of it either as your hand was getting tired. But I think we get the gist.

Nice Anne: Indeed! It all sounds rather wonderful and definitely persuaded me to buy it …

Nasty Anne: Although that little voice in your head (ie me) did tell you that really you’ve read a lot of fiction set in and around this era and isn’t it a teensy weensy bit dull by now?

Nice Anne: [coughs] You may be right but I’m determined to ignore you, especially as you are such a wicked wench.

Nasty Anne: Much like the women in this book then. When does a strong female character become an annoying one? That’s the question you have to face, my dear …

Nice Anne: Yes, but not yet. I’d like to put it on the record that Philippa Gregory does write good historical fiction and I usually enjoy reading what she produces.

Nasty Anne: Usually … hmm.

Nice Anne: All right. But not even you can say this book is badly written or that at any point we didn’t want to finish it, can you?

Nasty Anne: Good point well made, which isn’t bad for you as you do go on so usually, I must say.

Nice Anne: [rising above the jibe] And what about the character of Bess Hardwick? We both liked her. After all, who can resist a woman who makes herself rich and important purely by dint of her own determination and business acumen?

Nasty Anne: Though she did have to marry a fair number of rich husbands to get there. Something I must admit I also admire, you know. Anyway, I’ll allow the point that Bess was the most exciting main character in the novel, even where she went on rather too much about her possessions and how to get them, maintain them and protect them. But what about that manipulative little tart Queen Mary and the wishy-washy George? You can’t get away without explaining more about them, my dear. The Book Foxes wouldn’t allow it.

Nice Anne: Darnit. I was hoping to pass swiftly on but I’m honestly not sure to what. I do have to admit that I found Mary a nasty piece of work and the wretched George nothing more than a weak-willed man who was severely lacking in common sense. Which was a shame as we did spend a lot of the novel in their company, sharing the limelight with Bess as they did. They’re just not very pleasant people. Still the writing is good so it’s not all bad news.

Nasty Anne: Don’t change the subject! You’ve not mentioned the middle of the book yet where things go very much awry. If I’m allowed my own opinion, rather than always bowing to yours, I’d say it was distinctly flabby in that section and if I have to read one more time about letters received, secret codes, threatened loyalties, the list of things Bess has in her houses, plots and counterplots, I think I might have to scream and send someone to the Tower. Which might have been the best place to be as at least there we would get to see more of the deliciously evil (but possibly not as evil as me) Cecil who appears in the novel far far too infrequently even though he’s so deeply delicious. Why couldn’t the story have been about him? There was more interest in one paragraph of his conversation than in whole chapters of the Interminable Triangle of Mary, George and Bess, goddammit.

Nice Anne: Keep calm, dear – you know what your blood pressure is like. Neither of us is as young as we used to be. Though I have to admit you do have a point. Cecil was marvellous and I missed him greatly when he wasn’t on the page, which was often. But it wasn’t, I imagine, the author’s intention for him to be anything more than a secondary character, although his influence invades the whole book.

Nasty Anne: At last! Something we can agree on – that makes a pleasant change. The crafty input of Cecil was a high point for us both, but I’m not sure I’ll be picking up the next Philippa Gregory offering …

Nice Anne: … even though we’ve both enjoyed them in the past? After all, we loved The Other Boleyn Girl, didn’t we? That one certainly got our vote.

Nasty Anne: I’m still not convinced if that will encourage me to spend our hard-earned cash on another one, but I suppose you’ll soften in the end. You always do …

Nice Anne: We’ll see. If she writes a book that doesn’t have the word “other” in the title, I might be persuaded. Which just goes to show that your influence must be rubbing off on me at last.

Nasty Anne: It’s about time (exit stage left in a strop and with a triumphant smile …)

Nice Anne: Thank goodness she’s gone! Anyway, my final conclusion is this: The Other Queen is written well enough to keep you turning the page, middle slump or no middle slump, but sadly it’s a long way from being vintage Gregory. Ah well.

