Everyone knows of Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII's beheaded wife and mother of Elizabeth I, but few may realize that her sister Mary was Henry's mistress before he met Anne. Philippa Gregory gives this remarkable and often-overlooked woman a powerful voice in her new release.

At 14, Mary comes to court where she is blinded by the charismatic Henry (though both are married to others) and ecstatic about her role as unofficial queen, until she realizes that she's a mere pawn in her power-crazed uncle's scheme to raise the family to greatness. Her long affair results in two children and happiness, until her cunning sister pushes herself into Henry's good graces. Shortly thereafter, Anne sees to it that Mary is removed and begins to work on displacing the real queen, Catherine of Aragon.

From here on, Mary and the reader are caught up in the family's struggles, the sibling rivalry and the larger power struggle at court and between Henry and the Church. Ms. Gregory portrays Mary as the kindest of the three Boleyn children. Her brother George is shrewd and her sister Anne is driven to become queen, though slightly softened by her torment at not giving Henry the son he desires. Ms. Gregory portrays the court as a near prison, filled with intrigues and machinations and the ultimate tragedy of ambitions gone wrong. Readers will have an insider's view, watching Mary's happy ending juxtaposed with Anne's tragic death. Her larger-than-life look at historical personages is fascinating and makes for a brilliant work of historical fiction. SENSUAL (Jun., 646 pp., $15.00)

Reviewed by: 
Kathe Robin