With The Crown returning for its highly anticipated fourth season today, I wanted to share three books I have read recently that will help put you in the mood to watch, or help you continue enjoying similarly themed stories once you have binge-watched the entire season in a day! All three are filled with the same scandals, tragedies, and difficult choices you have come to expect from The Crown and I thoroughly enjoyed them all.
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Before the Crown by Flora Harding
Before the Crown by Flora Harding is a historical fiction novel set between 1943 and 1947 that imagines how the courtship between Elizabeth and Philip may have played out. The book alternates between their perspectives and is based largely on historical accounts but naturally fictionalizes many of their private meetings and more intimate moments.
The book opens in 1943 with a 17-year-old Elizabeth seeing Philip again for the first time after many years. Having been taken with him as a young girl, Elizabeth is keen to show Philip how much she has grown up over the intervening years. Philip, for his part, is being pressured by his uncle Lord Mountbatten to court Elizabeth who offers his family an unparalleled opportunity to restore some of its lost prestige. Initially unwilling to be maneuvered into a union for strategic reasons, Philip is surprised to find himself immediately impressed by Elizabeth and the two agree to write to one another often.
As the war progresses, the pair occasionally meet and become close friends, and gradually a more intimate relationship begins to emerge. However, the course of their courtship doesn’t run smoothly. Elizabeth is perhaps the world’s most eligible girl and it is vital to her parents that a suitable husband is found. Philip’s family is far from ideal in their eyes. His mother previously resided in a sanatorium and is now a nun in Athens, his father lives with his mistress in Monaco, and his sisters are married to former SS officers in Germany. Add to this Philip’s refusal to bow to court protocol, and his lack of knowledge regarding royal activities, and they are determined to keep the pair from marrying—even after they become betrothed.
We all know how this story played out in the end with Philip and Elizabeth’s wedding in November 1947, but reading about it through the eyes of its two most key players really brings it to life. It’s sometimes hard to feel sympathy for the characters in their low moments given that they live in castles surrounded by gold and diamonds while the people around them struggle through the aftermath of the war, but the story humanizes them and reminds us that they are real people with real feelings that were often ignored or pushed to the side in deference to protocol.
If you love The Crown, this is probably the closest you will get to it in book form.
American Royals II: Majesty by Katherine McGee
I loved the first American Royals book when it came out and was excited to see where this second installment would take the characters. This review contains spoilers for book one, so turn away now if you would prefer to avoid those.
The American Royals series imagines an alternate timeline where George Washington chose to become America’s first king rather than its president and his family still rules to this day. As with the first book, American Royals II: Majesty alternates between the perspectives of four female characters: Beatrice, Samantha, Nina, and Daphne. At the end of book one, the king had suddenly died leaving Beatrice to assume the role of Queen of America—the first woman to rule—and this is precisely where Majesty picks up. Beatrice’s chapters ended up being some of my favorites as she begins to navigate the politics and protocols of being Queen, hampered all the way by men who are clearly unhappy at having a young woman in charge. There are some surprisingly feminist messages here, and it was a delight to watch Beatrice grow in confidence as the book progressed with a few stand out moments. Her relationship with future King Consort Teddy was awkward at times, as could be expected from what will be in effect an arranged marriage, but the growth between them felt natural and ultimately believable.
Beatrice’s younger sister Samantha, the party princess, was left heartbroken when the man she loved ended up engaged to her sister instead and in Majesty, she is determined to make him jealous. To this end, she begins a fake relationship with a Duke with an equally promiscuous reputation. Sam’s chapters were certainly some of the most fun but also felt somewhat predictable, which was a shame. Unlike with Beatrice, her story rarely touched on anything that wasn’t related to her relationships, which also did her a disservice. By the end, I was happy for Sam, but her chapters were not as good in this book as they were in the first. As for Sam’s best friend, unlike in book one, Nina felt virtually non-existent in Majesty. Her new relationship with Prince Jefferson’s best friend Ethan is awkward throughout, largely because we as readers are privy to the secret of how it came to be. Her previous relationship with Jefferson felt brushed aside to make way for new plot developments, and this sensation of sidelining could really be applied to Nina’s character as a whole.
