Filled with an exciting sense of urgency, Clements’ fascinating mystery tackles a deep-seated Elizabethan riddle: the unsolved tragedy of the Roanoke colonists and how lives in the infernal wheel of the Tudor
Age were touched in terrible ways. Queen Elizabeth is merely a bit-player in the unfolding drama; at the heart of the story is the corruption of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, one of the greatest ruling men of England.
Devereux’s morbid hot-and-cold affair with an aging Queen is the stuff of historical legend. Clements focuses on the critical period in Devereux’s life when his lust for power was stoked up by his Machiavellian friends and by Penelope Rich, his ambitious sister who pushed him towards rebellion and into a sham marriage with young Arbella Stuart, considered the only serious clamant to the throne of England.
Through the perspective of Master John Shakespeare, we delve deep into Essex’s fevered air of treachery. John is summoned to Essex. Famed throughout the land as the Queen’s most favored courtier, the gallant, handsome courtier seeks advice from Shakespeare, having just received the message that somewhere out there walking the streets of London is Eleanor Dare, one of the lost Roanoke colonists. Dare is of great interest on all accounts--most pointedly because she
is the mother of the first English baby born in the New World.
Clearly there’s dirty work stirring. John is helplessly attracted to the machinations of magnificent Essex, and Essex is certain John is the right kind of man to find this woman. The perfect “intelligencer,” John is used to digging to find bright red rubies of betrayal. Rumor has it that Dare was spotted outside a theatre in Southwark, reportedly dressed as a strumpet and touting for business.
Assailed by a whirlwind and filled with misgivings, John has little choice but to follow the intelligencer’s art. But he
is also caught in the complex enmity that exists between Catholics and Protestants. John’s wife, Catherine--a committed Papist--finds herself in danger in a landscape where Catholics are regarded by Queen and her Privy Council as an “irritant thorn” to be plucked from their flesh at all costs. Meanwhile, King Philip of Spain watches closely for signs of weakness as England seethes with speculation about the succession.
London’s fragrant summer flowers and herbs do little to counter the overpowering stench of dung and slop. A contagion of fear echoes as a Jesuit priest is tortured in Southwell and John’s school for boys is rumored to be a spawning ground for papist traitors. From an unsolved crime of passion to plots, spying, poisonings, and threat of the plague, John races to protect his beloved brother, William. He also has little choice but to stop the open defiance of Lord Essex and his grand ambitions.
Mining these willful battles for blood royal, Clements is right at home in his gritty exploration of Tudor England. From opulent Shrewsbury House, where Lettice and her daughters cast their spells in favor of Essex’s marriage to Arbella, Clements unfolds a country thrown into chaos by an irresponsible family while John is caught in the middle, his sense of loyalty his only guide.