Book review: The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien

The Shadow Queen by Anne OBrien
The Shadow Queen by Anne OBrien
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One medieval historian described her as ‘the most beautiful lady in the whole realm of England, and by far the most amorous,’ while another made tantalising reference to her ‘slippery ways.’

So what was it that made the 14th century Countess Joan of Kent – better known as the Fair Maid of Kent – the talk of her times?

In her fascinating and revealing new novel, much-loved author Anne O’Brien takes us behind the throne and deep into the power play of the extraordinary woman who would become wife of the famous warrior Black Prince, and mother of the boy king Richard II.

O’Brien, who is now on her eighth foray into the turbulent lives of some of medieval England’s forgotten or sidelined royal women, is on top form as she unearths a thrilling 700-year-old tale of intrigue, treachery, scandal and passion.

From clandestine marriages and dark secrets to vaulting ambition and terrible tragedy, Joan’s story is a hidden historical gem, the riveting account of an unconventional and manipulative wife and mother’s ascent through a male-dominated court to wield almost unprecedented influence at the very heart of royal power.

Even at the age of twelve, the young Countess Joan is ‘gracefully blessed in face and form.’ She has been brought up amidst wealth and luxury at the court of her cousin King Edward III, his wife Queen Philippa of Hainault and their children after her father was executed for treason.

As a granddaughter of Plantagenet King Edward I and an acknowledged beauty, Joan knows she is a valuable pawn in the royal marriage game and the feisty and determined young girl’s mind is already set on a future which will see her ‘admired and of fine repute.’

But when the king announces that she is to be betrothed to William Montagu, heir to his best friend and ally the Earl of Salisbury, Joan has no choice but to reveal a hidden scandal. She is already secretly married to Sir Thomas Holland, a royal knight from Upholland in Lancashire, who is fighting for the king overseas.

Hopeful that Holland is dead after six months with no news of him, Joan’s family ride roughshod over the legalities and force her to agree to a bigamous marriage to Montagu.

When the unthinkable happens and Holland returns injured but very much alive from battles abroad, he appeals directly to the Pope to have Joan’s marriage to Montagu annulled, and she is ordered to return to him.

But Joan’s real ambition lies with the Crown of England and she is prepared to scheme, marry and manipulate to achieve those long-held dreams…

O’Brien seamlessly weaves fact and fiction to bring us a memorably vivid and captivating portrait of Joan of Kent in an impressively researched story packed with ambition, betrayal, political intrigue and personal heartbreak.

Once again O’Brien manages to put flesh on the dry bones of an intriguing historical figure, imagining not just the inner sanctum of their private hopes and fears, but the small detail of their everyday lives and the long-ago world that they inhabited.

By gaining an understanding of Joan’s vulnerable position in a patriarchal society, we see more clearly her courageous and ruthless determination to fight convention, to build her own power base, and to protect and promote her children at all costs.

This is medieval England at its most callous and unforgiving, but a place where love and passion still have the potential to change lives and alter the course of history.

A gripping read from the queen of historical fiction…

(HQ, hardback, £12.99)