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Third by Q. Kelly (2011)

December 8, 2019

There’s a good idea buried in Third — one articulated by the character Helen Franklin, a modern-day history professor who, like many real ones, has discovered an Anne who strongly resembles herself. “Helen’s theory, or rather, her wishful thought, was that Anne was a lesbian trying to make her way in a ruthless, heterosexual world.” Unfortunately, the world in which we see the lesbian Anne emerge is not hers but our own; kidnapped by an unethical scientist who’s discovered time travel, a few years later she finds herself in the unwilling custody of the now-deceased scientist’s daughter, Helen Franklin, and her sort-of estranged wife, Yalia Yamato. Helen teaches history and is obsessed with the Tudors. Yalia is a cop who accidentally shot a six-year-old during a hostage standoff and as a result is starting to have doubts about having children — hence her estrangement from Helen. They both have serious doubts about the ethics of the situation, but since Anne is already here, along with the chatty, amoral Benjamin Franklin and one other mystery time traveler known only as TT0, they haven’t really got much choice. Fascinating ethical and historical questions arise and are promptly swatted away as the three women get distracted by their evergreen lust for each other, and by the end all we’ve really learned about Anne is that she enjoys sex toys and looks good in a Starbucks apron.

Of course, that’s the point. This book is in its own genre and has no reason to exist outside of the sex scenes so if what you’re looking for is modern Anne experimenting with a Luv Toy, packing, and triads, look no further. But its broader appeal is nonexistent, because the characters who are grappling with the intriguing questions of both time travel and a lesbian Anne Boleyn are just so remorselessly flat. Helen, we’re told, is a professor of history at Gallaudet University, an expert on the Tudors who has written two books on them — her “big” book was a biography of Edward VI, but she’s also written a biography of Anne — it was this biography, in fact, which inspired her father to bring Anne into the present as a sort of gift for his daughter. As he conceals this from his daughter until he’s on his deathbed, several years after Anne’s arrival, we see the newly-arrived Anne only on a recording that he made at the time, in which Anne speaks in an odd, faintly Irish accent and “her expression was frozen, fear in her eyes. Yalia used to volunteer at shelters for battered women. Helen had gone with her once … She hated the look in the battered women’s eyes, the same look in Anne’s eyes on the television. Anne Boleyn had not been battered in the traditional sense, but she had been abused, sure enough.”

It turns out that Josiah abducted Anne from May 19th, 1536, approximately ten minutes before her execution. Since then, it’s turned that she can occasionally fade away from her location in the present — and each time, she gets a few seconds closer to the time of her own death in 1536. She also gets odd, unexplained nosebleeds. As a result of this, Josiah has refused to let her off the grounds of his estate for a long time, so she’s spent a lot of time reading, painting, and thinking about her daughter and stepdaughter. She doesn’t want to bring Elizabeth forward (the time machine — which, to Helen’s further shock, she learns her mother helped to develop —broke after bringing her forward anyway) and is content to leave her where she is, but is unhappy about her treatment of Mary, and of what Mary eventually became.

Helen, of course, has to tell Yalia about this odd inheritance — and Yalia, of course, doesn’t believe a word of it but decides to humor both of them by going to the movies together. Anne needles Helen in her odd accent — “You do this in spite of the fact that I am Anne Boleyn. You are much more comfortable studying me dead, are you not? You do not like me alive.” Yalia gradually starts to become convinced, and is both fascinated and horrified by what her late in-laws have done.

Regina [Franklin] had been a great mother-in-law. A great mother. Yalia had a hard time imagining her helping abduct a woman, but then, you never really knew people.

That’s certainly one way of putting it. Throughout the mediocre movie the women begin thinking fairly intense thoughts about each other, involving electric thrills and memories of past threesomes, and by the end of the evening Helen is leaning in for a kiss, expecting to be disappointed — “Anne was no witch. She would likely turn out to be a perfectly ordinary, perhaps dull kisser.”

At last, she understood how Henry felt. He had tasted Anne, she had perhaps played with him, and he could not let her go. In her own way, Anne was a witch. She must be, because for the first time since the shooting, Yalia had a ghost of a smile on her lips. That kind of smile. Yalia was turned on.

