Harper, author of an inventive, long-running mystery series starring Elizabeth I as sleuth (The Hooded Hawke, 2007, etc.), now depicts the monarch through the eyes of her most loyal courtier.
Like her eventual mentor Thomas Cromwell (Henry VIII’s fixer-in-chief), Kat Champernowne is of humble origins. Her father, a beekeeper from an impoverished branch of Devonshire nobility, doesn’t seem unduly upset by the suspicious drowning of Kat’s mother Cecily. With scandalous haste, he marries the vain, scheming hussy who was the last person to see Cecily alive. Kat yearns to escape Maud, who treats her as a drudge and nursemaid for a growing brood of half-siblings. Her chance comes when she does a good turn for Cromwell, who procures her an education at the manor house of wealthy distant relations. Then she’s off to Henry’s court to serve Anne Boleyn—and to spy on her for Cromwell. Kat’s devotion to Anne extends through her coronation and her execution approximately 1,000 days later. Shortly before she faces the headsman, the doomed queen gives Kat a ruby locket-ring with facing portraits of Anne and her daughter Elizabeth, whose gender precipitated her swift fall from favor. She begs Kat to cherish and protect the princess always. Elizabeth’s mettle is severely tested: She’s disinherited in favor of younger brother Edward, very nearly seduced by villainous rake Thomas Seymour (who raped Kat in her early days at court), displaced again by her cousin Jane Grey’s ill-fated coup, followed by her elder sister Mary’s accession to the throne. While treading the delicate line between deference and the discipline young Elizabeth sorely needs, Kat outwits and outlives Seymour and his many blackmail attempts. She confounds her questioners during two prison terms endured as a result of various power shifts. Unfortunately, perhaps because of scant written records concerning Kat, she’s a much sketchier character than her royal charge.
All in all, a lively and historically grounded reimagining of two Tudor survivors.