(Note: This review contains spoilers.)
Figuring out how to describe “My Lady Jane” is something of a feat. It’s been compared to Monty Python and to “The Princess Bride.” It’s a historical tragedy turned into a romantic adventure-fantasy-comedy. It’s history with magical and modern twists. Or maybe it’s best just to go with the book jacket, which explains that the authors — who refer to themselves collectively as the Lady Janies — are “fixing history one sad story at a time.”
The sad story in question is that of Lady Jane Grey, the “Nine Days Queen,” whom her Protestant cousin Edward VI named his heir to prevent his Catholic sister Mary from inheriting the English crown. But Mary had enough supporters to strike back, and Jane was soon deposed and executed, along with her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley. So ended her story in real life.
In “My Lady Jane,” things go in a different direction entirely. The authors keep the 16th-century setting, but update the language and many of the ideas and customs. But that’s not the half of it. They also add plenty of magic. Specifically, they create a world split between people who can turn into animals (Edians) and people who can’t (Verities).
Jane is sympathetic to the Edians, who have experienced persecution despite the fact that the late King Henry VIII was one of them. Still, she isn’t quite prepared to find out that her new husband (here called Gifford and nicknamed “G”), urged on her by her cousin Edward, regularly turns into a horse. But she’s got far bigger problems than that. Edward doesn’t die in this version, but he is poisoned, forced to flee, and thought to be dead. So Jane is made queen, then imprisoned — and then accesses her own inner animal, a ferret, for the first time and manages to escape. And from there the exciting twists and turns keep coming.
There’s something here for both history-loving and fantasy-loving teens, though the former might have a little trouble at first dealing with Tudors who turn into lions and birds and various other creatures. The conflict between Edians and Verities isn’t just a whimsical plot device — it also stands in for the bitter Catholic-Protestant conflicts of that era. Actual religion is mentioned only now and then, mostly in neutral terms. So we don’t get much of the strong Protestant faith of the real Jane, the faith that Mary and her advisers considered a threat that had to be extinguished.
Yet in many other ways, our heroine is like the real Jane Grey: a girl of integrity, intelligence, and strength, with a passionate love for books. This fictional Jane, however, gets away with a lot more than her historic counterpart ever did, and I don’t just mean her survival. She displays a stubborn and independent spirit that manages to break through barriers in a way that the real Jane never could. This Jane often comes across more as a modern woman dealing with a bunch of Archie Bunker types than a Tudor woman struggling against the truly crippling restrictions of her day.
At the same time, the authors make clear, it’s not just girls who have to deal with cultural taboos. I was wryly amused by the predicament that G finds himself in (I don’t mean the horse predicament): A budding young poet, he feels compelled to hide his attendance at poetry readings from his family by pretending he’s actually going to brothels instead.
Hand, Ashton, and Meadows handle their unusual material with humor and a certain irreverence, dismissing several antiquated attitudes — like Henry VIII’s aversion to the idea of female monarchs — as barely worth a thought. Sometimes this works better than others; it’s difficult, for instance, to imagine a newly married 16th-century couple thinking of children as being “under discussion. Maybe one day.”
There’s romance between both Jane and G, who start to fall for each other after their arranged marriage, and Edward and Gracie, a Scottish outlaw he meets after fleeing the palace. Sexual desires are discussed somewhat frequently, though rarely acted upon (not acted upon at all outside of marriage, aside from kissing). Nudity is sometimes mentioned (though not described in any detail), as Edians tend to be minus their clothes when they turn from animals back into humans. And there’s occasional profanity and some non-explicit violence. All this probably makes “My Lady Jane” a more appropriate read for older teens than younger ones.
And in any case, teens who enjoy this odd but interesting novel should be encouraged to go on and read about the real Lady Jane Grey. Her story may not be a happy one, unfortunately, but as the Lady Janies would agree, it’s definitely worth studying.
Image copyright HarperTeen. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.