I had been looking forward to getting a chance to preview the final novel in The Boleyn Trilogy’s sequel trilogy from Laura Andersen. The Virgin War, while not quite as tight narratively as The Boleyn Reckoning (the final novel of the original trilogy) packed almost as much of an emotional punch and did so while having far more narrative threads in play and delving further and further into the realm of speculation as this alternative history continues to take its inspiration from actual historical events and movements.
The inevitable war between England and Spain draws closer but Elizabeth I and her daughter, Anne Isabella (Anabel), Princess of Wales, have long been laying the groundwork for a counter to the anticipated Spanish attack on English soil. Elizabeth’s former husband, Philip of Spain (and Anne’s father) is driven to pursue the war from a desire to save his daughter’s soul by restoring her to the true faith… and because his latest wife and mother to his young twin sons, Mary Stuart, has a huge grudge against Elizabeth. With a political marriage proposed between Anabel and James VI of Scotland in the works, Anabel has been winning support for herself in the north of England while she and her mother have fed the public belief that they have fallen out with one another and that the young princess is malleable as far as Spanish influence is concerned. Involved in many of the machinations and assisting the Tudor women are the members of the Courtenay family as all involved work to balance their emotional struggles with the need to do what must be done to protect and preserve England.
As was a concern with the previous novel of this trilogy, The Virgin’s Spy, there was a lot to be set up for the reader in terms of which of the characters was where and why, leaving the first half of the novel almost tedious while the back half worked incredibly well, carrying the bulk of the emotional weight and the excitement as the war finally arrives. This wasn’t as big a problem in the final book of the last trilogy, The Boleyn Reckoning, because there were fewer characters and a more central plot through the entire trilogy, leaving it much tighter. Some of the threads in play here could have—and perhaps should have—been resolved more in the previous book, or at least could have taken much more of a back seat to what was happening in this book. Where The Virgin’s Daughter was largely focused on Lucette and The Virgin’s Spy was predominantly Stephen’s story, The Virgin’s War should have been split pretty evenly between the twins, Kit and Pippa (and through them, Anabel)—and to an extent, the central plots were. But the narrative focus jumped around a lot more than it would have were they truly treated as the foundation of the story. Lucette’s fertility struggles and Stephen’s romance with Maisie shouldn’t have been presented from their perspectives in the narrative but should have faded into the background, taking up less narrative space which would have helped speed up the pacing; similarly, the conflicts between most of the romantic pairings in the book became clichés because of the lack of time spent truly developing each of them. By cutting one or two of those from the main narrative and leaving them as whispers in the background, the remaining ones would have been given more space to breathe and would have been more compelling instead of feeling like an increasing stack of tropes.
But even though the front half of the novel was a bit tangled with a lot of threads left underdeveloped as a result, the back half was fantastic. What Laura Andersen does best is use the map of actual history and tweak it to work with the figures of her alternate world. The political and religious tensions remain driving forces as she maneuvers the pieces around and makes the dates align nicely. The dates of the war in her book and the way things unfold match up nicely with the failed Babington Plot. As a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I and put Mary Stuart on the English throne, historically it was uncovered before it could be enacted and was used against Mary Stuart, leading to her death. In Andersen’s world where Mary Stuart is also Queen of Spain and the Princess of Wales is her husband’s daughter, things become more complicated. To see such real-life events adapted so beautifully for this alternate history is always my favorite thing about these books and what have me looking forward to more—and the postlude leaves me hopeful that perhaps Andersen will have another trilogy in mind for yet another generation in this alternative history series.
The Virgin’s War will be available in stores July 12, 2016.