Philippa Gregory has turned the reign of Henry VIII into past bestsellers such as "The Other Boleyn Girl" and "The Boleyn Inheritance."
Now she has moved into the Elizabethan era, with "The Other Queen." In this case, the "other" is the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, cousin and rival of Elizabeth I.
The story is told from three points of view: the proud, charming and headstrong Mary, who escaped from treachery in Scotland to seek refuge from Elizabeth, and her "guardians," George Talbot, sixth Earl of Shrewsberry, and his wife, Bess of Hardwick.
When Elizabeth's adviser, William Cecil, asks the couple to keep Mary as a guest in their castle, the earl is honored by the opportunity to serve his queen and to play host to royalty. Only the ambitious, practical Bess fully realizes the true purpose behind their hospitality that Mary is too great a threat to Elizabeth's crown to ever be reinstated as the ruler of Scotland. She is next in line to Elizabeth for the English throne, and unlike the unmarried Elizabeth, she has a son who can rule after her death. Her devout Catholicism could stir up contention with Elizabeth's Protestant Church.
As Elizabeth and Cecil devise excuses to keep Mary captive, Mary tries to plot with political allies. The earl and his wife have become pawns in a deadly chess match between two queens. As the weeks and months drag into years, the cost of keeping up a huge royal entourage with its 32-course dinners takes a toll on their finances. Then their marriage begins to fray when Mary tries to charm the earl's heart.
Soon it's apparent that all three are at risk of losing what they hold most dear. For the earl, it's his honor and loyalty to the crown that his family has served for 500 years. For Mary, it's being free to rule as the queen she was born to be. For Bess, it's the land, wealth and status she has carefully accumulated over the years.
In this setting, the so-called "Golden Age" of the Elizabethan era seems quite sinister; even the most powerful can suddenly be charged with treason and find themselves facing the executioner.Gregory wisely avoids the tawdry "Ye Merry Olde Bodice-Ripper" treatment often given in romance novels about Elizabeth and Mary. And it would be easy to take that route, considering Mary's history with a murdered husband and charges of rape. However, with all the subtle maneuvering and political nuances described from three different perspectives, the story sometimes gets bogged down. It would be helpful to brush up a bit on British history before you start reading to better understand the significance of all the various lords, ladies, political advisers and so on.