"The Lady of the Rivers" (Touchstone Books), by Philippa Gregory: The third novel in Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War series is the best yet, a lively tale of witchcraft and romance set amid civil wars in England and France.
"The Lady of the Rivers" focuses on Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who married the much-older Duke of Bedford when he ruled a vast area of France on behalf of his nephew, the mentally unstable King Henry VI of England. In Gregory's telling, the duke was obsessed with finding secret formulas that could turn common metal to gold or bring everlasting life. He was interested in Jacquetta because the women in her family were supposed to be able to foretell the future, and she spends much of the two-plus years of their marriage looking into mirrors while the duke and his alchemist eagerly await her visions.
The duke dies quickly, and Jacquetta embarks for England to avoid another arranged marriage. She has fallen in love with the duke's handsome young squire, and they marry secretly. This briefly angers Henry VI, but the ambitious and capable couple are soon back in his good graces. Jacquetta becomes a favorite of the king's wife, Margaret of Anjou, while her husband is appointed to numerous administrative posts.
The couple rise to positions of influence as England is disintegrating into civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Jacquetta and her husband are strong supporters of Henry IV and his House of Lancaster, but her daughter Elizabeth Woodville later marries the York king, Edward IV.
Gregory's first novel in the Cousins' War series focused on Elizabeth, but even then it seemed she really wanted to write about Jacquetta. In the author's note for "The White Queen," Gregory says she knew she had a story to tell when she discovered Jacquetta had been tried for witchcraft and came from a family supposedly descended from a water goddess. This was dangerous stuff in an era when women of all ranks were vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft. The merest whispers could result in divorce, abandonment, imprisonment and even death.
Jacquetta's character observes repeatedly in "The Lady of the Rivers" that women who try to control their own fate take big risks. They may rise high, only to fall hard when fate turns against them. One of Gregory's most compelling characters is Margaret of Anjou, a spirited teen who becomes the scourge of the nation as her husband's madness drives her to the edge of sanity.
But the top-selling author seems to have fallen in love with her main character: Jacquetta has more spirit than the leading ladies in her first two novels in the series — the ambitious and grasping Elizabeth and the bitter and egotistical Margaret Beaufort, featured in "The Red Queen." In her companion nonfiction work "The Women of the Cousins' War," released last month, Gregory wrote the section on Jacquetta while leaving biographies of Elizabeth and Margaret to two other historians.
Gregory's fascination with Jacquetta brings more joy to "The Lady of the Rivers" than the previous novels in the series, and while this one foreshadows the violent future and sad ends of characters to come, it ends with hope and anticipation as Jacquetta watches her daughter head out to meet her future husband.
If it were summer, this would be a good beach read, but as we head into winter, this might be the book to curl up with on the couch on a cold night.