Release Date: June 12, 2014
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Age Group: YA
Genres: Historical, romance
Pages: 528 (hardcover)
Format/Source: Hardcover, borrowed from library
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Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Mary Howard has always lived in the shadow of her powerful family. But when she’s married off to Henry Fitzroy, King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, she rockets into the Tudor court’s inner circle. Mary and “Fitz” join a tight clique of rebels who test the boundaries of court’s strict rules with their games, dares, and flirtations. The more Mary gets to know Fitz, the harder she falls for him, but is forbidden from seeing him alone. The rules of court were made to be pushed… but pushing them too far means certain death. Is true love worth dying for?
I’m normally wary of historical fiction. It doesn’t make any sense, really, because a) I always seem to stumble upon great historical fiction when I do dip into the genre, and b) I adore history (except for… certain parts of American history, because they’ve been bashed into my skull with those poorly-written bricks the school system calls textbooks). *eyes YA historical fiction books with interest*
This was no exception, and it was, to be blunt and rather un-sixteenth-century-like, freaking amazing.
I’ve always been drawn to Henry VIII and his court – what kinds of mental and spiritual mess-ups made Henry VIII treat his wives so ruthlessly? How did the wives themselves feel about this? What about the several children that Henry fathered, Mary and Elizabeth most prominent among them? What about the entire new religious sect that was created out of Henry’s desire to divorce his wife (I’m talking about the Anglican Church and Catherine of Aragon, respectively)? There is so much potential for depth here, and that kind of opening is what intrigues me about this time period.
Also, I did an entire project on Sir Thomas More in seventh grade when we were supposed to research a part of the Renaissance. (Fascinating, but oh so difficult. A whole reference book will give you maybe two sentences about this guy. But that’s a story for another day.) This made me even more interested in the time period and meant that I was that much happier when I heard there was a YA book about it.
From the beginning of the book I was hooked. (Which is saying something. A lot of the time, books are a slow burn for me and I like it that way. But this was an exception.) I updated my Ello profile as I read, basically live-posting what I was feeling as a little experiment, and this is what happened when I started.
This is one of the most amazingly effective beginnings I’ve read in a long, long time. I already love the heroine, the writing is absolutely gorgeous, and there’s immediate tension and beautiful character dynamics shifting into place. I tend to shy away from historical reads, but this is about the Tudor court and I’m already thrilled with the promise of intrigue and romance here. I think I’ll like this book very, very much.
Mary Howard’s not really a talked-about figure in Henry VIII’s court. You maybe catch her name once or twice, but she doesn’t pop up often in historical accounts. Longshore did a marvelous job of bringing her to life in what I thought was a realistic and lovely way, and I was rooting for Mary the whole way through. She’s just… so fan-flipping-tastic and complex and relatable. Her development over the course of the novel is marked and profound. She goes from uncertain and biddable to defiant and passionate. She takes what it means to be “strong” into her own hands, and that is one of her greatest points. She struggles to know her own mind and act on it throughout the book – and who hasn’t dealt with that? The fact that she decides to take on such a universal fight within herself in such a distinctly individual way speaks volumes about her personality.
Another great historical figure portrayal I feel should be recognized is that of Anne Boleyn. I adored this interpretation of her – stubborn, outspoken, unbreakable, emotional. Ultimately she would not be silenced, not for love or power or even to save her own skin. It made me care about her all the more, especially during her ever-growing spats with Henry VIII. The unique relationship that Longshore constructed between Mary and Queen Anne and the rest of the court allowed me to get a really special insight on Anne’s trials during this time. I couldn’t even fully imagine it – ruling as the second wife of a king whose first marriage may or may not be still valid, trying not to slip into jealousy, remaining poised even as the executioner’s blade gets ever closer. While she may not be likable to every reader, you’ll definitely have to respect her.
I also think that Longshore’s inclusion of positive female friendships (cue girl power!) brought a surprisingly effective feminist element to what could have been a very girl-shaming book, what with all the backstabbing in court. Mary Howard, Madge Shelton, and Margaret Douglas are at their most basic level a power trio – nothing can divide them, and together they have the strength to bring the world to its knees. Even after huge, nasty arguments, they manage to not lose sight of what’s important. They forgive each other and stick with each other. That kind of friendship is something I love to read about.
