"When had I a choice to be other than I was?"
This quote foreshadows the constant barrage of wangst in store for you when reading The King's Mistress by Emma Campion. This is a historical fiction of the life of Alice Perrers, who's regarded as one of the more infamous ladies ever to keep royal company. She was the longtime companion of Edward III, whose rule was once considered glorious but was later encompassed in fiscal and political scandal. The above statement is inserted at the start of each section of the book, reminding you how poor Alice was ever a victim of powers beyond her reckoning. Might as well have been Gwen Stefani singing, "I'm just a girl... in the world..." It would have been interesting to see her as she's been portrayed: a woman surviving by her wiles in the shark-infested waters of the royal court, instead of as a helpless leaf blown in the storm winds.
Our heroine was born Alice Salisbury, simply the bestest daughter ever. She's pious, humble, loves her father, honors her mother, cherishes her family, rescues kittens, feeds the homeless, cures the sick, negotiates peace treaties... and blossoms into such a flower that of course, her own mother is utterly jealous of her. This thing wasn't written in ink, it was High Fructose Corn Syrup.
This fairy tale is delivered in four purple-tinted segments:
Part I/An Innocent Encounters The World- Where Alice comes of age and her father arranges a marriage for her to a widowed merchant, Janyn Perrers, whom its discovered has complicated ties to the scandalized Queen Mother Isabella, who helped overthrow her husband the king and set her son, Richard III, upon the throne. The Perrers family fortunes are intricately bound to the royals, but with privilege comes peril, so much so that Janyn ensures her safety by placing her in the Queen's service. What choice does she have? Her husband wills it!
Part II/The Queen's Handmaid- Alice becomes established in Queen Philippa's retinue and comes to be noticed by Edward III, king of England. As Philippa's health declines, the queen is driven to seek an amiable companion for her husband, someone she can trust... What choice does she have? The King & Queen desire it!
Part III/The King's Mistress- Alice and Edward form a deep, abiding relationship, and she even bears him children and he bestows lavish gifts of land, jewels and whatnot upon her. What choice does she have- the king made her take them! Yet the more she becomes a fixture in Edward's life, the more she is targeted by the differing factions at court. What choice does she have? She's but a commoner at court!
Part IV/Phoenix- In the wake of the king's passing, the nation is left in some difficulty from Edward's excesses and a scapegoat is needed. What choice does she have? She's but a woman alone who's blamed for leading their beloved king astray, taking the realm down with him! Yet Alice manages to rise somewhat from the ashes of her ruination.
There are two overwhelming problems with this story. One, the character of Alice is an uber MarySue- an embodiment of author's wish fulfillment whom every man must possess and every woman either admires or despises, and of course any characters that dislike this person are obviously up to no good. Alice is so much this she could almost be her own trope. The author has clearly fallen prey to what seems to be a trend in historical fiction- falling completely in love with the character and somehow trying to redeem them through fantasy instead of simply telling their story. Alice is so overflowing with compassion that at the end of the book she can even forgive everyone who's ever wronged her. Campion even goes so far as to give Alice a new life with another man while admitting to having no evidence that they ever did anything more than conduct business together- can't have a fairy tale without a happy ending, right?
Two, nothing much happens. For a person so embroiled in political scandal and panned by history Alice is spectacularly uninvolved in events; Campion always keeps Alice on the periphery, supplying the true love and support her man needs until she's swept along by the tides of fate simply because she's there. Beginning with her own arranged marriage to Janyn, we're given exposition-delivered intrigues filtered through Alice's limited perspective, all making for very dull reading. For someone constantly in the eye of the storm, she's often caught unawares despite constantly being warned about what's happening (But what choice does she have? She is unused to such manipulations, even after living at the palace for almost twenty years!). Yet with every step you're expected to cry with her pain and laugh with her joy, except you won't. You'll just want it to be over with. Despite a few insights into the social mores of the times, I suggest you don't even start.