Book Review: The Queen of Subtleties: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Suzannah Dunn

the queen of SubtletiesAnne Boleyn and Lucy Cornwallis: queen and confectioner, fatefully linked in a court rife with intrigue and treachery. She was the dark-eyed English beauty who captivated King Henry VIII, only to die at his behest three years after they were married. She was both manipulator and pawn, a complex, misunderstood mélange of subtlety and fire. Her name was Anne Boleyn.

In The Queen of Subtleties, Suzannah Dunn reimagines the rise and fall of the tragic queen through two alternating voices: that of Anne herself, who is penning a letter to her young daughter on the eve of her execution, and Lucy Cornwallis, the king’s confectioner. An employee of the highest status, Lucy is responsible for creating the sculpted sugar centerpieces that adorn each of the feasts marking Anne’s ascent in the king’s favor. They also share another link of which neither woman is aware: the lovely Mark Smeaton, wunderkind musician—the innocent on whom, ultimately, Anne’s downfall hinges.

From my bookshelves. This edition is a “Not for resale” that looks like it was a freebie with a copy of Red magazine. I (attempted to) read this slim novel immediately after The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory. The latter is twice the size of the former, and whilst The Constant Princess is focussed on Catherine of Aragon, The Queen of Subtleties book tells of Anne Boleyn.
Anne Boleyn

Whilst in The Constant Princess, the first affair acknowledged by Catherine of Aragon is Anne Boleyn (thus setting up the rest of the Tudor series) The Queen of Subtleties presents that Catherine knew of previous affairs and attended the baptism of the illegitimate Fitz, even if she never formally acknowledged him.

The book starts the day before Anne’s execution and she’s looking back on where it all started, as a letter and a warning to her daughter Elizabeth. As with other fiction books about Anne Boleyn, she is betrayed as scheming, manipulative, but ultimately rather naive and deluded.

Henry didnt divorce Catherine because of me. For me, yes; in the end, yes. But not because of me.

It is interspersed with the narrative Lucy Cornwallis, the King’s confectioner, whose narration covers 1535 – 1536.

The following from an article in The Scotsman about this book makes both Lucy – as the maker – and Anne as the received, both Queen of Subtleties

Subtleties are, or rather were, intricate sugar sculptures and statues created as beautiful centrepieces for Medieval feasts – the beginnings of modern-day sugar craft, although this was rather more like sugar art. The exquisite adornments are thought to have been created in the early 15th century with subtleties appearing at the coronation feast of eight-year-old Henry VI in 1429.

I have to admit this was a Did Not Finish. I got about 50% through (bearing in mind this was a very short book) before the anachronistic language was simply too much. Anne called her parents “mum” and “dad”. When angry she said words like “fuck” and “Christ”.  I know this is classed as a “reimaging” but Dunn and her publishers would do well to look at books like Longbourn by Jo Baker (loved the story AND how it was told) or Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James (not so sure about the story, but liked how it was told). In other words – you shouldn’t sacrifice the way the book is written in order to get attention….I do wonder whether the book or the deal with Red’s publishers came first, and am I being snobbish about Red’s circulation?

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