Hannah Green is no ordinary 14 year old. She and her father are Jews escaping from the Spanish Inquisition and looking for a better life in England and she has the gift of Sight, which allows her to predict the future. A chance encounter with Robert Dudley, a noble at the court of King Edward, takes her from her father's humble print shop to the royal palace where she becomes the Holy Fool, a trusted companion of the Tudor queen and a spy for the Dudleys. Torn between her obligations at court and her family and heritage Hannah will become a woman like no other in the tumultuous years when the Tudor offspring fought for the throne.
This is the second book I've read by Philippa Gregory and the first one was so long ago that I've all but forgotten how enjoyable her books are. So enjoyable, in fact, that I didn't want this story to end and stretched out reading it as much as I could.
There is a very clear evolution of the main character from a girl who is afraid of her own shadow into a young woman who knows her own mind and can act decisively on a moment's notice. Hannah's fear of being discovered for who she really was at a time when being a Jew was most dangerous is almost palpable. The circumstances have made her into a habitual liar and it is easy to understand the cynicism of this young girl - she's seen the wind change so many times that she very clearly understand that more often than not what the right answer is depends on who is asking the questions and she has grown bitter at her heritage for preventing her from having a peaceful life. It was heartening however to see her lose neither the sight of who she was nor her appreciation of the people around her for what they brought to the table as her fear became less paralyzing.
One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction so much is that it gives us a glimpse of what happened decades and centuries before our time in a voice very different from the dull monotone of history books. If the author has done her homework and unless she takes serious liberties with the course of history we get a very good ideas of the events that took place and the people involved. Gregory's mastery is revealed in the fact that I trust every word she writes. I can't help but believe that Mary, Elizabeth, the Dudleys, the Carpenters and the rest really were exactly the way Gregory portrays them and that it couldn't be any other way. It was also very interesting to gain the insight into not only the English court but also the clandestine Jewish community of XVI century Europe. Persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants, forced to hide who they were no matter where they went but not giving up on their heritage and their faith these people showed true courage and resilience in the face of the threat of death at every turn.
There were only two things that I didn't like about the book. One has to do with the plot and to stay true to my "no spoilers" policy I won't go into details. I will only say that what happened seemed unfair and that there was a double standard when actions of characters were evaluated. Another has to do with character development, so here I will elaborate. At one point Hannah talks about how the cattiness at court prepared her to deal with the relationships outside of it and the problem was that we didn't see any of her interaction with any courtiers besides the Dudleys and Will Sommers, the other royal Fool, and there was no animosity there. As soon as I read this little bit I knew that there was no support for it anywhere else in the narrative and while it made sense that courtiers competing for position were no angels it still jarred me out of the story.
These two things are by no means deal breakers and The Queen's Fool put Philippa Gregory on my list of authors to follow and I would recommend her books without reservation to any fan of historical fiction or anyone who wants to "test-drive" the genre.