This is Jane Stevenson's third novel in her trilogy (The Winter Queen, The Shadow King), a fictional perspective based on historical fact on the clandestine seventeenth-century marriage of Elizabeth of Bohemia and Pelagius Van Overmeer, a black slave of royal African lineage. In this final volume, the author attempts a different construct: rather than follow the theme of her first two novels, The Empress of Last Days is set in the modern world of academia, where graduate students and noted researchers combine resources, uncovering the true story of the secret royal marriage and its direct connection to the British monarchy.
Dutch graduate student Corinne has uncovered obscure religious and botanical tracts, as well as a play, which lead her to a mysterious young scientist in Barbados, Melpomene Paleologue. Enlisting the aid of Michael Foxwist, an Oxford don, Corinne assigns him the task of editing the play that parallels the original union of royalty to slave. This distant marriage could have a direct impact on the current affairs of state in England, leading directly to the throne of England.
For her part, Corinne's specialty is the Internet. A dedicated student of the Web, Corinne organizes the information for dissemination to the public, with particular and conscientious attention to maintaining academic integrity. Corinne will ultimately be responsible for the quality of the search engine, site map, index and links to other sites: a huge undertaking, hopefully the project will make her career.
Yet it is Foxwist who steps from the halls of academia into the future, traveling to Barbados to pursue the last known person of Pelagius' genealogy. When Michael meets the young woman who may legitimately be Queen of England, he finds more than an interesting lineage; Michael falls in love, a condition he could never have anticipated. Yet he is not oblivious to the task ahead, acknowledging the problems inherent in a relationship with a young woman who has her own plans for the future.
Stevenson's historical perspective has an engaging mix of personalities and possibilities and shows the more human side of the hallowed halls of education, the real people in the carrels. A study in the intricacies of academia, this novel views literature in the context of real life, adding another dimension to the tedium of research. The characters struggle for professional survival and personal fulfillment. At times mired in the jargon of academia, this is a multi-layered, densely-plotted novel. Not suited to all literary tastes, this book will definitely appeal to those who appreciate the import of the past on the present in an intellectual world where feelings still demand to be acknowledged.