The Other Queen, HarperCollins, 2008, ISBN: 978 0 00 719034 8

[Anne, whether in Nice or Nasty mode, is growing rather wearied of historical fiction all of the same type, however well written, and wonders if anyone out there can do anything new with it, please?…]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. She also loves the theatre and is a keen fan of crosswords and sudokus, as long as they're not too hard! Her websites can be found at:,, and (for fantasy fiction).

10 comments on “The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory: a tale of two women, if not more …

  1. Hilary
    February 3, 2011

    Yippee! Two new foxes! (Or one new fox, but I’m no sure which?) Great and very entertaining review – thanks so much, Annes.

    This bears out my disappointing and slightly frustrated experience with Philippa Gregory’s recent books – it’s always possible to tell how good a writer she is, but it’s a while since I started saying ‘but not quite this time’.

    A case in point for my campaign ‘Less Is More: in praise of Shorter Books’. Unfortunately, this genre seems to provide little incentive not to stretch out time’s arrow as long as the author, and beyond what the reader, wants.

  2. annebrooke
    February 3, 2011

    Thanks, Hilary! I’m replying as Nice Anne, as Nasty Anne is even now nursing her hangover from one too many vodka tonics at the club last night. Naughty Anne ….

    Yes, I’m definitely joining your campaign for Shorter Books, especially historical and fantasy ones (please God!) – maybe we both will, if I can get any sort of response out of Nasty. Great idea!



  3. Nikki
    February 3, 2011

    I totally agree with everything you’ve said in this review. Bess didn’t half go on about everything she owned, to the point where I didn’t believe it when she was upset about George and Mary. “It’s all right, Bess love, you’ve still got your plate!” And Mary, however beautiful she was, was downright irritating. Washing your face with white wine?? And George – well. Hardly worth worrying about. That said, I’m intrigued by Gregory’s “Cousin’s War” series and will probably read The Red Queen when I can, although I worry it’ll just be The White Queen all over again with a slightly different angle.

  4. Moira
    February 3, 2011

    Not being a massive fan of historical fiction to begin with – preferring to take my history in non-fiction form (which I usually a lot more interesting), I’ve never read any Phillipa Gregory, but I have read quite a lot of reviews and she seems to be going off the boil a bit. Her early books, as I recall, were very well received, but the reviews of the recent ones have been a tad lukewarm. She sounds as if she needs to change direction?

  5. Anne Brooke
    February 3, 2011

    Thanks, Nikki & Moira. Interesting about the Cousin series, Nikki – you’ll have to let us know what The Red Queen is like. I’ve been put off reading that one because of this!

    And you may well be right, Moira – a change of direction would definitely be good.


  6. Jackie
    February 3, 2011

    I read this book awhile ago & recall not liking any of the characters. I usually enjoy this author’s books when I’m reading them, but they don’t leave much of a lasting impression, not sure what that means. Historical fiction ought to move away from the Tudor period, at least for a time. There are many other eras which would prove just as interesting, why don’t authors explore some lesser known royalty?
    Enjoyed the Nice & Nasty Annes, very amusing. I hope to never meet Nasty Anne, she sounds rather scary.

  7. annebrooke
    February 4, 2011

    Thanks, Jackie! Interesting that you thought the same about this one, and I do so agree about the need to leave the pesky Tudors behind for a long, long while …

    And I promise I will always lock Nasty Anne up in your presence! 🙂

    Anne (the nice one …)

  8. Philippe
    February 7, 2011

    You’ve convinced me that I should try at least one of Philippa Gregory’s novels. I’ve so far eschewed them because I was of the opinion (unsubstantiated it now turns out) that they are… shall I say……airport-trashy. Besides, after Hillary Mantel, how could I stoop to Philippa Gregory?

    However, I’ll now so stoop…………

  9. annebrooke
    February 7, 2011

    Move across, rather than stoop, Philippe! 🙂 But do try one of the early ones, say The Other Boleyn Girl or even Earthly Joys – I loved both of those.

    All good wishes!


  10. Pingback: Book Review: The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory | Taking on a World of Words

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