Bernard Cornwell is the sort of author (like Crichton long ago) responsible for my flirtation with both writing and archaeology as a profession. He does an excellent job of weaving in historical goodies and details of the time, making quite a bit of the work educational in that excellent way where you don’t realize you’re learning anything until someone brings up Elizabethan persuivants and you’re like, “ah ha, the dudes prosecuting catholics who threatened to rip tongues out like they’re shopping dinner spots.”
Our main character is Richard Shakespeare. Yes, that Shakespeare. After being apprenticed to a drunken, abusive carpenter, he runs away from “home” and to the city, where his bigshot brother William is a playwright. William is furious, not liking his brother nor wanting the distraction from the insane dangers of living in London, where Richard is almost mugged crossing his literal first street. The air of danger in historic London is intense, and the time is one of religious persecution. Playhouses are targets of said persecution, being seen as dens of heresy. Against this backdrop, constantly in debt, competing with better funded playhouses, the drama unfolds.
William is in the middle of writing both Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Richard wants better parts, rapidly aging out of his ability to play women and being passed over for meaty men roles both from competition within the company and William’s distaste for him. As all of this is happening, the persuivants are bearing down, other playhouses who know William’s scripts are the best seek to steal them, and Richard finds himself enamored with a serving girl in a great house.
I really don’t want to say more than that because this is a character driven and suspenseful drama. Saying more would ruin things. The book is a slow start with lots of confusingly similar named characters but it is excellent and worth getting into. Definite recommend.