Unicorn’s Blood by Patricia Finney

images-3The second novel in the David Beckett and Simon Ames series, Unicorn’s Blood by Patricia Finney is a cracker of a read. Set a few years after the first instalment, Firedrake’s Eye, though it features our erstwhile and now estranged heroes, it’s very much a tale about a diary the young Princess Elizabeth kept that, if it should fall into the wrong hands, could mark the end of her glorious reign.

Discovering the diary, which has a unicorn upon the front replete with a ruby eye, is missing, Elizabeth tasks her trusted servant, the dwarf, Thomasina with finding it. But Thomasina’s quest is just one of the narrative threads; the others involve Simon and David, a former nun who is now the queen’s nightsoil woman and her granddaughter, a courtier who has become too grandiose for his already considerable boots, and Sir Francis Walsingham and his intelligencers, all of whom together prove we do indeed weave a tangled web. From the freshly scented rooms of the courts, to the stench of the streets of Bankside and the Stews, to the cruelty and fierceness of the prisons, the barbarity of torture and depravation, to the female-centred spaces of the laundries of the palaces, to the ditches and snickets of London, Finney conjures up a real and lived place and time. Like it or not, you can breath the malodorous fumes of people and lanes, hear the tolling bells or screams and sobs of prisoners, many punitively punished for little more than trying to eke out an existence, and feel gratitude that we live in the era (for all that’s wrong with it) that we do.

Narrated by none other than Virgin Mary (Finney’s originality with this works so well and adds a fantastical element to the novel) and featuring a few of the characters from Firedrake’s Eye, this is such a beautifully written and structured story that reveals both Finney’s knowledge of the era and skill as a writer.

Filled with philosophical insights and reflections on class, social (in)justice, female sexuality and the very real burden of gender in those times, the book swings from heart-wrenching, to exciting, depressing, all the while respecting and understanding that history, whether fictive or factual, is worth revisiting for any number of reasons.

A stellar book by a fantastic writer.

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Unicorn’s Blood by Patricia Finney

imgresThe second book in the David Becket and Simon Ames series, Unicorn’s Blood is a simply wonderful tale that centres around an incriminating diary and death-bed confession that Elizabeth First wrote in a diary with a unicorn on the front when only a teenager, and which was stolen from beneath her pillow.

Like the first book, Firedrake’s Eye, this novel revels in the detail of London of the period – whether its navigating the ice-bound Thames, emptying the nightsoil buckets in the palace, enduring the pillory in a prison yard or fleeing through stinking streets, this London is one you can live and breath with each and every character. Finney’s prose is rich and alive and dances off the page.

The political machinations of those wishing to control the queen and the outcome of the long investigation into Mary, Queen of Scots, and her loyalty to the English throne form the background to this book that, interestingly, has as an omniscient narrator, the Virgin Mary. Such an original touch and done so well.

While Becket and Ames feature in the narrative, their roles take a backseat to the diary itself and Thomasina, the Queen’s dwarf and fool who is commissioned to search for the diary and to do so is forced to disguise herself and enter places she might never be able to leave. Also looking for the diary, but with very different intentions, is a major figure in the Queen’s court. If the tome lands in his hand, then England will never be the same again.

The reality for women in this period, especially those who found once Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries that their home and livelihood were stolen, is grim, as is the fate of those who capitulate to bodily desires and find themselves with child – in many ways, a theme of this novel. From former nuns, to laundresses, to the women of the bedchamber, to Elizabeth herself, we’re given a glimpse into female desire and consequences and the overt display of male power and authority and how this was achieved most often at women’s expense.

This is a rollicking read that doesn’t require its sequel for understanding or pleasure – it’s a terrific stand-alone as well. It’s a nail-biting and wonderful weaving of fact with speculative fiction and extraordinary at every level.

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Do We Not Bleed by Patricia Finney

I kept reading about Patricia Finney and how good her books were, but because the first ones were not available on Kindle, I confess, I was reluctant to read them (I need to explain this. I am an avid bedtime reader and, before Kindle and ebooks with backlights, I would keep my partner awake or be forced to sit up in another room reading – even the little bed-lights you can get were a nuisance as turning pages and shifting it could be noisy and sometimes, the light was more like sleeping next to a lighthouse as the beam would strike your face occasionally. As a consequence, once ebooks came out, I felt liberated and my partner relieved. He always felt guilty about being unable to sleep when I read, as if he was responsible for cutting me off from that particular avenue of pleasure!). Then I found Do We Not Bleed? The first in Finney’s James Enys mysteries as an electronic book.


19385258What a wonderful tale. Set in the 1580s it centres on a young lawyer James Enys, who is not all he seems. After discovering a brutally murdered woman in the back alleys of London, the smart but rather quiet and sad Enys is teamed with the Puritan zealot with the marvellous name, Malverny Catlyn (who, it just so happens, was a real person and member of Sir Francis Walsingham’s formidable spy network), in order to track down the murderer. But this is no ordinary one, but a serial killer, preying upon the whores of London and Southwark and dissecting them in a manner that demonstrates both knowledge and a serious perversion.

Also aiding Enys in his mission is the playwright, William Shakespeare, ladies’ man and currently struggling for work.

The strength of this book lies in the detail – of London streets, life, the richness of the language and the way Finney describes everything from someone puking, menstruating, to the interactions between “upright men” (basically, a pimp) and their whores. Descriptions of interiors and exteriors place you in the moment and whether you like it or not, the various sounds, odours and realities of life in this period linger long after the page is closed. There is also a wonderful weaving of actual historical figures and fictional characters – something I love.

