British historian Borman’s (The Private Lives of the Tudors, 2016, etc.) debut novel depicts a lady-in-waiting caught up in the Guy Fawkes conspiracy.
Borman’s protagonist, Frances Gorges, is on the sidelines, literally “in waiting” much of the time. Amid the upheaval surrounding the accession of King James I to the throne recently vacated by Queen Bess, Frances is relishing her solitude at her family estate, Longford. Her parents—a marchioness and the lesser nobleman she married for love—and her ambitious sisters are living elsewhere, in semiexile. (Her family’s absence is convenient; they might otherwise have pulled too much dramatic focus from Frances herself.) Her uncle, the earl of Northhampton, hoping to advance the family fortunes by using his niece as bait for highly placed suitors, insists that she come to court. The earl’s motivations are never consistent—he ranges from being Frances’ quasi-incestuous tormentor to her ally. At court, Frances is appointed to attend the king’s young daughter, Elizabeth. Soon, though, Frances, skilled at herb lore and healing, is targeted as a witch by her uncle’s archrival, Lord Cecil, who, to curry royal favor, is fanning James’ anti-witchcraft fervor. Despite ample evidence that Cecil can’t be trusted (he even takes Frances to witness the execution of an accused witch), she falls into his trap. In the Tower, she’s forced (along with readers) to endure a lurid torture scene in which a “witch-pricker” searches her body for a telltale “Devil’s Mark.” Cleared of charges, Frances returns to court, whereupon the witchcraft angle gives way to much duller fare. Lavish depictions of architecture and scenery pad the narrative—buildings come alive, people less so. The book’s second half is devoted to Frances’ hand-wringing over whether or not the Guy Fawkes plot will succeed—her beloved, Tom Wintour, is a ringleader, and she sympathizes with the plot’s ultimate aim: to replace James with Princess Elizabeth. Clichés abound: Hearts leap, eyes blaze, and far too many curtseys are "bobbed."
A potentially intriguing take on regime change derailed by its choice of heroine.