London, 1583. When young, aspiring playwright William Shakespeare encounters Lucy Morgan, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting, the two fall passionately in love. He declares Lucy the inspiration for his work, but what secret is Will hiding his muse?
Meanwhile, Lucy has her own secret – one that could destroy her world if exposed. No longer the chaste maid so valued by the Virgin Queen, she bore witness to the clandestine wedding of Lettice Knollys and Robert Dudley, a match forbidden by the monarch.
England is in peril. Queen Elizabeth’s health is deteriorating, her throne under siege from Catholic plotters and threats of war with Spain. Faced with deciding the fate of her long-term prisoner, Mary, Queen of Scots, she needs a trusted circle of advisors around her now more than ever. But who can she turn to when those closest to her proved disloyal?
And how secure is Lucy’s position at court, now that she has learned the dangerous art of keeping secrets?
With His Dark Lady, Victoria Lamb returns us to the court of Elizabeth I and the story of Lucy Morgan. After enjoying her debut novel, The Queen’s Secret, I was really looking forward to getting back to Lamb’s version of Elizabeth’s court and the promised re-appearance of William Shakespeare. And while it was a pleasure to return to Elizabeth, Lucy and Lucy’s guardian Goodluck, I was a little disappointed in Shakespeare, largely due to his treatment of both Lucy and his wife, Anne Hathaway.
As in The Queen’s Secret, His Dark Lady is told from four perspectives: Lucy, Elizabeth, Goodluck, and Shakespeare. And again there are two narrative strands; the one revolving around Lucy and Shakespeare, and the one revolving around the Queen and the Catholic plotters scheming to get Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne. Whereas in the previous book I preferred the romantic plotline concerning Elizabeth, Lettice, and Leicester over the assassination plot, in this book I infinitely preferred the sections dealing with the Catholic conspiracies and the effects being continuously under threat has on Elizabeth, above those dealing with the love story between Lucy and Shakespeare.
Why did the relationship between Shakespeare and Lucy bother me so? There are several answers to that question. To start off with, let me tell what the answer isn’t. It isn’t the fact that he was in fact cheating on his wife with Lucy. This is historical fiction set in Tudor times, as such it would have been surprising if he had been faithful to her. No what bothered me in this regard was the fact that he lied about it to Lucy. For someone to start a relationship with someone under false pretences, to create expectations where there can be none, is exceptionally cruel an unjust and I had a hard time swallowing Will’s dishonesty. In addition, he’s borderline abusive of his wife, demanding she sleep with him, and similarly, uses the excuse of being overwhelmed with passion to ignore Lucy when she tells him no. There were several times when their encounters felt more like rape than love-making, having Will insisting that Lucy’s no actually means yes, and I found these scenes and the entire relationship quite disturbing. In fact, at one point Will behaves as nothing so much as a stalker, following Lucy around and turning up in her room and at her door unexpectedly. It made Will a very unsympathetic, self-centred character, who I didn’t really enjoy spending time with. The situation also made me quite frustrated with Lucy, as I just wanted her to stop and be strong and send him away for good – not unlike the way I wanted Elizabeth to dismiss Leicester in the previous novel – and I kept wondering where the level-headed and independent Lucy we met in The Queen’s Secret had gone.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, while still hung-up on Leicester, seems to be focused on other things in this book and I found the portrait Lamb sketched of the aging Elizabeth fascinating. The Queen becomes more and more aware of her own mortality, both due to her age and due to the increasing amounts of plots against her life, which increases not just her irascibility and temper, but also makes her increasingly paranoid and rebellious at being continuously guarded. One of the recurring points in the discussions is the need to remove the main focus of the Catholic plotters in the person of Mary, Queen of Scots. Lamb manages to create great pathos in Elizabeth’s feelings for her Royal cousin, giving her not just political motivations to refrain from executing her, but also alluding to a strange kind of empathy Elizabeth feels for Mary, even saying she is as much a prisoner as Mary is; while she holds Mary prisoner, she is held prisoner in turn by the restrictions on her freedom due to the plots against her. Elizabeth is not always likeable in this incarnation created by Lamb, but she is sympathetic and very human.
Goodluck is a connecting factor in both storylines. I liked him just as much as I did in the previous book and strangely enough, I was far less creeped out by his conflicted feelings for Lucy this time around. This could be because we quickly jump ahead eight years in the book and Lucy isn’t quite as young or quite as depended on him anymore, but I think the fact that I’d rather see her end up with Goodluck, who truly loves her, rather than throw herself away on the cad Will Shakespeare is in the book has a lot to do with it too. His role as a spy for Walsingham is fascinating and gives us a good insight into both sides.
Overall, I’m afraid to say that while I enjoyed my time spent with His Dark Lady, I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Queen’s Secret, mostly due to Shakespeare and his relationship with Lucy. However, this is a rather personal reaction to his characterisation, not because the story is badly written, so your mileage may vary on that. Still, I’m looking forward to returning to Elizabeth and Lucy’s world once more in the next book and see what happens to both our heroines and what Lamb will focus on next. For an original and exciting take on Elizabeth I and the Tudor court, you can’t go wrong with Victoria Lamb’s Lucy Morgan books.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.