Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Narrative Viewpoint & The White Queen (plus a book review too!)

After finishing The White Queen on Starz, a show I really enjoyed, I picked up the novel by Philippa Gregory on which the show’s based. The Starz series stayed true to the novel, The White Queen, with a few significant exceptions, namely a very real difference in the stories’ narrative points of view.
The cover of my edition
Having read the novel after watching The White Queen on Starz, it’s difficult for me to comment on the book without drawing certain comparisons between the two. The novel is set during The War of the Roses and tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, a widow and minor noblewoman, loyal to the House of Lancaster, who falls in love with the young York king Edward IV and improbably becomes queen of England. Her marriage to Edward ignites a bitter conflict with his mentor, the Earl of Warwick (known as the “Kingmaker,” since he put Edward on the throne), who feels betrayed after arranging Edward’s marriage to a French princess.

Edward’s brother George is none too happy about the situation either, and ultimately he joins forces with Warwick against the king. And then there’s Edward’s brother Richard—the famed number III of Shakespeare’s play—who also has a claim to the throne, and together, the three of them comprise the novel’s antagonists. While the events in the book track those of the show, the novel concludes a bit earlier, before the Battle of Bosworth Field between Henry Tudor and Richard III for England’s throne. 
Richard III - According to Shakespeare
The first thing that struck me is that the novel is written in the first person point-of-view. This means that (theoretically) every scene is supposed to be from Elizabeth’s viewpoint. So, unlike the show, there are no scenes from the viewpoint of Warwick’s daughters, Anne and Isabel Neville (though Ms. Gregory did write a separate novel about them called The Kingmaker’s Daughter). Nor are there any scenes from Margaret Beaufort’s point of view. In fact, Margaret is a bit character in the novel, and her most significant interaction is by way of a letter to Elizabeth near the story’s end (although Margaret also has her own book by Ms. Gregory, titled The Red Queen). 
Well cast - He's a threatening character in The White Queen!
Another downside to the use of first-person point-of-view is that most of the battles involving Edward are not scenes. All we get is news of the battle as it’s relayed to Elizabeth. One exception is Edward’s battle against Warwick, where the author jarringly switches to third person point-of-view, since Elizabeth is far away at Westminster Abbey. It’s as if the author realized halfway through that her chosen viewpoint was too limiting, so she just tossed out the rules on point-of-view and kept on going. I will say that the first-person viewpoint seriously enhanced the scenes where Elizabeth and her children are living in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. In those scenes, the reader really feels Elizabeth’s tension and fear, especially as to Richard, who turns out to be a ruthless and threatening antagonist. Indeed, the sanctuary scenes during the time of the Princes in the Tower are so well written that I increased my rating of the novel.
The Poor Princes in the Tower
The second thing that struck me is that this novel, beyond any doubt, is a work of historical fantasy. Elizabeth, her mother, and her siblings are Burgundians who supposedly descended from the river goddess Melusina. In fact, in the novel, there are frequent intervals where Melusina’s story is told (she’s a figure of European folklore that seems to have inspired the tale of The Little Mermaid, as best I can tell, since she’s a half woman, half fish who becomes human for a man’s love). By calling upon the goddess’s power, Elizabeth and her mother (and later her daughter) are able to work magic, usually by conjuring violent storms that wreak havoc on their enemies and drive the outcome of major historical events. I adored this aspect of the book because I love historical fantasy that stays true to history, but isn’t afraid to add a bit of magic or mysticism too. 
This is why I love historical fantasy - and sometimes drink Dos Equis!
Overall, I found The White Queen to be every bit as good as the show, if not better in some respects. I’m glad I read it, and I’m curious to read more novels in The Cousins’ War series.

P.S. – If you liked the theme song to The White Queen series, it’s available on iTunes. (Yes, I’m a proud owner and frequent listener!) And as for Melusina, well, she’s apparently the inspiration for Starbuck’s logo. Yes, she may have influenced significant battles in The War of the Roses, but she also brews damn good Sumatra coffee!

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