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A TALE OF SORCERY AND PASSION IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY LONDON—WHERE WITCHES HAUNT WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND HIS DARK LADY, THE PLAYWRIGHT'S MUSE AND ONE TRUE LOVE
The daughter of a Venetian musician, Aemilia Bassano came of age in Queen Elizabeth’s royal court. The Queen’s favorite, she develops a love of poetry and learning, maturing into a young woman known not only for her beauty but also her sharp mind and quick tongue. Aemilia becomes the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, but her position is precarious. Then she crosses paths with an impetuous playwright named William Shakespeare and begins an impassioned but ill-fated affair.
A decade later, the Queen is dead, and Aemilia Bassano is now Aemilia Lanyer, fallen from favor and married to a fool. Like the rest of London, she fears the plague. And when her young son Henry takes ill, Aemilia resolves to do anything to save him, even if it means seeking help from her estranged lover, Will—or worse, making a pact with the Devil himself.
In rich, vivid detail, Sally O’Reilly breathes life into England’s first female poet, a mysterious woman nearly forgotten by history. Full of passion and devilish schemes, Dark Aemilia is a tale worthy of the Bard.
The synopsis for this book suggests a complex, multi-faceted and captivating tale. It is indeed multi-faceted; however, many of these facets are woefully underdeveloped or abandoned completely, while others are so overdone as to feel tired and redundant. The themes of repression of women and their struggles during this time period, as well as the squalor and less than savory living conditions experienced by many, while well-expressed, are covered so thoroughly and so repetitively that it seems the author would have been better served by delving deeper into other plot points rather than revisiting these ideas so frequently.
The blatant vulgarity and crude sexual references become distracting in much the same way. Although they may be historically accurate for the period, these frequent crass references are somewhat jolting, and we feel more sparing use of such descriptions could have set the scene just as well without disrupting the reader’s attention.
Aemilia, though not always the most likeable character, is certainly an intriguing one. She is well educated, ambitious and resilient, but sadly, despite all of her much touted intelligence and spunk, she exhibits a startling lack of growth. She continually fails to learn from her mistakes and remains stubborn, rash and often unthinking throughout the novel.
At one point Shakespeare asks Aemilia:
"But what are you? A scholar or a mistress? A temptress or a wife? An angel or a witch? I cannot say."
Similarly, this book seems to struggle to define itself and develop a clear direction. It introduces a wide array of interesting ideas, but in failing to develop depth to so many of them, leaves the reader wanting more. There is great potential here in both the source material and the author’s clever fictional imaginings; unfortunately, due to the rather superficial execution, much of that potential goes unrealized. While not altogether unworthy, this book could have been so much better and left us feeling a bit underwhelmed.