Pocket, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-1302-5
Historical Fiction, 2011 (Reissue)
I’ve said several times in the past that Jane Feather’s jaded portrayal of love may be more appropriate for historical fiction, where a believable happy ending is not mandatory. You know what they say about being careful about what I wish for. All the Queen’s Players is a historical fiction set in the late 16th century, and before you ask, yes, there is no happy ending for the designated couple in this book. I’d talk about this a little bit more later. But first, the plot.
The main characters in this story are a gay man and a young 17-year old lady, both friends who are thrust into the intrigues of Queen Elizabeth’s court when they are summoned by our heroine’s distant cousin, Sir Francis Walsingham, for some spy business. For Rosamund Walsingham, whose ability to sketch life-like scenes from her photographic memory makes her useful to Sir Francis, this is an opportunity to leave her country home Scadbury Park to experience all the highs and lows that London has to offer. Meanwhile, her brother Thomas has a boyfriend. You may have heard of this boyfriend – his name is Christopher Marlowe. Kit is a university student on the verge of expulsion for his radical views on politics and religion, and he is pretty much coerced into his spying gig. Both Rosamund and Kit become unlikely friends as they share a mutual passion for wordplay, song and theater. Rosamund even has eyes for a handsome courtier, Will Creighton, who also dabbles in writing plays. As these pawns explore their passions and desires, the plot around them thickens.
You see, Sir Francis Walsingham is determined to help that upstart Mary plot against the Queen, even if he has to plant spies to get the plot moving. It’s all a plot to get Mary exposed for treason and have the Queen finally agree to her execution. That way, that cunning man gets to consolidate his power over an aging, increasingly self-absorbed, and vain woman on the throne.
You may be led by the synopsis to imagine that this is a dramatic story of our beautiful cast racing against the time to stop the plot against Mary. Hey, I was led to believe that too by the synopsis on the back cover of this book. What this book actually is, however, is a slow and meandering tale of our beautiful cast indulging in their petty passions. They have very little participation in the plot – they are more like passers-by caught in a train wreck because they can’t get out of the way in time.
The unfortunate thing here is that this book doesn’t need to be boring. The plot is rife with opportunities for intrigue and drama. Rosamund is a wide-eyed ingénue determined to experience all life has to offer – she seems like a good girl at the surface, but she’s a bit more complex a character than that. Kit is an interesting character, a bit angst-ridden just the way bad boys tend to be, but at the same time he is an intelligent man who may be born in the wrong time. Thomas, Rosamund’s brother and Kit’s lover, is also a pretty interesting character whose personality and morality is a delicious shade of grey. Even Sir Francis Walsingham’s ruthless cunning makes him a memorable character. The only dud here is Will, but that’s probably because he’s created to be Rosamund’s Beautiful Boyfriend, nothing more and nothing less.
So we have an interesting cast and an intriguing plot, but the author doesn’t really succeed in developing them into anything really memorable. For a long time, I am bombarded with mundane scenes of court life, points of view of minor characters that do little to further the plot, and our main characters running around behaving like kids on Spring Break. This is fine if this book was called Tudor Shores: the Adventures of Rosie and Kitty, but I am led to believe that this book is much more than that. Even the “dramatic” event that finally shows up late in the story to force the plot to move is pretty much Rosamund doing something that is merely mundanely stupid instead of… big. As for the lack of happy ending, I think that particular ending is designed to get the tears flowing, but that character is so flatly written that I can’t bring myself to care.
All the Queen’s Players is an exercise in missed opportunities. It could be a good read, but it ends up being a slow and lifeless read with the main characters barely participating in the intrigue woven in the plot.