Was ever a monarch so beset as Elizabeth I of England? Seldom in her long reign was she not feuding with someone, and few feuds were as bitter or prolonged as the one over the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots. Even after Mary was implicated in an assassination plot in 1568 and sentenced to die for treason, Elizabeth dragged her feet over the signing of the actual warrant for 19 long years, then suddenly relented and signed the document, only to remove from her court many of the councilors who had urged the action, once the execution had taken place.
Patricia Finney has built a complex tale of intrigue around this reversal, basing it on the search for a supposed diary kept by the young Princess Elizabeth, which would have destroyed her as a monarch and a woman.
This densely plotted tale is rife with espionage, double-dealing, turncoat agents, secret codes, hidden passageways, and disgraced clergy. It meticulously sets out pictures of both court life and the desperate struggle for survival of London's poor, rich in detail and developing an all-too-plausible tale of events in Elizabeth's life before she ascended the throne. It even toys with mysticism, assigning some of the narrative to the Virgin Mary, who manages to be almost as interesting as the mortal characters carrying the action.
Readers looking for a court-heavy tale of Tudor lives, loves, and feuds, may be disappointed at the emphasis on spies and double-dealings, while those attempting to winkle out just who among Elizabeth's court was allied with whom may be impatient with a wandering subplot about an unfrocked nun desperate to make a dowry for her great granddaughter. And anyone coming to the novel as a stand-alone is apt to be dismayed that there is an earlier volume, âFiredrake's Eye', which introduces some of the main fictional characters in this tale.
Finney's research is exhaustive, and there are many fascinating details about life at court and among the populace. Finding these nuggets may distract the reader from the fact that the pace is glacial and that there are more characters and subplots than hairs in one of Elizabeth's wigs.