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.