This novel tells the story of Rafael, an acclaimed sundial maker from Spain who travels to England in the entourage of Prince Philip following his marriage to Mary Tudor, the new Queen. He becomes the Queen's occasional confidante and obtains an insight into her loss of control as her new marriage deteriorates under the lack of affection that is shown to her and her inability to produce a male heir. Rafael's disorientation at his new and supposedly temporary arrangements is heightened by the anarchy that he sees on the streets of London and the terrible price many people are paying for their supposed 'heresy'. Compounding this is his grief for the family that he has left behind whilst he struggles with his feelings for Cecily, the woman that he lodges with.
I have recently read "The Queen of Subtleties" by Dunn, which has a similar premise but focusses not only on an observer but on Anne Boleyn. This is a far more accomplished piece of work in my opinion. Of course the forced companionship could be viewed as a manipulative plot device but it works well in telling Rafael's story. It is through these brief conversations that he is able to gain a greater understanding of the romantic involvements in his past and in time he makes some shocking personal discoveries in the chaos of his surroundings. These threads being upicked are quite engrossing and Dunn works well at building the tension. She reveals ideas to the reader as Rafael attempts to make sense of events which have never troubled him previously.
The love scenes are written in a sensual way, emphasising Rafael's naivety and vulnerability despite his age. Whilst the ending is probably signposted to us from about three quarters of the way through, much of what has preceeded this compensates for that so it still feels like a satisfying read.
The characters are well developed,surprisingly so for Mary Tudor as she is only seen in fleeting passages where she ultimately displays too much unhappiness and then distances herself from her own orders and behaviour.
I found it very convincing how Rafael's love interests past and persent were protrayed as he was largely aware of their flaws, and increasingly how he had been taken advantage of. But it was still believable how he still had intoxicating feelings for them.
Ultimately I enjoyed this book immensely, easily devouring it over a weekend but still finding myself affected by the characters. I believe Mary Tudor to be a much maligned character in traditional historical circles, so this 'dip' into her circumstances and the turmoil that both surrounded her and that she instigated makes this a very worthwhile read.
*** Plot Overview ***
When Prince Philip of Spain marries the English monarch Queen Mary Tudor, he brings with him a huge entourage. This includes Rafael, who he commissions to make a special sundial for his new wife.
The main plot is about Rafael's time in England. I learnt a little about his trade as he visits the garden were the Prince's present is to be placed, as Rafael needs to know the direction of the sun before he can accurately measure time with a new creation. He tells us that English sundials are usually simpler to those found in Spain at this time. He comes to the conclusion that there has not been so much interest in them in England due to there being a lot less sun.
Readers also learn about his life in Spain as he has time to reminisce, while waiting for confirmation of the work to be done. This past may well affect romantic decisions he has to make in England.
*** The Characters ***
I found Rafael unbelievably naïve in both family matters and political awareness.
His capabilities and stupidity just don't seem to go together in the same person to me. He has mastered the craft of sundial making, which includes doing the preparatory work of making drawings and calculations to ensure accuracy, and has an assistant to do simpler tasks.
Set against this, he kids himself, and tries to convince others, that healthy pregnancies can last 11 months, and believes he can know the mind of a foreign queen, without having the opportunity to get to know her well.
Despite the book's title, Queen Mary only has a small part in this novel, although an important one. I believe that the informality of Queen Mary towards Rafael, who is after all a foreign servant, is also totally implausible. I suppose that, in the author's mind, it is this informality that leads Rafael to think that he can understand her. However, I think that it is just one far-fetched plot line after another.
*** Historical Accuracy ***
The author states that Rafael, the sundial maker, his assistant and the household of the family that he stays with while in London are her own inventions, but that in all other respects she has aimed for historical accuracy.
I like the way the author shows the difficulties a Spaniard has living in London at that time.
Readers also get a reasonable feel for the lives of a wide range of English Londoners in these uncertain times.
Events that affect them all are religious unrest, the Queen's anxiety for a child to be her heir and bad weather conditions leading to poor harvests, which are true representations of these times.
However, for me, the lack of credibility in the Queen's relationship with Rafael shattered the authentic feel.
*** Recommendation ***
If you want historical fiction with a chick-lit feel to it, Suzannah Dunn is an author you might appreciate, but don't start with this book.
I have also read another of her novels, The Sixth Wife, which I have already reviewed. This is a better read than The Queen's Sorrow, but I would only recommend it to readers who usually read modern chick-lit, who would like to start exploring historical fiction novels.
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: HarperPerennial (5 Jan 2009)
Being a big fan of Phillipa Gregory's Tudor based novels I was looking forward to reading The Queen's Sorrow, based in the time of Mary Tudor. My mom had bought this for me when she saw it on special offer in Sainsbury's for around £3 and knowing my love of all things Tudor she indulged me (bless her!).
I have to say though that while I did enjoy this book to some extent I had a couple of real issues with it which I will outline here and for me it does not even compare with Gregory's works which truly are centred round the Tudor court and are brilliantly written.
The story follows Spanish sundial designer (!) Rafael who is bought to England as part of Phillip of Spain's royal household following his marriage to Mary Tudor. He is adrift in a country which detests the Spanish in general after years of religious unrest and he misses his wife and young son back in Spain.
Rafael, commisioned to design a sundial for the Queen, is put in lodgings with a wealthy family in central London and the story then follows his journey as he learns about England, visits the Royal court, reminisces about home and the past and meets and eventually falls in love with the housemaid Cecilia against a backdrop of the notorious 'Bloody Mary' burnings of protestant civilians and priests.
My first (and it has to be said this is a major) issue with this book is that I seriously think to call it The Queen's Sorrow is to portray it as a book centred around the Queen and personally I think Dunn has used this title deliberately to draw in readers like me who love Gregory's incredibly popular work. In reality what we get here is a story about a bit part character who actually only even meets the Queen a handful of times throughout the novel and then only speaks with her briefly.
The Queen in this novel barely features and neither do the other major players in her reign and her court, this will be especially noticable to anyone who is knowledgable about the Tudor period. The Queen's supposed 'Sorrow' of the title is touched upon but is in no way the focus of the story which leads me to feel rather fleeced.
As I was reading this book it slowly dawned on me that it was never going to centre on the court as I was expecting. This in itself would not have been a problem if the other characters and the actual story were engaging enough but unfortunately they werent. A page turner this is not, yes I finished it but at a leisurely pace, not in any particular hurry to find out what happened next.
Personally I found too many flaws with the whole Rafael/Cecilia relationship and had a general feeling that I didnt quite believe what I was being told (which I have never had before with any book!). I do not think Rafael had enough depth as a character to warm to him and some of his reminiscing scenes were weak.
I did think this book paints a lovely picture of Tudor London and this is the one main plus point of it not being centred on the court, there were occasions when I could absolutely imagine the streets and lanes down which Rafael was walking and could picture the scene well. This is one thing Dunn does well - descriptive writing about the setting her story is taking place in but to some extent this does just reinforce my desire that she had written about the court instead!
To its merit this is an ok book, but its like eating a McDonalds hamburger when you are used to filet steak - yes it fills a hole but gives no real sense of joy whilst doing so. It certainly has not made me want to explore Dunn's other Tudor set novel 'The Sixth Wife'.
It is a shame, in my opinion, because this was a real opportunity to explore Mary Tudor as a character in a more balanced way than we have seen her described elsewhere. Unfortunately, for me, the expectation and the final product were nowhere near within this novel.