I always love it when I stumble across a historical novel about a character I know about from history but haven’t read about in fiction before. Such is The Forbidden Queen, a novel about Katherine of Valois, the French princess who was so briefly wed to war-hero-king Henry V of England before he inconviently died of dysentry. Katherine, still a young girl, was left dowager queen to a baby king in a country she barely knew, and then shocked everyone by marrying a Welsh servant, Owen Tudor. Henry’s untimely death almost certainly caused the Wars of the Roses due to factions and conflicts that grew up during the childhood and youth of his son, Henry VI; Katherine unwittingly provided the dynastic line that would end those wars when her grandson, Henry Tudor, ascended the throne was Henry VII. Katherine was long dead before any of that happened; she had a short life but it was certainly action-packed. If nothing else, the story of how a queen wound up in bed with her household steward would have to make for a good romantic plot.
And indeed it does. I didn’t realize before I picked up this book that it was published under Harlequin’s “Mira” historical line, and I might have been prejudiced against it if I had seen the imprint. I tend to avoid genre romance because they can be predictable and many (not all) are poorly written, though predictability is less of a concern with historical novels based on real people; the author does, after all, have to stick to the known facts of Katherine’s life. Fortunately, O’Brien, who I hadn’t read before, turns out to be a good writer. While they are some predictably romance-novel flourishes during Katherine and Owen’s scenes together, the main focus is on Katherine’s character development from a meek princess who is terrified to stand up for herself to a woman who defies the royal Council to marry the man she loves and win back his legal rights. It’s a great story and Anne O’Brien does a good job telling it.