These scenes establish the pattern for the rest of the book — Anne shows signs of being genuinely intriguing and having a personality; teasing Helen about liking her dead better than alive, offering to answer three questions — and no more — per day, letting them have it about how wrong it was to kidnap her, even managing to bring both Helen and Yalia back to 1536 in her body for a few seconds — but every time the spark is quenched by her honestly somewhat inexplicable attraction to both Helen and Yalia and drowned in the inevitable sex scenes. It’s difficult to see where the interest is — both modern women, despite attempts to dress them up with personality traits, come across as having the depth of a piece of cardboard and their development over the course of the story is nonexistent. They end essentially as they began, except that threesomes have somehow managed to get Yalia back into a child-having frame of mind and Anne into embracing modern life, which means taking on a new name and getting a job at Starbucks. While all this is going on, the women are being pursued and annoyed by Benjamin Franklin, who’s having a grand old time exploring the modern era and can’t figure out why Anne feels differently, and who also has a few secrets of his own which he’s choosing not to share with any of the women. In other hands, this could be entertaining, but in this rendering, it falls flat. When Anne is existing in the present, her personality seems to fade — only when she thinks of the past does any sort of energy come through. Of course, this may be meant to show the depleting effect of being kidnapped into the future — but combined with the lackluster personalities of the two women she gets involved with, it makes for dull reading.

The overarching non-sexual plot elements are two: first, the identity of TT0 (which everyone, including Anne, figures out pretty early on) and second, the question of what will happen when Anne fades back into 1536 enough times that she eventually ends up back on the scaffold. Will she disappear from the present day forever, or will she be there permanently? The tension is rather undercut by the reassurance, based on the fate of TT0, that her execution will mean essentially permanent relocation to the twenty-first century, and indeed, when the moment comes, that’s where she ends up, having discovered by the way that the time travel machine isn’t quite as broken as Josiah and Ben Franklin insisted it was. Finally free of nosebleeds, fades, and scientists recording her every move, she embraces a future of doing pretty much what she’s already been doing for a few months, while working on her paintings and possibly adding a child taken from history to be spared a harsher fate. Not a bad way to end, but not as interesting as it should have been.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, in impressive quantities. Anne goes from never having kissed a woman to quite a lot more in the space of a couple of weeks (but then, in a way she’s been waiting several centuries so it’s hard to blame her).

WHEN BORN? We never find out. Helen’s own hypothesis is that Anne was born at Blickling in 1505, but maddeningly, she never even explains why she thinks this, much less persists in asking Anne anything about it. Anne smiles mysteriously once when Helen asks her about it, which Helen hopes is confirmation that she’s right — but she never finds out for certain, and never follows up. Even more maddeningly, once we’re allowed inside Anne’s head, we’re not allowed to learn this, or any other long-lost details either.

THE EARLY LOVE While Anne has always been attracted to women, she was genuinely fond of Henry Percy — “a good man” is how she describes him to herself, once again failing to go into detail — and would have been happy to be married to him had they not been torn apart by Wolsey for non-royal reasons.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Towards the beginning, Helen thinks about how Anne “had lacked the capability to form true friendships with women, although with one apparent exception: Lady Lee. Anne clicked with men. Probably she had the ambition and mindset of a man and did not like to bother with society women’s idle chatter.” Maddeningly, this is never followed up on — the discovery that Anne is indeed same-sex oriented doesn’t necessarily mean she’d have more friendships with men or women, after all.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR — Besides Helen and Yalia, there are the dubious examples of Jordan (the driver for Icarus Corp. who shadows the women everywhere to make sure Anne isn’t “fading” or doing anything unauthorized) and Ben Franklin, whose help is of the distinctly self-interested sort and who doesn’t hesitate to lie to all of the women constantly.

THE PROPHECY None notable, except for references to the usual predictions that Anne’s baby would be a boy.

IT’S A GIRL! This is one of the few moments from her past life which Anne describes in any detail, after agreeing with the women that she’ll answer up to three questions a day (an agreement which is frustratingly forgotten the following day). Yalia asks if she was worried, while pregnant with Elizabeth, that the baby would be a girl. Anne says yes, she was, although she pretended not to be, and describes what followed the birth.

Henry stood in the doorway a long time. Only Elizabeth and I were in the room. Henry was a shadow. I was exhausted from the labor. I wanted to weep. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to weep more. I held the baby, and at last he approached. He looked at her. He looked at me. His face was still. His face was contained. He had big fingers, Henry did. Thick. He touched one of his fingers to her nose. “Elizabeth,” he said, and his voice was angry and sad and sweet and desperate. I knew for certain I was dead if I did not produce a boy soon. Then my husband left.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes — a little show of nail on her right hand, just as George Wyatt once described, as well as a normal but still noticeable mole on her neck.

