The Red Queen

Margaret Drabble’s novel, The Red Queen, follows the lives of two women, more than two centuries and half a world apart. The first is an historical figure: the Lady Hyegyong, Crown Princess of Korea, who narrates the first section of the book in present time, even though she is long dead. At the age of nine, she was chosen to be the bride of the equally young Crown Prince Sado. The prince’s erratic behavior worsened around age twenty-five, when he became violently paranoid. Dangerously out of control, Sado was ultimately executed by his father King Yongjo, himself a volatile figure.

A copy of the princess’s memoirs has been sent anonymously to Dr. Barbara Halliwell, a self-conscious British professor who reads it on the plane to Seoul, where she will present a conference paper on risk assessment and ethical choices in dying. As the story shifts to the professor, she finds that she and the princess have much in common-- both married mentally unstable husbands and had infant sons who died, and both are exceedingly fond of the color red. The coincidences, which seem intriguing at first, quickly become contrived.

In spite of Drabble’s warning that some details are not historically accurate, The Red Queen offers a glimpse into eighteenth century Korean life, particularly the intense and deadly intrigues of the court. Unfortunately the princess’s voice, detached and long-winded, is not an enthralling one, although it should be. The interest level increases noticeably in later sections. Still, a minor character named "Margaret Drabble" is an unwelcome intrusion, and Dr. Halliwell’s three-day affair with a conference speaker seems gratuitous. Somehow this book cannot decide whether it wants to be a history or a romance novel.