In March of 1603, as she helps to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth of England, Frances Gorges dreams of her parents’ country estate, where she has learned to use flowers and herbs to become a much-loved healer. She is happy to stay at home when King James of Scotland succeeds to the throne. His court may be shockingly decadent, but his intolerant Puritanism sees witchcraft in many of the old customs—punishable by death. But when her ambitious uncle forcibly brings Frances to the royal palace, she is a ready target for the twisted scheming of the Privy Seal, Lord Cecil. As a dark campaign to destroy both King and Parliament gathers pace, culminating in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Frances is surrounded by danger, finding happiness only with the King’s precocious young daughter, and with Tom Wintour, the one courtier she feels she can trust. But is he all that he seems?
Frances Gorges, though born to a title, land, and money, would much rather spend her time tucked away at her family’s estate than waste her time, title, and money at court. In fact, if Frances were to have her way, she would never leave her family estate. Unfortunately, given her time and place, Frances’s life is more often controlled by powerful men rather than by her own choices.
The court of King James is no place for the bold, daring, or the inquisitive. In fact, the only people safe in the court of King James are those who believe precisely as the King does and flaunt those beliefs openly. Any beliefs and/or practices even a hair outside those of the King are considered heretical, and King James isn’t afraid to kill to “protect” himself and his court. Unfortunately, Frances Gorges is among those most reviled by the King, and thanks to her power-hungry uncle, she has landed herself in the heart of the lion’s den with only her own wits to protect her.
Thanks to years of study, both independently and with a kind mentor, Frances has learned the skills necessary to serve her community as a healer. Plants, herbs, tinctures, lotions, and concoctions are her strength, with healing and good intentions being her only motivation. In her small town, Frances is largely free to practice her skills and help her neighbors; at the court of King James, her skills will get her killed for witchcraft. With no intention of dying, Frances does all she can to hide her abilities, but when the Queen herself comes calling, it’s hard to deny what and who she is in the face of royalty.
What and who Frances Gorges is, is precisely what lands her in trouble and in the thick of a plot she never wanted any part of. As her life spins wildly out of control, Frances often finds herself at the mercy of others and their whims. Through cunning, intelligence, stark bravery, and a commitment to her young, royal ward, Frances manages to navigate life at court through the most dangerous of times. Through physical hardship, torture, blackmail, emotional manipulation, and even the tiniest bit of happiness, Frances lives her life and serves as she has been called forth to do. The end result is nothing like she would have ever predicted!
The Bottom Line: Though this book is a slow starter, I’m exceedingly glad I stuck with it and plowed through the slow parts. Frances Gorges is a terribly interesting character who seems to defy Fate at every turn. Her life at court isn’t at all what she wants, but she finds a way to forge ahead even in the direst of circumstances. Once the plot really picks up, it begins to roll quite nicely through a series of awful, treacherous, and treasonous events that leave Frances absolutely reeling. In so many ways, she is a woman caught up in her time and place, unable to escape a future wrought for her by scheming, cold, and uncaring men. With that in mind, one of my favorite aspects of this read is Frances’s ability to hold her head high and remain largely true to herself, her family, and her abilities as a healer. With the exception of the slow start and some excessive detail (which can easily be skimmed over!) I found this read satisfying. While it doesn’t necessarily have an HEA, it does have a proper ending that answered all the questions and dealt with all the characters, some more satisfactorily than others. In all, a fine piece of historical fiction.