I wasn’t at all sure I was going to like this book though I immediately loved the setting, the language and way the two worked together to draw the reader into the intoxicating, dirty, dashing and dangerous world of late Elizabethan England. Part of the reason for my uncertainty was the lead character, John Lawley. In some ways meant to encapsulate the “renaissance man”, albeit, not a noble or an aristocratic one, Lawley is a drunkard who, above all, periodically indulges in month-long benders and consequently lets down anyone and everyone in his life. He is also an expert swordsman and brave soldier who in the past accompanied Robert Devereux, the Earl Of Essex and the Queen’s young favourite, to Spain and was by his side during other skirmishes, thus earning praise and a reputation as loyal and courageous.
Despite all this, there is something not quite loveable about Lawley. He is neither rake nor rogue, ethical or ideologically driven. In fact, for a man who has done so much and has so many strings to his bow, as well as important and influential people on his radar, he is remarkably bland and, though you don’t dislike him, I found I couldn’t really like him either and that was disappointing as I desperately wanted to.
Lawley stumbles from one bad choice to another. Wanting nothing more than to work with his beloved Will Shakespeare and the players at the globe, prevent the love of his life and mother of his son from making a disastrous marriage, Lawley tries to pick up the pieces of his life and start again. His first effort is to get sober. However, with war in Ireland looming, and the Queen and her sidekick, Robert Cecil determined to use his connections to the Earl of Essex (Devereux) for their own ends, Lawley is just a pawn in a game he has no choice but to play – and it seems lose.
As events spiral out of control, it looks as though Lawley is destined to lose everything he cares about – his love, son, and reputation – even Shakespeare, his most loyal friend, is growing tired of his inconstancy, of his disappearances without explanation or apparent motive (the reader can get annoyed with these too). But we soon learn not to underestimate this man, even when in his cups, as Lawley has resources and skills that no-one (save his closest friend) know about and if he can just suppress his desire for whiskey long enough, evade those who seek him, and rescue those who need him, he might even get the chance to prove himself and, as the blurb on the book promises, save England as well.
This is a good book that has some really exciting parts and some, for me, frankly dull ones as well. C.C. Humphreys manages to capture the period so well. His use of language, the rich dialogue and manner of the characters simply flows and captivates. The streets of London, of Southbank, the wilds of Ireland and the darkened offices of Cecil and other grisly locations are all beautifully realised. The life of the actors and theatre associates as well as the inner workings of the theatre are also fabulously woven (not surprising when you read about the author’s background which also explain his wonderful use of language and why sword fights dominate the book). What dragged a bit for me were the sword fighting scenes which I’ve no doubt someone who understands fencing would greatly appreciate, but for an ingénue, they went on far too long and were hard to imagine. They interrupted the flow of the narrative. Likewise, the descriptions of Lawley on benders or the constant refrain of his desire for alcohol were overdone to my taste (pardon the pun). Likewise, the love story resolved itself far too quickly in relation to the tensions that were set up, but I am being very picky.
Overall, I enjoyed this action-driven book and really appreciated the way a period I am growing to love very much was brought to life.