The bitter enmity between Elizabeth the First and Mary Tudor, the daughters of Henry VIII (not to mention the conflict between their mothers Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon) makes the squabbles between modern-day royals seem small beer indeed. This is particularly clear after reading something as enjoyable as Philippa Gregory's The Queen's Fool, which treats the period and its turbulent sweep with an almost operatic grandeur. In The Other Boleyn Girl, Gregory delivered a tremendous popular success and lifted this kind of popular historical writing from the realms of romantic fiction to something rich in authentic drama and convincing historical verisimilitude.
Mary and Elizabeth, the two young princesses, have a common goal: to be Queen of England. To achieve this, they need both to win the love of the people and learn how to negotiate dangerous political pitfalls. Gregory recreates this era with tremendous colour, and she makes the court an enticing but danger-fraught place. Into this setting comes the eponymous fool, the youthful Hannah, who (despite her air of guileless religiousness) is not naive. She soon finds herself having to deal with the beguiling but treacherous Robert Dudley. Dispatched to report on Princess Mary, Hannah discovers in her a passionate religious conviction (to return England to the rule of Rome and its pope) that will have fatal consequences.
From Tolstoy's War and Peace onwards, historical novelists have set fictitious characters among real-life personages with mixed success; the author's creations can often pale beside the historical figures. That is emphatically not the case here, and Gregory ensures that all her characters have a full and teeming life. Expect a major movie: something as colourful and exuberant as The Queen's Fool is a natural for screen adaptation. --Barry Forshaw