Review of BRAZEN by KATHERINE LONGSHORE
(review based on an advance reading copy)
I declare this novel...delicious! I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Katherine Longshore, especially her young adult Tudor books, but this one wins the prize for my favorite of her novels so far. In BRAZEN we follow the lesser known historical figure Mary Howard from the day of her marriage to Henry FitzRoy. (Though a bride, she’s still only fourteen years old.)
I couldn’t resist using the word “delicious” in describing BRAZEN, because Mary associates emotions and words with food and taste. Time and again, she describes her feelings through flavors and she informs her husband that every word has a taste. This technique might sound a little gimmicky, but I’m bursting with admiration for how well Longshore pulls it off. I don’t connect emotion and taste the way Mary does, but every single one of her “food-for-feelings” metaphors feels so precisely on the mark it’s like Mary’s showing me something I’ve been looking at every single day without noticing.
BRAZEN hooks with what sounds like a somewhat silly, superficial but nonetheless entertaining premise: Mary wants to sleep with her own husband and isn’t allowed. (Don’t misunderstand me, though, with the word “silly”: the book had me from page 1.) I loved BRAZEN for it’s sweet romance and amusing politics long before it turned a corner into something far more serious. That switch won’t be a huge surprise to anyone who has studied history, whether Henry VIII or history in general. Even Mary’s entertaining ambition to seduce her own husband only thinly veils the more sinister concept of power; the king wants control over everything and that includes everyone. Though most modern readers will agree with his ruling that Mary and Fitz are too young for consummating their marriage, humor turns to horror at the thought that a woman kissing her own husband could be considered treason and worthy of a death sentence. Before long this amusing tale about a teenage girl desperate for a kiss from her own husband turns into an empowering and affecting story of personal growth.
I liked Mary’s description of the historical figure Thomas Cromwell. She says he makes her feel safe and sabotaged all at once and through Longshore’s portrayal you can easily imagine how he coaxes seemingly innocent information from one source and then another before stitching it all together into a more menacing retelling than any one individual implied.
I have read numerous novels about Anne Boleyn, including Longshore’s own TARNISH, but none has made me feel her inevitable death more than BRAZEN. Longshore may have laid some of the groundwork in TARNISH by presenting a younger Anne Boleyn that I loved and wanted to protect, so in BRAZEN I juxtaposed that trapped teenage girl against the angry, bitter woman Mary sees. Anne retains much of her rumored flair for drama, but rather than appearing the manipulative vixen she strikes me as a terrified young woman. As Mary observes, Anne knows a fight for the king’s affection is a fight for her own survival. I knew it was coming and still felt utterly gut-wrenched by her downfall.
As always, I also enjoy and recommend reading the author’s note at the end about fact vs. fiction: what really happened and where Longshore filled in blanks or altered history to serve her own novel.
I found the romance simply wonderful. Fitz might be quite unlikely for a man from his time period (very progressive, especially in regards to women’s rights), but he’s swoon-worthy nonetheless. Though married and playing the parts of adults in court, both Fitz and Mary remain realistically shy, uncertain teenagers discovering their own priorities and passions in a big, complicated world.
Aside from the romantic relationship, Longshore has envisioned a strong friendship between Mary and two other young women at court: Margaret Douglas and Madge Shelton, both real historical figures. This trio sometimes possesses a powerful, fierce bond while other times that image frays to nothing more than a pretense of friendship in an environment overflowing with rivalry.
I’ve liked everything I’ve read by Katherine Longshore so far, especially her Tudor novels, but this one impressed me more than any of the others. An addictive, moving read of top quality.