Finally finished Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell opus and think you might be suffering from Tudor fatigue? Think again. Oliver Clements’s rollicking new historical thriller proves that when it comes to 16th-century England, what may look like too much can never be enough. THE EYES OF THE QUEEN (Atria/Leopoldo & Company, 304 pp., $27) revisits familiar territory — the network of “intelligencers” with which Francis Walsingham protected Elizabeth I from plotters near and far — and imbues it with taut, made-for-the-movie-theater tension and delicious, snickering-from-the-back-row wit.
Parental guidance will definitely be necessary, since the action opens in August 1572 with the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, when the streets of Paris turn red with the blood of murdered Protestants and Walsingham himself barely escapes the mob. Briefly in his possession is a valuable document, a key element in his scheme to deter Elizabeth’s enemies in Roman Catholic Spain and France, but one whose theft will figure in an increasingly tangled web of deceit. Reluctantly ensnared in that web of spies, turncoats and double agents is the eccentric astrologer and alchemist John Dee, Elizabeth’s beloved former tutor, temporarily banished from court after running afoul of some of her advisers.
“I always think of you as my eyes,” the queen tells him, “able to see clearly in the night where others only saw darkness.” Brilliant but not exactly an action hero, this delightfully cranky, perpetually impecunious scholar will need to rescue a beautiful widow from an iron cage at Mont-St.-Michel and foil a well-armed assassin on a Thames-side mission sanctioned by the pope — all in partnership with Walsingham, whom Dee trusts, as he pungently puts it, “only so far as a man might spit a rat.”
In his down time from wrangling Dee, Walsingham monitors the clandestine activities of Mary, Queen of Scots, who is proving a formidable adversary. When she isn’t conspiring to kill Elizabeth, Mary is deriving equal pleasure from a rigorous regimen of erotic stimulation, one aspect of which causes even poker-faced Walsingham to blush. At the novel’s end, Elizabeth remains on the throne, as we knew she would. But Mary is still very much alive, and so are some dangerous homegrown traitors. What awaits in the series’ second volume?
Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway are slugging out the last days of their marriage in Max Byrd’s PONT NEUF (Permuted Press/Simon & Schuster, 240 pp., paper, $16.99), but their personal combat is a sideshow to the encounter that will alter the lives of three young Americans in the brutal final winter of World War II, the fighting in the Ardennes that came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Annie March is a fledgling war correspondent paddling in Martha’s professional wake, a convenient acolyte and companion both in newly liberated Paris and as close to the front lines as a reluctant military will allow. Martha is also responsible for introducing Annie to B. T. Adams and John Michael Shaw, best friends and former college roommates who see the war from very different perspectives — one is a “desk soldier” analyzing Army intelligence and interrogating prisoners, the other a much-decorated hero commanding paratroopers on the front lines. What they both see are Annie’s considerable charms.
Martha may be an adroit deployer of feminine wiles, but Annie is an amateur when it comes to romantic triangles. Moving deftly between her and her two suitors, Byrd sets their to-ing and fro-ing against the larger maneuvers that will determine both the outcome of the war and the resolution of her quandary. One split-second battlefield decision can yield salvation or ruin — or both. And, as Annie comes to know all too well, emotional wounds may be the most difficult to heal.
In Britain at the turn of the last century, orchids are all the rage and a fortune can be made by selling off the rarest specimens. But what drives the horticultural explorers in Beatrice Colin’s THE GLASS HOUSE (Flatiron, 272 pp., $26.99) is more than the thrill of discovery or the excitement of outfoxing the competition. And what motivates the women they leave behind is even more complicated.
The recent death of her father, Edward Pick, has put Antonia McCulloch, the childless wife of a chilly Scottish barrister, in temporary control of Balmarra, his once-grand, now somewhat seedy mansion outside Glasgow. This is where Edward indulged his passion for plants, sending agents far afield and building a vast heated greenhouse for his prizes. Antonia’s brother, George, who inherited that passion, has been absent for years, wandering India and the Himalayas, incommunicado for long stretches of time. So it’s quite a shock when a beautifully dressed young woman turns up on Antonia’s doorstep with an 8-year-old daughter in tow. George, it seems, has neglected to tell his family that he has both a wife and a child.
Unbeknown to Antonia, Cicely Pick is on a mission of her own, instructed to dispose of the estate in order to fund her husband’s latest expedition. Keeping that to herself while she assesses the situation, Cicely soon encounters difficulties, both legal and personal. A missing letter, a scandalous revelation from George’s past and the rival plant-hunting activities of the McCullochs’ neighbor make her task much more daunting. And then there’s the matter of dealing with Antonia, whose reaction to her new sister-in-law is a roil of envy, resentment and reluctant admiration.
At the end of the novel, Colin’s plotting takes a few unconvincing turns, but what rings true up until then is the approach-avoidance dance of Antonia and Cicely, women of very different backgrounds and personalities who share a common problem — dealing with the prejudices and assumptions of a world where men are expected to make all the important decisions. For Antonia, a frustrated artist, these social imperatives are so deeply ingrained she’s only beginning to recognize them. For the Anglo-Indian Cicely, whose dusky complexion has the Scottish ladies gossiping, they’re impossible to ignore. “Here,” she remarks of herself and her daughter, “they were brewed tea amongst a sea of faces as white as milk.”