Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir: A-

From the back cover:
New York Times best-selling author Alison Weir has earned her reputation as the preeminent historian of British royalty. Now with Innocent Traitor, Weir utilizes her vast knowledge and captivating narrative style to craft her first historical novel, choosing Lady Jane Grey—the most sympathetic heroine of Tudor England—as her enthralling subject.

The child of a scheming father and ruthless mother, Jane is born during a time when ambition dictates action. Cousin to Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, she is merely a pawn in a political and religious game where one false step means certain demise. But Lady Jane has remarkable qualities that help her withstand the constant pressures of the royal machinery far better than any person could be expected to do.

Weir’s striking novel sweeps readers back through the centuries to witness first-hand one of the most poignant tales from a time of constant scheming and power brokering.

I’ve known of Alison Weir for some time, and always intended to read her nonfiction works. I’ve also long been interested in Lady Jane. As a result, I’ve been looking forward to reading Innocent Traitor ever since I first heard about it.

I’ve only read two other historical fiction novels concerning British monarchy, but this is better than both of them. It isn’t dry, dense, or esoteric, thanks to many events being seen through young Jane’s inexperienced eyes, and therefore prompting some explanation from those around her. The story is told in a series of alternating first-person narratives, in which everyone candidly reveals their ambitions and motives, and sometimes their appearances, too. This is a little weird, as who refers to themself as “a bull of a man”?

I liked everything about the Tudor court, its intrigue, and the risks involved in holding “heretical” protestant views. Catherine Parr was cooler than I ever expected. Elizabeth I was a “clever minx” (much better than the petulant and fickle characterization she got in Philippa Gregory’s The Virgin’s Lover). Thomas Seymour was fun with his foolish scheming, and John Dudley with his slightly more skilled attempts. Queen Mary was sympathetically rendered, and spoiled Guilford Dudley managed to avoid being romanticized as he was in the film version. I feel as though I have learned as well as been entertained.

But… I had trouble liking Jane. She’s far too perfect, and characters of that sort never endear themselves to me. Weir’s scholarship is respected, so probably it’s factually accurate that Jane possessed the skills mentioned. (She can read and write at a young age, is “musically gifted,” is adept at learning languages, and corresponds with a bunch of old dudes about religious matters, to name a few.) However, Weir also fabricates some scenes wherein Jane saves the day: it is she who manages to find something that helps Parr fend off charges of heresy, she who manages to get overlooked in a room so she may overhear pivotal scheming, etc. She gets better as she gets older, though her self-righteousness rankles. A quote on the back of the book claims that Weir is trying to rehabilitate Jane’s “merely pathetic” reputation, which I get, but I think she went overboard.

Even though Jane is ostensibly the protagonist, the scope is wide enough that, even if one isn’t particularly fond of her, there’s much else to enjoy. If you’ve never tried historical fiction, this is a good place to start. It’s not overly stuffy, and neither does it seem plagued with dubious scholarship. I will definitely be reading any further fiction that Weir produces.

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