The most ambitious and least successful of Cowell's fictional re-creations of Elizabethan England (after Nicholas Cooke, 1993, and The Physician of London, 1995). Cowell's protagonist this time is the young William Shakespeare during his first 31 years (156495), following his life first as a dreamy, bookish youngster growing up in the village of Stratford, then as a husband and father who forsakes his family to seek his fortune in London's theater world, and finally--pace Anthony Burgess (whose Nothing Like the Sun remains serenely unchallenged as an imaginative rendering of the Bard's amours)--as the lover both of Italian beauty Emilia Bassano (herself a poet and aspiring playwright, and the inspiration for the ``dark lady'' of the sonnets) and of his handsome patron, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. Cowell races through the period's great events (such as the return home of Sir Frances Drake's Armada) that fall during her protagonist's formative years and offers only thumbnail portraits of his comrades and peers, including mysterious ``Kit'' Marlowe and lachrymose Ben Jonson (who ``swore once a sentence, and wept when drunk of his love of God''). This is the sort of historical novel in which the embryonic genius is allowed to utter rough first versions of what will later become immortal lines, and in which his male lover fervently declares, ``I have a strange love for thee, I know not from where it comes. I want thy stories and thy wisdom and I cannot quite put thee from my heart.'' This is a Harlequin romance. Burgess did it better.