A richly imagined answer to a vexing question: Why did the mighty ships of the Spanish Armada fail in their mission?
Finney, the Cambridge-educated author of dazzling Elizabethan-era historicals (Unicorn’s Blood, 2001, etc.), swashbuckles right into the story: as Philip of Spain threatens to take England and all its riches by force, the equally bellicose English plan their defense. Alas, they lack sufficient saltpeter for the manufacture of gunpowder; English dealers in armaments may well be indirectly supplying the Spaniards, and Queen Elizabeth’s court is crawling with Papist traitors and spies of all stripes. Is Simon Anriques—a Jew born in the New World, known in England as Simon Ames, and seemingly her Majesty’s loyal servant—really a double agent? Just ask the pious Portuguese torturer into whose hands he falls and his silent minions, who pour gallons of water down Anriques’s gagging throat, stopping just before his belly bursts. (Squeamish souls take note: Finney relishes brutality—the galley scenes, in which Anriques later figures, are rife with flogging, festering wounds, more torture, and a wee touch of forced sodomy.) Anriques’s African slave, Merula, tends to his sickly wife Rebecca and offers incantatory, noble-savage speeches when not casting spells inspired by her bloodthirsty personal deity, Lady Leopard. Merula is able to call down terrible storms from the indifferent heavens, and Rebecca herself manages to blow up a galleon, with the aid of Thomasina de Paris, a wonderfully clever dwarf—in fact, a court fool to Queen Elizabeth. Pursued by English fire-ships, the Armada is routed in shameful defeat. In an epilogue, Finney admits to making up some of the details, but who cares? This is fiction—and the gorgeous, carefully wrought prose carries all before it.
Ambitious, engrossing, full of melodramatic thunder.