I was not surprised to learn that Finney also writes as PF Chisolm, whose series I am also reading at present and thoroughly enjoying – yes, in ebook form.

Having Shakespeare as a character in Do We Not Bleed? is a bonus and there are little poetic asides where we find Shakespeare waxing lyrical or daydreaming and creating and if you’re familiar with his work, you know how that particular moment will manifest in one of his pieces. There is something very “Shakespearian” about the tale (as readers will discover) and one of the lead character’s names (not mentioned here) gestures to this. But the novel itself is very poetic and nuanced. It is a treat in every sense and I cannot wait for the next instalment.

I have also ordered and received the first three of Finney’s books, starting with Firedrake’s Eye as paperbacks and am also loving the style and the way in which you’re drawn into the era. Stay tuned for that review soon!

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Book Review: Roses Have Thorns by Sandra Byrd

Really enjoyedRoses Have Thorns: A Novel of Elizabeth I (Ladies in Waiting #3) this novel about real-life lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth the First, the Swedish Elin (Helena) von Snakenborg. Travelling with her queen to the court of the English ruler, we first meet Elin when her fiancé has abandoned her for her sister, her dowry has been spent, and she in a conflicted rather than heartbroken state as she makes the dangerous and long voyage from her home in Sweden to England.

Beautiful, smart and not overwhelmed by English court politics and games and understanding she has little to return home to, Elin is given a position at Elizabeth’s side. Earning the Queen’s trust and friendship, she is rewarded with marriage to the highest noble in the land, and becomes the Marchioness of Northampton – second only to the queen. Happy in her relationship, she also enjoys serving a ruler who demands the utmost loyalty from her woman and men, regardless of the personal cost.

Surrounded by Catholic traitors and those who plot to take her throne near and far, including Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth is both cautious and capricious and Byrd tries to capture the tension, beauty and fierce intellectualism and creativity of Elizabeth’s reign, using Helena (as she’s now called) as the lens through which to view it.

When her first husband dies and Helena remarries someone of much lower station, however, she is forced to choose, not just between her heart and her head, but between her loyalty to the throne and the man she loves.

Evoking the era, the personalities and the politics, the book works hard to be historically accurate but, sometimes, I felt as a reader is was at the expense of story. My favourite bits were those with Helena and her beaus, when fiction rather than fact were apparent. Byrd quotes from Elizabeth’s own correspondence as well as known documents of the time, so careful is she to be true to history, yet, sometimes, history drowns out narrative, turns the characters into two-dimensional beings rather than passionate (or not) living breathing beings with whom we feel invested. The use of the quotes (or words straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak) also make the book feel more like a non-fiction read at times than one that uses history as a backdrop to a wonderful story.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy it very much and can recommend to lovers of history and especially, the Tudor period.

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Book review: Her Majesty’s Spymaster by Stephen Budiansky

From the moment I started reading this book, I was captivated. Budiansky has such an accessible style of writing and while he relies very heavily on the definitive biography of Walsingham for this book, the three-volume work by Conyers Read, Mr Secretary Walsingham, his style makes his retelling of Walsingham’s life exciting and, despite some of the grisly content, entertaining as well. StartingHer Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage with the St Bartholomew Day massacres in Paris (strictly speaking, the book commences on the two days before with the attempted assassination of Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France who was shot in broad daylight and only bending to tie a shoelace saved his life in this instance), we follow Walsingham’s career and the little that is known of his personal life.

Sir Francis Walsingham is often credited by many contemporary commentators and modern historians with inventing espionage as we understand it. Budiansky is no exception. He knows his subject and the era that birthed him and it’s easy to mistake a light hand and easy style with superficial research – yet, as a principle source, Conyers’ work is sound, and Budiansky is eminently readable and for those who know nothing about the intrigues of the era and Walsingham’s role or simply want reminding, this book is a terrific introduction.

Budiansky inflects his prose with wit, empathy, understanding and humorous insights, weaving records of the era with substantiated opinion. The effect of this is a non-fiction book that reads like a terrific spy-cum-historical novel. As a consequence, we learn about all the major plots that Walsingham directly foiled from the Ridolphi plot to the Throckmorton and Babington ones, but from the inside out.  But these were just vindication for Walsingham’s fierce collection of information and insistence that this was essential to protecting Elizabeth’s fledgling Protestant realm. They were also incidental in his larger schemes, which were to prove once and for all that Mary, Queen of Scots was a ‘she-devil’ plotting Elizabeth’s destruction and his quest to find evidence of the Spanish intention to invade England.  Walsingham left no stone unturned, trusted no-one (except perhaps his first son-in-law, Sir Philip Sidney), and while not popular with the queen or many of her counselors (he fell out with them all during his lifetime), there were those who respected and appreciated the personal and other sacrifices his unflinching belief in his duty and his impeccable record in carrying in it out, as Sir Francis Drake’s letter to him after the Armada was defeated attests. That Walsingham endorsed torture and double-dealing might sit uncomfortably with modern readers, but in his mind and heart, it was all done for the protection of the realm and was thus essential. He has no patience for those who didn’t understand that. The fact he succeeded in proving Mary was a traitor and helped foil the Spanish Armada in 1588, have become questionable legacies because of the way he achieved these goals.

Nonetheless, history has accorded Walsingham the importance he deserves and Budiansky’s entertaining and easy to read book allows the reader to appreciate why. Couldn’t put this down. But again, it is more an introduction and original retelling of known facts as opposed to shedding new light on a mysterious and compelling historical figure.

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