July 1575. Elizabeth I, Queen of England, arrives at Kenilworth Castle amid pomp, fanfare and lavish festivities laid on by the Earl of Leicester. The hopeful earl knows this is his very last chance to persuade the queen to marry him.
But despite his attachment to the queen and his driving ambition to be her king, Leicester is unable to resist the seductive wiles of Lettice, wife of the Earl of Essex. And soon whispers of their relationship start spreading through the court.
Enraged by the adulterous lovers’ growing intimacy, Elizabeth employs Lucy Morgan, a young black singer and court entertainer, to spy on the couple. But Lucy, who was raised by a spy in London, uncovers far more than she bargains for.
For someone at Kenilworth that summer is plotting to kill the queen. No longer able to tell friend from foe, it is soon not only the queen who is in mortal danger – but Lucy herself.
The Tudor period is a historical period that’s held a fascination for many people for a long time, me included. As such there have been many books written on it and films and even a TV show made about it. One of the most fascinating figures from this period is of course Elizabeth I of England. She’s had her fair share of biographies, biopics and historical novels written about her, but people still love to discover more about her. But with the amount of works already devoted to Elizabeth and her reign, is it still possible to add something original to what’s already out there? It’s probably very difficult, but Victoria Lamb definitely gives it a good shot. And I’d dare to say that her look at the Elizabethan court and the love triangle between Elizabeth, Leicester and Lettice Knollys from the perspective of Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’, Lucy Morgan is pretty unique.
The Queen’s Secret‘s story consists of two strands of conspiracy which are connected to each other by Lucy and Elizabeth, but beyond that are largely unconnected; the first being the affair between Elizabeth’s favourite the Earl of Leicester and her cousin Lettice Knollys and the second one being the Italian assassination plot. While they are distinct and each divided over an equal number of viewpoints, I found them to be a little confusing at times, not in keeping them apart or figuring them out, but in switching between them. The pace between the two strands is quite different, the assassination plot is of necessity far more time-frame sensitive than Leicester and Lettice, as to fail to solve the former will result in the death of the queen. As a consequence, this storyline moves faster than the one dealing with the affair, which has been going on for a while and of which all players are seemingly aware, but which hasn’t yet been discussed openly. While I enjoyed this half of the story more – I kept rooting for Elizabeth to send that awful Leicester off for good – I enjoyed the suspense of the assassination plot.
Lamb employs four viewpoints to tell the tale of The Queen’s Secret: Elizabeth, Lettice, Lucy and Goodluck. Each of their voices is distinct and well done, leaving the reader in no doubt as to whose point of view we are reading at any given time. Of the four, Lettice is clearly an antagonist, as she comes across as very unlikeable. She’s manipulative, over-ambitious, scheming and self-centred and I just couldn’t find it in myself to empathise with her. Elizabeth, on the other hand, came across far less self-assured and iron-spined than she’s often portrayed. She’s definitely a strong monarch, Elizabeth Gloriana, but once the mask of the white face paint comes off and the wig has gone back on its standard, we are left with a surprisingly vulnerable human being, who doubts her ability to ever become a wife and mother, her ability to keep Leicester interested in her ageing body and who is tired and afraid of the constant vigilance needed against the numerous plots against her life. I rather liked this version of Elizabeth, especially as she isn’t all sugar and light either, to her own mortification she’s inherited a lot of her father’s famous temper, throwing objects at offending ladies-in-waiting and screaming for people to attend her at the top of her voice. Despite this, she never becomes unsympathetic, a balance I thought Lamb achieved quite well.
Our main protagonist is Lucy, the orphaned daughter of African slaves, raised by one of Walsingham’s spies. Gifted with a beautiful soprano voice, she is part of Elizabeth’s band of court entertainers and is caught up in the greater doings of the court once she is noticed and brought to Elizabeth’s attentions by the Earl of Leicester. I enjoyed Lucy’s voice; she’s an outsider, who simultaneously blends into the background and can’t help but stand out. I also loved how she stood up to her guardian Goodluck, when he tries to control who she keeps company with. This brings us to my biggest annoyance with the book: the inevitable love interest for Lucy. I understand why she’d need an ally to help her outside of the higher echelons of the court, but I was a bit disappointed that she would need to fall in love with him and that he would be the only other black person in the book. That just felt unnecessary. Why not have them be friends because they are the only black people at court? Why couldn’t she have fallen in love with a white stable hand? I realise that it would have been an impossible love, but why not? Goodluck is the only male point of view we get in the novel and his is the most action-filled, as he’s our point of information on the search for the assassins. I liked this mysterious player, who can change his appearance at the drop of a hat. The only things that bugged me about him were the sometimes bordering on inappropriate thoughts he has regarding Lucy. He seems to be moving between seeing her as his daughter and seeing her as an attractive (to him) young woman. But other than that, I enjoyed his chapters and the interactions he had with Lucy and with Walsingham.
Lamb’s love for the estate of Kenilworth oozes through the narrative in the detailed descriptions of the estate, the sumptuous descriptions of the feasts and the clothing worn by its inhabitants and visitors. These, together with the captivating characters of Lucy and Elizabeth and Lamb’s easy writing style, make for a great read. I really enjoyed Lamb’s debut novel and having heard lovely things about her YA novel Witchstruck, I’m hoping to read that as well. If you enjoy historical fiction set in the Tudor age or enjoy a tale of spies and derring-do, The Queen’s Secret comes highly recommended.