In 1588 the Spanish Armada failed in its attempt to invade England, but what if it hadn’t? That is the premise of this novel, which takes place ten years after England falls to Spain. With the Spanish king hovering near death, those loyal to Elizabeth, who languishes in the Tower, choose a simple playwright and actor to spark the flame that will foment the masses to rebel, but William Shakespeare is a reluctant hero. To complicate matters, the Spaniards suspect treason stirs within the theater and commission Shakespeare to memorialize King Phillip II while ordering one of their officers who dabbles in writing to thwart all treachery.
While an interesting story, Turtledove never quite achieves the mastery of alternative history that he’s so accomplished at rendering. Prior to page 296 the action consists of the Spanish officer’s affairs, Shakespeare’s writing, his friendship with Christopher Marlowe, and the acting troupe’s performances and rehearsals. While English characters are well drawn and compelling, the Spaniards are less so. A more even rendering would have enhanced the telling. Perhaps the treasure here lies not in recreating history, but in capturing the essence of Tudor England. The language alone transports the reader back in time, and although some words are strange, it’s delightful to discover that even Londoners of yore could misconstrue and massacre the language.