F ast-paced and filled with details that readers of historical novels crave, The Queen’s Gamble by Barbara Kyle is fourth in the Thornleigh series and set in the first year of Elizabeth I’s reign, when even her supporters doubt the young queen will survive to rule a second year.
In The Queen’s Gamble, Scotland is the focus of political contention. The teenage Mary, Queen of Scots, is living in France, married to Francois II. Scotland is ruled by a regent, Mary of Guise, who is French. Tthe Scots lords fear their country will become no more than a province of France, and support the rebel Protestant preacher John Knox in what will become the Scottish Reformation. With no standing army and a token navy, Queen Elizabeth is poorly-equipped to defend England’s interests in a rebellion that is drawing in France and Spain
Meanwhile, after five years abroad, Isabel Thornleigh and her Spanish husband Carlos Valverde have built a prosperous life in the New World. Concerned for Isabel's parents, they sail back to London and almost immediately get pulled into schemes that threaten their prosperity, the Thornleigh's lives, and the life of their little son, Nico.
Isabel and Carlos’ allegiances are split along complex and multiple rifts. Isabel’s brother Adam and her parents, Honor and Richard, are Protestants loyal to Elizabeth. Carlos is a Spanish subject and for now, Spain is nominally on England’s side.
Adam’s wife Frances, however, is Catholic and furthermore, an unwelcome addition to the Thornleigh clan because she is from the Grenville family. To say there is bad blood between the families would be an understatement. To top it off, during her years in Peru, a Spanish colony, Isabel has become a Catholic, more for the sake of social convention than any true religious feeling.
Isabel has not been kept abreast of all the Thornleigh’s intrigues and she feels hurt that her parents and brother evade her questions , thinking they don’t trust her now that she is a Catholic. This changes when her mother, a confidante to Queen Elizabeth, takes her to see the queen. Elizabeth entrusts Isabel with a mission to the Scottish rebels; then to guarantee Isabel’s cooperation, the Queen takes little Nico as a hostage. At the same time, Carlos, who needs a good word in the right ears at the Spanish court to ensure a privileged position of wealth in Peru, agrees to go to Scotland as a neutral Spanish observer on the French side. His neutral role doesn’t last very long.
I’m happy to admit that I gobbled up the Thornleigh novels like candy. One of the most satisfying traits of a Kyle novel is how her story folds in events that often receive nominal attention in general history texts. OK, to be perfectly honest, events I have skipped over because they sounded boring in textbooks. She always proves me wrong by adding a human dimension that explains why I should have been interested.
Then, as if there isn't already plenty of intrigue in Tudor England, Kyle delivers plots and subplots that keep the pages turning practically by themselves. Her theater background is evident in the way her chapter endings leave you hanging. Just as a situation seems to improve, the tension escalates. Her characters are driven further and further apart, time and again, their desires thwarted by outside influences and human frailty. You know that Isabel and Carlos will come together by the end of the novel, but it’s impossible to imagine how. Yet Kyle pulls it off.
What I Learned About Writing from Reading This Book
If there is one thing that stands out for me in Kyle’s novels, it’s how she manages to make her characters’ change of heart as interesting as the action. As writers, we learn about the importance of a character’s inner journey: by the end of the novel, a character must have changed or grown in some way.
Kyle sets the bar very high in this respect. In The Queen’s Lady, the first Thornleigh novel, she had my jaw on the floor at how she achieved a 180 degree change of heart in her main character, Honor Larke. In The Queen’s Gamble, I made a conscious effort to study how Kyle achieves this about-turn without overstretching our credulity.
Carlos Valverde, a bastard and professional soldier of fortune, finally manages to build a stable life in Peru. Respectability and wealth mean more than anything else to him when he thinks of the advantages his son will have – and this bright future depends on total obedience to the Spanish monarch. Throughout the novel, Kyle pulls him in different directions and exposes him to conflicting points of view. When he rejects his wife Isabel for helping England instead of Spain (and in doing so, working against him) it seems inconceivable that he will be able to change his position.
But he does change, and there are two reasons why it works. First, even though they are at odds, when events come to a head, Carlos still loves Isabel. For her sake, he helps her family. Second, when he does this, it’s a decision that strips away all hope of ever finding favour again with Spain. Freed of obligation to a country that will never truly accept him because of his lowly birth, Carlos finally can process everything that Isabel and others have been telling him in previous chapters. He realizes where his true allegiances belong.
From now on, when I plot a character's inner journey, I'll be careful to avoid a sudden single pivot. Instead, I'll sprinkle the seeds of change throughout the novel and nudge the character along.
NOTE: I also wrote reviews about Thornleigh #1 and #3 on Goodreads, if you want to know more. Those earlier reviews are not as comprehensive as this one.NOTE2: This post was migrated from an older website and comments didn’t survive the trip. So please feel free to add new comments below.