English has created an intimate portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Princess Alais of France, daughter of Louis VII, betrothed to Richard Plantagenet, son of Henry II. The turbulent years of Henryís marriage to Eleanor are the stuff of legend, a powerful queen turning her four sons against their father, challenging Henry at every turn.
In the character of Alais, who is only seven when she first arrives on English soil, the author positions another female perhaps equal to Eleanorís intelligence and beauty who chooses an affair with the king, turning away from her betrothed in the heat of passion. While the novel begins in 1169 with Alaisís arrival, most of the drama plays out from 1172 to 1178, while Eleanor makes her moves against the king and Alais is drawn to his power, gambling all that she might one day sit next to him on the throne.
Of course it is the purview of historical novelists to manipulate characters and history, to mold the dramas that are long lost in the mists of time, sometimes juggling years and events. But English does a masterful job of describing the great Eleanor and her heady competition with the charismatic and powerful Henry and the ambitions of Henryís sons - especially Richard, who is devoted to his mother and the little French princess who loves Eleanor unconditionally, until her passion for Henry takes over her senses and leads to betrayal.
Although love matches are uncommon, the union of Eleanor and Henry II is legendary, affection gradually turning to competition and Eleanorís need to outwit her clever spouse. Alais becomes the critical element, the unpredictable one who captures Richardís heart at their first meeting and wins the deep affection of his mother, her mentor. That Alais should fall victim to the world of power is not surprising. She has longed for love since childhood, a distant father leaving her vulnerable to Eleanor and Henry alike.
While intrigue lurks behind every door, Alais falls into Eleanorís waiting arms with joy, thriving in this new environment and experiencing the allure of her beauty in a court filled with intrigue. It is because Eleanor has taught her so well that Alais ventures into Henryís path, abandoning propriety in her passion for the king.
Henry is equally devastating but never loses sight of his goals. The result is an awakening for the French princess that brings her to her knees, her hubris forgotten and her love for Eleanor healed by forgiveness at last. Alais takes a great gamble and loses, but the result is a fascinating tale of kings and queens, passion and betrayal, love and loss in the court of England.