It's 1553 and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, is king in all but name. He has sequestered King Edward, ailing to the point of death; Princess Elizabeth, Edward's sister, is determined to see her brother, despite the danger the visit poses to herself. She arrives in London on the same day as Brendan Prescott, a foundling raised by the Dudleys at their country estate. Brendan has been summoned to court to serve Robert, Northumberland's arrogant and ambitious son. In love with Elizabeth, Robert hopes to marry her and uses Brendan to carry his clandestine messages. But Brendan, mesmerized by Elizabeth and sympathizing with her orphaned state, warns her of Robert's machinations and quickly finds himself engaged by Elizabeth's protector, William Cecil, as a spy on her behalf. As Brendan works to keep Elizabeth free of the Dudleys' grasp, he unearths unsettling facts about his own history, facts someone at court has determined shall never come to light. By the time Brendan learns his true identity, he has gained the trust of both Elizabeth and her sister Mary; now he must decide what to do with a discovery that threatens the princesses' claims to the throne.
One of the strengths of the THE TUDOR SECRET is its male protagonist. It is refreshing to read the adventures of a main character who is free to come and go as he pleases and does not have to resort to elaborate subterfuges to escape the ever-watchful eyes of chaperones and parents. Brendan is a likeable and articulate character who has gone to great lengths to educate himself. He loves deeply and loyally and, determined to make his own way in the world, readily adapts to his changing circumstances. The infectious enthusiasm that infuses his voice makes his first-person narrative enjoyable to read.
Memorable characters are a hallmark of Gornter's fiction, and the novel's other characters are equally well-drawn. His young Elizabeth, fragile yet iron-willed, exudes an unrealized potential that captivates anyone in her orbit. She and Brendan share an immediate sympathy that blossoms into an unshakeable trust. Elizabeth's older sister, Mary, a tiny woman distrustful by nature and circumstance, nevertheless commands respect and exhibits a healthy regality. Peregrine, the quick-witted stable boy who becomes Brendan's sidekick, provides both humor and the street smarts necessary to rescue Brendan from his numerous scrapes. William Cecil straddles the moral spectrum; closed-mouthed and enigmatic, he tends his own interests as much as Elizabeth's. The villains, who will remain unnamed so as not to spoil the plot, tend toward the extreme but are given justifiable reasons for their wickedness.
The evocation of sixteenth century England resonates with well-chosen details, from the "tar-boiled heads" mounted on poles at the city gate to Mistress Alice, Brendan's surrogate mother, smoothing animal fat into leather shoes with a wooden spoon. Gortner always lavishes attention on his characters' dress, revealing personality traits through their clothing. Mary Tudor, for example, wears a "gable headdress that look[s] too heavy for her thin shoulders." Smells bring scenes to life, and the omnipresent scents of urine, vomit, and blood, as well as the sweeter odors of flowers, salve and ale, immerse the reader in the robust world of the sixteenth century.
The plot hangs together well, although the reader must pay attention to the details to understand Brendan's complicated origins and the Dudleys' convoluted schemes. It is important to remember that this novel is a mystery rather than straight historical fiction; the events depicted serve Brendan's story first and foremost. Given the power struggles surrounding the succession of Henry VIII's children to the throne, however, Gortner's imagined events are not implausible. As he explains in the interview that follows the story, "While nothing in THE TUDOR SECRET contradicts the known facts of what happened in the summer of 1553, I do mix things up and seek to reveal what might have been transpiring behind the scenes."
I thoroughly enjoyed THE TUDOR SECRET and look forward to the series' next installment. As SECRET closes, Brendan decides to keep mum about his identity for the time being. It will be interesting to see with whom he shares his discovery and how it affects his relationship with those who wield power. Add this uncertainty to the political intrigue he'll encounter as Elizabeth's spymaster and we have all we need for an engrossing and exciting series.
Learn more about C.W. Gortner and his books at his newly redesigned website.