Virgin by Robin Maxwell
(Arcade, $24.95, PG-13) ISBN 1-55970-563-9
*****
16th century England was a country looking towards the future, but mired in political instability and courtly intrigue. Henry VIII, once a virile, handsome king, dies a shadow of the man he once was, leaving his nine-year-old son, Edward, successor to the throne. But the boy is only nine, so his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset places himself in the exalted position of Lord Protector - much to the displeasure of his brother Thomas Seymour and a good many noblemen.

Thomas is equally as ambitious, dangerously reckless, and conspires to usurp power from his darling brother. To do so, he marries Catherine Parr, beloved Dowager Queen and Henry’s widow. Alas, his schemes to gain control do not yield the results he desires, only enflaming his lust for power - and it is then that he sets his sights on Princess Elizabeth.

After her mother’s execution, Elizabeth was labeled a bastard and abandoned by good King Henry. Upon her marriage to him, Catherine Parr softens Henry’s heart to welcome Elizabeth and his other child, Mary, back into the fold and succession to the throne. Upon Henry’s death, Elizabeth comes to reside in the Dowager Queen’s household, only to fall under the spell of her charismatic, handsome, and traitorous new stepfather.

I found many facets of Maxwell’s stunning historical novel fascinating. First, the author tackles a little explored chapter in British history. Much has been written about Edward’s brief reign and the conflict surrounding it. However Elizabeth’s life during this period and Thomas Seymour’s plots have mainly gone unexplored. Maxwell looks to rectify the situation, and creates a novel engrossing to the point of obsession.

Elizabeth is a young girl of 14 when Catherine Parr marries Seymour, and while mature for her age, Maxwell speculates she wasn’t above puberty and hormones. I admit, I took some comfort to think that one of the most powerful women in all of history wasn’t above a schoolgirl crush.

Reading about Thomas Seymour’s plots to gain control of the British crown are a little like watching a train wreck. The reader knows how all of this is going to turn out in the end, but as Seymour becomes more obsessive and reckless, I found his villainy a key part in making this book so hard to put down.

Romance readers hungry for meaty historical flavor will rejoice upon reading the pages of the author’s third book on the Tudors. It’s all here -- from Thomas’ plans to seduce the young princess, to Edward’s tumultuous reign, to Catherine Parr’s state of mind once she realizes what kind of man she has married.

Despite my enthusiastic five-heart rating, Virgin isn’t for everybody. Some readers my find Seymour’s plans for a 14 year old Elizabeth unseemly. However, the fact remains that as a child of royal blood, Elizabeth was subject to treachery. Even given Edward’s tender age of nine and Elizabeth’s budding womanhood, grown men stopped at nothing to gain control.

Maxwell admirably merges fact and fiction into an exciting story of love, betrayal, and greed. Elizabeth has fascinated me for years, and this story only cemented that. The author’s exploration of a long neglected morsel of British history will bring historical fiction enthusiasts much pleasure and some newcomers into the fold.

--Wendy Crutcher


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