Gregory’s vivid series set in 15th-century England (War of the Roses, or Cousins’ War) offers historical events to readers from a female perspective, family and politics enhanced by the experiences of the women near the throne. Mothers, wives and lovers share passion and policy with kings, titled men, the shapers of a country’s future. Beyond the bellicose male posturing of ambitious men, their women offer a more intimate view of the machinations, secrets, strengths and weaknesses of power at its most vulnerable. In her first sisters’ drama since The Other Boleyn Girl (set in Henry Tudor’s 16th-century reign), Gregory examines the lives of Anne and Isabel Neville, daughters of “the Kingmaker”: the ruthless Earl of Warwick.
Warwick, instrumental in bringing Edward IV to the throne, has high hopes for his daughters Isabel and Anne as future wives of George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester, the king’s royal brothers. Unfortunately, by independently marrying Elizabeth Woodville, Edward gives notice that he is not Warwick’s pawn, occasioning a deep rift between the Neville’s and Edward’s family by marriage, the Woodvilles. Though Isabel eventually weds George of Clarence as she had hoped, Anne is given to Edward, son of Margaret of Anjou, as Anjou and Warwick scheme to overthrow the king: “Father has thrown my bridal veil over an invasion.” Both Warwick and Edward die in the ensuing battle. Margaret and Anne are taken prisoner by the crown as Anne’s mother takes refuge in a convent, in effect abandoning her daughter at her most vulnerable.
Clarence, meanwhile, harbors his own private ambitions, savoring control of the Neville fortune while Anne is kept prisoner in his home, but tempted to treason—he dares to dream of himself as king and Isabel queen. Richard of Gloucester becomes Anne’s champion in her hour of need. Though Anne and Richard have been friends since childhood, Anne had thought a marital union with Richard impossible. Now he rescues her from an untenable existence, makes her his wife, and assumes control of half the fortune George has been hoarding. Though she loves and depends on her husband, Anne can’t help but be painfully aware of his ambitions, political acumen and the advantages of their union. Some ugly revelations and suspicions mar the esteem in which Anne has always held Richard: “I knew my husband was a hard man, but I did not know he was granite.”
Once Edward IV dies, George having been executed for treason, Richard is nearer the throne. Though Gregory does not suggest Richard’s guilt in the fate of the royal heirs, the Princes in the Tower, she freely acknowledges his political sophistication in placing himself in line for the throne. As Richard nears the pinnacle of his ambition, the death of his son with Anne saps the new queen of much of her courage to endure. Long fearful of a Woodville curse on her family and rumors of poison at court, Anne’s health declines. Watching Richard flirt with Woodville’s beautiful young daughter, Elizabeth, Anne cannot help but imagine that her husband might put her aside for a marriage to the younger woman.
Anne dies in declining health, grieving her young son, her beloved father, and the loss of innocence that has accompanied marriage to Richard, unaware that he is soon to meet his own end on a battlefield with Henry Tudor. While Anne is one of Gregory’s favorite characters of the era, I fail to be inspired by Anne Neville, whose personality seems too easily overshadowed by those around her, fears leaching any passion she might nurture.