The Best Books about Anne Boleyn

On May 19, 1536, an English queen was executed. She really hadn’t done anything wrong, other than failing to give her king the son he craved. So, in order to get rid of her, some trumped up charges of adultery – treason at the time – were thrown at her and she was executed by beheading. The queen was, of course, Anne Boleyn.

668,Anne Boleyn,by Unknown artist Unknown artist

People may think of many different things when they think of Anne Boleyn. I tend to think primarily “mother of Elizabeth I” and “she was framed.” Others may see her as a victim (yes, indeed), as a homewrecker (no, read more history), an advocate for Protestantism (certainly, and likely the catalyst for Anglicanism, having owned copies of Tyndale and showing them to Henry at the right moment), generous to the poor (yes), and many, many other things. She was a skilled musician, dancer, and linguist. She was a genuine Renaissance woman. I think her full impact on history may never be fully understood.

Anne was born at her family home in Blickling probably in 1507 (some scholars say 1501) and grew up at Hever Castle in Kent. When she was about 7 years old, she went to Austria at the invitation of Margaret of Austria to study with her wards. In 1514, she went to the court of Queen Claude of France, where she stayed for several years. In early 1522, she returned to England, where she became a lady in waiting to Katherine of Aragon and caught the eye of Henry VIII. The rest, as they say, is history.

There remains a fascination with Anne Boleyn, and rightly so, in my opinion. By most accounts, she dazzled. She was witty and enjoyed dancing, riding, and hunting. She enthralled a king, and then she died for it. It’s hard not to be fascinated by her. Other people would seem to agree, if we take the many books written about Anne as evidence. Below are a few of my favorites.

Nonfiction:

31088The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Canto) by Retha Warnicke. Warnicke was one of my college professors. She is a little crazy, and some of her theories about Anne are not really mainstream. But she is a fierce defender of Anne and for that, I have a soft spot for Warnicke.

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives. Ives and Warnicke had disagreements. A lot of them. I approve of academic nerdrage.

Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession by Elizabeth Norton. This is a relatively short, accessible scholarly work by one of my favorite historians.

18111981In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Morris and Natalie Greuninger. This is a really cool book which informs readers not only about Anne, but also about the places she lived and traveled. It tells about each home, manor house, church, chapel, castle, abbey, and so on that Anne ever went to. It shows each room of those places, as much as is possible to do so now. It really helps bring Anne to life in ways that simply writing about her cannot, because it shows up the places where she lived and laughed and grieved. An absolute must-have. I wish more books like this existed for other historical figures.

Fiction:

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell. It’s been years since I read this one, but I still remember it as the one that really sparked my interest in the Tudors.

10108The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers: A Novel by Margaret George. Not about Anne Boleyn, per se, but she featured prominently, of course, and Margaret George is awesome. There are few authors who can tell such a terrific story while also being accurate.

The Last Boleyn: A Novel by Karen Harper, about Mary Boleyn, the other one. Published about 20 years before the other book about Mary Boleyn that most people seem to know about, and which I’m not mentioning because it was awful, this one is nice because it gives readers the big events but entirely through the POV of Mary. None of the major characters we know – Anne, Henry, Katherine of Aragon, Cromwell, etc – appear unless it is when Mary encounters them. I liked it, too, for its more optimistic tone.

Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Margaret Campbell Barnes. One of the older books, but still super interesting. This is not one of the most accurate books you’ll ever read, but it does do a fantastic job of giving Anne a rich internal life, something that not all historical novels really do, oddly. Well worth a read despite the quibbles with the accuracy.

13540943The Queen’s Promise: A fresh and gripping take on Anne Boleyn’s story by Lyn Andrews. This one focuses on Anne before she met Henry, and the love affair she may have had with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Told primarily from Percy’s perspective, readers get a version of this familiar story from an entirely different angle than we usually do.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m a little torn at including this one. Too many people use this as an example of how things really were, but Mantel herself has said no, it is her perception of how Cromwell might have viewed things, which makes sense since it’s from his POV. But it is a terrific read and it’s my blog, so I’m adding it because I liked the book and I want it on the list.

