Gregory’s new one is ambitious but under-juiced

THE LADY OF THE RIVERS
BY PHILLIPPA GREGORY
Simon & Schuster, £7.99

PHILIPPA Gregory’s success has been built upon portraying women that have remained on history’s periphery – notably Mary, sister of Anne Boleyn in 2002’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, in 2009’s The Red Queen. Both have enjoyed roaring success and have afforded Gregory the ability to stick to a recognisable plot while allowing for creativity in filling in the gaps.

The Lady of The Rivers is a continuation of this – following Jacquetta of Luxembourg – the lead lady-in-waiting to King Henry the VI and his queen during the turbulent early 15th Century. Unlike Gregory’s other novels which focus on a set time period or particular court event, The Lady of The Rivers covers almost the entire life of Jacquetta.

The Other Boleyn Girl’s success was born of blushing ladies, hopelessly horny men and plenty of Medieval sex happening in Renaissance drawing rooms, all told by a charmingly innocent courtier who spends half her time rolling around in bed with Henry VIII and half the time watching her sister doing the same.

The Lady Of The Rivers struggles with this. One cannot help thinking that Gregory has tried to fit too much life into one novel, at the expense of detail. There are three marriages and 18 births in the book, and barely a single sex scene. The frustration of the Queen in having a husband disinterested in procreation quickly becomes keenly felt by the reader.

The lead character Jacquetta has two husbands, witnesses affairs, paternity debates, murders, impotence, casual witchcraft, three battles, a rape and a couple of conspiracies all with a kind of opiate calm. Throughout this she manages to have babies like its going out of fashion (without apparently having sex) as well as finding time to fit in a couple of otherworldly visions. One would think such a lady would have some pretty interesting takes on the factional world of the court around her – Gregory’s Anne and Mary Boleyn certainly did- but instead most of her time is spent missing her husband.

The Lady Of The Rivers is undoubtedly an ambitious attempt to document an entire reign the eyes of one courtier of whom little historical fact is known. However there is a sense that this could have been a lot more fun. Fans of Gregory will like the consistent plot momentum and the sheer amount of events that occur chapter on chapter – but one cannot help feel that while most novels are criticised for being sensationalist, this one just isn’t sensationalist enough.
Alasdair Byers

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING MYRTLE
BY ULRIKA JONSSON
Penguin, £6.99

WITH her dramatic life story lived through turbulent relationships with, err, less than straightforward men, one might have expected Ulrika Jonsson to have launched her novel-writing career with a book containing more smut, more glamour, more…sex. But her debut – which, by the way, isn’t that bad – is about a middle-aged woman called Myrtle whose quiet life – and that of her family – is disrupted when her husband and the family’s patriarch Austin suddenly dies.

As the story continues, it turns out that poor old Myrtle was trapped in a loveless marriage and that noble Austin was perhaps not the saint he first appears to be – indeed that he is something of a controlling nightmare. Don’t expect punch-ups, rather this is (something of) a study in emotional abuse.

Written with the odd shred of wit, Ms Jonsson has created a convincingly non-autobiographical novel that – while it won’t set the world alight – should make for a fine diversion. If you happen to have a deeper interest in Jonsson herself, however, this book won’t provide you with too many clues into her inner life.
ZS

A DENIABLE DEATH
BY GERLAD SEYMOUR
Hodder, £12.99

GERALD Seymour is considered the dabbest hand in the industry – a little more mainstream than John Le Carre, perhaps, but still a master who executes his spy tales of murderous and political intrigue with rigour and flair. Having already tackled war criminals in Yugoslavia and British suicide bombers, Seymour is now onto a bomb-maker in Iraq, a man on whom MI6 have their eyes most studiously trained – his assassination being top priority. Of course, he dwells in one of the least accessible, surveillance friendly parts of souther Iraq..

But what are called Covert Rural Observation Posts (CROPs) are crucial to MI6, and those who use them face the hellish conditions of swamps swarming with mosquitos and worse. One officer, called Gribbons, must select two men for this grisly mission. From their dire outpost, they are expected to gather information on the bomb specialist before they escape to the border. This is the deniable mission in question – since it can have no official sanction – and it’s made even more challenging by the intense enmity between the two men.

Seymour is a master at evoking the seemingly unchartable terrain of foreign landscapes – as a former reporter covering wars in Vietnam, Northern Ireland and Borneo, he brings to bear some very pertinent experience. His research into the espionage world is meticulous. Splendid stuff.
ZS