By the mid-1580s, Queen Elizabeth has finally established herself as a competent ruler, a woman who can direct her country without a man at her side, free of the unctuous suitors that plagued her younger years. But her reign is never without conflict, various factions vying for the Queen’s favor or, in this case, control.
Currently Elizabeth’s advisors are clamoring for a signature on the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned by her half-sister for many years. The counselors view Mary as a constant threat to the English throne, but the monarch has her reasons for continuing the status quo, those plans kept discreet, between herself and her fool, Thomasina. But in private the Queen reflects, “Be sure your sins will find you out.”
Zealous in pursuit of errant Catholics, the Queen’s men arrest a Papist sympathizer during a sweep. They beat and torture him in order to facilitate a confession, but a severe blow to the head leaves him with “the falling sickness” and he is unable to remember his name or past. While in the Tower, his jailers discover the man’s identity: he is David Becket, an agent of the Queen charged with recovering an important document.
Buried in Becket’s memory is critical information that may lead to the discovery of the Book of the Unicorn, a telling journal written by the Queen in her youth when she was in love, vulnerable and feared herself dying. The Queen is not the only one hoping to gain possession of the book, and Becket is caught in the crosscurrent of court intrigue, his secret much sought-after and tied to the fate of the Scots Queen.
Women are the crux of this tale: an ex-nun, now a so-called witch named Mary, the Virgin in Heaven; Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth’s fool, tiny Thomasina. These are the figures around which the men scramble to do a Queen’s bidding, gain the secret with which to control her or on behalf of the beleaguered Papists.
Elizabeth’s great kingdom is at stake, for if the information falls into the wrong hands, Elizabeth will be the pawn of whichever man holds the evidence, a foolish girl’s confession that can change the history of the English throne. What begins in the Netherlands as a plot that threatens her reputation and grip on the kingdom becomes a battle waged in secret, spies and letters exchanged in the dark of night, Elizabeth perhaps the cleverest of all.
Finney’s research is impeccable, intimate details of the minutiae of court life, the rituals of class and the accouterments that set noblemen off from those less fortunate. From the Queen to the poor souls forced to purchase their freedom in Fleet Prison, Elizabethan England bustles with court espionage and the desperation of poverty, all held masterfully together by the author’s sleight of hand.