by Jane Feather
than the role you are given.
Well, actually, nothing. Nothing went wrong, but All the Queen’s Players never really went quite exactly right, either. Perhaps it was a case of unrealistic expectations destined for disappointment, but on balance, disappointed I was. The disappointment was even more poignant because all the ingredients for a truly smashing book are all there. They just don’t seem to have come together quite as they should.
Ms. Feather set herself a rather daunting challenge with this book, both by venturing out of her bailiwick and by her choice of setting. I mean, let’s face it. Tudor England has been done. A lot. And yet Ms. Feather manages to come at the tired story (if such a thing can be said of this particular period in history, which I rather doubt) from a new and novel angel. It’s not the early Tudors, with the Battle of Bosworth and clever Henry VII, nor is it the non-stop carnival of political, romantic, and religious strife of Henry VIII. It’s not even Elizabeth and her youthful uncertainties and possible indiscretions with the late Tudor poster boy Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. All the Queen’s Players is the tale of history’s first official government secret service, the network of spies and agents run by Elizabeth’s Machiavellian adviser Sir Francis Walsingham. Specifically, it is the tale of the tragic downfall of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, as engineered by Walsingham and his ring, told through the eyes of a fictional niece to Sir Francis, one Rosamund Walsingham.
Rosamund is inserted into Queen Elizabeth’s court as one of the ladies-in-waiting, in order to put her considerable talents for sketching and observation to use for her uncle. Her point of view provides a glimpse not often seen of the bottom of the Elizabethan court, rather than the usual focus on its glittering pinnacle. Additionally, Rosamund quickly develops an obsession with the theater and its denizens, allowing the lesser-known Elizabethan literary giant Christopher Marlowe to feature as an important secondary character. Of course, Rosamund’s dangerous interest in the boys-only world of the playhouse, and one theater-mad courtier in particular, are bound to get her into trouble. Trouble comes, but Walsingham turns it to his advantage by sending his disgraced niece undercover as a lady-in-waiting to Mary Stewart, instead, to be his inside informant as his trap to lure the captive deposed queen into treason unfolds.
An historical romance, at least one set outside of the earl and duke-strewn preserves of fictional Regency England’s ton, tends to portray historical events in a secondary capacity, viewed through the eyes of the central characters and dealing in only those parts that affect their lives and loves. In a work of historical fiction, however, it is the events and larger cast of characters that often take center stage, telling the story of the protagonist in relation to this larger setting. Although the past is certainly familiar territory for Ms. Feather, her entry into a new genre seems to have disturbed the careful algebra by which her events and characters are balanced and intertwined. Rosamund and the other main characters come across as strangely flat, and worse, they did not really manage to engage my interest or sympathy. The broader focus of the book seems to have also been a source of trouble. Having created numerous interconnected plot lines, Ms. Feather unfortunately did not really manage to do any of them real justice. Neither the world of Elizabethan theater, nor Rosamund’s private life, nor Walsingham’s spy ring, nor Mary Stewart’s plight, nor Elizabeth’s court really seem to reach their full potential as stories, leaving me feeling almost cheated. Also, without giving away any content, I will also add that I found the ending both shockingly abrupt and distressingly random. It was almost as though, after Mary Stewart’s historically prescribed inevitable end, Ms. Feather couldn’t figure out how to dispose of her fictional characters after their historical framework was dismantled.
All in all, although I’m not left regretting the hours of my life I’ll never get back, I’m not sure that I will ever revisit Mistress Rosamund Walsingham and her trials and tribulations. As lukewarm a reaction as this book produced doesn’t seem to warrant another reading, particularly when I could reread one of Jane Feather’s much better efforts, such as Chase the Dawn or Beloved Enemy. Why settle for her second best when I could enjoy the cream of the crop? Because, even though her second best is quite a decent read, I know she’s got the goods, and don’t want to settle for less.
At Queen Elizabeth’s palace, intrigue abounds. And when a naive girl with a gift for keen observation enters the court, she can hardly imagine the role she will play in bringing England – indeed, the whole of Europe – to the brink of war. Nor can she foresee her own journey to the brink of ecstasy and beyond….When she becomes a junior lady of Queen Elizabeth’s bedchamber, Rosamund is instructed by her cousin, the brilliant and devious secretary of state Sir Francis Walsingham, to record everything she observes. Her promised reward: a chance at a good marriage. But through her brother Thomas, Rosamund finds herself drawn to the forbidden, rough-and-tumble world of theatre, and to Thomas’ friend, the dramatic, impetuous playwright Christopher Marlowe. And then Rosamund meets Will Creighton – a persuasive courtier, poet, and would-be playwright who is the embodiment of an unsuitable match.The unsanctioned relationship between Rosamund and Will draws the wrath of Elizabeth, who prides herself on being the Virgin Queen. Rosamund is sent in disgrace to a remote castle that holds Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Stuart, the imprisoned Queen of Scots. Here, Walsingham expects Rosamund to uncover proof of a plot against Elizabeth. But surely, nothing good can come of putting an artless girl in such close proximity to so many seductive players and deceptive games. Unless, of course, Rosamund can discover an affinity for passion and intrigue herself…