25. Gloriana's Torch by Patricia Finney
If ever there were a title and cover calculated to catch my eye, this was it. A close-up variation on the Armada Portrait and the title in a large font jumped out at me from the shelves of the library in the small town where I'm staying. As it turns out, this is the third book of a series set in Elizabethan England, a series breaking the genre barrier between mainstream historical fiction and the alternative history that's generally classed with SFF.
Finney's protagonists, David Becket and Simon Ames/Anriques, spies for Walsingham, and Merula, an African woman who I believe appears first in this novel, are fictional. I think fictional protagonists are one of the more successful strategies for grounding a novel in a historical period, and Finney uses it to advantage. She also portrays historical figures like Walsingham, Burghley, Leicester, Raleigh, Robert Cecil, and Elizabeth I. However, it is the unique viewpoint of her fictional characters, from their varied positions in life, that make the historical characters come alive. Who was Elizabeth in relation to those who worked for her? How might a woman from a completely different culture perceive her? There are the angles Finney explores, avenues that we can't follow historically, that might not even have occurred in history, but shed light still on ideas we have about who these people were.
The arrival of the Spanish Armada in England is imminent, but no one knows exactly when or where it will arrive. Rumors have come in about a "Miracle of Beauty," a secret plan or weapon that will bring the English to their knees. Simon Anriques, also known as Ames, and his wife Rebecca embark on a slaving ship to Africa and then New Spain, to exchange slaves for a sweeter cargo, sugar. All this is a cover for Simon's attempt to get in touch with his brother, who poses as a Spanish clerk, and decipher the message that the royal court eagerly awaits. Instead, Simon is apprehended and subjected to the Inquisition, ultimately convicted as a Jew. Rebecca escapes, along with their new African slave Merula, who has a mission of her own, to find her son. Simon winds up a galley slave in the new Armada, along with Merula's son Snake. Meanwhile, David Becket, Simon's colleague and friend, is assigned a dangerous mission that will lead him to Spain to try to find out what Simon was captured doing and rescue Simon if he can. He is followed by Rebecca and Merula, both determined to find their men.
Becket also has dream sequences, some as himself and some as the Queen, where he envisions a post-Spanish invasion England, where London burns and Walter Raleigh marries his Warrior Queen. I found myself wishing there were more of these sequences, and while I admire Finney's embedding them into the story, I almost wished those were the story instead. But the duality of the historical events unfolding along with the alternative history allows the reader to experience viscerally how different history could have been and reflect that, in the fictional realm, both series of events are equally valid. This book is truly a feat of imagination, Finney admits in her Author's Note that she had to invent many of the details of the life of a galley slave, which by the way feel horrifyingly realistic. She imagines cross-cultural interactions that may or may not have occurred, with Merula who is immersed in a strange spirit-oriented African culture, and a one-time POV character, Suleiman, a captured Turk turned galley slavemaster, but bring weird and wonderful perspectives to Anglo-Saxon Elizabethan England.
Finney's message is overtly modern, though rooted in a historical period, it speaks of clashing cultures and religions, human curiosity about the other, and the strange permutations of human love. This book is written in a style more common to fantasy and science fiction, with multiple viewpoints and meta-commentary, but it's also somehow the most appropriate, wide-ranging, and original tableau of the sixteenth century that I've read in recent memory. Warmly recommended to fans of historical fiction, science fiction, and yes, literature.