Gilt by Katherine Longshore
I’ve been fascinated with the Tudor court in some capacity since middle school history class, but I didn’t realize how sexy and thrilling the stories surrounding Henry VIII and his six wives could be until reading Philippa Gregory and Antonia Fraser, and watching Showtime’s The Tudors.
Needless to say, delving into Henry’s tumultuous romantic life is fairly well-worn territory in the historical fiction circuit (there are several fictional novels on Catherine Howard’s era alone). I was a bit skeptical that Katherine Longshore’s Gilt could add much value to the scene. But I’m so glad I gave it a chance! From the first page, I was completely sucked into Longshore’s richly-detailed, voice-driven story of the imperious maiden Cat and her best friend Kitty, playing dangerous girlish games in the Duchess of Norfolk’s house.
The girls of Norfolk House have an easily recognizable teen group dynamic, and their fearless leader Cat seems at once invincible and vulnerable. These power games between friends would be at home on any episode of Gossip Girl. Cat is a 16th century Blair Waldorf—scheming, selfish, preoccupied with status and baubles, and so manipulative she’s bordering on sociopathic. Her friends fall into line or suffer the consequences.
It is through Kitty’s lense that we see Cat’s outlandish attitude and behavior, first with a touch of bemused affection and mild concern, and increasingly with resentment and well-placed fear, as the risks Cat takes with romantic trysts and power plays puts the friends she’s brought into her gilded world in the worst kind of danger. The gossip and thinly veiled threats that are the girlish currency of Cat’s youth could be her unraveling as queen.
I enjoyed Kitty’s voice, and while I did wish she had more of a spine when it came to Cat and the men at court, I think given her position and lack of power, I can understand her weak-willed behavior. In general I walk away from fictionalized or historical accounts of Henry VIII’s reign by thanking my lucky stars I’m a woman living in the 2K10′s and not the 1.5K’s. I’m pretty sure I would have been escorted to the Tower of London before I made it into double digits.
While Kitty’s romances weren’t as prominent as the synopsis suggests, I did think there was a small ray of sweetness amongst the piggish vipers that passed for love interests in the Tudor court. Full of inevevitable complications for two people who have no control over their own lives, the main romance was handled well, and left me with some faith that love can survive the brutality of history, no matter what the jaded-before-her-time Cat tells her friends.
My only complaint about Gilt is that some of the dialogue and gestures in the story seem more Gossip Girl than Tudors (the old finger-in-mouth “gag me” gesture isn’t that old), but the anachronisms weren’t enough to take me out of the suspenseful, titillating story. Even though I knew the ending, I was still hanging on every word, racing breathlessly to the inevitable conclusion. Watching Catherine Howard’s rise and fall through the eyes of her quieter, awestruck friend is a bit like watching a deluded high-on-herself reality tv star careen toward a meltdown. You’re fascinated, you feel like someone should intervene, but you kind of hope they don’t so you can watch martini glasses crash against the wall and hair extensions fly.
Gilt is a richly-imagined, guilty pleasure read for historical fiction lovers, and Katherine Longshore is a sparkling new talent to watch. I’m definitely in for whatever story she tackles next!