Saturday, December 08, 2012

Book Review: The King's Concubine by Anne O'Brien

The King's Concubine by Anne O'Brien
Published by New American Library in June 2012
A child born in the plague year of 1348, abandoned and raised within the oppressive walls of a convent, Alice Perrers refused to take the veil, convinced that a greater destiny awaited her. Ambitious and quick witted, she rose above her obscure beginnings to become the infamous mistress of Edward III. But always, essentially, she was alone...

Early in Alice’s life, a chance meeting with royalty changes everything: Kindly Queen Philippa, deeply in love with her husband but gravely ill, chooses Alice as a lady-in-waiting. Under the queen’s watchful eye, Alice dares to speak her mind. She demands to be taken seriously. She even flirts with the dynamic, much older king. But she is torn when her vibrant spirit captures his interest...and leads her to a betrayal she never intended.

In Edward’s private chambers, Alice discovers the pleasures and paradoxes of her position. She is the queen’s confidante and the king’s lover, yet she can rely only on herself. It is a divided role she was destined to play, and she vows to play it until the bitter end. Even as she is swept up in Edward’s lavish and magnificent court, amassing wealth and influence for herself, becoming an enemy of his power-hungry son John of Gaunt, and a sparring partner to resourceful diplomat William de Windsor, she anticipates the day when the political winds will turn against her. For when her detractors voice their hatred,and accusations of treason swirl around her,threatening to destroy everything she has achieved, who will stand by Alice then?
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Series:  n/a

Anne O'Brien's historical fiction came to my attention last year, when I read and enjoyed The Virgin Widow.  I didn't know anything about the historical figures in this novel, but they definitely sounded interesting.

Alice begins her life in a convent.  She doesn't know who her parents are, having been abandoned on the convent's doorstep with a small bag of coins.  Growing up, she doesn't really suit the quiet life of a nun.  She's always getting into trouble and she's determined to get out of the convent.  But fate has other plans for her and before she can make her way out, she's called upon to be a maid for a moneylender, a Janyn Perrers.  Not long in his house, he makes her his wife.  But Janyn is an old man and it's a marriage in name only.  But he does give her a wedding gift, a purse of coins.  And Janyn's accountant talks Alice into giving him the money so he can buy land in her name.  It's either that or Janyn's malicious sister will steal the money.  Alice agrees and so a lifelong partnership begins.  Janyn dies eventually, and Anne is thrown out onto the street.  She returns to the convent but promises herself it's only for a short time.

Soon enough another chance to leave the convent comes her way.  Queen Philippa, King Edward's beloved wife, has come to the convent to mourn.  And relax - she is wracked with pain.  Alice is drawn to the kindly Queen and comes to her aid a few times.  The Queen recognizes her and not long after she leaves the convent, she calls for Alice.  Alice, a nobody, is made to be one of the Queen's damsels, an honor that makes more than a few people angry.

Alice is very loyal to the Queen.  She knows the Queen did her a service by pulling her out of the convent.  She's asked the Queen why and eventually the Queen tells her.  You see, Edward and the Queen are in love.  Yes, their marriage was arranged, but over the years they have formed an extremely strong bond and the King never cheated.  But now that Philippa is constantly in pain, she cannot stand to be touched.  She still loves the king, but she's told him he is free to take a lover.  She handpicked Alice for that role.  She would rather the King cheat with someone Philippa can trust  with no status rather than a lady who would try to lord her position over everyone.  Alice cannot deny being drawn to the King, so it's only a matter of letting herself get caught.  The Queen swears Alice to secrecy, no one, not even the King, can know how the Queen arranged the whole thing.

All right then.  I enjoyed this book.  The beginning, with Alice's life in the convent, was a bit slow, but things pick up when she gets older.   I was interested in Alice's life at court, but when she becomes the king's mistress, I found it difficult to read about how everyone villified her.  I can understand why they did it, the king is cheating on the queen after all those years of marriage and with a nobody no less.  With a nobody the Queen raised up.  It was still hard though.  Alice was a young woman with no one except for the Queen as an ally and many people turned their backs on her.

But once the Queen gives Alice her approval in a very public way, things soon change and Alice is recognized among the court.  She always has an eye to her future so whenever she can, she buys up estates and manors.  She never wants to be destitute again.  I liked Alice's character.  She was ambitious but she wasn't malicious about it.  She knew it was an honour to be the king's mistress and if he wanted to give her gifts, she would accept them.  She did not bewitch the king or try to manipulate him.  The whole thing with the Queen setting them up was oddly...touching?  I can't explain it, but I understand why the Queen did it and why she chose Alice.  The Queen was a sympathetic character and she loved her husband.  The King never strayed before and he felt guilty for what he was doing.  But that guilt eventually fell away as his feelings grew for Alice.  The only way to put it the whole situation was that it was cozy.  Alice remained a Queen's damsel and put her needs first.  She never rubbed what she was doing with the King in her face.  They were discreet.

Of course a woman in Alice's position is going to make enemies.  Among them were the adult children of Philippa and Edward.  And one thing about royals, they know how to bide their time and strike when it'll be the most advantageous.

I really enjoyed the King's Concubine and I recommend it for fans of historical fiction.  Despite a slow start, the story picks up quickly and you're caught up in Alice's life at court, making a name for herself, loyal to the King and the Queen to the end.  A solid read.  B



  1. I have this one on my shelf....hoping to get to it in 2013. Happy reading in 2013!

    1. I hope you do read it and enjoy it! Have you read Anne O'Brien's historical fiction before?

      Happy reading in 2013 to you as well. :P

  2. Good review, Ames. Glad you enjoyed the book :) and yeah, the situation is quite interesting. I know what you mean by the Queen's action being touching. I like that in this one, it seems that none of the main characters are malicious.

    1. Exactly!! Love made the Queen do what she did and the King did love her. And Alice loved both of them.