Review of Sarah Kennedy’s The King’s Sisters

by Courtney Watson

Sarah Kennedy. The King's Sisters. Knox Robinson Publishing: Atlanta. 320 pages. 2015.

The King’s Sisters, the third novel in Sarah Kennedy’s standout The Cross and the Crown series, is a beautifully-written story that engages the reader from the first page to the last. This novel is a vibrant work of historical fiction that teems with urgency and suspense amidst a world of 16th treachery and palace intrigue. With vivid sensory descriptions and expert plotting, Kennedy continues to weave a story that offers compelling insight into the political minefield that characterized life during Henry VIII’s reign.

As with its predecessors, the best part of The King’s Sisters is Kennedy’s nuanced portrayal of the women in her story. Beyond her heroine, the determined and intuitive Catherine Overton, the female characters in this novel are well-explored and fully-realized. There are no one-note characters lingering in these pages. Every woman is well-developed with a complex backstory that brings her to life. Kennedy’s portrayal of women in this era is thoughtful and extraordinarily well-done; though they suffer, they are not limited to being bloody footnotes from Henry VIII’s rampage through history. In Kennedy’s gifted hands, they are complicated and compelling, and they matter. Though the author accomplishes many feats in this novel, perhaps the most moving is her exploration of the depths of female friendship.

During this third journey with Catherine Overton, whose life has changed so much since her days as a nun at the Mt. Grace Priory, readers are invited into the fraught world of the court of Henry VIII. At this point history, in the days after fifth wife Catherine Howard’s grisly execution, proximity to the cruel and temperamental king is the most dangerous place in England as Henry VIII’s insanity and suspicion grow:“The queen was a child…He has murdered a little girl this time,” (7). Fear is palpable in these early scenes, and it becomes more pronounced as the novel progresses. From her place at Richmond Palace, where she serves Henry’s divorced and displaced fourth wife, Anne of Cleves (a tremendously well-written character in her own right), Catherine has a front row seat to one of the most turbulent and violent periods of English history.

The king’s madness is perhaps felt most acutely in the opening scene of the novel, where the reader rejoins Catherine Overton as she stands in the crowd watching the young queen’s brutal decapitation. It is a difficult, wrenching scene, punctuated by Catherine’s fear of her own scandalous transgression of being unwed and pregnant. The mood at the palace is dark and grim: “…all the reveling, the feasts and dancing, the flirtations and love-making, had ended, and the king disappeared into the inner rooms of Hampton Court after he signed the death warrant” (1). For Catherine, the stakes have never been higher; her world is full of peril, and she has never had more to lose.

One of the brightest parts of the novel is Kennedy’s characterization of the future Queen Elizabeth I as a child. Since so much is known about the extraordinary woman she became, it is easy to forget that, as the only child of the beheaded Anne Boleyn, she was an unlikely heir and her path to the throne was laden with peril. Kennedy does wonderful work illustrating for the reader the young princess’s awareness of the precariousness of her position:

When my brother is king, I will do as he says, and he will love me. Is that the way I must go to keep my head from being taken from my neck?…I will suffer his kindness and his direction and perhaps he will repay me with my life. I see how things stand. But if he seeks to marry me to some low-born idiot, I will cut my own throat before I submit. Do you hear? I will slash it myself! I will not have my head hacked off by a drunkard with an ax! (14-15).

Kennedy’s version of Princess Elizabeth is brightly lit and crackling with intelligence, lending vital insight into how the violent deaths of two of her father’s wives—one of them her own mother—would shape the marital views of the future Virgin Queen. Even as a child, her presence is commanding, a powerful portent of the future she will create.

Elizabeth I is by no means the only historical figure to make a lasting impression in The King’s Sisters. Catherine serves a vividly-imagined Anne of Cleves, who fell out of favor with Henry VIII shortly after their marriage but who survived through divorce, unlike her successor, and continued to love him. Kennedy does a beautiful job portraying the often-misunderstood Anne of Cleves with pathos and humor, creating a character who is both intelligent and surprising. The same can be said with the dark and bewitching Mary Tudor, who goes to great lengths to keep practicing her Catholic faith right under her father’s nose.

Another interesting character is Lady Jane Dudley, who serves as the head of Anne of Cleves’ household at Richmond Palace. The events of the novel play out a few short years before Jane Dudley’s moment in history, when her husband, the Duke of Northumberland, and her favorite son, Guildford Dudley, made a disastrous attempt to displace Mary Tudor from the throne in favor of Lady Jane Grey. Though the political maneuver resulted in the executions of both her son and her husband, Jane Dudley guided the rest of her family through the scandal relatively unscathed. Another of her sons, Robert Dudley, went down in history as the famed Earl of Leicester, beloved by the Virgin Queen. There are many references throughout the novel to future events, and it is fascinating to watch so many key figures in the early stages of their development. Jane Dudley, for all of her hysteria, is also canny and shrewd, characteristics she will desperately need to weather the coming storm.

Along with the main characters of the novel, the plot is tightly-written and has momentum from the first page. This entry in the series fully-immerses readers in a familiar world, and it is exciting to revisit locations from the first two novels as well as new places. From palaces to dungeons, there is a lot to experience in The King’s Sisters, which rewards the reader with intricate and lush sensory descriptions of Catherine’s world: “The table was covered with roast ducks and platters of carrots and leeks. Loaves of white bread and jugs of ale. Catherine took the edge of a bench and a manservant filled her cup. She sloshed the ale around until the colors of the candles, swimming in its golden surface, loosened her mind and she could swallow” (207-208). The novel, a true feast for the senses, is brimming with evocative descriptions of 16th century England.

While there is so much to praise about The King’s Sister’s, the best part of the novel is watching Catherine’s determined struggle for agency and autonomy during a time period when women generally possessed neither: “Martin coughed out a laugh. ‘The name of a woman is nobody,’ he said. ‘The name of a woman signifies the master to whom she belongs and nothing more. The name of a woman is a hole into which a man must drop his meaning and his seed. A woman makes nothing happen’” (275). What makes Catherine Overton an extraordinary character—and such a thrilling heroine to follow along her journey—is that she clearly understood the truth for women in her world, and she refused to accept it as her fate. She saw the possibility of a different future for herself and her daughter and her friends, and from there she rebuilt her world. Inspiring, smart, beautiful, and harrowing, The King’s Sisters is a must-read.