Elizabeth Fremantle – Sisters of Treason

elizabethfremantle-sistersoftreasonMary Tudor clings fearfully to the English throne.

Seeing the threat posed by her cousin, Lady Jane Grey, the Queen orders her execution. But what of Lady Jane’s young sisters – Katherine and Mary? Cursed with royal blood, they must endure the perils of a Tudor court, closely observed by its paranoid Queen.

Entranced by the drama, intrigue and romance of court life, young Lady Katherine’s desire for love leads her to make ill-advised and dangerous liaisons. Burdened with a crooked back, her younger sister, Lady Mary – the ‘mouse’ – is seen as no threat and becomes privy to the Queen’s most intimate secrets. Yet Mary, who yearns to escape court dramas, knows her closeness to the Queen could be her undoing.

For the Queen is childless and in ill-health. If she should die, her fearsome sister Elizabeth will inherit the crown. Then Katherine and Mary will find court a maze of treachery and danger – where possessing royal blood is the gravest crime of all . . .

Elizabeth Fremantle writes historical fiction set in the Tudor era. In a market where one would expect every aspect of this family’s turbulent reign to have been mined to exhaustion, Fremantle approaches it through avenues that have been lightly travelled, if not missed entirely. In her first book, Queen’s Gambit, she focused on Henry VIII’s often overlooked last wife Katherine Parr and in her second novel, she focused on the similarly neglected Grey sisters. Having read Karleen Bradford’s The Nine Days Queen in the Dutch translation when I was about ten or eleven, Jane Grey has always fascinated me. When I saw the synopsis for Fremantle’s Sisters of Treason, the story of Jane’s younger sisters, I knew I had to read this book. Katherine and Mary Grey make for compelling leading ladies and the book was a fantastic read.  

The titular Sisters of Treason are Katherine and Mary Grey, the younger sisters of Jane Grey. We only meet them after their sister has met her fate on the executioner’s block and they are ensconced at court as ladies of the Queen’s Chamber. We follow them through the next two decades and see Northumberland’s bid to keep the throne in Protestant hands after the young King Edward’s death haunts their lives and how by dint of their blood they will always be regarded as a threat to the throne. But while a story of court politics and conspiracy what stands out most is their humanity. These are just two girls, different as sisters can be bound by love and blood.

Katherine is beautiful, impetuous, and impulsive; the spitting image of her beloved, treasonous father she has his passionate heart and loves boldly an unwisely. It’s hard not to love Katherine as a character, as she’s complex in unexpected ways and has some of the most interesting relationships in the narrative. I loved her close friendship with Jane ‘Juno’ Seymour and the mischief they get up to together. But Katherine takes some very dangerous decisions and it’s hard to see her go down that road knowing where it’ll end. I loved Katherine’s indomitable optimism and loyalty though, she’s steadfast in her love, whatever it may bring her.

Mary Grey was perhaps my favourite character in this book. The youngest of the three sisters, Mary is set apart by her crooked back and small stature. Even as a young teen, she remained small enough to comfortably be held on a lap, as Queen Mary often did, something that Mary Grey despised. Mary’s voice is something special. While conscious of the way her back dictates how others treat her and understandably angry and bitter about this, she is a good and kind person, though quick of wit and sharp of tongue when provoked. It is this that attracts Elizabeth’s attention once she becomes queen. Mary is also an astute observer of court life and it is through her that we learn of most of the plotting and politics going round at court. Mary has learned at a young age that people will overlook her and speak of things in front of her that should have been kept secret.

Mary is not the only character that is at once of the court and outside it. Our third narrator Levina Teerlinck –court painter and close friend of Frances Grey, the girls’ mother – is also someone who moves through the court mostly unregarded. When sat in the queen’s rooms to sketch scenes and draw portraits, people often forget to watch their words. Levina is also our clearest viewpoint of the religious strife that marked Queen Mary’s reign. She witnesses the countless burnings and as a “reformed” Catholic is closely watched by Bishop Bonner’s informers and even threatened into informing on their neighbours. She’s also instrumental in the creation of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in this story, an element that adds an extra element of suspense to the story. Levina’s viewpoint is also that of a more mature woman, one who is settled in a happy marriage, one that requires work but brings contentment, and as such is a good mirror to Katherine’s youthful passions.

Mary and Elizabeth Tudor might not be central characters in Sisters of Treason, they are huge presences in the book and ones that hold huge and frightening power over the Grey girls, a fact that especially Elizabeth is wont to remind the sisters of regularly. Despite their fearsome presences Fremantle doesn’t paint these two powerful women as ogres. For example, while Mary earned her nickname Bloody Mary to the fullest this didn’t stem from being an awful person, but from desperation and the devout conviction that the Catholic faith was the one true faith and that for the good of her people she should bring them back to the Roman Church. Elizabeth is a hard young woman, one who knows what she must do to survive on the throne, yet at the same time she yearns for love and has to rein in her heart at each opportunity. Fremantle shows us two very human queens, marked by their awful, painful youths and by the pressures of the Tudor throne. In their portrayal, and indeed in much of the narrative, the reader finds a contemplation of the meaning of power, of what people will do to gain and/or keep it and how the whiff of a chance at it changes them.

Sisters of Treason is a remarkable book, one that I just couldn’t stop reading. Fremantle’s writing is clean and precise and conveys layers of depth in its narrative. I loved Katherine, Mary, and Levina and their story. I loved learning more about this family, who is so often relegated to the footnotes of Tudor history.  With Queen’s Gambit Fremantle suitably impressed me, with Sisters of Treason she’s made me a fan. If you love Tudor-era historical fiction then Elizabeth Fremantle’s Sisters of Treason is a must-read. I can’t wait for her next book to see who she tackles next!

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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