The King’s Concubine
Set in England in 1362, The King’s Concubine is the story of Alice Perrers, the infamous mistress of King Edward the Third. She rose from humble beginnings to become rich and powerful especially after the death of Phillippa of Hainault, Edward’s beloved wife. Pride, of course, comes before a fall, and being a royal favourite has always been a precarious position. Her lack of family and even beauty, according to the story, were never going to help her appeal to the nobles and courtiers of the time. The accusation of “witch” is touched upon, a dangerously easy claim to make in those times against a woman who is successful on her own terms.
O’Brien does a great job of fleshing out one of history’s shadowy characters and giving her the benefit of the doubt. Perrers’ traditional reputation for being grasping and avaricious are here given a gloss of feminist desire for independence and an understandable yearning for security for herself and the children she has with the king. The parts where Perrers falls in love and marries secretly are perhaps the least convincing, and the reader is keen to return to the king and the court, perhaps as keen as Alice herself.
The cover claims that O’Brien is better than Phillippa Gregory, and on this evidence, the claim is not far wide of the mark. Certainly if you like the novels of the one, you are virtually guaranteed to enjoy the books of the other. A great addition to the growing list of excellent historical fiction writers who manage to combine meticulous research with imagination and storytelling verve.