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May 2, 2011

Queen By Right by Anne Easter Smith

Queen By Right: A Novel by Anne Easter Smith
Paperback: 528 pages
Publisher: Touchstone; Original edition (May 10, 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-1416550471
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Book Review Rating: 3 stars

In Cecily Neville, duchess of York and ancestor of every English monarch to the present day, she has found her most engrossing character yet. History remembers Cecily of York standing on the steps of the Market Cross at Ludlow, facing an attacking army while holding the hands of her two young sons. Queen by Right reveals how she came to step into her destiny, beginning with her marriage to Richard, duke of York, whom she meets when she is nine and he is thirteen. Raised together in her father’s household, they become a true love match and together face personal tragedies, pivotal events of history, and deadly political intrigue. All of England knows that Richard has a clear claim to the throne, and when King Henry VI becomes unfit to rule, Cecily must put aside her hopes and fears and help her husband decide what is right for their family and their country. Queen by Right marks Anne Easter Smith’s greatest achievement, a book that every fan of sweeping, exquisitely detailed historical fiction will devour.

Wars of the Roses followers recognize the Nevilles as having a strong family in the midst of the turmoil between the Yorks and the Lancastrians. Queen By Right gives us the story of Cecily Neville, daughter of Ralph Neville and Joan Beaufort, and shows us an indulging upbringing for her as well as an indulging marriage to Richard Plantagenet of York. A young Henry VI is on the throne, and Richard seems pleased to be this Lancastrian King's man even though he has his own strong claim to the throne that none can dispute.

Richard and Cecily are blessed with children, and history aficionados will know that these children include Edward IV and Richard III among the most notable. But who were their parents, and how did they get to the royal title? Focusing on Cecily, we become entwined with her character as the author dramatizes her young life as one long flashback to the elder Cecily ponders the very question of how this all came to be. The book opens to Cecily mourning the loss of her husband and favorite son Edmund in a battle against the Lancastrian king. But it wasn't always York versus Lancaster, so how did things get so convoluted as to battle for the throne?

The way Cecily's character is written makes her very likable from the beginning, but about halfway through we somehow lose touch with her. The character development of both Richard and Cecily left much to be desired as they seemed to stray from their once noble paths. Once Cecily becomes an adult, and a mother bent on favoritism, the story began to be more (ambiguously) focused on the politics of Lancaster versus York. Richard was away serving the king on various military appointments and never receiving payment for the money spent on the soldiers he lead, which bred discontent for years. And since this is where the focus lay, I was becoming impatient for the story to get on with it. Instead, we learn of Cecily's aversions to certain people such as Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, or fascination with others like Joan of Arc (the author mentions this was her poetic license). There is also quite a bit of sex but at least it didn't encompass the whole book, but the couple seemingly had eyes only for each other. A plus is that the rumored archer affair did not weave its fiction into this story. The author ascertains that the marriage between Richard and Cecily was a love match beginning in their childhood, though in her author's note she theorizes about the late development was in producing heirs.

An intriguing figure of this time is Jacquetta: Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Duchess of Bedford, or Jacquetta Woodville as she also may be known. She is mentioned several times in the story as she is a high ranking noble in her own right. Jacquetta is peeking out windows witnessing Cecily's actions, and she sends Cecily shivers down Cecily's spine many times. Jacquetta also befriends Margaret of Anjou and Cecily wonders how that could be. Was it Melusina at work? Jacquetta's first husband was related to the throne, but he passed away so Jacquetta made a scandalous love match with Richard Woodville. I mention all this because as a reader I paid attention to all the innuendo and the foreshadowing the author related when mentioning Elizabeth and her beautiful daughter, another Elizabeth, who ends up marrying Cecily's oldest son.

The first half of Cecily's life when she was growing up was an intriguing adventure. In the middle of the book we seemed to be merely skimming the surface, watching things happen from afar, and it just couldn't draw me into the story as it had at first. It was enjoyable reading about Cecily's early life, but as a mother and wife to Richard it became more about the antics of the children, and that of Richard himself. We all knew what happens to Richard in the end, because that is discussed within the first sentences of the novel. Getting to that point with that ill-fated battle became a long drawn out process of Richard whining about not getting paid for his services and Cecily praying to the Virgin Mary. The names of uncles and nobles who were in favor at court when Richard wasn't became a quagmire to sift through at first.

Still, I did gather a bit of information of Cecily and her life, and I was eager to learn a bit more about the struggle of why Richard Plantagenet did decide to grasp the throne for himself. He is not portrayed as an evil man as Lancastrian reads like to paint, as Richard states many times that he swears fealty to Henry VI as God's anointed. Keeping Richard out of the court's loop was also an annoying tactic of Henry VI, as he sent Richard off to Ireland and France to keep the peace but not supporting Richard monetarily to do so. Richard didn't like what was happening to the government at the hands of the king's advisers, and Richard had many who backed his own Yorkist claim to the throne after years of mismanagement. England seemed glorious under King Henry V, but his son was nothing like him. The loss of lands in acquiring the Queen for Henry was also an ill omen of things to come.

For those readers who really want to know more about the struggles of Cecily and Richard Plantagenet and those inherited by their children, the author does well to cover them in Queen By Right. Most Wars of the Roses fans don't get the 'before' scene of the Wakefield battle, as most know that it is Richard's son, Edward IV, who becomes successful for the Yorkist cause. It wasn't until the last quarter of the book that we are finally brought to this climax and started becoming intriguing again. Queen by Right delivers the details and the purported minds behind Richard and Cecily during the years before the famous battles. Anne Easter Smith is well known for her Yorkist novels, and for those readers who enjoyed her books like A Rose for The Crown or Daughter of York would enjoy Queen By Right as well for the lesser known story of Cecily's family and the separate factions of the land. I also must disclose that I have always seemed to lean towards the Lancastrian point of view rather than the Yorkist, and the novel is obviously Yorkist focused. Richard's wishy-washy character himself was portrayed in such a way that this reader wanted to slap him, as much as Cecily did when Richard put his family in such extreme danger. Also included with the book were a few helpful genealogy charts, map, bibliography and glossary.