Friday, April 20, 2012

Unicorn's Blood

Author: Patricia Finney
Publication Date: 1998
Cost: This is on offer on for just over $7.00, and there is no Kindle edition available.
Where Did I Hear About It: This is another find.

The Backstory

This novel takes place in 1587. Elizabeth has been queen for some time, and is now an older, somewhat cantankerous version of herself. Her Privy Council continues to try and convince her to order the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. She is attended by several familiar faces and many fictional ones created for the primary action of the story.

The main focus of the book is a diary kept by Elizabeth as a teenager, known as the Book of the Unicorn. From the beginning, it is clear that this diary contains information that could completely undo the Queen, compromising the loyalty of her subjects and delivering to her enemies exactly what they're looking for to destroy her. The mystery of the novel is exactly how the different individuals, who appear both separately and without reference to the diary at the start of the book, fit together.

The primary characters are: Mary, a former nun dissillusioned by the dissolution of the monasteries and nunneries under Elizabeth's father; David Becket, a man who has completely lost his memory who may know something about the Book of the Unicorn; Thomasina, Elizabeth's court fool and trusted friend; Simon Ames, a Jewish man who was a former informant for Frances Walsingham; and Secretary Davidson, who is working for the Queen. All of them are somehow related to the Book of the Unicorn, and their relationship to this book and to each other is gradually revealed throughout the novel.

The primary question is: Will Elizabeth find the Book of the Unicorn before her enemies do? And, if she doesn't, what will be her fate?

What about the book?

This book, unlike many novels focusing on Elizabeth or on the Tudors generally, was never a big hit with history buffs, and, after reading it, I can completely understand why.

The story isn't a good one for many reasons. First, it has an aura of complete impossibility about it, and often, what separates clever historical fiction from not-so-great historical fiction is believability in the context of historical events. Second, for about half of the book, none of the characters are particularly likeable. I will say that this issue improves during the course of the story, however, it may be difficult for even a determined reader to get to that point before giving up on it.

Finney does several rather odd, and often unnecessary things that compromise the novel. At least a portion--if not all of it, although that isn't clear--of the story is "told" by the Virgin Mary. I'm not sure if there is anything quite more ridiculous than choosing a Biblical figure for the narrator. It's hard to figure out a way this could actually work, but, the obvious routes were ignored in this case. You would expect that Mary may make a comment or two about the religious conflict of the day, for example, or about the obvious parallels between Virgin Mary and Virgin Queen.

The novel is also plagued by many characters that it could do without quite well. The Queen's Carey cousins appear, but, in the end, their role is too diminished to explain elongating the novel to include them. A set of circumstances surrounding one of Elizabeth's Ladies in Waiting could also have been sacrificed without any serious loss to the plot. In addition, the "secret" about Elizabeth is predictable, but, more than that, other authors have used the same plot device in much more effective, and interesting, ways.

On one positive note, I will say that Finney picked probably the perfect pace through which to reveal the secrets in the story. At first, I felt that the main mystery was divulged too early, but in retrospect, I was very wrong about that. Once the pieces start to fit together, the story became more interesting and the characters far more likeable. Finney had so many characters that she resolved a few of their stories with a bit too much brevity at the end, but, overall, the novel improved exponentially after about the mid-point. However, several times, I almost gave up the book before I got that far.

Rating: A 5. This isn't a great story overall, regardless of its improvements later on in the story.
Buy It or Borrow It: Probably neither in this case, unfortunately. Although the novel improves, I don't think that saves it. Skip this one and try some other offerings.

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