The Shadow Queen
The Shadow Queen tells the story of Joan, Fair Maid of Kent, a Plantagenet princess who shocked medieval Europe with her marital exploits and went on to become mother to King Richard II of England. As cousin to King Edward III, Joan grows up at court and falls in love with the handsome, but relatively obscure, knight Thomas Holland. She defies her family to marry him in secret but then, pressured by their expectations, she contracts a bigamous marriage with the powerful Earl of Salisbury.
Thomas and Joan’s story, as they battle against the royal family to win recognition of the first, earlier marriage, is told by O’Brien with compassion and imagination. Joan’s second husband, for example, far from being a pantomime villain, is a young man she has known and liked throughout her life. This adds an extra layer of emotion to an already-fraught situation, and Joan’s torn loyalties and extreme youth are depicted sympathetically.
Once her marital position is decided, the novel moves on to explore not only Joan’s personal life, but also her political ambition and sense of what is due to her as a member of the royal family. O’Brien again depicts this skilfully, showing us a woman who can be both loving and ruthlessly ambitious, compassionate and profligate, grieving and determined. It is a complex and not always flattering portrait, but it shows Joan as a fully-rounded and fascinating character from history, one who deserves to be better known. Recommended.