I’ve just finished reading the fantasy/historical fiction novel My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. I picked this one up on a bit of a whim, and sometimes those whim-reads pack a lot of surprise power. Here’s what I encountered:
About the book: Lady Jane Grey, cousin and close friend to young King Edward VI, has just been engaged to Gifford Dudley, against her will and wishes. For Edward, the marriage is part of a political plot. For Jane, it’s the upheaval of her entire book-filled life. For Gifford Dudley, the prospect of a wife just means he’ll have one more person to disappoint with his horse curse–that’s right, he spends every day from sunup to sundown as a horse; he can’t control it. And Gifford’s not the only one. In the midst of some historically accurate events orchestrated by real historical figures, My Lady Jane is also a fantasy novel in which some of the characters have the ability to transform into animals. Some, like Gifford, are unable to control the change. On top of the expected political intrigue–Edward VI facing the end of his reign and the necessity of choosing his successor–there’s also the battle between ordinary humans and the humans who possess an animal form. Neither trusts the other. And Jane is about to marry one. She’s also about to be appointed the Queen of England, though she’s not given any choice about that either. But there’s usurping Mary to contend with, and royal poisoners, and a whole slew of helpful and wacky animals. Plus, of course, a love story or two.
“Do any of us have a choice where destiny is concerned?”
About the layout: My Lady Jane is divided into alternating sections all from a third person perspective focusing on Jane, Gifford, and Edward individually in turn. Each character is distinct and interesting for their own reasons, but the narrators are also worth mentioning here. One of the best things about this book is its treatment of time. The story is told in the past tense, but every now and then our narrators interject to announce that a certain turn of phrase or perspective is something familiar from more modern times. Our narrators provide brief history lessons when they pertain to the story, adopt language that would have been more likely in use with the setting of the story, and even go so far as to label parts one and two as sections where history is being tweaked and then being thrown out the window entirely. They are modern narrators, to guide the modern reader and pull the story into understandable frames of reference without ever quite letting go of the past entirely. The balance is perfect–enough fact to gender further interest in the subject without fooling the reader into thinking this is a history book. The animal magic ensures that the reader never forgets there’s plenty of fiction involved here, and also adds a lot of fun and a whole world of possibilities to what is, in history books, a tragic tale of early deaths.
“You just don’t understand politics. Have you learned nothing? Everyone involved in the running of a kingdom deserves to die at some point. It’s how the game is played. You win or you die.”
One thing I do find odd about the way the chapters worked in My Lady Jane is the passage of time. Some chapters pick up right where the last one left off, but others have gaps of whole days mostly unaccounted for. Sometimes some detail from the missing time is added in retrospect, but other times a chapter leaves off with a bit of tension and the next one starts with the right character to answer the reader’s questions, but the character is already in some new predicament. In the end, all the vital information is included, but I would say that the transitions through time feel clunky at times.
But, I must say, I especially love the animal transformations. I love that they’re always unexpected animals, funny and surprisingly helpful for their comical underimpressiveness. Sometimes a powerful character turns out to also be a lion, and sometimes they turn out to be a skunk. Although I didn’t laugh out loud as many times as I’d been led to believe I would, I did find the entire premise and many of the details completely hilarious.
But then, on the other hand, there are statements like this:
“Just because we’re girls doesn’t mean you have to coddle us… The truth is, you need us.”
Which is great. Obviously the girls are necessary and don’t need to be coddled. One important thing that modern literature is doing–especially YA–is putting females in positions of power. There are so many female protagonists now who are strong and smart and ready to rule the world. I love that women are being better represented and respected in books, but in stories set in the 1500s that sort of kickass female lead is a little out of place. I’m glad we live in the sort of world now where a character like Edward can learn that girls are just as capable of ruling a country as men, but it also makes My Lady Jane feel even farther from the truth. Women do not have a lot of rights in the 1500s, and it’s not just the law holding them back, but the men who make the laws and believe that women are inferior. Our main characters in My Lady Jane don’t seem to believe that women are inferior. I’m glad things have changed, but I don’t believe that the way to equality is to pretend that women were not overlooked. This is just a personal opinion about not forgetting the past. Obviously My Lady Jane is fictionalized enough that readers can’t mistake it for a true account, which helped me take the surprisingly understanding and respectful young men of this novel in stride. I wish history really did have more young men like Edward and Gifford recorded in its many books.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I wasn’t sure in the first few chapters if I was going to like it, and YA historical fiction tends to be pretty hit-or-miss for me, but this one turned out to be a hit. That may have something to do with the fact that it’s very loosely based on history and much more involved with a magical fantasy element, so it reads more like fiction and makes a tragic tale funny instead. I will absolutely be picking up the next book in this series of historical Janes when it comes out next year.
- If you like historical/magical retellings with strengthened female characters and an intriguing glimpse into the distant past, check out Meg Cabot’s Avalon High. This one is a stand-alone novel of King Arthur reincarnations in modern times, and is one of my favorite YA books.
- If you’ve already read My Lady Jane and are (impatiently) awaiting the next volume in this series, get your hands on a copy of Jane Eyre to prepare. While I went into My Lady Jane without much background knowledge of the real Jane Grey and I would suspect that it will be easy to continue on without researching the upcoming Janes, I do think it adds an extra layer of intrigue to be able to compare different versions of the same story, and I think Jane Eyre is always worth the read.
What’s next: I wanted to be reading ACOWAR this week, and it still might be a possibility to get started on it by the end of the week because my copy is on its way, but it still hasn’t arrived yet, so I’m starting Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies in the meantime. This suburban mystery/thriller has been all the hype lately, but I’m in it for the Desperate Housewives vibes. That show is surprisingly addicting in the early seasons, and I’m kind of hoping for a similar dose of that here, in book form, before I check out the new TV show.
Have you been reading any of the great new releases out this month?
The Literary Elephant