Another historical entertainment from the prolific Erickson (The Tsarina’s Daughter, 2008, etc.).
This swift, spare account is told in the plangent voice of Mary Stuart (1542–87). She begins her diary at age 15 with her marriage to the French dauphin, soon to be King Francis II. Her sickly husband is never able to father the heir Mary needs to solidify her position at the French court, ruled over by ruthless Queen Mother Catherine de Medici. Catherine’s seer, Michel de Notredame, intones that despite her impeccable royal pedigree, Mary has been doomed from birth. After Francis dies, Mary leaves for Scotland to assume the throne she inherited from her father, James V. She’s accompanied by Jamie, Earl of Bothwell, a fierce, brawling Scotsman. Roman Catholic Mary is unable to quell the unrest fomented by fractious clan warlords and the Presbyterian movement led by John Knox. Matters aren’t helped by a disastrous marriage to her cousin Henry, Lord Darnley, who rapes her. The son of that union, the future James VI, will remain a stranger to his mother. After Mary and Bothwell conspire to have Henry killed, her cousin and rival, England’s Queen Elizabeth, takes advantage of her unpopularity in Scotland to have her placed under house arrest in London. Bothwell spirits Mary away to a Scottish isle where they marry in secret. Their (fictional) daughter is raised in Normandy by Mary’s French kin. The Queen of Scots inspires Pope Gregory and swashbuckling Italian admiral Don John to muster a fleet to invade England. This plan comes to naught, and rather than embrace safe obscurity in Normandy, Mary and Jamie seek to blackmail Queen Elizabeth. Such harebrained schemes inevitably render Nostradamus’ prediction self-fulfilling.
The one-dimensional portrait of Elizabeth as a none-too-bright harridan makes her an unsatisfying antagonist for vivacious Mary, but this is the only misstep in a fast-paced, lavishly detailed narrative.