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- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
With Queen Of Martyrs, Samantha Wilcoxson has applied her talents to shedding light on the life of Mary I, the first queen regnant of England and one of that realm's most controversial, feared and reviled monarchs. I won't go into detail here about the plot, which is history, but rather about the relevance of this telling of a life's story.
Mary, impossibly conflicted but a determined survivor, becomes queen over a country that is paradoxically the nation she most loves in the world but no longer quite the kingdom she believes it to be. The Reformation, once inflicted upon an unwilling nation, has irrevocably changed England a generation later. Mary's dream of rooting out "heresy" from England seems to her a task as simple as tending a garden at first, but she slowly comes to realize that the "True Faith" will not be so easily restored as reforming zeal has taken root at the highest levels of government and even within her own family.
The relevance for the modern reader is inescapable. Today's world is as divided as Mary's was. Religious tensions both domestically and between nations of East and West have escalated in the last quarter century just as the struggle between the left and right wings of politics has become more polarized. It's natural that someone trying to navigate right and wrong between the extremes will find the voyage perilous. For Mary, a pious Catholic attempting to restore her faith to the fore in the face of equally pious (or sometimes, self-serving) reformation, the way is more hazardous than for most. Let's not forget that four-and-a-half centuries later, the rights of women to lead nations are still openly questioned by many, so the challenges for Mary to achieve her ends as the first female absolute monarch in a patriarchy cannot be overstated. (Matilda fitzEmpress, mother of Henry II, unfettered by questions of legitimacy or right to rule, faced similar challenges centuries before and cannot be said to have ever truly ruled as queen regnant.)
As the child of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary, basically a conservative individual who takes comfort from stability, has been destined instead for a life rocked by incessant and seismic change. The breakdown of her parents' marriage was more than just a separation, but a turning point in history. Whether father or mother won, Mary was always going to be a loser in that struggle. What Wilcoxson does here is demonstrate not only the magnitude of Mary's loss--a mother, her birthright, the legitimacy of her very faith--but also its impact on an essentially uncomplicated, intelligent, pious and inoffensive young girl. As the back cover copy asks, "How did a gentle, pious woman become known as 'Bloody Mary'?" The traumatic events that shaped her life were bound to influence her rule.
There will be some readers who will be uncomfortable with the level of identification Wilcoxson establishes with a historical character many revile as the monstrous Bloody Mary, a figure whose reign is often dismissed as a brief, cloudy period before the sun rose on Elizabeth's rule. Others will recognize the achievement of seeing the real woman behind the label, capable of as great love and longing as cruelty and determination.
Samantha Wilcoxson's story of Mary I is a powerful character study that can be interpreted in a number of ways. As I look at an increasingly divided world in which faiths are changing and political tensions are once more on the rise, I was open to a reading of the story as a cautionary tale about many social phenomena with which we are as familiar today as folk were in Mary's time: about the dangers of letting extremism become casual; about the impact of child trauma, neglect and abuse upon character; and what can happen when we all stop listening to each other and start believing we alone walk the right path. And there are many other ways the story can be read and interpreted. At its heart, though, this is a very human story of a woman in conflict with her world and coping with loss, love and longing as best she can in an ever-changing world.
I recommend this novel, which like the best historical fiction, imparts knowledge of another time and informs us greatly about our own as well.