The King’s Sisters

Written by Sarah Kennedy
Review by Terri Baker

This is the latest instalment in a trilogy, after The Altarpiece and City of Ladies, which follows the challenges faced by Catherine Havens, originally a nun, just as Henry VIII initiates the English Reformation and closes all the monasteries and convents. Although the only sister to King Henry is Anne of Cleves, because of her designation as “The King’s Beloved Sister” after Henry rejects her, the other royal sisters in the story are Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. Catherine, having spent most of her time at Hatfield House with Mary and Elizabeth in City of Ladies, is now in charge of meals and wellness at the residence of Anne of Cleves, where tension spikes after Henry’s fifth queen, Catherine Howard, is beheaded. The King’s spies are everywhere, including in Anne’s house, and are closing in on the former nun for her mysterious healing practices.

Kennedy’s background as a scholar of the Early Modern period and a published poet are evident in the well-crafted prose and evocative setting. Although she has admirable backbone and clever wit, Catherine makes errors in judgement about fleeing Anne’s house before she finds herself and her companion, Ann, imprisoned. Catherine hopes her new lover, Benjamin, will be able to arrange for her release, but finds the lawyer he sends to her untrustworthy. Benjamin is an example of how the male characters in Kennedy’s novel are contradictory yet flat. (In addition, in City of Ladies, Benjamin crosses the line between a respectfully caring friend of Catherine’s husband and someone who tries to manipulate her into an affair with him.) Catherine, who seems to be constantly putting her young daughter into someone else’s care while solving problems, sometimes comes across as argumentative and lacking an emotional connection to her children. The characters could be fleshed out better, but the writing style and representation of 16th-century England are well done.