In late summer of 1562, with handsome Lord Robert Dudley by her side, Elizabeth Tudor leads her retinue to London's Royal College of Physicians -- to demand its help in the raging battle against disease and pestilence. But the stalwart queen is shaken when a frighteningly lifelike effigy of herself ravaged by pox turns up in her royal coach. Elizabeth's fear that the counterfeit corpse is a harbinger of tragedy comes to fruition when ever more terrifying transgressions penetrate the very heart of her royal precincts. With the help of her Privy Plot Council, Elizabeth resolves to unmask a murderer who wears a false face and is beset by the vilest humours of the soul. But when she herself falls ill, an entire realm is caught in the grip of a treasonous conspiracy...as the indomitable young monarch fights for her life, her realm, and her rightful crown.
The early years of Elizabeth I's reign were a bloody, tumultuous time in British history, but Harper's fourth mystery to feature the virgin queen as sleuth (after 2001's The Twylight Tower) is, by comparison, rather anemic, being set in the world of 16th-century medicine. Two physicians and an untried monarch quarreling over the best way to treat disease is not the stuff of compelling conflict. A more serious danger to the young queen eventually surfaces, rooted in the endless squabbles over the right to the crown. Unfortunately, the author loads up the story with so many characters (25 in the first chapter alone) that the palace intrigue is more irritating than intriguing. The queen herself, as Harper presents her, is not a particularly sympathetic character. If this is a true portrait, mayhap she came by it naturally: her father was, after all, Henry VIII, and her mother the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. As the danger increases, Elizabeth calls together a motley crew of trusted advisers, a group she has dubbed the Privy Plot Council, and leads them in a spirited investigation of the threat to her life. Strip away the historical name dropping, the unrequited loves and the royal histrionics, and you'll find a neatly plotted mystery, with genuinely terrifying scenes at the climax. Alas, the novel sinks under the weight of all those personages and the burden of keeping them straight. The murky view of Hampton Court above a tomb effigy on the jacket nicely conveys the book's atmosphere.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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February 03, 2003
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Excerpt from The Queene's Cure by Karen Harper
THE FIRST Other distinctions and difference I leave to the learned Physicians of our London College, who are very well able to search this matter, as a thing far above my reach . . . none fitter than the learned Physicians of the College of London. --John Gerard The Herball September 25, 1562 Queen Elizabeth was mounted and waiting. She shaded her eyes and waved up at the parapet of Whitehall Palace where Kat Ashley was taking her first constitutional walk in the ten days since Dr. Burcote had cured her fever. Kat smiled wanly and waved back. The old woman's recovery would have ordinarily been enough to make the royal spirits soar, but Elizabeth Tudor was en route to visit the Royal College of Physicians in the City. She was even less pleased with them than she had been ten days ago when she had needed them and they were gone. For since then, they had begged off a royal visit--twice. "A lovely day for an outing." Mary Sidney nearly sang the words as her brother, Robert Dudley, whom they both affectionately called Robin, helped her mount directly behind the queen. Ever the optimist, Mary was quite as pretty as she was pleasant, though that lighthearted humor ill suited the queen today. Her Majesty heard a rumbling noise and glanced behind. Boonen, her coachman, was bringing up her round-topped, wooden and leather coach, pulled by the eight matched white mules. Though a ride in it over ruts or cobbles could shake the teeth out of one's head, Elizabeth's use of the three coaches she had ordered had set a new trend. This one, her oldest, was upholstered inside with black velvet embossed with gold and outside was richly gilded. Like all of them, it was adorned with ostrich plumes. The effect of the equipage was exactly the awe she wanted, though folk had finally stopped calling it The Monster. She had not wanted to ride in it on the way today, but perhaps it would do for her return if the weather changed or the visit was as trying as she expected. She could, of course, have summoned the College fellows here, but she had wanted to beard the lions in their own den and see exactly what prey they had been hunting lately. After all, that pride of lions was lorded over by two men who did not wish her well. Peter Pascal, their past president, gossip said, had never forgiven a personal tragedy for which he blamed the Tudors. When the Catholic Church was cast from England, her royal father had ordered Pascal's beloved mentor, Sir Thomas More, imprisoned and beheaded. Some said Great Henry could have saved More, but was angry with his former friend for censuring the king's conscience. Elizabeth felt that Sir Thomas and others were legally judged guilty only for their refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy. This act granted Henry and his heirs--especially, at that time, the newborn Protestant Princess Elizabeth for whose mother the Catholic Church was dissolved--the right to head both the kingdom and the new Church of England. But all that was before the torrent crashed over the mill dam: Anne Boleyn beheaded, Elizabeth declared bastard, and four other stepmothers paraded through her young life. Elizabeth could grasp bitterness over someone beloved being beheaded, but she was not to be blamed for what her father had done or for being Protestant either. She was willing to let men, even Papists like Pascal, follow their consciences as long as they didn't rock the royal ship of state. But of even more immediate concern was the eminent physician John Caius, the current president of the college. Also an ardent Papist, he had never forgiven Elizabeth for dismissing him from his lucrative, prestigious post as court physician when she came to the throne four years ago. But it was precisely the fact that he had served their Catholic majesties, Queen Mary and the Spanish King Philip, so assiduously that made her mistrus