There are sooooooooooooo many other books, both fiction and nonfiction, I could have added here, but I had to rein it in or this would just get out of control. These are just a small handful of my favorites. Are there any others you would recommend?

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Ancient Rites and Sexy Flowers: Discussing the Research Behind Historical Fantasy with Judith Starkston

 

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Book cover: Priestess of Ishana
author-photo
Author Judith Starkston. Image retrieved from author website

 

A couple of months ago, I sat down to chat with author Judith Starkston about her new book, Priestess of Ishana. With deepest apologies to Judith about the delay in writing this article, especially as she was so gracious about giving me the interview – and feeding me in her own home, no less! – I want to talk a little bit about the awesome lady and the research behind a truly unique new series of books.

The series, which begins with Priestess… and will carry on with a forthcoming book (yay!) is based on Starkston’s research of the Hittite culture. I touched on this a little bit in my initial review of the book both on my blog and the historical novel review site, Discovering Diamonds. Her research is deep and accurate, and I would expect nothing less of her since she is a Classicist who is committed to providing detailed information about the ancient world in a fun and accessible way.

One of the overarching themes I noted in the book involve politics and shows men trying to keep women submissive. Starkston comments, “There are a lot of correlations between the politics of then and now. We like to think of history as progressing, but that isn’t always the case.” She goes on to explain about Hittite culture and how women like Tesha, her main character who is based on the real-life Hittite queen Puduhepa, were allowed to stay queens after their husband died. Often, if they had a son, they would navigate their power to get their sons on the throne, because there was always a king, unlike, for example, in Tudor England with Elizabeth I. But generally speaking, Hittite women had more power and freedom than Victorian women – they had property, could keep children even after a divorce, and they were allowed to initiate a divorce. Priestesses in particular had a key business and financial role as well as religious. The temples are sometimes referred to by scholars as “Little Vaticans” since they held so much power and influence over other non-religious institutions.

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The Great Temple in Hattusa

 

The rites and rituals portrayed in Starkston’s book are fascinating and full of magic. They also come directly from existing Hittite records; none of them are made up. While this might seem unbelievable to modern readers, Starkston explains that the Hittite culture is imminently well-suited for a fantasy novel.

She says, “When I decided to change the series from straight historical fiction to fantasy, it was actually really liberating. There is so much about how they view the world that is hardwired for magic.” For example, there is a detailed scene where Tesha performs a rite in a cave to banish an evil spirit, which they believed was lingering because a man was burnt to death. The entire ritual comes directly from cuneiform records. Similarly, another ritual, not used in the book but which Starkston discovered about Hittite culture, deals with disputes within a family. When such instances occur, the family would call in a priestess to heal them, believing it was an illness. The priestess would make wax tongues, the family would say the words of the argument, then spit on the wax and burn it. Based on court records, Starkston explains that this ritual and other similar ones showed that the Hittites believed words were the most powerful thing, curses were believed to be real and were feared, and correcting bad words is written into the culture. Such belief is woven into the fabric of Priestess of Ishana at every level.

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Cuneiform tablet

Another element of the book I truly loved were the mouth-watering descriptions of the food. I’m a foodie and I love to learn about new places and foods based on the books I read. Some of the foods in Priestess were made up to reinforce the fantasy elements, but overall, the foods in the book were also based on archaeological records and DNA studies of the residue from around hearths or pots, which can tell us if they contained wine, grains, cheese, and so on.

Starkston says, “Food is core to understanding a culture, so I really wanted to highlight it.” Indeed, she did. One of my favorite scenes involved Tesha and Hattu eating the stamens of large flowers in the temple. Who knew that eating flowers could be so sexy?

The flowers in this scene were made up, but the rest of the food in the same scene was not. I asked Starkston if she had ever tried making any of the recipes she had written about in the book or discovered in the historical record. Not only has she done so, she actually made a cookbook based on them. They are based on ingredients and techniques available at the time. All the recipes mentioned in her books are collected there and if you sign up for her newsletter, she will send it to you for free. I have tried some of them and I have to say, they are GOOD. My favorites are her hummus, lamb and lentil stew with raisins (though I hate raisins so I substituted with dried blueberries and it was delish), and the almond-stuffed dates. Seriously, the recipes are scrumptious and are fancy enough to impress your friends at a dinner party. That they are based on ancient recipes is just a delightful bonus for history nerds.

