The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir: B+

princesintowerFrom the front flap:
Despite five centuries of investigation by historians, the sinister deaths of the boy king Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, remain one of the most fascinating murder mysteries in English history. Did Richard III really kill “the Princes in the Tower,” as is commonly believed, or was the murderer someone else entirely? In this utterly absorbing and meticulously researched book, English writer Alison Weir, an authority on the history of the British royal family, at last provides a conclusive solution to this age-old puzzle.

There are two schools of thought on Richard III. One group, dubbed “revisionists,” believes that Richard’s unsavory reputation is undeserved and that he did not do the awful things attributed to him. The second, “traditionalists,” hold that Richard was tyrannical and ambitious and certainly did commit many terrible acts. Alison Weir is firmly in the traditionalist camp and, after reading her work, I must (reluctantly) conclude that Richard probably was behind the deaths of his nephews.

The way Weir organizes her information is interesting. After devoting the entire first chapter to an introduction and evaluation of her sources, especially contemporary ones, she proceeds to tell the story by citing many of the sources in turn. These do not always agree, and when they don’t, she points it out and explains which, in her opinion, is likely the most accurate account. The result is a narrative that feels thorough and yet not unnecessarily bogged down by detours into conjecture. While I lament the passing of my romanticized view of Richard III, Weir ultimately did compile enough irrefutable evidence to convince me of his villainy.

Some things about the way the information is presented rankle a bit, however. It’s clear from pretty early on that Weir, despite claiming that she approached the question of Richard’s guilt with an open mind, is completely dismissive of the revisionist view, saying “the majority of serious historians have rejected it.” Too, she often seems to base her arguments on behavioral assumptions like (paraphrased) “Surely a man of such integrity would verify his facts” or “This was published during a time when many people who knew Richard III were still alive and would spot inaccuracies.” Okay, sure, but in a political climate where beheadings occur frequently—and when the monarch (Henry VII) in power wants to avoid attention being called to the House of York, as Weir points out herself—are these people really going to feel free to defend him? It’s not that I dispute her conclusions based on the evidence, and I’m by no means a historian myself, but I do have to wonder whether this is how research is normally conducted and presented.

In any case, Weir’s account of Richard’s life, deeds, and legacy is a fascinating and, ultimately, convincing read, even to someone like me who has enjoyed (and likely will continue to enjoy) reading historical fiction in which Richard is presented in a positive light.

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.