This book presents a new and very refreshing angle on a period of Tudor history which has been done to death by other writers. A youth spent reading Jean Plaidy novels, more recently Philippa Gregory's books and the two Hilary Mantel tomes have left me with Tudor fatigue.
But this book is different and I was intrigued from the get-go. Elizabeth has just been crowned. There is a new sense of optimism in the country as her tolerant policy replaces Mary's persecution. Then a mysterious ship with a troupe of musicians and a songstress of extra-ordinary ability arrives. A secretive sect, known for its intrigue, its global trading reach, its well placed eyes and ears and its loyalty to the Crown begins asking questions. Rumours of a new pretender to the throne begin to circulate, and a young man with flaming red hair and the stature of King Henry is seen in London. The 'what if' scenario conjured by Angela King raises all kinds of questions about whether the right thing is always the best thing.
By far the most praiseworthy aspect of this book is the language. Angela King is a wordsmith. The prose is simply sparkling, evocative and painterly. Images leap from the page. The pomp and pageantry of the court shimmers (and smells), the dank quays and murky riverside slums palpably ooze. The scents in a medicinal garden and the heat emanating from ancient flagstones seep into the reader's bones. Her action scenes are deft and breathless. Looking up from the page, it took my eyes a moment to clear, for the vision she had painted in my imagination to fade. The language here stands shoulder to shoulder with Andrew Miller's 'Pure'.
The plot of the book is complex. All the characters have private agendas which they didn’t share with each other or, sometimes, with the reader, so I really had to concentrate. I don't mind this. It makes a book what I call 'readerly'. The reader has to read actively, enquiringly. It made me feel like I was one of them, listening from behind closed doors, trying to figure out what they wanted, what they knew. But it made me desperate to know what would happen next in the hope that a significant piece of the puzzle would fall in to place. If I have a criticism of the book it is this: too much sub-text. For the reader to know things that a character does not know is quite acceptable. For the character to know things from which the reader is excluded is another, unless the revelation comes clearly and unequivocally. There were times when I felt out of my depths in the plot. Even now I have finished, there are some characters I haven't fathomed at all. Whose side is Lord Scythan on, for example? But the wanting to know, the being carried along in the story, outweighed my frustration. The delight of the process was reward enough.