The 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.