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'My Lady Jane' plays delightful games with English history

This modern comedy novel transforms the tale of Lady Jane Grey into a fictional festival.

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    My Lady Jane
    By Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows
    HarperCollins Publishers
    512 pp.
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Let’s start this book review right with the book’s pithy dedication: “For everyone who knows there was enough room for Leonardo DiCaprio on that door. And for England. We’re really sorry for what we’re about to do to your history.”

That sets the scene for My Lady Jane, the YA fantasy from Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, the authorial triumvirate self-styled as “the Lady Janies.” Rub your hands together, and let’s do this!

The Lady Janies reimagine their subject’s fateful story through new eyes, turning dense historical tragedy into fizzy modern comedy. They tell Lady Jane Grey’s tale with all the conspiratorial self-awareness of Gonzo and Rizzo writing a CosmoGirl column.

Buckle up for revisionist history at its flippant, fantastical finest. It’s everything you love about Tudor England – now with Animorphs!

Say what? Oh, trust me, you read it right. In this version of England, trouble’s a-brewing, not from a Protestant-Catholic struggle, but between the people who can turn into animals and the people who want to burn them at the stake.

These Animagi are called E∂ians, which here (for ease of publication and pronunciation) I’ll write phonetically as Ethians. Their gift – or curse, depending on who’s talking – is a genetic anomaly. Ethians have been persecuted for years by Verities, who believe Ethians are an abomination. Only under King Henry VIII, who became a lion when enraged, were Ethians accepted and protected.

Part One of “My Lady Jane” follows the major historical beats as Henry VIII’s three children play hot potato with the crown. In order of reign, they are: Edward VI (pro-Ethian), Mary I (super-Verity), and Elizabeth I (pro-Ethian).

As we know, young Edward falls gravely ill. He and his advisor, the big-beaked Lord John Dudley, fear that if Mary becomes queen, she will reestablish a harsh pro-Verity regime. Dudley convinces Edward to appoint Jane, his cousin, next in the order of succession rather than his sisters. Mary disagrees with this turn of events.

To seal the deal, Edward and Dudley command Jane to marry Dudley’s second son, Gifford. This done, they congratulate themselves on forwarding the Tudor lineage through Jane and Gifford’s future sons. Just one small problem here: Gifford is an Ethian who uncontrollably turns into a horse from sunrise to sunset.

Staring down the barrel of an arranged marriage, the newlyweds lay out their dealbreakers. Their rules tell you everything you need to know about our main characters.

Jane’s rules are threefold – no touching the books, no chewing the books, and no hay in the books. She has an endless collection of tomes with Hogwartsian titles like “The Glorious and Gruesome Stages of Death: A Beginner’s Guide,” “The Unabridged History of the Beet in England: Volume Five,” and “Poisonous and Nonpoisonous Berries of the Wild: The Joys of Surviving England on a Budget.” (Priorities, man.)

Gifford’s rules are equally simple – no riding the horse, no bridling the horse, no saddling the horse, and no horse jokes. Jane tramples rule number four from the get-go.

Again as we know, Edward is declared dead and Jane is reluctantly crowned. Nine days later, Mary leads a triumphant force into London to claim the throne. Jane and Gifford are thrown into the Tower of London to await death. And at this point, the Lady Janies’ merry minecart, already mightily bucking the facts, jumps the track entirely.

As Part Two kicks off, we learn that Edward did not die. In fact, he never had the plague at all: Dudley, our gal’s oily father-in- law, has been poisoning him. Edward, Jane, and Gifford escape, joining forces with Elizabeth and a Scottish pickpocket to oust Mary. Several rousing rounds of “let’s all cheat death” and “guess who’s an Ethian” later, we have a happy ending!

Okay, so that was complicated. Blame the Tudors and their squall of inbred intrigue. Rest assured, the Lady Janies’ rendition is a breezy story full of snark and sparkle that had me belly-laughing every five minutes.

How could you not giggle when your heroes are a mollycoddled boy-king, a well-spoken Hermione, a nobleman-slash-stallion, and a saucy Scottish thief who turns into a fox? Five hundred pages never flew by so quickly.

The arranged marriage between Jane and Gifford is a “Beauty and the Beast” master stroke. We watch their relationship evolve from mutual disdain to tolerance, then to friendship, affection, and eventually love. What a joy, considering the nasty preconceptions they brought to the table!

Though Jane thanks God that Gifford did not inherit his father’s colossal schnoz, she knows his reputation as a legendary womanizer. I’ll let her tell it:
“So. Her husband-to- be was a philanderer. A smooth operator. A debaucher. A rake. A frisker. (Jane became something of a walking thesaurus when she was upset, a side effect of too much reading.)”

Little does she know, Gifford’s dalliances are total fiction, conjured to cover up his habit of attending midnight poetry readings. (His Eric Blore-ian butler nearly gives the game away.)

Though it takes forever for all their secrets to unravel, these two crazy kids make it work.

Meanwhile, Gifford expected Jane to be a nearsighted, mousy bookworm with appalling social skills. He’s right about the bookworm part. En route to their honeymoon, our intellectual gal builds a wall of philosophy and science volumes between them in the carriage.

Oh, this novel was too much fun. I kept a running tally of pop culture references, since their tongue-in-cheek inclusion tickled me so much. There’s something for everyone, slipped in like background characters in a busy tapestry. A festival of Easter eggs, including but not limited to … TV/movies: “Game of Thrones,” “Ever After,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “The Princess Bride,” “Tangled,” “Star Wars,” and “Ocean’s Twelve.” A dollop of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s “Shall We Dance,” thanks to a pair of suites with matching doors in between.

Literature: Shakespearean sonnets, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “Le Morte d’Arthur.” A dash of Mark Twain, and did I seriously catch a Savage Garden lyric?

If you’re a fan of Mallory Ortberg, you will adore “My Lady Jane.” It calls up Ortberg’s inimitable work for The Toast on Western art history and The Hairpin on texts from classic literature. Go forth, read, and enjoy!

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