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The tragedy and intrigue of Lady Jane Grey, in novel form

Author Alison Weir (above) writes about the life of Britain's nine-day queen. Author Alison Weir (above) writes about the life of Britain's nine-day queen.

Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey, By Alison Weir, Ballantine, 402 pp., $24.95

The most interesting aspect of someone's 15 minutes of fame can be what happens before that fast-moving spotlight finds its subject. Which qualities of the person and society mesh so perfectly that, for a time, little else can hold everyone's attention?

For a brief moment in 1553, religious and political forces aligned to make Lady Jane Grey, a 16-year-old grand-niece of Henry VIII , an improbable queen of England.

For a real-life story that seems more fiction than fact, best-selling English historian Alison Weir has turned her keen writing and research skills toward the novel.

With a narrative style rich in detail and emotion, "Innocent Traitor" reveals the tragic life of the young queen whose reign is the shortest in English history: just nine days . In a country torn apart by religious ferment and complex power struggles, her youth could not keep her from a throne she didn't want or shield her from the executioner's ax.

The tale is told variously by Jane, her parents, and other key people such as Mary Tudor, the duke of Northumberland, Queen Catherine Parr , and Jane's beloved nurse and best friend, Mrs. Ellen.

The challenge of reading any novel set in the 16th-century English court is keeping track of everyone and their connections to one another. Weir makes each voice distinct, through believable dialogue, internal musings, and letters. Her formidable scholarship provides multiple perspectives on the chaotic succession of the English monarchy that followed the death of Henry VIII.

We begin, fittingly, with the birth of Jane, in 1537 , to the overly ambitious Lord and Lady Dorset. That same year, Prince Edward is born to Jane Seymour and Henry VIII . Although Jane is an uncommonly intelligent young girl, her parents had preferred a son, who would have been in line for the throne. Their Plan B is: groom their daughter for court, and secretly scheme to marry her to Edward.

Lady Dorset is a regal and terrifying stage mother. When she's not ignoring Jane, she's devising nasty punishments for real or imagined infractions. Her daughter drives her to distraction: Jane persists in wearing plain gowns in lieu of the sumptuous ones that show off her figure, and chooses reading over hunting parties. Jane's perceptions of people and politics can seem preternaturally astute, making her appear a bit like an antique picture of a young noble, who looks more like a tiny adult than a toddler.

Jane's relationship with her mother, sheathed in sophistication and cruelty, seems emblematic of an age that was both grand and barbaric. A noblewoman might attend opulent banquets, don a splendid costume to perform in a masque, while away hours sewing and listening to delicate music, yet also confront the dangers of childbirth, witness a heretic being burned at the stake, and flee London for the country in advance of the plague.

By the time she's in her teens, Jane can read and write in multiple languages, and corresponds with intellectuals and diplomats from different countries. She thinks and writes about religion -- the key issue of the day -- in ways deeper and more learned than many modern-day grownups do.

After Henry's death, the sickly King Edward fears that his fervently Catholic sister, Mary Tudor (unhappy daughter of Henry and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon ), will eradicate Protestantism and bring back the pope if she succeeds him. He changes the laws of succession so his cousin Jane can become queen instead of Mary, opening up England to bloody rebellion.

Even while being pushed toward the most powerful position in the land, Jane has absolutely no control over her destiny -- she will marry whomever her parents select and then obey the dictates of her husband. It might seem contradictory to say that a passive character is also compelling, but Jane emerges as a surprisingly interesting young woman. Except for the glaring lack of a happily-ever-after ending, Jane's story also seems familiar: Her ability to maneuver inside her conscribed framework echoes that of many female characters in history, fairy tales, and novels.

As with some of Philippa Gregory's historical novels, Weir's "Innocent Traitor" has the page-turning intrigue of a modern soap opera. But here the prizes are not flashy romance and corporate takeovers; the prizes are countries and lives.