A few years back, I overdosed on Tudor fiction, but in recent months I’ve been craving the drama, court intrigue, and ever-present bedroom battles that come along with Henry VIII and his wives. What I like about THE TUDOR SECRET is that it isn’t told from the perspective of the royal household, but from a 20-year-old with a blank past who is unceremoniously thrown into court life with the intent of letting it devour him.
Brendan Prescott knows nothing of his past other than he was abandoned as a baby, and Mistress Alice, a woman who worked as a maid for the wealthy Dudley household, raised him. A child with no background or family, he knows only too well his lowly place in the household and society at large. His hopes rise no higher than someday being a squire or a steward, and even those positions don’t hold much interest for him. He would rather spend his days in the barn with the horses. When he is called to court by Lady Dudley to be a squire to her oldest son, Robert, his hopes of a peaceful life among horses are forgotten.
Knowing nothing of court life and with no one willing to teach him, he is left alone among the court sharks looking to use him for their own gain, his Master Robert included. Robert promptly engages Brendan in court escapades that involve setting up a liaison with Princess Elizabeth, with whom he is in love. Brendan manages to find the Princess and deliver the message, but he slowly begins to understand that nothing about court life is ever secret. Pulled unwillingly into a spy ring, Brendan becomes privy to the lives of his masters in ways he never imagined and ends up a double agent working not only for Master Robert but also to keep Princess Elizabeth safe and help her sister, Mary, become Queen.
It is Brendan’s past, though, that keeps him involved long after he wants nothing more than to walk away. He wants to know who abandoned him that night so long ago, but his real concern is for the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth. They are targets of people who want nothing more than to overthrow them and convince their brother Edward that neither are true heirs to the throne.
Court intrigue and espionage are always terms that are mandatory when talking about the Tudors. The spying, backstabbing and face-to-face pleasantries while secretly whispering lies behind a person’s back are well-known traits of this family and the court they created. It’s also what makes them all so much fun to read about. The fodder they have provided for future generations is enormous, and I think that’s why, while I might need a break to recover from the tension of crown politics, I never entirely tire of the Tudors. C.W. Gortner zeroes in on this tension, and the moment that Brendan arrives at court, he starts to ramp it up, making you turn pages and wanting desperately to know what comes next. Telling the story from an outsider’s point of view also makes the character of Elizabeth much more interesting. She’s well-known but an enigma to Brendan, which adds freshness to a character who can feel stiff and sometimes a little standoffish.
Covering about two weeks worth of time, the story does feel a bit forced in places, though, and in particular Brendan, who, while understanding nothing of the Tudor court, manages to become involved and an integral part of a spy ring. He blunders too much in the beginning, and to see him mature so quickly and in a mere matter of days feels unlikely. But he’s somehow still very likable, and that’s what makes it work. He doesn’t immediately grasp the implications of every move made at court, and that sets him apart from the others and you can’t help but side with him. If you’re looking for a book that will pull you back into the Tudors, this one is a good choice.
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on March 28, 2011