Gregory (The Boleyn Inheritance, 2006, etc.) makes a return trip to Tudor England, focusing on the period when Mary, Queen of Scots, fleeing from rebel Scottish lords, found herself imprisoned in England by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.
The story is narrated from multiple perspectives: that of Queen Mary as well as her two jailors, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and his new wife, Bess of Hardwick, a much-married and canny financial administrator as well as a spy for the ruthless William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s chief adviser. As the months, then years, pass, George’s hopeless, forever unfulfilled love for the Queen of Scots wars with his desire to retain his honor and serve Queen Elizabeth, and also destroys the affectionate business relationship that united him and his wife in amiable marriage. Bess watches the substantial fortune she amassed through well-chosen husbands, good investments and careful accounting dwindle in support of Queen Mary’s extravagant lifestyle. And, of course, Mary plots and plots again, to little avail. Reading the novel is a bit like witnessing a fixed tennis match: Queen Mary shuttles back and forth between various castles, her return to Scotland always imminent until each grand scheme fails. Meanwhile, the reader marks time waiting for the queen’s inevitable walk to the scaffold. Gregory vividly evokes her three protagonists, but their personalities remain static to the point of tedium; however, it’s fair to say that each one’s inability to change is the very thing that leads to their joint tragedy. Mary believes that her beauty and royal status allow her to do whatever she likes with impunity; Bess, despite her wealth and title, can never surmount her humble origins; and George, in the face of obvious evidence that his way of life is dying, stubbornly insists that noble blood, not ambition, must determine rank.
Not without interest, but this claustrophobic novel should be more intriguing than it is.