Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl, continues her saga of the War of the Roses with a fictional biography of Margaret Beaufort, the grandmother of King Henry VIII. Three decades of wars between the Houses of York and Lancaster ended when Margaret's son, Henry Tudor, killed Richard III in 1485 and married his niece, joining the two families.
After a half-dozen novels focusing on the Tudor dynasty, Gregory stepped back into England's medieval period last year with The White Queen, about Elizabeth Woodville, matriarch of the House of York. The Red Queen is a companion to that novel, covering the same period from a different perspective. It starts when mad King Henry VI marries Margaret, his 12-year-old cousin, to his half brother, Edmund Tudor, who is twice her age. Their son, born while Margaret is still a child, comes just as the wars are starting. She vows he will become king and spends the next several decades plotting to return England to her family's control.
Gregory's Margaret is an egomaniac who believes herself chosen by God and aspires to be a holy warrior like Joan of Arc. Edmund dies quickly, and Margaret's mother marries her off to another English lord. When he, too, is killed in the wars, she marries treacherous Thomas Stanley, who will turn the tide of battle in her son's favor.
There are moments when Margaret could be a sympathetic character: Married at 12, she's raped repeatedly by a husband intent on producing a potential heir to the throne. Having endured an agonizing birth at the hands of inept midwives, she can't conceive again.
But Gregory goes against the grain. Her Margaret is self-absorbed, cold and grandiose in her ambitions. She sacrifices her relationship with the one person she might love, her brother-in-law Jasper Tudor, to marry and plot with Stanley.
Although Margaret is a sour pill, Gregory's novel is not. She brings fresh insight to English history, re-creating the power struggle between two of the nation's most notable women.