Starkston’s series will continue with a second novel, which I, for one, am eagerly anticipating. As yet, there is not a release date for the second book, though she says Tesha’s sister Daniti will be a point-of-view character. This will prove fascinating, as Daniti is blind, having lost her sight from chickenpox as a child. The way Starkston approaches illness and physical imperfection in the novel struck a balance between actual beliefs from antiquity. She is doing a lot of research to create as authentic a character as possible in Daniti. She says, “Since I found no evidence of how blindness might have been treated in Hittite society, or how the blind might have been viewed, I worked from close cultures like Sumerians to extrapolate. But there were split ideas toward blindness in ancient world. They were either thought to have inner visions sent by a god, like Homer’s ability, or they were thought to have a deformity or imperfection. Daniti is viewed by her father as cursed. Whatever went wrong was always the fault of the sick person, for example. So I made her an outcast, which was historically accurate, except that she and Tesha are close.”

Daniti is a strong woman, something Starkston excels at crafting. She creates women who can take on an enemy and do it without a sword. Tesha and Daniti are both women of deep strength.

Do magic and fantasy sit well together within historical fiction – indeed can such novels even be counted as historical? Should ‘historical’ be as accurate as possible without the addition of magic or obvious fantasy, or is there leeway for diversification? Should a book that is clearly fantasy in essence, but has its background of characters and general plot set very firmly within an accurately researched historical setting be considered as historical or as a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world that is very loosely based in history, and therefore have no right to be classed as ‘historical’? What actually constitutes history or fantasy, anyway? Is the merging of fantasy into history acceptable? In short, of course it is! Within the varied genres of historical fiction, is it not this diversity which makes reading novels set in the past so exciting? The accurate biographical type novels of the lives of known people (usually kings and queens, or men and women of note) is one branch of historical fiction where the known facts are imperative to ensure the overall feel of ‘believability’ is ensured. For the other genres, mysteries, thrillers, romance, timeslip, alternative, it is the depth of the background research that creates the feeling of realism. If fantasy is not acceptable for historical fiction we would be sadly deprived of many wonderful novels and series: Mary Stewart, Barbara Erskine, Du Maurier to name just three – and there would be no Outlander!

When I find an author who writes a unique story, and who does it really well, it is a delight. When that story is also based on actual fact, as Judith Starkston’s novel is, it undergoes an alchemical change from just a fun story into a jaw-dropping narrative of women in the ancient world, struggling to gain their own agency, find their strength and bravery, give love to those around them, and fulfil a destiny. It provides an insight into what life was really like and shines a light on the human condition. We can look beyond the elements of fantasy and see the real people behind the magic.

And really, isn’t that what good literature is supposed to do, be it fact or fantasy?

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Website: https://www.judithstarkston.com/

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Twitter: @JudithStarkston

Pachinko

33905162Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Allison Hiroto

Source: library

Length: 18:16:00

Publisher: Blackstone Audio

Year: 2017, listened to 7/2/18 – 7/13/18

Pachinko is a multigenerational saga about a family of Koreans who have to move to Japan because…reasons. Initially, Sunja, the beloved daughter of two older parents (older in that they were early 20s when she was born in the early 20th century), gets pregnant. Her lover, she discovers after it’s too late, already has a wife in Japan. One of the boarders at her parents’ boardinghouse, a preacher traveling to his new church, offers to marry her. She accepts and goes with him to make a new life in Japan. Together, they raise their sons in Japan and the story follows four generations of their family, navigating through wars, cultural upheaval, and constantly being viewed as outsiders even when one is born in Japan.

It’s been a really interesting read, though I am finding that I’m just not generally a fan of multigenerational narratives. Not in one book, anyway. This started out strong and then got rushed near the end, like there are too many stories, too many characters, and too much to say to give much attention to any one of them. The same thing happened with Homegoing. I loved the first half of the book and then it just got too rushed and I didn’t get to know the characters as well. I think doing multigenerational sagas over several books is a better way to go.

