“The Secret Lion” is in many ways an old-fashioned spy novel, complete with an intelligent but scrappy protagonist, shady pay-masters, and an overarching mystery. What distinguishes this book from the rest is that it is set in Tudor England, during the uncertain last months of the troubled reign of Edward VI. It is also written by C.W. Gortner, who has gone on to write two well-regarded historical novels on Catherine De’Medici and “Juana the Mad” of Spain.
I bought this book after being captivated by an excerpt I read on Google Books; the perspective of a lowly servant, Brendan Prescott, is a fascinating lens through which to view the powerful Tudor figures. I was also intrigued by the characterization of Elizabeth, which is definitely a strength of the story. However, the early promise I saw never materialized as the book sank deeper into improbable action story lines and disappointingly two-dimensional characterizations. By the time the final (in my opinion, ludicrous) plot twist was revealed, I found myself not caring much anymore.
This is not to say that “The Secret Lion” is a terrible book. It’s not. As I mentioned before, Gortner’s Princess Elizabeth rings true. Sir William Cecil and Francis Walsingham are portrayed as amoral guardians of Elizabeth; an interesting but compelling choice, especially for the former. Robert Dudley’s portrayal is over-the-top; he’s a borderline sociopath obsessed with Elizabeth. That being said, his narcissism and ambition are probably not that far-off from that of the historical Dudley. Frances Grey, mother of Lady Jane Grey, fares even less well. She is described as “monstrous” and given a completely unwarranted role as chief villain. Lady Dudley is for some reason portrayed as an evil matriarch type who in one scene murders an old woman. Frankly, this is ridiculous. The noble families of the Tudor age were ambitious, even cutthroat, but I don’t think these high-born ladies literally slit people’s throats.
All in all: a good read if you like suspense novels, but don’t read it if you expect historical accuracy.