In keeping with the first-person point of view, the emphasis is on Katherines development from naïve young girl to widow and mother and finally to a mature woman who knows what she wants and will do what it takes to get it. Katherine is introduced as a love-starved, convent-educated French princess who hopes her match with Henry V of England will open a happier chapter in her life. Unfortunately, she finds that Henrys interest in her is limited to her fertility and her claim to the French throne. Its France he wants to conquer, not Katherines heart, and he leaves her to her own devices for much of the marriage.
After his death, its made very clear to Katherine that as Queen Mother, she has no right to a personal life. But when she finds herself attracted to one of her employees, Owen Tudor, she starts to dream of breaking out of her gilded cage. Owen Tudor is first presented as self-controlled and sexy, swimming naked in the river and intervening to break up swordfights. Unfortunately he develops into an old-school alpha hero who says things like, You were just a witless female and Pour me a cup of ale, woman. Katherine adores him, but hes very far from my cup of ale.I meant nothing to Henry other than as a vessel to carry my precious blood to our son, so that in his veins would mingle the right to wear both English and French crowns. I should have accepted it from the very beginning. I had been foolish beyond measure to live for so long with false hopes. But no longer.
The Forbidden Queen is not without a few Hollywood moments - including the sentence which opens the swordfight in which Owen intervenes:
Unfortunately I know from friends who are re-enactors that swords only make that noise in movies (the rasping sound is added in post-production by Foley artists), so this detail jerked me right out of the fifteenth century and into a silver screen epic starring Russell Crowe.But then came the dangerous rasp of steel as a sword was drawn from a scabbard.
Then there was Katherines first encounter with Owen:
I couldnt really understand why Katherines trepidation would make her want more light on the scene or why she would want reminders of religious rites at a first encounter with a new lover. I felt this image owed more to contemporary images of bedrooms in honeymoon suites lit with dozens of tealights. In the fifteenth century candles werent romantic lighting, they were the usual form of lighting. They were also a status symbol lots of candles were expensive, another reason why I didnt think Katherine would light the room this way, as she would be parading her wealth before a man of lower rank. Owen sensibly douses most of the candles before they have sex, but apart from reducing the fire hazard, I had to wonder if as comptroller of the household he wanted to keep the bills down.And there he stood, Owen Tudor, illuminated by a shimmer of candles because, perhaps out of trepidation at the last, I had lit my room as if for a religious rite.
Another puzzling moment came when Katherine, who is having difficulty getting pregnant by the King, discusses aids to conception with her ladies-in-waiting:
Im no midwife, but surely small hips cause problems with giving birth, not conceiving? Unless the suggestion is that Katherines hips are so narrow that Henry cant wedge his member in there? That did make me smile, but I think its an anatomical impossibility.Meg pursed her lips. Your hips are very small, my lady, for sure. It can make child-bearing difficult.
My hands clenched into fists, well hidden in the soft silk of my skirts. So the fault was mine that I did not conceive. As perhaps it was, but I heard the scorn behind the carefully phrased fact.
However, I dont want to suggest that I didnt find much to enjoy in the book. Anne OBriens writing is always at its most powerful at the emotional turning points in Katherines life her reaction to the death of Henry V, her proud response to the end of a broken love affair and her insistence to the Privy Council that she has the right to marry again were three moments when I felt most on her side and caught up in her story. My favourite scene was actually one with the ladies-in-waiting, when Katherine chooses an unusual method of washing the men who have let her down politically and personally right out of her hair:
I loved the way Katherine uses the materials intended for a duty (embroidery) for her ritualistic rejection of masculine power. This scene shows her as a traditional medieval queen surrounded by her ladies, yet asserting herself as far as she can within her limited sphere. Its exactly the sort of diversion which would appeal to women caught up in the stultifying routine of a court. Katherine was lucky none of the men she mentioned dropped dead soon after though or she might indeed have been facing charges of witchcraft!I lifted a skein of embroidery silks from my coffer, deciding in a moments foolishness to make a little drama out of it. Bring a candle here for me.
They did, and, embroidery abandoned as Cecily brought the candle, they seated themselves on floor or stool.
I will begin, I said, enjoying their attention. I forswear my lord of Gloucester. There was an immediate murmur of assent for consigning the arrogant royal duke to the flames. What colour do I choose for Gloucester?
They caught the idea.
Red. For power.
Red, for ambition.
Red for disloyalty to one wife, and a poor choice of a second.
I had difficulty in being mannerly towards Gloucester, who had attacked my future with the legal equivalent of a hatchet. The Act of Parliament he had instigated would stand for all time. No man of ambition would consider me as a bride. I was assuredly doomed to eternal widowhood. And so with savage delight I lifted a length of blood-red silk, snipped a hands breath with my shears and held it over the candle so that it curled and shimmered into nothingness.
There. Gloucester is gone, he is nothing to me. I caught an anxious look from Beatrice as we watched the silk vanish. I cant believe you are a friend of Gloucester, Beatrice.
No, my lady. She shuddered. But is this witchcraft. Perhaps in France
No such thing, I assured her. Merely a signal of my intent. Gloucester will be hale and hearty for a good few years yet. I looked round the expectant faces. Now Bishop Henry. He has been kind but to my mind as self-interested as are all the Beauforts. Not to be trusted.
Rich purple, from Beatrice. He likes money and self-importance.
And the lure of a Cardinals hat, Cecily added.
The purple silk went the way of its red sister.
Sadly, history doesnt allow for a HEA, which will limit the books appeal to romance readers. Of course, it would have been possible to end the book on a happier note earlier in Katherines life, but then the authors note explaining what happened next would come as a shower of icy water. Its not a problem writers dealing with imaginary characters have they are under no obligation to finish their books with an epilogue explaining that unfortunately, two years later, the volcano in the next town reactivated itself and buried Hank, Jessica and their baby son under tons of lava and ash.
The reader is well-served with more than 25 pages of additional material, including reading group questions, authors notes, Q&A with the author, further reading and more.