Author: Sally O'Reilly
Genre: historical fiction
Pages: 448 (hardcover edition)
Published: May 2014
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
A tale of sorcery and passion in seventeenth-century London — where witches haunt William Shakespeare and his Dark Lady, the playwright's muse and one true love.
The daughter of a Venetian musician, Aemilia Bassano came of age in Queen Elizabeth’s royal court. The Queen’s favorite, she develops a love of poetry and learning, maturing into a young woman known not only for her beauty but also her sharp mind and quick tongue. Aemilia becomes the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, but her position is precarious. Then she crosses paths with an impetuous playwright named William Shakespeare and begins an impassioned but ill-fated affair.
A decade later, the Queen is dead, and Aemilia Bassano is now Aemilia Lanyer, fallen from favor and married to a fool. Like the rest of London, she fears the plague. And when her young son Henry takes ill, Aemilia resolves to do anything to save him, even if it means seeking help from her estranged lover, Will—or worse, making a pact with the Devil himself.
In rich, vivid detail, Sally O’Reilly breathes life into England’s first female poet, a mysterious woman nearly forgotten by history. Full of passion and devilish schemes, Dark Aemilia is a tale worthy of the Bard.
Sally O'Reilly's Dark Aemilia is not going to be a novel for every historical fiction reader. Aemilia is understandably difficult to like despite her many talents and qualities, the storyline only halfway succeeds at being an effective attempt to blend history and the supernatural, and the present tense is always odd perspective for a historical novel. That said, the creativity of the author and the subject, and Aemilia herself really stood out to me over the course of Dark Aemilia. The writing is consistent, strong, and evocative and I found myself drawn to the sharp edges of Aemilia as well as for her stubbornness and way with words.
Aemilia and Will Shakespeare's intense relationship fuels a lot of the narrative, despite that relationship not being shown on the page for very long. Their chemistry is both believable and natural, and though they are more often apart than together (in both a physical and romantic sense) they provide the real emotion and drama for a lot of the novel. Aemilia is shown to be a good representation of real woman in that she has many feelings and failings and the O'Reilly lets her be unlikeable sometimes. So too is Will flawed, which makes him all the more defined as a character.
The fantastical elements, though slight enough for first 200ish pages, become more prevalent after, and are often overwhelming and only distract from the more interesting real-world (and believable) events that also take place in Aemilia's life. The "deal" mentioned in the blurb is one particular time I felt the story became unpolished and that episode unnecessary. On the other hand, the inclusion of the plague added additional suspense and tension to the larger story and also gave Aemilia more agency and motivation during a less intense time in her life.
I enjoyed a lot of smaller things in the book (that it's broken into scene and acts rather than chapters, Aemilia's many great one-liners, several side characters, Aemilia's proto-feminism and independence) and thought the overall picture strong and distinctive. Sally O'Reilly has convincingly created some memorable versions of popular historical figures and Dark Aemilia is a compelling read for it. It's a rich story, full of romance, pride, great rivals, and great works. Aemilia Bassano was an impressive woman, first as England's first published woman and also as inspiration for William Shakespeare, and Sally O'Reilly does her justice here.