This alternate history novel takes us back to Tudor England’s royal family in the mid-sixteenth century. In reality, Anne Boleyn bore a female child to King Henry VIII. Unable to produce a male heir and accused of adultery, Anne was beheaded along with members of her family. Ultimately, her child became Queen Elizabeth I.
But what if Anne had borne a male child as well? How would events have played out differently? This is the conceit of The Boleyn King, a first novel by Laura Andersen. She’s been compared to Alison Weir, but Weir’s Plantagenet novels about the princes in the tower and Eleanor of Aquitaine are real history. Andersen’s book is alternate history, a respected sub-category of science fiction.
Given this premise, Anne Boleyn is not beheaded, and her son William becomes a king known as Henry IX. In the narrative, Henry VIII is dead. Anne Boleyn survives, although her character has only a minor role. The real teenage King Edward VI is never born because Henry never married his mother, Jane Seymour. And the brutal debacle of Lady Jane Gray never takes place. I had to look up my Tudor history several times while reading this book just to keep the characters straight.
The Boleyn King is written in modern English which makes things easier. There are some archaic spellings in letters, diary entries, and official proclamations, but these pop up only occasionally. Because of the language and the fact that the main characters are in their teens or early twenties, this book is clearly aimed at young adult readers.
The thrust of the narrative is carried by two fictional characters: Dominic Courtenay, a loyal courtier, later a soldier of the king, and Genevieve Wyatt, known as Minuette, a lady-in-waiting, later a spy. By the end of the book their future as a romantic couple is uncertain.
As loyal subjects, Dominic and Minuette work to sustain the English Protestant Reformation begun by Henry VIII. There is a danger of a Catholic counter-reformation personified by Henry’s daughter Princess Mary, a real figure later known as Bloody Mary. The highly political Catholic movement of both France and Spain represented a genuine danger of war.
Reading alternate history can be a challenge. It’s a mix of fictional characters interacting with real historical figures, some of whom do things they never actually did. The Boleyn King accomplishes this deftly and is easy to read. In the end, for history to get back on track, something has to happen to the fictional King Henry IX so the real-life Princess Elizabeth can become queen.
Minuette is charged with retrieving a document called The Penitent’s Confession which in the wrong hands would call into question the legitimacy of the king. Palace intrigue is at the center of the novel’s action. The Boleyn King ends with matters unresolved. Part Two of the trilogy, The Boleyn Deceit, comes out in November.
One final note about the name Boleyn. Shakespeare, writing half a century later spelled it “Bullen.” The actor Charles Laughton who portrayed King Henry VIII so memorably on at least two occasions, pronounced it “Bullen.” I let the reader be guided by these precedents. I recommend The Boleyn King to readers who like to have a little fun with history, but watch out for the cliffhanger ending.
– Dan Erwine