The King’s Sister
The King’s Sister is a novel about forbidden love, the ties of family and choices with the potential to impact on history. It tells the story of Elizabeth of Lancaster, cousin to Richard II and sister to Henry IV. Elizabeth begins the book as the sheltered and self-centred daughter to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Her romantic dreams are initially dashed on entry to the adult world of politics. However, she quickly begins a dangerous flirtation with Sir John Holland, the charismatic and ambitious half-brother to Richard II.
The first half of the novel follows the passionate and often difficult relationship between Elizabeth and John, their defiance against her father and the bond that they build together. But then Richard exiles Elizabeth’s brother Henry, which eventually leads Henry into rebellion and a bid for the throne. The novel then turns to the emotional conflict this inflicts upon John and Elizabeth. Both have loyalties to their own brother yet neither wants to betray their love for each other. And both know that the choices they face have potentially devastating consequences.
O’Brien’s depiction of 14th-century court life is evocative, and the burgeoning love affair between Elizabeth and John is highly enjoyable. John’s true character remains elusive for much of the novel, which successfully creates tension and interest. In contrast, Elizabeth’s character is drawn less subtly, and as a result, she appears to veer several times between extreme political naivety and equally strong astuteness. Whilst this is initially credible in a selfish and romantic 17-year-old, it becomes less convincing as the novel goes on. This becomes especially important because it is also central to the novel’s emotional climax.
Despite this, there is plenty to enjoy in this romantic and moving account of tangled loyalties and impossible choices. Have tissues handy.