Queen Elizabeth I remains sovereign of England and Ireland. For the moment, at least. An Irish rebellion is growing and Catholic Spain, led by the Queen s former husband, King Philip, plans to seize advantage of the turmoil. Stephen Courtenay, eldest son of Dominic and Minuette, Elizabeth s most trusted confidantes, has accepted a command in Ireland to quell the unrest. But the task will prove dangerous in more ways than one.
The Princess of Wales, Elizabeth s daughter, Anabel, looks to play a greater role in her nation, ever mindful that there is only one Queen of England. But how is Anabel to one day rule a country when she cannot even govern her own heart?
This is the second book in Laura Andersen’s Tudor Legacy series, which returns to the alternate Tudor time-line she created in her Boleyn Trilogy some twenty years or so after the events that took place in The Boleyn Reckoning
While The Virgin’s Spy CAN work as a standalone, I wouldn’t recommend picking it up if you don’t have at least a bit of background information about both series. The setting is Tudor England – but one in which Anne Boleyn gave Henry VIII a son who lived to maturity and who succeeded his father to the throne. While that trilogy ended with history “back on track” and Elizabeth I becoming Queen of England, Ms. Andersen didn’t stop there, and went on to marry Elizabeth to Philip of Spain (off-screen) for the couple to have a daughter, Anne Isabella (Anabel), and then get divorced.
My admiration for the way the author interweaves actual historical events and personages with her alternative events and fictional characters is undimmed; anyone with some knowledge of the period will recognise familiar situations, some of which play out as they actually did, and some which take off in another – equally plausible – direction. The political intrigues and machinations are superbly described – these are the sorts of books you need to concentrate on, although that’s no hardship because they’re so compelling – and the characterisation of Elizabeth, in particular, is superb. Ms. Andersen gets to the heart of what it means to rule and how difficult it can sometimes be; she shows how isolated Elizabeth really is by virtue of her position; how difficult it is to strike a balance between doing something for the good of the realm and doing something she knows to be right. The reader really gets a sense of how the difficult decisions affect Elizabeth and how torn she can be.
The other principal characters in this series are the four Courtenay siblings, the two sons and two daughters of Dominic and Minuette Courtenay, Duke and Duchess of Exeter. Following the events of the previous trilogy, the Courtenays live quietly and mostly away from court, even though their rank and friendship with the queen places them among the highest in the land.
In the previous book in the series, The Virgin’s Daughter we followed Lucette, the eldest of the siblings as she travelled to France at Elizabeth’s bidding and got caught up in a desperate feud between the two Le Clerc brothers, one of whom she eventually married. The focus in The Virgin’s Spy turns to the Catholic rebellion in Ireland and to Stephen, the Courtenay’s eldest son and heir. Stephen is twenty-one and his considered level-headedness has often seen him compared to his formidable father, a man whose quiet dignity belies a sharp mind, an unbending sense of honour and leadership qualities that are second to none. But although he doesn’t show it, the constant comparisons are wearing, and Stephen is eager to step out from under his father’s shadow and make a name for being something other than the son of the great Dominic Courtenay.
He gets his chance when he is sent to Ireland to in order to reinforce the English troops engaged in fighting the Catholic rebels. His commanding officer, the Earl of Ormond, is an experienced and pragmatic man Stephen finds he can respect. Not so Captain Oliver Dane, who is brutal, uncompromising and without conscience, as Stephen discovers when Dane orders the slaughter of Irish prisoners after an English victory. Stephen is furious and disgusted at such an act and can’t help speaking out against Dane’s orders, something which marks him for trouble and earns Dane’s implacable enmity. Following a raid on his camp, Stephen is badly wounded and is brought home to recover, but his mind is more severely injured than his body and it is some time before he can let go of his rage for long enough to be able to coldly plan his vengeance. But to gain that, he needs to return to Ireland – and to do so, he must make a bargain with Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, and infiltrate one of the principal rebel strongholds.
It’s a decision which is going to profoundly change the course of his life, but from which there is no going back.
Ms. Andersen does a great job in balancing the personal stories of the Courtenays, Elizabeth and Anabel against the bigger picture of the highly volatile political situation. Mary Stuart, formerly Queen of Scots and now married to Philip of Spain, wants Spain to join forces with their Irish Catholic brethren against the English oppressors, and war is inevitable. It’s just a question of when it’s going to happen and how long Elizabeth has to prepare for it.
The relationship between the queen and her heir is very well drawn; Anabel is as keenly intelligent and politically astute as her mother, but she also has to face difficult choices in her personal life. A princess cannot afford to love where she chooses, and her growing attachment to Kit Courtenay can’t be allowed to interfere with the need for her to make a matrimonial alliance with France or Scotland. Kit’s twin sister, Pippa, who is Anabel’s closest friend and adviser, is also struggling with her feelings for Matthew Harrington (the son of their father’s oldest servant and friend) as well as to bear the burden placed upon her by the ‘gift’ which enables her to gain insight into the future. I particularly enjoyed seeing Kit come into his own in this book. Before, he was characterised as a charming, devil-may-care type who made people laugh and whom nobody took seriously. But now, he’s growing up and finding his identity apart from his father and the older brother he idolises but can’t help resenting. Dominic and Minuette have roles to play, too, and I enjoyed meeting them again. They are parents of grown children, yet it’s clear that they are still as devoted and in love as ever they were as they try to reconcile their desire to stay out of the spotlight with their strong sense of duty.
There are several different storylines being pursued here, some of which end with the book and some which will no doubt be concluded in the following one, The Virgin’s War. Ms Andersen has once again crafted a compelling, fast-moving and complex story and peopled it with a set of principal characters it’s easy to care about and root for. The Virgin’s Spy is a terrific read and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction but is in the mood for something a little different.