March 13, 2010

Tudor Book Blog Review: The Virgin and the Crab

This is my first official review for the site, so I am pretty excited!

The Virgin and the Crab by Robert Parry is an intriguing look into the lives of John Dee and the young Elizabeth I during the tumultuous reigns of Edward VI and Mary I.


The main plot of the story focuses on the relationship between Dee and Elizabeth. Their relationship and, subsequently the story, begins with their first meeting. Dee discovers the young Elizabeth hiding and crying over the death of Henry VIII's fifth wife, Katheryn Howard. This meeting sparks a friendship that lasts throughout both their lives. Throughout the story, which spans from the end of Henry VIII's reign to the beginning of Elizabeth's, John Dee and the Brotherhood of the Rose Lodge work tirelessly to protect Elizabeth and ensure her succession to the throne. Over time the members come and go, either dying of natural causes or, more often, by the executioner's ax.  Throughout the novel, Parry inserts side stories involving many important Tudor figures such as Mary I, Lady Jane Grey, and Robert Dudley. A good example of this is at the end of the story which doesn't focus on Elizabeth or Dee per say. It is set during the banquet after Elizabeth's coronation, and though Dee and Elizabeth are present and meet, this section of the novel is seen from the point of view of a few unimportant courtiers commenting on various people at the banquet, as well as the omnipotent narrator who focuses on the subtle exchanges between Dee and Elizabeth.

The strange title is derived, ingeniously, from the star signs of the two main character: The Virgin (Virgo) for Elizabeth and the Crab (Cancer) for Dee. Since the story delves into Dee's profession of building and reading astrological charts, such as nativities, it makes sense that the title would reflect this. I have never dealt much with astrology, but found it easy (and fun) to follow Dee and Elizabeth as they constructed and read astrological charts. I especially found the nativities (charts made fomr the setting of the stars and planets on the date/time of the birth of a certain person) fascinating.


I don't want to give away too much about the book, but I must point out these things I absolutely loved:

I really loved this story for its originality. Yes, it takes a popular period with well known characters, but is done in a new way. Parry certainly creates a new spin on things. He uses third person narative, uncommonly used in a lot of fiction today. I personally love this narrative as it allows the reader to see multiple points of view, rather than just one. Though Parry focuses on Dee and Elizabeth, he is able to play with other characters, like John Dudley, Jane Grey, Mary I, and Edward VI to name a few. Though not the main focus of the story, Parry did not skimp on developing these off shoots. For example, Mary I is terrifying, while also completely insecure and stressed. I found myself becoming stressed when reading about her. He also portrays Thomas Wyatt the Younger as confused and unsure when riding through London during his rebellion. The reader is experiencing the same thing as the character, as the descriptions are confusing, adding to the full affect of the scene.

I also like that throughout the story the safety of Elizabeth is paramount, however we see her little. The story mostly focuses on Dee and his adventures in her service. There is a strong bond between these two characters, a bond Parry illustrates well through their symbols of communication. For example, in their first meeting they exchange gifts; a promise of a lock of hair from Elizabeth (which Dee eventually receives to his surprise) and a lovely pearl necklace from him, which she wears throughout the story. These items bring both characters strength through their tribulations, as they rarely see each other. They also send each other encrypted messages, such as a bunch of flowers arranged in a special way, rather than a hand written letter.

I also feel that Parry completely captures Tudor England during this time with his eloquent and visual descriptions. My favorite part of the novel revolved around the banquet scenes which were alive with description. It was east to imagine the smells of the food, the noise of the music and courtiers, and the visually appealing tapestries and costumes with his descriptions.

Though I loved this novel, I must, as a fair reviewer, say something negative about it. It does take some brain power to read this novel because of the constantly changing points of views as the narrative goes from one character to another. However, I don't consider this a negative, really. I think it is the sign of a really good, and original, novel as it takes something out of you to read. This keeps my interest and keeps my mind from wandering and losing focus on the book.


I give this book 5 out of 5 Tudor Roses.

It was above and beyond what I thought it was going to be. It is a MUST READ for those who enjoy Tudor History, or just a good book! Parry is an excellent author. I cannot wait to read his next work!