FAMILY AFFAIRS Thomas Boleyn is described as a “puppet-master” who directed virtually every one of Anne’s moves before her marriage, up to and including her first sexual encounter with the King, but who promptly scuttled away when she and George were arrested. Her mother is barely mentioned. Anne is greatly distressed by George’s death — although she doesn’t consider bringing him into modern times (presumably because she doesn’t feel like she’s wronged him), when she starts venturing into the world she takes the name Anne Elizabeth George, as a tribute both to him and to her daughter. Mary Boleyn isn’t discussed much, but Anne does at one point remark that Mary’s son Henry was the image of William Carey and not the king’s son, whatever the rumors might say. (Characteristically, she drops this interesting train of thought almost as soon as it gets going.)

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? Not in 1536, certainly, and while she does get into a polyamorous relationship in the 21st century (as well as picking up at least one girl at a club) it can hardly count as cheating when her husband has been dead for 400 years.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The dialogue has its moments but is definitely on the flat side, with occasional flights into clumsy metaphor at awkward moments. Here’s Helen telling Anne she’s concerned about her health.

”You had two nosebleeds at the exact same times. Something is wrong. Now, if something happens to you and I can’t do anything about it because of the weather, I do not, I repeat, I do not want your blood on my hands.”

A real person might well say something like this, but a reader is going to see the anxiety about actual, physical blood and then the metaphor will turn Helen’s anxiety about Anne’s nosebleeds into Helen complaining because Anne might not get to the Kleenex on time and Helen will have to wash her hands.

There are a lot of “As you know” moments for Yalia’s (and presumably the reader’s) benefit, as when Anne carefully explains that both Princess Mary and her mother were redheads, and that she didn’t live in the same household as Princess Elizabeth. Plus far, far too much rote description of daily activities — do we really need to know Anne’s favorite Starbucks drinks? Do we need to walk with Yalia through the process of flushing the toilet and washing her hands?

ERRATA The book is an odd mixture of nicely researched and basic errors. I appreciated the attention paid to details like Anne’s accent — it’s somewhat Irish but otherwise very hard to place and impossible to pass off as a present-day British accent, so when introducing Anne to outsiders Helen falls back on saying that she grew up all over Europe. On the other hand, Anne never seemed to get the memo about how knight are addressed — “Sir Kingston” and “Sir Norris” are referenced, and really, that’s not something she would forget. (She does also call Helen and Yalia “Lady Franklin” and “Lady Yamato” by way of irony, but since we have no idea what rank she’s assigning them in her head, those titles could still work).

WORTH A READ? If seeing Anne Boleyn discover threesomes, vibrators, packing, and Starbucks aprons is what you want, this is the book for you. Otherwise, it offers nothing in terms of history, Anne Boleyn, and the ethical dilemmas of time travel which Nancy Kress’s And Wild For To Hold hasn’t already handled with a thousand times more complexity and character. A large part of the trouble is that Yalia and Helen just aren’t very compelling to read about — like many other fictional interlopers into the Anne Boleyn universe, they’re flatly defined by a characteristic or two and their dilemmas don’t take more than a few paragraphs to solve, even when they’re of enough complexity that such a resolution seems extremely unlikely. Yalia goes from a deep depression, complete loss of desire for children and almost total withdrawal from Helen to being mostly back to normal and totally on board with kids because she talks to Anne a few times and makes a brief trip back to 1536 in her body. Helen is given an earth-shattering discovery of her own, in addition to the shock of learning that Yalia has changed her mind about children, but seems to shrug it off in record time, and although there are frequent references to her professorship at Gallaudet we never see her teaching, preparing lesson plans, researching, working on her next book or article, thinking or talking about any of the above, or really doing much of anything that doesn’t revolve around taking care of Anne while failing to learn much of anything about her. I found myself wishing that the whole book had just jettisoned the time travel conceit completely and kept lesbian Anne in the 1530s, showing us how she negotiated court life.

Weirdly, the only character who manages to keep the reader’s interest is the distinctly amoral and creepy Ben Franklin. He’s the definition of untrustworthy, lies to Helen about the continued existence of the time machine, keeps other important information from her, enjoys himself a little too much while traveling illicitly around in time to witness the executions of famous women, and generally comes across as mad, bad, and dangerous to know. But he’s also excited to be kidnapped into the twenty-first century, picks up the technology eagerly and quickly, enjoys harmless pastimes like visiting his own grave, and is genuinely convinced that he’s doing Anne a favor by choosing her to be the next person to be kidnapped out of her time — after all, why wouldn’t anyone with such a fate want to be rescued from it? He’s the only character who has even a semblance of an actual complex inner life.

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From → Book Overviews

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