REVIEW SUMMARY: Interesting blend of secret history and faery, packed with intrigue.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In Elizabethan England, the Queen’s spy master begins to suspect that an outside player is meddling in court politics. It’s up to a young courtier and a disgraced fae to untangle the knots binding human and fae courts together.
PROS: This is a unique blending of faery court intrigue with secret history, told with language that evokes the historical era without being difficult.
CONS: Sometimes the answers come too easily to the characters.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent story full of political machinations and historical accuracy.
To win her throne, Elizabeth had some help overcoming the forces that supported her sister, Queen Mary. Specifically, she entered into a contract with Invidiana, who sought to become Queen of all the faery of England. Together, they both established their courts in London, and settled into their thrones. Elizabeth, of course, became one of England’s best rulers. Invidiana, on the other hand, was a cruel and capricious monarch, passing out ‘amusing’ punishments to courtiers on a whim.
The action of the novel picks up in 1588, after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Deven is a young man who has just been admitted to the ranks of Her Majesty’s Gentleman Pensioners, who, along with trying to advance themselves, act as her bodyguards. His fortunes are rising, and he finds a patron in Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s famous spy master. It is Walsingham who begins to suspect outside forces at work on the Queen, and he orders Deven to investigate.
At the Onyx Court of Invidiana, Lune is a fae whose star is fading. She conducted the negotiations with the sea faery to have them intercede against the Spanish Armada on England’s behalf. However, Invidiana is not happy with the price Lune agreed to. The Queen has made clear that Lune will not receive her protection as other courtiers seek to back stab their way into higher positions. Lune is ordered to investigate Walsingham, during which assignment she meets Deven, but even that goes awry and she is reduced to huddling in hidden caves in the underground palace that Invidiana has created under London.
When Walsingham dies, Deven is left without a clear patron, but he seeks to fulfill the trust that the old man placed in him. It will be up to Deven and Lune to restore the natural order of things, and to free Elizabeth from the influence of Invidiana. To do so, they must contend not only with human/fae relations, but also with international diplomacy, Catholic/Protestant tensions, and alchemists.
From the nature of the story, it should be clear that it involves less overt fighting and more skulking. Plotting and scheming are the rule of the day, and Brennan’s writing makes it mercifully easy to follow the characters and their different agendas. It all leads up to a very satisfying epic battle set piece, as different factions of the fae converge on London to duke it out.
Two particular aspects of the storytelling make this particularly enjoyable. Brennan’s prose style is perfectly suited to the tale she wants to tell. Her language has a slightly archaic feel to it, reminding us that these are historical characters, not modern guys plopped down in a historical setting. However, she never takes that too far–the writing is always easy to read and flows with a good rhythm.
The other nice thing is the way she sets constraints on the power of the fae. This can be a tricky business: unchecked fae magic would become a deus ex machina, but too fettered and the threat they pose would seem insignificant. One way Brennan handles this is to limit the extent to which the fae can affect human realms. Any signal of strong Christian faith (speaking God’s name, the ringing of church bells, etc.) will cause fae magic to dissipate unless they have arranged protection. This protection comes in the form of eating human bread that has been specifically offered to the faeries, much as people used to leave milk and biscuits out for the “little people.” Of course, with all the religious fervor flowing around England at the time, both Protestant and Catholic, these offerings are becoming more rare. One way that Invidiana shows her favor and controls her people is by rationing out these morsels of bread to her favorites.
This book is a fast, enjoyable read. It does not require knowledge of a lot of historical minutia in order to enjoy the story, and the intrigue between and within the fae and human worlds is interesting, if sometimes a little simplistic. To keep everything moving apace, sometimes the characters get off a little too lightly, or find the answers a little too easily. Occasionally it feels a little fluffy, but that’s a minor quibble. It makes for a fast-paced story, which can be difficult to pull off with court politics.