Sword fights, drunken brawls, and backstabbing enemies.
The Greatman’s plays come to life.
No one does historical fiction better than Bernard Cornwell. In his latest book, Fools and Mortals, he brings us into the bawdy, robust and dangerous world of London during the Elizabethan era. Rivalries abound. The theater has become a cultural icon. Plays are worth their weight in gold, and people were willing to do anything to obtain a Shakespeare play.
One of Cornwell’s favorite tools is to show you the life of a great man through a person of lower social standing. Hence, the protagonist of this story, Richard Shakespeare, Will’s brother. He leads the reader through the meanderings of a well intentioned, hard working, and kind player. A young man who is seeking nothing more than his own brother’s recognition. Well maybe something more, like success, respect, honor, a warm place to sleep and a hot meal.
Richard is the reader’s entry into the world of the Elizabethan Court. Understanding how these Well-born thought and acted, how political machinations worked during the Tudor period, and how the average person lived day-to-day allows us to enter a long lost world. He throws himself into the center of intrigue, with guile and the assuredness of youth. Cornwell lifts the veil of fantasy with a lot of reality.
Elizabethan England was not a place to show weakness. People needed to be strong, both physically and mentally, to survive. Work was also, not always honest. Kindness was in short supply. Through Cornwell’s description you almost feel as if you are walking those cobbled streets strewn with garbage, and rampant with Pursuivants. Fear, starvation, and plague was never far from the everyday.
Then into the midsts of the story’s skullduggery, Cornwell fascinatingly intertwines one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays with the underlying narrative of the novel. The reader gains a glimpse of the play both through the eyes of the audience, well meaning but demanding gentry, along with the players, whose goal is simply to have a play that brings in people to the Playhouse. Well maybe a part that doesn’t require the actor to always wear skirts, which also takes us into a disturbing subplot.
Moreover we are privy to the real life, and well documented jealousies, wrangling, and the maneuvering for position by the famous and the infamous. Cornwell reminds us of the gossip, the history, the enmity found among those whose lives we still find fascinating, and whose actions and choices still have a lasting impact upon our modern world.
Fools and Mortals is a wonderful, fun book.
This book is available in the UK on Oct 19, 2017 and in the US on January 9, 2018.