For example, this is what I posted on Ello when I got to page 137:
“‘A prince in word and deed,’ she proclaims. ‘For all of us. Because we deserve to be treated like princesses.’ … ‘Let us go forth and conquer.'”
I am having SO MANY positive girl friendship feels right now. WE NEED MORE OF THIS IN BOOKS.
Their dialogue is so, so precious to me. And Madge and Margaret are wonderful as individuals, too, complicated and well-written. Madge, Mary, and Margaret all think of political power from different standpoints, and they have different methods of seeking it, too. Madge uses her charm and feminine wiles, and Margaret uses her regal bearing and iron will. These differences make it all the more wonderful that these three girls come together the way they do.
But they also have time to be girly, making lists of what they find attractive in men and teasing each other consistently.
I love how Mary, Madge, and Margaret can be polished ladies of the court one moment and utterly romantic, gleeful teenage girls the next. It feels so realistic somehow.
This is great because it shows that “being a strong woman” and “giggling over boys” are not mutually exclusive things. In fact, it also shows that neither of those things cancels out “having best friends”. If that’s not a phenomenal character dynamic, I don’t know what is.
But on to the boys. (Or really THE BOY, because who else would I go into detail about?)
This part of the review was originally just going to be as follows: “FITZ. *muffled screaming*”. And that would have conveyed all it needed to, because this boy. Oh gosh. From the very first scene, I was in love. He’s handsome, he’s respectful, he’s forgiving – agh. And ever so slightly flirtatious, which everyone needs. He and Mary grow individually but support each other with every step, building a relationship founded on selflessness and admiration.
I could wax poetic about this for a very, very long time, but I’ll spare you all of my fangirling and just tell you to READ THE BOOK. HE’S WONDERFUL.
The other supporting characters are layered and interesting and occasionally a little disturbing. I was pretty conflicted about Mary’s brother, Hal, but I thought their sibling relationship was extremely well-handled. As a matter of fact, Mary’s entire family was so vividly brought to life – her mother and father are possibly some of the most frightening parents I’ve ever read about, and their inner workings are so colorfully pulled to the surface. The men of the court interacted with Mary and her friends in varied, realistic manners. Henry VIII was pretty darn scary, as one might expect. The court women are also really nicely played as the book progresses.
And how could I review a book about such a deadly, active court without talking about the political intrigue? Anyone who knows my literary tastes well will be very aware that I can’t pass up an opportunity to read about court politics. And Brazen has that in spades. Strategies and rumors and schemes abound – plenty of fun to be had by all, if you’ve got the idea of “fun” that this book requires – and this means that emotions run high. It’s the perfect political storm, and you know what? It is perfect. Period.
You kind of know what’s coming now, admit it: the always-present discussion of writing style. But honestly, for this book it’s worth mentioning, because the prose is so pretty that it makes me want to know how Katherine Longshore is even human. The device of words and the very visceral, punch-to-the-gut way they taste in Mary’s mouth is used to great effect throughout the book, and I love it. It has an almost synesthetic quality to it, and it’s a really ingenious method of adding weight to all of Mary’s choices and thoughts. The sheer honesty of Mary’s thoughts and how Longshore communicates them is brilliant. And every word is important, well-chosen, beautiful.
Suffice it to say that I’m jealous.
There are a lot of really strong themes and underlying questions that Brazen asks, and they’ll make you think. I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to suddenly turn this into English class, but just go in knowing that this is a weightier book than one might initially expect.
Also, this book will stab you in the heart. Repeatedly and unashamedly. But… such is life.
To conclude: YES. I’m so happy that I went with my gut and picked up this book, despite whatever petty misgivings I might have had, because I loved it. I’ll definitely be checking out the other two books in Katherine Longshore’s Tudor England set (all standalones but interconnected), Gilt and Tarnish. And please. Someone read them for my sake, because WHERE IS THE FANDOM?