Lucy Morgan’s position in Elizabethan society is awkward, to say the least. Part of a troupe of singing girls who entertain the queen and court, Lucy is often hidden away in the back due to her African heritage, even though she has one of the most beautiful voices in the group. That’s until one of the soloists becomes ill, and the queen takes a liking to her. On the famous royal visit to Kenilworth, often viewed as the occasion during which Robert Dudley aimed to win the queen’s hand in marriage, Lucy becomes favored by the queen, and is asked to spy on Dudley and his mistress Lettice Knollys for Elizabeth. But she’s not the only one spying – or plotting – in the court, and an assassination plot that Lucy uncovers could have deadly consequences for all involved.
It’s been a few months since I read a novel set in Elizabethan England, and I think the break did me good as I found myself thoroughly enjoying this novel. Told in alternating viewpoints, with Lucy, her guardian and spy Goodluck, Lettice Knollys, and the queen herself narrating, I was quickly swept up in this exploration of the history surrounding that single event, a visit to Kenilworth Castle. For me, this worked much better than another book covering some large part of Elizabeth’s reign. Instead, we witness all those tensions over the course of a summer, when many things appear to come to a head.
For one thing, the author chooses to depict this as the moment at which Elizabeth firmly rejects her lifetime love, Robert Dudley, for practical reasons in part; she chooses to speculate something about the queen which I won’t reveal. The real origin of this is disclosed in the author’s notes, as with all the historical fiction I like best. But there is also Elizabeth’s anger at Dudley’s relationship with Lettice Knollys, her younger cousin who still retains much of Elizabeth’s youthful, now vanished beauty.
All of this creates quite a bit of emotional drama at the court, and Lucy is mixed up in all of it. She is chosen by Leicester and by the queen to carry out individual tasks, plus she is becoming aware of herself as an attractive person thanks to the fact that she meets a stableboy, Tom, who shares the color of her skin, and who is very attracted to her. But this isn’t a romance novel, and Tom isn’t her primary concern; the queen, her guardian, and Leicester are. She’s under a lot of pressure to reveal secrets, only to discover that there might be even more afoot. There are consequences to the prestige that Lucy’s always wanted, and she certainly discovers them in spades here.
I also really liked Lucy as a character; I could easily imagine a young black woman being shoved to the back of a procession not very long ago, much less in the Tudor period, and I found her reactions to be honest and authentic for the most part. The author does a very good job setting the scene at Kenilworth, too; I’ve been there, and I could picture some of the events taking place in a more complete castle. It added a nice bit of realism to the whole book.
A very enjoyable read for those of us who are still looking for more Elizabethan historical fiction; if you haven’t been reading any for a while, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by The Queen’s Secret. Recommended.
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