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Historical heroine fails to compel

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Philippa Gregory knows English history and she knows how to tell a good tale. But in this, the fifth outing in her Cousins' War series, the famed British historical fiction author fails to deliver the kind of fascinating female protagonist her readers have come to expect.

The White Princess, about a heartbroken 15th-century English queen whose loyalties are torn between the houses of York and Lancaster, starts strong but then stumbles and stalls -- leaving the reader longing for a more compelling heroine.

Gregory is best known for her Tudor Court series that includes the 2001 bestseller The Other Boleyn Girl. The 2008 movie adaptation starred Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson.

The Cousins' War series steps back in time by two generations to cover the events of England's War of the Roses.

The White Princess is a natural sequel to 2009's The White Queen, which has been adapted into a 10-part BBC television series (premiering Sept. 6 in Canada on SuperChannel).

What makes Gregory's historical novels valuable is that she explores important events through the eyes of the women who lived at the centre of political intrigue. These women have often been ignored by male historians, and it is a pleasure to read about English history from a different point of view.

The White Queen tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the beautiful and controversial wife of Edward IV, while The White Princess tells the story of their daughter, Elizabeth of York.

The White Princess begins with an excellent dramatic set-up. In Gregory's story, Elizabeth of York is the secret and beloved mistress of her uncle, King Richard III.

Upon Richard's defeat and death at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, Elizabeth is forced into marriage with the man who killed her lover: Henry Tudor. Henry VII is a brute of a man and their marriage begins as an intimate battle between enemy houses.

However, this dramatic set-up does not lead to a satisfying tale. After the marriage between Elizabeth and Henry, the story meanders and stalls. Elizabeth is unhappy and Henry is unlovable.

There are numerous challenges to the Tudor reign, including several pretenders who may or may not be one of the princes in the tower -- Elizabeth's young brothers who disappeared while held captive under Richard III's reign.

For about 400 pages, Elizabeth worries, wonders and waits. She gives birth to several children. But she is neither politically active nor particularly insightful.

The White Princess is a disappointing addition to a series that brought us fascinating stories about Jaquetta of Luxembourg, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville.

It is a challenge to breathe life into historical women who have been neglected by traditional histories. As Elizabeth of York reflects in the novel: "It does not matter that in my heart I am passionate and independent. My true self will be hidden and history will never speak of me except as the wife of one king and the mother of another."

However, unlike the other novels in The Cousins' War series, this novel fails to create a character that is fascinating and unforgettable. The historical period is interesting but, unfortunately, this heroine is not.


Danishka Esterhazy is a Winnipeg screenwriter and film director. She holds an honours BA in history from the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 A1

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About Danishka Esterhazy

Danishka Esterhazy is a screenwriter, film director and self-confessed video game addict. She prefers games with a story but will settle for a good sword fight.

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