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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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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