That said, this was an excellent read, especially the first half, and I learned a ton about Korean culture that I had no idea about before. I didn’t know so many Koreans had moved to Japan, nor that Japan had occupied Korea. Education fail in a big way! The way some of the people felt like they had to “pass” as Japanese just to be allowed to live in peace and make a life for themselves was so sad. Now I want to reread Passing.

Overall, though I had my quibbles with it, I thoroughly enjoyed Pachinko and would recommend it as an excellent and eye-opening read.

Misfortune of Time (Druid’s Brooch #6)

40176383Misfortune of Time by Christy Nicholas

I read it as an: egalley

Source: Helen Hollick at  Discovering Diamonds. 

Length: my file only gave Kindle locations, not page numbers. Super annoying.

Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing

Year: 2018

*Minor spoilers ahead. You have been warned.*

In this sixth installment of Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series, Etain, a 12th century Irish woman, has the ability not to age thanks to the magic she draws from her Druid’s brooch. The brooch is an heirloom inherited from her mother, passed down the family line, first given to her family by a Druid in thanks for saving his life. Etain is able to change her appearance at will, so she can age herself appropriately over the years, but her natural appearance is of a woman around 30 years old. In truth, she is around 150. She has had many husbands, many children, and has had to leave them all behind in her long life to avoid being discovered and killed as a witch or Fae. Her current husband, Airtre, is a mentally and physically abusive putrescence of a man, a Christian priest whose primary goal is to move up in the Church to a bishopric. Etain stays only to protect her young grandson, Maelan, from Airtre. When events explode, Etain is forced to flee, getting help from some unexpected allies, including other priests and monks, as well as a few kindly Fae.

I have read several books by Christy Nicholas, including some in the Druid’s Brooch series, and I must say I think this is my favorite one so far. The characters were all multidimensional and interesting, for the most part, and I enjoyed seeing a variety of people mingling together in the villages Etain traveled to, even if life wasn’t really like that in 12th century Ireland. I think she captured the fear and ambivalence of an abused woman well, though I hope I never truly understand that. Etain had a horrific life and it speaks to the strength of her spirit that she kept going and trying to survive rather than just giving up and letting some mad horde kill her as a witch, for the brooch can’t protect her from death.

I loved the theme of tolerance woven throughout, as well as the Gaelic hospitality. There were many instances of travelers or even old friends being offered food, drink, and washing water the moment they set foot indoors. I loved that because that’s how I was raised and it felt like home to see it reflected on the page. As well, the tolerance was a thread throughout. Etain has lived long enough to know that belief isn’t what is important, it is people who are important. She tells Maelan that “a little kindness can have unexpected rewards,” and often she herself has to remember her own lesson and take the kindness of others. Later, Maelan’s wife, Liadan, tells her, “Before I met [Aes], I didn’t realize pagans were just normal people like you and me.” Learning that people have more similarities than differences is a vital life lesson that many people today still need to learn.

The one thing I wish was different was that some of the narrative felt rushed. When Etain left Faerieland and settled in the ringfort, working in the kitchens, for example, little time was spent there, little real detail. The same happened before she entered Faerieland, when she was in the village and traded all her herbs for a cow. I wanted more detail and time spent in those places. Doing so, I feel, would give more of a sense of loss, of fatigue, because Etain was happy in both of those places and then was forced to go again. But these are minor quibbles in my overall enjoyment of this very engaging historical fantasy.

Also, it totally made me think of Dar Williams’ song The Christians and the Pagans.

A Morbid Taste For Bones

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As a die hard fan of medieval mysteries, I feel a great deal of gratitude to Ellis Peters for essentially starting the genre with this, the first entry in the Brother Cadfael series.

And what a treat it is! For a tiny book that inexplicably took me an inordinate length of time to read, this was really a fun story. Cadfael is a terrific character, full of quirks and orneriness. Love it! He’d be fun to hang out with.

The secondary characters were nicely developed. Brother John was awesome, and his minor story arc was delightful. Sioned was a strong, wonderful woman and I was glad to see her story have enough twists and turns to give her some adventure during her journey.

I liked that the bad guys weren’t so blatantly bad that Whodunnit was immediately obvious. There were some nice moral dilemmas and grey areas, which are really still relevant today.

Can’t wait to read the rest of the stories in this series.