Ok. Imagine I took the films Lady Hawke, A Knight’s Tale, Disney’s Tangled, Ever After, Monty Python, and The Princess Bride, mixed it with the tv show Galavant, some Lady of the Forest by Jennifer Roberson, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, and Heir Apparent by Vivian Van Velde, added a dash of Philippa Gregory and Discworld – and wrote a book.
Would you read that book? My Lady Jane is that book. It is a fantastical retelling of the story of Lady Jane Grey and Lord Guildford Dudley, set in England during the English Reformation. The novel is a team effort, written by three YA authors in collaboration: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. I’d never heard of these women before finding My Lady Jane and upon inspection I have no desire to read their other books. For example, Hand has written the YA series about teenage angel-human half-bloods. Not terrible I’m sure, but not my cup of tea right now either.
My Lady Jane starts off with a preface where the narrator explains that they are about to reveal the “real” history of the Protestant Reformation. Forget Catholics and Protestants. Imagine that medieval England is populated with shape-shifting people called E∂ians. And the followers of Bloody Mary are persecuting all E∂ians. Of course this logic doesn’t follow – Catholics were in England way before reform began and in this story the E∂ians are an ancient magic that has always been in England, so it doesn’t work as a parallel to the controversial emergence of Protestantism. But the way to enjoy My Lady Jane is to pretend you don’t know anything about the Reformation, and just let the story whisk you away.
The first half of the novel follows the historical timeline of the Nine Day Queen pretty closely. Jane is married off to Guildford (who goes by G), an arrangement made my G’s father and King Edward, who knows he is dying. Jane’s marriage starts off rocky when she realized that her sight-unseen husband spends his days in his E∂ian form of a horse. The novel follows history through Edward’s death, Jane’s rushed coronation, and Mary’s revolt. Then things get weird. Turns out Edward faked his death – he was not ill, he was being slowly poisoned by G’s father who wanted to see his son on the throne. Elizabeth helps Edward escape, and Edward discovers his E∂ian power in a moment of great need. He flees north to Scotland in the form of a hawk and teams up with a young orphan girl who can shift into a fox. At this point the book completely forgets history and just has fun. There’s a wise old grandmother, a bizarre encounter with a bear, a violent team of E∂ian freedom fighters, and a girl who spends most of her life as a dog. As you can guess, our heroes all escape their tragic historical deaths and live to fight another day for England and E∂ians.
Parts of My Lady Jane work very well, fitting into the genre of The Princess Bride, and Hitchhiker’s Guide, and Discworld – a genre I might call “Absurdist Fantasy.” The three authors of My Lady Jane cleverly use an omniscient narrator to remind you just how ridiculous the story is while you’re reading it. Most of the book jives, as the adventures build on each other to tell a story that is very sweet at its core. The budding romance between G and Jane is inspired by the “Jane” that Guildford carved into the walls of the Tower of London on his last days before his execution. The dynamic of Lady Jane and Lord Guildford’s real marriage is unknown. They were married for barely two years and both died at the respective ages of 17 and 19. Theirs is a story that is begging for an alternate history make-over. My Lady Jane has its flaws, but the heart of the story saved it time and again when the Ella Enchanted -style magic bogged the story down.
As much as I enjoyed My Lady Jane I think that there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Co-writing is never easy and in this novel I could feel the crowding of ideas and characters. It would have been more successful if the authors had streamlined the magic and left out some of the unnecessary adventures that gave the novel a very episodic feel. To fit in their ambitions, My Lady Jane should have been much longer – and written for adults. The concept of the E∂ians has weirdly adult undertones that were smoothed over by the authors. I would have preferred if My Lady Jane “went there,” got a little darker and sexier, took more weird risks. Too often I was pulled out of the story by remembering that this book was written for young adults. It doesn’t have the freedom that Hitchhikers or Discworld has. Since clothes can’t shape-shift with you, the characters were constantly naked, baring their full anatomy to each other in a way that could have been much funnier if written for a more adult audience. Edward only imagines “kissing” a girl who he has seen in her full glory – no one actually has sex despite the fervor around them. I think Hand, Ashton, and Meadows wrote themselves into a corner, where they couldn’t begin to sexualize the characters without bringing that highly uncomfortable topic of beastiality into the mix. So their attempts to write around the consequences of shape-shifting felt a little silly – they choose to write in those bizarre dynamics, and then didn’t use them.
My Lady Jane wasn’t sure who its audience was, which I think I can also blame on the co-writer situation. It referenced predecessors in its genre like The Princess Bride, but in the end I wasn’t sure if what I was reading was parodying or genuinely trying to emulate its genre. Sometimes it took the joke too far. For example, one character quotes a lot of Shakespeare, which is funny because Shakespeare didn’t exist yet, and both the reader and narrator are in on the joke. Later, when they try to reveal that said character IS Shakespeare, the joke fell flat. My Lady Jane was hilarious but had no focus; it was sweet but lacked emotional weight. It was definitely one of the weirdest books I have ever read. Make of that what you will. If you love 16th century England, or if you love alternate history, My Lady Jane is worth the read. If you think you can live without reading a book about a horse who marries a ferret, then that’s fine too.
Sarah V Diehl