In Brenda Rickman Vantrease’s new historical novel, The Queen’s Promise, three women must make dangerous choices as England collapses into civil war. In this first book of the Nashville novelist’s new Broken Kingdom series, it is 1642, and Queen Henrietta Maria is traveling to the Netherlands to shore up support for her husband’s cause. Back in England, the safekeeping of the Queen’s youngest two children is the responsibility of Lucy Hay, the Countess of Carlisle. And away from London, Caroline Pendleton struggles to keep her farm going after her husband is called to fight for the doomed King Charles.
In conveying historical details of the period, Vantrease seamlessly weaves together the factual and the fictional, the political and personal. For history and literature buffs, The Queen’s Promise offers the added pleasure of actual historical characters. Writer Thomas Browne and architect Inigo Jones are among those who attend a party Lucy Hays throws on the anniversary of the death of her lover. John Milton wants his tract on divorce published. A young soldier curses and then realizes he’ll be fined if Captain Oliver Cromwell finds out.
There are many characters in this novel, and their names and titles (as well as the ways in which they connect to each other) can be a trifle confusing. However, the three women—their characters, their motivations, and their humanity—come across very clearly. Their purposes may vary, but they never waver from their goals. The queen is determined to supply the king with arms and men to defeat the usurpers, but she is also a woman who desires her husband and who becomes jealous when another attractive woman praises him in front of her. Lucy Hay uses her looks to gain protection from strong men, but she is also determined to protect the royal children entrusted into her care. And Caroline must find a way to survive after soldiers steal the family’s livestock.
But it’s perhaps two minor characters who best demonstrate the horror of war. A young Roundhead is on his way back to the garrison to report when he comes across a woman outside a ransacked town:
“He watched in horror as the mother crooning softly, tried to coax her unresponsive infant to take the distended nipple. He wondered how long the child had been dead. Could she not know? Its face had already turned blue. Whatever had happened to her in that town must have broken her wits.” Even at its beginning, war takes its toll on the innocent, as war usually does.
Vantrease brings to life a period when a country went to war because it couldn’t decide on its religion or on who should be in control, King or Parliament. But it went to war mostly because no one understood how to stop the rancor before they went too far. In that reality, the novel has a truly modern feel. And most readers will decide to continue with these characters until the bloody end.
Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in nineteenth-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.