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Royal Reading in Historical Fiction

Explorations of the lives of monarchs and rulers are among the most popular historical fiction. They include some of the most popular and celebrated titles in historical fiction. Indeed, Philippa Gregory has become a household name for chronicling of the lives of Plantagenet and Tudor royals. Given the way monarchs changed and shaped history this is perhaps unsurprising. Whether it’s the draw of all-encompassing power, the burden of national responsibility, the tangle of politics or the glamour of unending wealth, the stories of royal life are captivating. Historical fiction captures these stories with fairy tale settings but all too real characters. Here are five books to let you try on the crown for a moment, and see what it takes to rule an empire.

    The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers

    The Tudor dynasty, and especially the court of King Henry VIII, is one of the most popular periods for historical fiction. It has been the source for such culturally iconic books as The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall. Yet even among these, Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VIII stands out as a must-read for the period. George presents the story of Henry VIII in a style which she has dubbed ‘psycho biography,’ in which she creates a faux autobiography. She masterfully gets into the mind of the king and his irreverent jester, Will Somers, and allows each to tell their own story. She achieves this through extensive and detailed research. The combination makes George’s work feel like peek through the curtains of time and straight into the mind of one of history’s biggest players. Covering the entirety of Henry VIII's life in over 900 pages, The Autobiography of Henry VIII is certainly an ambitious read. But there’s no need to be intimidated, George is a master storyteller. She balances narrative and history with lively and wry tone. This makes the extensive story entertaining as well as fascinating. If you're looking to understand the mindset of a king, there's no better place to start.

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    The Last Queen

    Like The Autobiography of Henry VIII, The Last Queentakes place in the 16th century, but here we see with a very different perspective. Encompassing a vast range of European royal courts, C. W. Gortner tells the story of Queen Juana of Spain. She was the youngest sister of Catherine of Aragon, the wife of the heir of the Habsburg Empire in Flanders, and the inheritor of the throne of Spain. This placed her at the centre of a swirling battle for power with most of the monarchs around her. The slanderous ramifications of this power struggle meant that she was consigned to history as Juana the Mad. However, in The Last Queen, Gortner takes her out of the shadows and presents us with a queen with great determination to serve her country. We get to see her political and personal struggles of at the centre of a dangerous web of royal power. Gortner weaves this complex narrative through the settings of Europe's royal courts. The sombre majesty of Spain is juxtaposed against the bright and glittering courts in France and Flanders. The Last Queen illustrates the precarious position of powerful queens. It is story full of grandeur, political struggles, and personal trials.

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    The Accidental Empress

    The first of two books on the life of the Austro-Hungarian Empress Elisabeth, (known as Sisi). The Accidental Empress chronicles the life of this enchanting monarch in the early years of her courtship and marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph. Beginning in 1853, Pataki crafts the gilded world of the Golden Age of the Habsburg Empire. At the centre of it stands Sisi, disturbing the waters with her pursuit of love and acclamation. She is a richly complex character, outshining even her decorous surroundings. Indeed, even in history she stood out as a figure whose life seemed to stray into fiction. Pataki brings us through her many dilemmas: from capturing the heart of Franz Joseph while he was betrothed to her sister, to her tempestuous relationship with her aunt Archduchess Sophie, to her political ambitions and actions. The story continues in all its grandeur in the sequel Sisi: An Empress On Her Own. Sisi was a ruler who captured hearts and imaginations. Her story is filled with regal splendour and complex characters. It is an ideal read for anyone who wants to step into glittering ranks of royalty, even if just for a moment.

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    The Sunne in Splendour

    One of the most divisive and despised monarchs in English history, Richard III has long stood in the shadows of history. Sharon Kay Penman takes on the mighty task of redeeming him in her sweeping novel The Sunne in Splendour. Following his loss of The War of the Roses, and the subsequent rise of the Tudor dynasty, Richard was cast as a hunchbacked villain, scheming and murderous. This novel’s impressive research into the real history finds a very different story. Here we find in Richard, a patient and loyal leader surrounded by treachery and bloodshed. Despite the redemptive lens, Penman refrains from painting him as a perfect model of virtue. She gives him the same scrutiny she does with all the characters, showing his frailty and faults. Instead of creating cardboard figures of villainy and virtue, she embraces the complexities of life. The result of this is that readers can experience the reality of life and death in 15th century England. You can almost smell the blood on the battlefield, or hear the plotting behind closed doors. For anyone who loves to see the complexities and struggles of ruling a nation, this book is ideal. It's a fascinating look at a king whose legacy can be summed up by the old adage 'history is written by the victors.'

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    The Twentieth Wife

    There’s a long tradition of historical fiction accounts of European monarchs. However, there’s no need to be so geographically limited. There’s a whole world of regal stories to explore, and The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan is a great place to start. This book recounts the story of Indian Empress Mehrunnisa, who began life as a refugee but whose ambition and drive led her to shape the Mughal Empire. She first laid eyes on Prince Salim at his wedding celebration. She was only eight-years-old at the time but even then she determined she would marry him. Mehrunnisa then navigated through all the trials and machinations of life which stood between her and her plans. She was a master of her own destiny and for this she became a legend in her own time. It was a legacy that would be seen around the world, as her niece would later inspire the building of the Taj Mahal. Sundaresan blends this fascinating historical figure with rich, lyrical language. She paints a picture of this vast and enthralling empire in all its glamour and grittiness. This is a wonderful look at India’s rich and regal past, as well as its most captivating empress.

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