Strange title, great novel

It wasn't too long ago that A Reader's Respite was all a-twitter over Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning historical fiction novel, Wolf Hall.  Truly, we loved that book (review here).  This was historical fiction for the *serious* historical fiction fanatic.

And never did we imagine that we would run into it's rival so soon.  But it's Robert Parry has written a whopper of a tale entitled Virgin and the Crab.  Yes, the title vaguely suggested some weird venereal disease, but A Reader's Respite has never let a strange title deter us where historical fiction is concerned.

Parry's tome (it weighs in around 490 pages) centers around the long-term friendship of 16th century scholar John Dee with Queen Elizabeth I and the important role he played in her ascent to the throne of England.

The novel opens a short time after the death of Henry VIII and the young, sickly Edward VI has ascended the throne.  Like Wolf Hall, a myriad of familiar characters fade in and out of the scenery....their characterizations are nothing short of masterful.

Edward VI.  Poor kid, he never stood a chance....

Young Edward's uncles and puppet-masters, Edward and Thomas Seymour are vying for control of the sickly, pubescent King while a young John Dee cements his deep friendship with Elizabeth and begins his meteoric rise in academia.  While the Seymour brothers will both meet an untimely end, it is Thomas, "a man of much wit but very little judgement," who will compromise young Elizabeth's reputation and put her through the first of her many tribulations on the road to becoming England's greatest Queen.

Parry writes what is perhaps the best dramatization of Elizabeth's complex relationship with Robert Dudley , her future Master of the Horse and the subject of much did-they-or-didn't-they speculation ("one might wonder just whose side he is on").  But Dudley's formative years are just as compelling as Elizabeth's.

the dashing young Dudley

As the son of the powerful Duke of Northumberland, a man whose "...rise to power has not been matched by his intellect or willingness to listen to reason," Robert had good reason to fear for his life.  Both his father and his brother Guilford, the unwitting husband of poor little Jane Grey (she of the legendary nine-day rule of England) would be executed for treason.  Parry draws a vivid portrait of a time in England when any given man (or woman, for that matter) could find themselves on the wrong side of the executioner's ax at the mere whim of some very unstable minds who wielded religion as a weapon.

After the Protestant King Edward's early demise, an unstable monarchy would teeter even further with all of England paying the price.  His elder sister Mary took the throne and did her best to restore Catholicism to England.  And while her reign would last little more than five years, the turbulence brought with it must have made those five years seem like a lifetime to Elizabeth, who lived under the constant fear of a traitor's death.

poor Mary, she really did get a bad historical rap, didn't she?

Parry excels at conveying the confusion and fear caused by these so-called Reformations and Counter-Reformations. Mary proceeded to sink into apparent madness and simultaneously earned her famous historical moniker, Bloody Mary, as she began burning various Protestants at the stake for their heresy ("Latin is the language of those who rule our consciences.").

Although we all know that Elizabeth will indeed eventually succeed to the throne and usher in the Golden Age of England, Parry reminds us she did not do so single-handedly.  One of the most enigmatic characters to grace the pages of this novel is none other than William Cecil, the future chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth and a great friend of John Dee.  Both were instrumental to Elizabeth's survival during the reign of her sister. Cecil's character is circumspect and wise in the matters of State, but also provides unexpected humor in tense times:

'Nonsense.  And anyway, are you suggesting I know nothing about fighting?  Is that it?  Just because I'm a lawyer.  I'll have you know, Dee, my grandfather fought at the battle of Bosworth Field in fourteen eighty five.'

'Oh wonderful!' Dee exclaims.  'Do you think he might be persuaded to come with us?'

As for John Dee himself, he makes for a very sympathetic and compelling protagonist when viewed from 21st century eyes.  A man of science and learning, Dee was also - as most learned men of that time were - an astrologist.  Monarchs put great store by the heavens in the 16th century and respected men like Dee were often employed to use his knowledge of astrology to choose times for important events, such as royal weddings or coronations.

He was also a man after every book-lover's heart:  he possessed the largest personal library in England.  Bibliophiles everywhere will recognize Dee's personal triumph as he passes by "...the numerous printers and booksellers clustered around the walls of the church yard, and resisting just for once the lure of the printed word..."  *Sigh*  Bibliophiles really are still alike, even five centuries later.

If you were a fan of Mantel's Wolf Hall, A Reader's Respite won't hesitate to recommend this gem of a novel to you.  Like Mantel's prize-winning novel, Virgin and the Crab is best enjoyed by the seasoned Tudor reader who possesses at least a cursory knowledge of the characters who flit in and out of the pages.  We suspect that it won't be long before a big-name publisher snaps up this novel (are you listening, big-name publishers?) and you start hearing historical fiction fanatics buzzing.

FTC Notice:  Okay FTC, this is the part where A Reader's Respite lets everyone know that our copy of this novel came from the author himself.  A fabulous book sent to us directly from it's author....don't begrudge us this rare pleasure.


A Reader's Respite loved this book so much that we were reluctant to part with it (this is one novel that will stand up for re-reads).  But being a true historical fiction lover, we're compelled to share something so enjoyable with our fellow aficionados out there.  So if you love Tudor historical fiction, leave us a comment saying so and we'll draw a random winner to receive our copy of Virgin and the Crab on March 5.  All comers welcome!

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