The 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.
Tags: diary, Elizabeth First, Foredarke's Eye, Patricia Finney, prison, religion, Sir Franics Walsingham, torture, Unicorn's Blood, Virgin Mary
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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.
What 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!
Tags: Do WE Not Bleed, Elizabeth First, England, Francis Walsingham, James Enys, London, Malverny Catlyn, Patricia Finney, PF Chisholm, Shakespeare, Tudor women
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