The Winter Queen
Ever since Susan Sontag's 1992 novel The Volcano Lover, serious writers have reclaimed historical romances from the dollar-a-page hacks whose books feature likenesses of Fabio on their covers, transforming the genre into one that raises profound questions without sacrificing too much bodice-ripping sex. Last year saw the publication of at least two literate and challenging historical romances: Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White. Jane Stevenson's The Winter Queen now joins them, equal to both in ambition and execution. Stevenson, whose previous books--Several Deceptions, a dazzling collection of novellas, and London Bridges, a wonderfully humane and deliciously erudite mystery--have established her as a fearsomely talented and protean writer.
In The Winter Queen, Stevenson journeys back to 17th-century Holland, re-creating a world of religious conflict, imperial aspirations, and court intrigues. At the center of her tale are the English-born Elizabeth of Bohemia, exiled in the Netherlands after the subjugation of Protestant Bohemia by the Holy Roman Empire, and Pelagius, an African-born prince and ex-slave who has come to Europe to become a minister and a doctor of theology. After the death of his patron and former master, Pelagius finds that he can pay his room and board by emulating the oracles of his father's court. Reconciling his Christianity with his pagan past by recalling the works of the Biblical prophets, he achieves renown as a seer and is eventually summoned to Elizabeth's manor, where she is foreseeing her son's success at raising an army to reclaim their throne and further the Protestant cause. The two ex-monarchs see the still vital nobility--of character if not of social status--in the other and soon fall in love.
Through stunning, evocative descriptions of the Lowlands landscape, the bustling and industrious towns, the elegant estates of the wealthy with their tapestries and paintings, and meals both lavish and mean, Stevenson has created a world that feels lived in. And her characters have all the personality and vitality of the figures in a Breughel painting. Pelagius, who could easily have become an idealized "other" is instead a fully realized character who carries with him the weight of history, both personal and epochal, yet finds joy in his love for Elizabeth, in his scholarship, and in riding. Sweeping yet intimate, The Winter Queen is both full of feeling and packed with ideas, foremost of which is the nature of duty, be it spiritual, political, familial, or emotional.