When she becomes a junior lady of Queen Elizabeth’s bedchamber, Rosamund is instructed by her cousin, the brilliant and devious secretary of state Sir Francis Walsingham, to record everything she observes. Her promised reward: a chance at a good marriage. But through her brother Thomas, Rosamund finds herself drawn to the forbidden, rough-and-tumble world of theatre, and to Thomas’s friend, the dramatic, impetuous playwright Christopher Marlowe. And then Rosamund meets Will Creighton—a persuasive courtier, poet, and would-be playwright who is the embodiment of an unsuitable match. The unsanctioned relationship between Rosamund and Will draws the wrath of Elizabeth, who prides herself on being the Virgin Queen. Rosamund is sent in disgrace to a remote castle that holds Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Stuart, the imprisoned Queen of Scots. Here, Walsingham expects Rosamund to uncover proof of a plot against Elizabeth.
I must confess, when I read the many lukewarm reviews of this book I prepared myself for the worst. Fortunately I shouldn't have worried, I actually enjoyed this novel even despite the romance-y parts (all the between-the-sheets adventures are not my cup of tea).
One of my favorite things about this novel is that little about it was straightforward. There is a lot of intrigue, both political and personal. Everyone has something they want and the means they employ are hardly ever savory. I've always thought that "life at court", wherever and whenever the court exists, is a dark place and this novel only supports this belief of mine. What would anyone want to be there is beyond me. Excitement? Closeness to the ones with power? Are they really worth the need to constantly watch one's back, literally and figuratively? But I digress. Fortunately all the talk about the intrigues didn't swallow up too much page time and didn't slow down the story as it often does. Another element I enjoyed is tied into the intrigues and has to do with how quickly it all can suck one in. Rosamund, the protagonist, went from an innocent, sheltered girl to one of the key players in a conspiracy at the highest levels in the blink of an eye and with no way out, and she wasn't the only one trapped in the quicksand.
In a simple but effective device the author gave almost every character an antipode, which served to highlight their personalities. Elizabeth had Mary, Will had Arnauld, Mrs. Walsingham had Agathe and interestingly enough Tom had Kit. Kit was the most intriguing of them all, a man with seemingly no moral compass but showing more scrupples and higher standards than any of his associates and at the most unexpected of times. If nothing else he was more true to himself throughout the novel than any of the others, even Rosamund who even in the most dire of circumstances managed to go her own way.
The novel spans less than a year but Rosamund's growth in just several months is incredible. The girl who was most concerned with capturing the apple blossom just right on her parchment grew into a young woman familiar with the price of life and death and the pain of loss and deceipt. In short, she grew up and as traumatic as the journey was it was interesting to follow it.
The whole book is permeated with Rosamund's love for the theater, which in fact is the cause of all her troubles. It was interesting to look in on this world that wasn't considered suitable for the gentle-folk and women in particular, and the appeal it held for people of all layers of society. Nowadays theater isn't all that popular and reading about people being willing to risk their reputation and their future to attend a play is a bit surreal. I can't even imagine what would be comparable in today's world. Makes me glad to be living a simple life in this century and not at court in Elizabethan England - it would seem that even those not involved with the performing arts found themselves acting every day whether they liked it or not.
The parts I didn't enjoy had to do with the particularly descriptive intimate scenes that I felt were gratuitous most of the time and the fact that some ideas kept being repeated, as if the author either forgot that she's already had her characters say things exactly the same way before or wanted to reiterate them but didn't do it very well. In either case, the effect wasn't favorable. Another oddity that caught my eye is that the novel is set in England, the language appears to be true to the period with archaic turns of phrase and sentence structure but the spelling is infallibly American. I'm sure it isn't too much of a stretch to believe that the readers on this side of the Atlantic can figure out that "theatre" is the same as "theater" and "colour" is "color" and it would've kept the atmosphere consistent.
All in all this was an enjoyable read that satisfied my appetite for historical fiction. And I found myself using words I've forgotten I knew, which hasn't happened in a while.