As he conducts an illicit affair with her younger cousin Lettice, the unhappy Countess of Essex, Elizabeth weighs her marital options, and her spymaster Walsingham begins unraveling an Italian Catholic plot against her life. Well done as they are, the novel’s singularity lies not in its interpretations of famous Tudor names, though, but in its gentle yet strong teenage heroine, Lucy Morgan – and the author’s full engagement with each scene she writes.
Lucy arrives as a court entertainer, and her black skin and clear soprano voice make her an exotic curiosity. Although grateful for the favor she’s shown, she feels anxious when both Lord Robert and the Queen use her to spy on the other. Not even her guardian, the teasingly-named Goodluck – one of Walsingham’s best agents – can keep her safe.
Lamb illuminates every detail of the era, from the splendid elegance of the Queen’s Privy Garden to the castle’s stinking alleyways to the heavy weight of Elizabeth’s jeweled skirts, whose delicate fabric will take her ladies hours to repair, to their chagrin. Even 11-year-old Will Shakespeare makes some appearances while on a visit from Stratford with his father. His involvement in Lucy's predicament feels like a calculated move at this stage in his young life. (The dust jacket reveals the author's plans to write a series about Lucy, his future “Dark Lady.”)
Although this isn’t literary fiction, the characters and their relationships are the focus. The Queen’s secret from the title takes a good while to be revealed, and it's worth waiting for, as it turns out to be the reason for some of her biggest decisions. Not everyone will feel comfortable witnessing Elizabeth's most intimate scenes, despite their importance to the storyline, but her struggle between her private desires and public role feels genuine. She hates seeing her favorite with another woman, and despite his suspected adultery with Lettice, there's little she can do without causing political harm: “To admit jealousy would be to mark her out as her father’s daughter, driven beyond reason and diplomacy by the urges of her body.”
The main false note in their triangle comes from Lettice herself. She’s in a difficult position as an abused wife whose husband is presently away in Ireland; nonetheless, she’s no match for her Queen except in looks. Lucy may be less than half her age, but she has twice her maturity.
The actual plot is rather diffuse, and the suspense doesn’t amp up until the very end, but there’s so much activity, so much to observe and participate in, that this doesn't matter one bit. The writing is crisp and clean, and readers will feel involved in every aspect of life during their 19-day stay at Kenilworth. For those who want to imagine this particular moment in time, with all the personal dramas happening all around, this book is the place to be.
The Queen's Secret was published by Bantam Press (UK) in February at £12.99 (hb, 368pp, including detailed note).