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Book Review: Roses Have Thorns

By (April 3, 2013) No Comment

Keeping Up with the Tudorsroses have thorns

Roses Have Thorns

by Sandra Byrd

Howard Books, 2013

The previous volume in Sandra Byrd’s “Ladies in Waiting” series, To Die For, told the story of Anne Boleyn as seen through the eyes of her friend and lady’s maid Meg Wyatt, and part of that book’s popularity surely derived from this explicit linking of reader and voyeur: we are eternally fascinated by watching the Tudors, but even in the artifice of fiction, we’re less comfortable inhabiting their skin.

Byrd’s latest, Roses Have Thorns (I renew my offer to help all the world’s authors and all the world’s publishers come up with titles for their books that don’t stink like meat left out in the sun), takes up this same pattern, following seventeen-year-old Elin von Snakenborg, suddenly penniless and jilted by her fiance, as she travels to the England of Elizabeth I, manages to marry a nobleman (and changes her mouthful of a name to Helena), and, as Marchioness of Northampton, takes her place as one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, with a ring-side seat for the next quarter century of sign-post Elizabethan events.

Our author avoids giving Helena too much of her own story, the better to keep the spotlight on Elizabeth. It would be a more welcome strategy if Byrd hadn’t written Elizabeth as a cardboard cut-out from a history pageant, but alas, that’s what happens for most of the book. With the possible exception of her father (ironically, since eternal fame has embraced them both), Elizabeth has always been the least knowable of the Tudors; certainly she’s baffled virtually every historical novelist who’s tried to net her, and she even baffles Byrd, who’s shown herself to be quite a canny judge of her characters. Not so in Elizabeth’s case, who can be relied upon to fill these pages with exactly the kind of windy cant she is historically known to have hated:

“Lady von Snakenborg,” the queen said to me in a kind voice, before I withdrew. “The past cannot be cured. But the present can be held, and the future can be grasped.”

History makes its way into every chapter of Roses Have Thorns, but usually not in good ways – indeed, usually in raw chunks, untouched by the nuances that are supposed to elevate novelists from historians. It only takes the briefest mention of hostile Spain, for instance, to get old Walsingham to use the A-word – and to get Elizabeth tub-thumping away in the speech English schoolchildren used to learn by rote:

“Is there news of an imminent invasion by Spain?”

“They are building up their fleet for such,” Walsingham responded. “A mighty armada.”

“Then we shall have to consider whether to strike first,” Elizabeth said.

I turned to her in marvel and joy. She, who had always tried to forestall those who would come after her and her realm, appeasing them with charm, with offers of marriage, or with diplomatic dissembling, was on the brink of declaring outright war. I told her so, later.

“We are no craven king,” she lightly rebuked me.

“Never, Majesty, never have I thought this. It’s just that, perhaps – perhaps you should take up jousting!” I teased. “Who could face you on the tiltyard?”

She smiled, but she did seem stronger, bolder. “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England, too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to, rather than any dishonor shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms!”

I stood back and we ladies all applauded loudly.

Well, they would, wouldn’t they?