A quick brush-up on Tudor history might be a good idea for readers about to embark on Sarah Kennedy's excellent novel, "The King's Sisters."
To remember the fates of King Henry VIII's six wives, English schoolchildren memorize the rhyme: "Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived." Henry's consorts, in chronological order, were Catherine of Aragon, Ann Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves and two more Catherines — Howard and Parr.
Kennedy's novel is set in 1542, when Catherine Howard reigned as queen. The main character, Catherine Havens, who early in her life was a nun, is now a wealthy widow and mother of two. Her son is a member of Prince Edward's household. (Edward is the son of King Henry and Jane Seymour. He ascended the throne at the age of 9 and ruled only briefly.)
Havens' daughter lives at Richmond Palace, home of Henry's castoff fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Like Anne, Havens is designated "the King's beloved sister."
Still young at heart, Havens becomes besotted with a courtier named Benjamin Davies, a wealthy widower who owns vast stretches of property near London.
Life at court sours for everyone when King Henry, accusing Queen Catherine of adultery and treason, orders her beheading. By now, Henry is a cruel and tyrannical — not to mention, obese — ruler. Painful leg ulcers affect his already contentious mood. He becomes suspicious of his courtiers, and the paranoia threads through the royal court.
Before long Havens' loyalty is questioned, and she must use all of her considerable wit just to keep herself and her children alive.
Few could be better prepared to write this book than Sarah Kennedy, who holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature and an MFA in creative writing.
Katherine Bailey is a book critic in Bloomington.