First, an admission: I am a huge fan of Katherine Longshore.
Second, a confession: I was so done with Anne Boleyn.
Therefore, I was conflicted about diving right into “Tarnish,” Katherine Longshore’s YA novel of Anne Boleyn’s early days at Henry VIII’s court, before she became King Henry’s obsession and eventual queen. On the one hand, I couldn’t wait to read another one of Katy’s books; on the other hand, what is left to be said about Anne Boleyn?
Anne Boleyn — and I don’t think I’m stepping out of line here — is probably England’s most controversial queen. Especially in recent years, especially in light of certain works of historical fiction, many people have formed strident opinions about her, and if you pay any attention to internet Tudor sites (as I do, a little) you will hear her referred to with such words as “conniving,” “manipulative,” “cunning,” “bitch,” “slut,” and “whore.” Once you have applied these labels, there’s really no point in trying to analyze, explain, or understand a person’s motivations.
My personal feeling about Anne Boleyn is that she was a smart, emotional, passionate woman trapped in the restrictive bonds of a world of men, a world that dictated everything for her: whom she could marry, what she could do, even what she should think and feel. Instead of surrendering to that world and letting men do what they wanted to her, she did what she could to take hold of her own destiny. She pulled up a chair to the card table and played the high-stakes game of politics with the men, and by doing so, she gained admiration, scorn, fame, triumph and ultimately, death. It should not be forgotten that she was not the only one to pay with her life: many men also wagered their lives in the game and lost, but they have not been condemned as whores and sinners; in fact, one of them was made a saint.
For this reason, I was thrilled when, in one of the scenes of the novel, Anne does just that: pulls up a chair at the card table, that province of men forbidden to women, and plays the game with them. I was already in love with the novel by then, but that scene cemented my belief that Katherine Longshore knows Anne Boleyn.
The amazing thing about Anne, and the reason this makes such a wonderful YA novel, is that Anne could be any teenager, and King Henry’s court could be any high school today. The power cliques, the flirtations, the consequences of being different, the desire to be popular, the passionate attachments: all of these speak directly to every teen. They were the same when I was in school; they are the same now that my kids are in high school. Change the clothes, change the technology, change the trappings of life, but people are still the same at heart. This is what I love about historical fiction, and Katherine Longshore captures this beautifully.
Speaking of beauty, this book is beautifully written. Take this, the opening lines of the very first page:
A deep breath is all it takes to enter a room.
This powerful opening grabs you and commands your attention, while instantly generating sympathy for the main character.
As a writer, I also appreciated moments where Longshore did not fall back on the easy cliche, finding new ways to describe emotions or physical reactions that we have read again and again. For example, from page 181: “With a flash like gunpowder, my cheeks begin to burn.” Or from page 173: “My chest collapses and a stopper is put into the bottle of my lungs.”
The writing is all in service of the story. The characters are brought to vivid life, even (perhaps especially) those like King Henry and Anne who have been portrayed so many times that they are becoming cultural caricatures rather than real people.
If you don’t know the whole story of Anne Boleyn, you will gasp and be thrilled at this passionate and intelligent young woman buffeted by the powerful men around her and the actions she takes to claim independence and autonomy. If you do know her story, you will shiver with the layers of foreshadowing that sparkle throughout, glimmers of a future that will be greater than Anne dreams of, and worse than she fears.
Ten out of ten stars to this magnificent YA must-read.
(Apologies to Katy Longshore for how long it has taken to get this review posted. I had a busy August!)