Last but not least is Daphne. In the first book, Daphne was a social climber determined to win back Prince Jefferson as her whole life plan hinged on marrying him and restoring her family’s name and finances. Majesty continues this with Daphne determined to do whatever it takes to claw her way back into Jefferson’s good graces. Two things stand in her way, however. First, her BFF Himari has finally woken up from the coma that Daphne accidentally caused and it’s unclear how much she remembers, and second, Daphne has developed feelings for Ethan. Daphne is a fantastic antagonist and her chapters were consistently some of the most interesting and shocking to read.
As with the first book, Majesty reads like a soap opera or teen drama along the lines of Riverdale and Gossip Girl with characters endlessly trading romantic partners, blackmailing one another, and generally entangling themselves in drama. Personally, I loved it, but I can also see that for many readers it would come across as ridiculous. The ending of Majesty came as a real shock to me. Unlike with the other two books in this list, I did not see many of its elements coming and was taken aback with a few in particular, especially when I learned that this is currently intended to be the final book of the series. Despite its fairytale settings, Majesty is certainly not a book that is concerned with giving a happily-ever-after to all its protagonists. While I can’t exactly claim to be happy about the way some characters’ stories ended, the ending was certainly refreshing for being so different to how I expected it to play out.
If you want something with all the scandal and drama of The Crown—particularly Princess Margaret’s stories in the early seasons—then look no further than this.
Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
The third book I’ve chosen to include here was far and away my favorite. Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston came out last year, but I only recently got around to reading it after seeing it everywhere on Booktube this year. Trigger warnings for sexual assault, homophobia, and drug addiction apply.
The book is set in 2020 during the US election and follows the burgeoning romance between the president’s son Alex and Prince Henry, heir to the British throne. The two begin as enemies but are forced to fake a friendship for the press after a potential diplomatic incident between them at a royal wedding. Forced to spend time together, the pair develop a close friendship that quickly turns into a passionate romance.
However, things are not smooth sailing. Alex’s mother—the first female president—is on the campaign trail against her Republican rival for reelection in November. Many voters are already unhappy at having a woman in the White House, especially one who is divorced and has mixed-race children, and so her campaign is desperate to keep anything that might alienate or offend potential voters under wraps. Across the Atlantic, Prince Henry has already been told that his family expects him to marry soon and begin producing heirs, informing him that should he insist on giving in to any “deviant desires,” discrete channels can be arranged so that his behavior will not “reflect poorly upon the crown.”
Under the guise of diplomatic relations between their respective countries, Alex and Henry meet regularly to continue their relationship. But when the inevitable happens, can they hold on to everything they have found in one another?
I absolutely loved this book, even if it was absolutely ridiculous in parts. It was frequently laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly steamy (there were moments I worried one of the Queen’s guard was about to break down my door for reading something so scandalous about a member of the British monarchy—fictional as he might be), and utterly heartbreaking in parts. It also had a fantastic cast of supporting characters, including Alex’s sister June, the family’s favorite secret service agent Amy, and Henry’s sister Beatrice. The entire thing read like fanfic that the author has filed the serial numbers off and changed to feature original characters, but while that might sound off-putting to some, it caused me to fall in love with the writing style within the first few pages.
I also loved the diverse representation on show. Alex and his sister are both of mixed race, and their family situation explores the complexity of a non-traditional family, especially when that family unit is so hugely in the public eye. There are multiple queer characters throughout, including clearly labeled bisexual, gay, and lesbian individuals and a transgender character too. One character is working through addiction, and I also felt that Alex and June’s best friend Nora was coded as being on the autistic spectrum, although that was never explicitly stated.
Of course, there are some issues to be found. Alex’s and Henry’s journey from enemies to lovers felt remarkably fast even when you know it’s coming right from the book’s cover, and the whole thing wraps up rather too perfectly with none of the fallout that would be inevitable from the events that take place. However, in a year like 2020, this was exactly what I needed and so it’s hard to level too much of a criticism at it.
Want something that balances politics with royal drama in the same way as The Crown? Then this is a safe bet.
GeekMom received some titles in this post for review purposes.