The Captive Queen follows the life of Mary Queen of Scots and her fictional English lady-in-waiting Charlotte Grey. From Mary Stuart’s childhood exile in France, through her tumultuous return to Edinburgh and her last captive years in England, Charlotte Grey faithfully follows the trials and tribulations of her mistress, having many of her own along the way due to a dark secret in her past.
Unfortunately, Mary Stuart’s demise couldn’t come soon enough for me as this is the worst example of historical fiction I have ever encountered. Saunders makes an art of divorcing the reader from the action and the characters. He employs a writing style so dry it could be lifted from a textbook on sixteenth century Scotland. Characters are labeled with bizarre epithets rather than called by their names: ‘the Sovereign,’ ‘the Scottish Queen,’ ‘the red-haired’ (I think this is Canadian vernacular), ‘the Catholic’ etc. Moreover Saunders habitually explains events that will occur in the future, removing the reader completely from the present action. I found that these problems resulted in being completely unable to muster any interest in the storyline or characters.
The story of Mary Queen of Scots is in itself fascinating but Saunders manages to make the drama as dry as a bone, explaining the events briefly and without any relation to character: “In May 1567, after being abducted and raped, Mary Stuart married James Hepburn under coercion.” Righto. And how did ‘the Catholic’ feel about that? She was “very upset by all these events.”
Charlotte Grey is simply a non-entity. She adds nothing to the plot, only offering opportunities for sordidly titillating scenarios involving rape and prostitution and her dark secret is easily and swiftly resolved, adding no depth whatsoever. One promising storyline of espionage is mentioned and then simply never materializes. What might have been more interesting than this unnecessary fictional character (whose storyline veers away from Mary Stuart’s somewhere mid-way through the book, almost to be forgotten) would have been the viewpoint of Mary Seton, the actual historical lady in waiting to ‘the Scottish Queen.’
The dialogue is both hackneyed and anachronistic, with such gems as: “You sure are imagining things, honey!” “Is that okay with everyone?” and “Madam, go for it!” Men are consistently referred to as ‘My brave man!’ and everyone is ‘dear’ and ‘dearest.’ Furthermore, the dialogue usually serves only to labour a point that has already been spelt out in onerous detail throughout the preceding prose.
Ultimately Danny Saunders attempts to serve up a historical novel with the detail of an academic biography. Unfortunately The Captive Queen completely misses the mark for both genres with no redeeming features, other than making excellent kindling for ye olde fire.