In 1616, Frances Howard sits in the Tower of London, reluctant to admit that she may have played a part in the murder of Thomas Overbury. Rumored to be the lover of Frances's husband, Robert Carr--an obscure page to the Earl of Dunbar--Overbury unwittingly spied Carr and King James I in an intimate embrace. Frances sits alone in the gloom as fear coils around Robert's throat.
Robert first set eyes on Frances almost five years ago, at the heart of a cluster of women in Henry Stuart's apartments. Overbury objected to Frances and Robert's affair. Robert, however, is infatuated by Frances's apparent lack of artifice. An aggressive operator at court, Robert gambles on having the King behind him: "I had his ear, I had his trust, I had his love...ill-bred or not."
Descending deep into the poisonous bedchambers of Frances, Robert and King James, Fremantle moves between the first-person narrativfes of Frances (Her) and Robert (Him). Frances sits in the Tower, watched over by Nelly, a kindly wet-nurse. She wonders if Nelly is deliberately trying to draw her into a conversation about witchcraft, hoping that something "will spill." Frances tells Nelly about her annulled marriage to the Earl of Essex, a union designed to mend an old rift between the Howard and Essex families.
Sodomy is outlawed, and the court gossips about James's shameless indulgences, his affairs with men--first with Edward and then with George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham. The king is concerned that gossip might undermine his authority: "we needed each other, James and I, in our own way and in a pure kind of love." From Anne Turner's secretive potions and a series of doctored letters that twist Overbury's confinement out of shape to accusations of witchcraft, Frances's powerful web of seduction pales in comparison to the mess of fever and panic that scatters outward.
Robert tries to save Frances from a recognizable fate while she sits in the flickering candlelight and sees Overbury's disembodied face, grim with contempt: "You could have saved me." While Anne Turner's practice of the dark arts turns her into a target, Overbury is a potent force even in death, threatening to envelop both Frances and Robert. Frances is the only person alive who knows why the king so desperately wanted Overbury out of the way. Overbury knew of his "dirty little secret," one as "volatile as gunpowder."
Those lacking powerful connection will be collateral damage in this sordid affair, just as the implication of the king in such a scandal endangers his court of being tarnished with corruption and depravity. Even with its historical inaccuracies, Freemantle's saga is fascinating and sophisticated, her embattled hero and heroine coming brilliantly to life.