*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers. Proceed with appropriate caution.
Very few people cheer at the mention of Anne Boleyn. At least, few people in the crowd at the conference dinner I was attending, where the panel of writers had just been asked, “Who is your favorite character in history, fictional or real?” One author replied, “Anne Boleyn,” to which I responded with a quiet-ish “Whoo!” I earned some weird looks, but apparently I also caught the attention of the author, C.C. Humphreys. After dinner when I went to purchase a copy of his book and get it signed, he said, “Weren’t you the one who cheered when I mentioned Anne Boleyn?”
I grinned. “She’s just so fascinating! If I could have dinner with anyone living or dead, it would be her.”
So we chatted about the enigmatic queen for a few minutes, he signed my book “In honor of Anne,” and I went home.
And devoured the book in two days.
The book follows Jean, the titular French executioner, as he struggles to carry out his promise to Anne to bury her six-fingered hand at a certain crossroads in France. The queen asks him to do this to prevent her powers from being used by her enemies, and enemies there certainly seem to be: an archbishop and his cronies chase Jean and his group of misfits (including a Viking!) all over Europe in their efforts to capture the hand and harness its power.
Now, as I told Mr. Humphreys, I am captivated by Anne Boleyn. I have read everything from Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl to Antonia Fraser’s The Wives of Henry VIII, and she remains one of my favorite historical figures to examine and wonder about. The impressive thing about The French Executioner was that, even though it takes place after Anne’s beheading, I found an entirely unique characterization of her. Humphreys presents an Anne who even her executioner willingly recognizes and idolizes as his queen, but she’s not the manipulative, political strategist seen in other interpretations. Nor is she an innocent, necessarily, a mere pawn in her father’s schemes. Humphreys’ Anne, with her concern for keeping her power from being used for evil, is somewhere in between, and even though you know she has to die, and even though there are hints of something dark in her, you regret it. You wish it didn’t have to be this way.
This connection to the characters is not limited to Anne. Jean is conflicted about becoming a sort of accidental leader when he’s always followed orders himself. His friends, mostly mercenary soldiers, must consistently decide whether or not Jean’s mission still aligns with their own interests.
On occasion, this devotion to characters leads the plot to some questionable places. Conflicts from the core group’s past surface only long enough to send them on the next leg of their journey, then conveniently sink back into oblivion. I wished Humphreys would spend some of his excellently written descriptions on further developing the characters I was already rooting for, rather than presenting us with yet another obstacle standing between them and Anne’s hand. The supernatural elements I believed – Humphreys has an incredible knack for the eerie and otherworldly – but some of the sidebar missions just felt like a stretch no matter how much I enjoyed reading them. The characters drive the book, so that even when they somehow end up rowing on a ship for a while (honestly it seemed like Humphreys just had fun writing a sea battle) you still want things to turn out well for them.
In fact, the characters (and a new interpretation of Anne Boleyn!) made me so happy that despite the plot’s shortcomings, I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.
Who’s your favorite historical figure to read about? Have you read a great book about them that renewed your interest? Do you think characters should drive the plot, or vice versa? Let me know in the comments!