What to Expect
London, 1604/05. On the backdrop of King James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England, of the brewing Catholic-backed Gunpowder Plot, William Shakespeare writes the great Scottish Play, Macbeth. While this books explores all this, it does so in a lighthearted, fast-paced dark comedy style. Expect Shakespeare working for the Ordnance Office (the Double-O), with himself as Bond, Sir Walsingham (the real-life English spymaster) as M, and Francis Bacon (father of modern science) as Q. Christopher Marlowe has also been recruited as a fellow agent (his demise a decade earlier apparently a ruse), and the plot spills and spans from England to Venice, across years of plague and other natural disasters. This is a fast-paced, humorous, oh-so-slightly more than natural take on real events and people, in what were undoubtedly one of England's most exciting times.
What I liked
I loved the clear intimate familiarity of della Quercia with the period. Bacon training ravens to act as almost supernatural guards? Backed by his writings. An anaesthetic for surgery made of equal measures of boar bile, opium, hemlock, and lettuce (amongst other things)? A dwale straight out of 15th century recipe. Whenever della Quercia comes up with something outlandish, a small footnote of original sources shows where he got the idea from -- and makes us wonder about the rest of it.
What to be aware of
While the fast pace leads to a bit of too-fast jumping around (just like in a typical Bond movie), action scenes are a bit lacklustre. Also bear in mind that though this novel may be filed under "historical fantasy" for the anachronistic tropes, it's historical fiction. Excellent one, but not fantastical in the way most fantasy readers might expect.
Felix had a run-in with his own government's version of priest-spies (again a slight exaggeration of reality), and all but applauded hiring the world's best dramatist into the role. While many things have changed in Britain since Rome ruled it, he found it comforting to know that, one, many of the foundational pieces of his culture remained as the underpinnings of civilisations millennia to come, and, two, how human nature had changed so little, what with all the backstabbing and plagues. His only complaint was that the book would have been better written as a play, because the fight scenes were clearly badly staged even if the dialogue was brilliant.
It's a lovely piece for anyone who enjoys Shakespeare and the 16th/17th century London, in all its grime and glory.
Enjoying the reviews, but wondering who the heck is that Felix fellow? Glad you asked! He's the protagonist of the Togas, Daggers, and Magic series, an historical-fantasy blend of a paranormal detective on the background of ancient Rome.