I got the feeling early on that this book really wanted to be a historical bodice-ripper, but the narrative voice of Elizabeth Woodville is so laconic, so lacking in passion, that it never quite made it. The lack of passion is especially surprising in a woman who was twice married and mother to about a dozen children. In fact, it seemed that about half her life was spent being pregnant.
Woodville was a widow with two young sons at the time that Edward IV came out on top - at least temporarily - in the cousins' war known to history as the War of the Roses. Her husband had fought and died for the Lancasters, the faction that was also supported by her family, the Riverses. Edward was, of course, a York, the other side in the war. But as the newly crowned king rides by her family's holdings, Elizabeth the Lancasterite stands by the road and asks the assistance of the Yorkist king in regaining her dowry lands that have been taken from her. Elizabeth is a beautiful woman and the king is very susceptible to beautiful women.
Theirs is a story of "love at first sight" and even though Elizabeth is a commoner and the king is expected to marry a princess to help secure his realm, the two do, in fact, marry in secret and Edward returns to his war. The war never really ends in all the years covered by this tale, but there are at least brief periods of peace. In one such period, Edward acknowledges Elizabeth as his wife and she is crowned as queen. In her new position of power, she immediately sets about putting members of her family into advantageous marriages and powerful offices which will further tighten their holds on the reins of government and the treasury of the kingdom.
Elizabeth's real passion, it seems, is for the advancement of her family. She spins her webs of schemes and conspiracies to try to ensure that that happens. But others are spinning, too. When it comes to gaining and holding the throne, there is no honor among the schemers, even when they are brothers.
The end of the story is well-known. Edward dies and leaves his brother Richard as the guardian and Protector of the Realm for his son and heir, Edward, and his younger son Richard. But Duke Richard proves false and sends young Edward to the Tower of London for safekeeping. Elizabeth is instructed to send her son Richard along, too, to be with his brother, but Philippa Gregory gives the story a twist just here and we are left with the possibility that perhaps at least one of the boys survived. In truth, of course, historians have puzzled over the fate of the two little princes for more than five hundred years. No one really knows what happened. Perhaps Gregory's story makes as much sense as any.
The stories of the Plantagenets have inspired writers from Shakespeare's day to the present, but they have mostly told the tales from the perspectives of the men involved. Gregory takes the distaff side and gives us a glimpse of the strong and determined women behind the constantly warring men. While her writing might not quite rise to the level of "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" it's still a rousing good tale.