The real focus of the book is Katharine Howard (FMF's spelling of her name), the future fifth wife of the king. It is a highly romanticized view of her, which has more in common with Valentine Wannop in "Parade's End" than actual history, but she's a spunky, passionate, interesting character to follow. For Ford, being able to correct mistakes in Latin on the fly is one of a woman's sexiest qualities!
Where the book succeeds is in creating an atmosphere of dread and Machiavellian intrigue. It's also worth reading for the unique (in my experience) style and language - 1540 mediated through 1905 (roughly). Where else are you likely to run across the word "goosetherumfoodle" in a line of dialogue? There are fascinating, tricky characters, like Lady Mary (the future Queen Mary), and a lady in waiting nicknamed "The Magpie," or the evil but persuasive Throckmorton, and the king himself, who moves through this world with ultimate power and yet seems hopeless thwarted and heart-sick.
One of the things Ford does very well is indirection: a character will demand an answer to a question and not receive it for pages, or in such an ambiguous fashion it creates more questions. It makes the scenes and exchanges of dialogue more intense, but does add to the meandering quality of the book - it's rarely clear to me what Ford's characters want or where the plot is headed. I adore the (brilliant) winding, chronologically nonlinear zig-zag of "Parade's End," but in this novel where the narrative is straight-forward the wandering bothered me.
But one wades through Ford's archaic language and seemingly-directionless plot because there are moments of such psychological astuteness.
"Being young, she felt that God and the saints alike fought on her side."
And in a line that feels especially resonant in the wake of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo:
"Nevertheless, she made no comment. For she knew that it is the nature of men calmly to ask hateful sacrifices of women. But her throat ached with rage."
There is a stunning conversation between Throckmorton and Katharine in which he accuses her of looking at the world as black and white where it is grey - this is not the days of Plutarch that she venerates in which right and wrong seem so clearly delineated - and then he suggests that even this is a mistaken impression - the world has always been grey and no man, or woman, is completely good or evil.