Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review: Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady by Sally O'Reilly

Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark LadyDark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady by Sally O'Reilly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sally O'Reilly's "Dark Aemilia" is first-rate, gripping historical fiction, full of passion, drama, and sorcery. This novel, to be released at the end of May, tells the fascinating tale of Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, a real historical figure who was one of England's first published female poets... and who MAY have been the "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets. In O'Reilly's richly imagined story, the spirited, quick-witted Aemilia is Will Shakespeare's great love and muse, who inspires not only his sonnets, but many strong female characters in his plays. The tempestuous love affair of Aemilia and Will seems doomed, however, and they part, only to meet again a decade later when Aemilia's son is sickened with the dreaded plague. Aemilia will do anything in her power, even seek the help of dangerous supernatural forces, to save her only child.

This all makes for a captivating, page-turning read. O'Reilly mingles the realistic with the supernatural in a way that I haven't seen before in a work of historical fiction. She skillfully brings Elizabethan England to life with much lush, colorful detail, especially in some marvelous passages set at the Globe Theater. I was absolutely riveted by her depiction of London in the terrifying grips of the plague. And then the supernatural ... I wondered, at first, if this aspect of the novel would seem odd or out of place to me (I don't ordinarily read fantasy). But in fact, the supernatural scenes fit well, and serve to highlight the thin line between reality and magic in the superstitious minds of the English in the Elizabethan period. In this world, in which belief in witchcraft was unquestioned, it makes perfect sense that Aemilia calls upon the supernatural at her darkest hour, and I found I could fully "suspend my disbelief" to experience this part of the story.

A little knowledge of Shakespeare's works is helpful, although not required, in enjoying "Dark Aemilia." I loved O'Reilly's unique version of the events surrounding the writing of "Macbeth" and the origin of the famous curse on the "Scottish play" among theater folk. I don't know how plausible this theory is--probably not very!--but it sure makes for a fine story.

I'd offer a few small critiques here.. The love affair of Aemilia and Will didn't come alive for me until the latter half of the novel. I would have loved a little more time spent on the development of their feelings for one another. A few images in the supernatural passages of the novel may disturb more sensitive readers.

Overall, I'd rate "Dark Aemilia" about a 4.5 out of 5 stars. A terrific read, and another good example of historical fiction set in the Tudor time period. Fans of Philippa Gregory, Elizabeth Fremantle, and Hilary Mantel will find much to appreciate.

I received a free copy of the novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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