Naïve and vulnerable, Bess Holland is easily charmed by the Duke of Norfolk, doing his bidding in exchange for gifts and adoration. For years, she and Elizabeth compete for his affections. But they are mere spectators to an obsession neither can rival: Norfolk's quest to weave the Howard name into the royal bloodline. The women's loyalties are tested as his schemes unfold--among them the litigious marriage of his niece, Anne Boleyn, to King Henry the VIII. But in an age of ruthless beheadings, no self-serving motive goes unpunished--and Elizabeth and Bess will have to fight a force more sinister than the executioner's axe...
Told from the alternating viewpoints of the three main characters, D.L. Bogdan's Rivals in the Tudor Court follows the lives of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, his second wife Elizabeth Stafford, daughter of the powerful Duke of Buckingham, and his mistress Bess Holland. While Thomas Howard is often featured in Henry VIII-era historical fiction, he is rarely featured quite as prominently as he is in this novel. His wife and mistress, on the other hand, make only brief appearances (if any) in Tudor-era historical fiction. As a result, Bogdan delivers a unique perspective on the people and events that helped shape and define the Tudor-era.
The primary strength of this novel rests with the story itself, which kept me engaged for the duration of the book. Bogdan's characterizations are also particularly well done, especially that of Thomas Howard who, although easy to dislike for his cruelty to his wife, also manages to come across as a sympathetic figure. Elizabeth Stafford is portrayed as an intelligent young woman who deserved much better from her husband, while Bess Holland's naivety shines through. I also liked the way Anne Plantagenet, Thomas Howard's first wife, was portrayed as having an other-worldly air about her. Whether or not this is an accurate portrayal of Anne Plantagenet, it does make her a memorable character. The main weakness of the book, at least from my perspective, lies in the ending, which I felt too rushed and short of much needed detail. For example, given his life was a big focus of the novel, the lack of attention to Thomas Howard's fall from grace was somewhat surprising, and I was a little disappointed this it didn't receive more coverage in the book. It is my hope that this topic is covered in more depth in Bogdan's earlier novel, Secrets of the Tudor Court, which features Thomas Howard and Elizabeth Stafford's daughter Mary as the central character. Lastly, I wish the novel had included an author's note. While I'm familiar with the time period in which this novel is set, I know little beyond the basics of Thomas Howard and next to nothing about Elizabeth Stafford or Bess Holland. For this reason I would have appreciated a note explaining where the author deviated from known fact.
Overall, I feel the strengths of the story and characterizations outweigh any of the novel's weaknesses and is well worth a read, especially for fans of Tudor-era historical fiction.
Note: I won a copy of this novel courtesy of Historical Tapestry and author D.L. Bogdan.