Sunday, February 23, 2020

Spying for the Tudor realm: Arthur Phillips' The King at the Edge of the World

On matters of religion, Elizabeth I famously said she didn’t desire to “make windows into men’s souls.” To preserve her Protestant realm and prevent future bloodshed, however, her intelligencers devise a scheme to do exactly that to her likely successor, Scotland’s James VI.

In Phillips’ (The Tragedy of Arthur, 2011) inventively multilayered novel, their chosen agent, Mahmoud Ezzedine, is a Muslim physician in the Ottoman ambassador’s contingent who was left behind in bleak England. In 1601, with Elizabeth old and ailing, Ezzedine is approached with a delicate proposal: determine whether James is at heart Protestant or Catholic, and he can rejoin his wife and son in Constantinople. Getting close to the Scots king isn’t easy, though.

Phillips crafts a believable late-Elizabethan backdrop laced with intrigue and juxtaposes it with a deep dive into the emotions of an intelligent man in exile from country, family, even a sense of hope. Evoked in exquisite language full of subtle shadings and theatrical references, the plot grows suspenseful, and readers will appreciate how it lets them grasp on their own where it leads.

Arthur Phillips' The King at the Edge of the World was published by Random House on February 11th.  I contributed this review for Booklist's January 1 issue.

Some other notes:
James VI, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, was Elizabeth I's cousin twice removed, and history records that he succeeded her on England's throne in 1603 (as James I). Despite the prevalence of novels set in Elizabethan times, few delve into the details of the royal succession at the end of Elizabeth's life, George Garrett's classic The Succession (1983) is one, and this is another.  Phillips' novel takes a unique viewpoint compared to other Elizabethan-set fiction. I also greatly admire novels that take a subtle approach to historical suspense.

Read more in the reviews at the New York Times (by Dominic Dromgoole) and Washington Post (by Ron Charles).


  1. “make windows into men’s souls.” what's great thought!

  2. It is a great line, isn't it?

  3. Thank you for the post. Very good reading on another aspect of Elizabeth I

  4. Thanks for your comments!

  5. Anonymous4:12 PM

    Tracy Borman's trilogy (#1 is THE KING'S WITCH) begins in 1603 with a dying Queen Elizabeth and deals with the Gunpowder Plot, Sir Walter Raleigh, and whatever else will be in #3. Plus witchcraft, which appears to be novel-fodder lately.

    Sarah OL

  6. Anonymous4:17 PM

    OK here's #3

  7. I'll get to that series some day, I hope!