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The Tudor Secret, by C.W. Gortner

The Tudor Secret
By C.W. Gortner
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011

In C.W. Gortner’s fast-paced new novel The Tudor Secret, strapping young orphan Brendan Prescott, after years of being a fosterling in the household of the powerful Dudley family, is thrust into court politics – and court intrigue – during the tumultuous years when Edward VI was ruling and failing and Mary I was ruling and flailing. The year is 1553, and there’s chaos in the air.

Brendan goes to London to become a squire to Robert Dudley, and during his first few minutes in the city, he catches a glimpse of teenage Princess Elizabeth and is stunned by her appearance – and by the broiling dislike the London crowds feel for John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, who now all but rules the kingdom as chief councilor to Edward VI. Brendan has a polite tongue and a sharp mind, traits which recommend him to William Cecil, the future major domo for Princess Elizabeth. Although the machinations of the Dudley family are all around him (Gortner’s crusty old Lady Suffolk is especially vivid), Brendan quickly sees the hinge on which his own fate will turn:

I’d reached that inevitable crossroads that comes in every man’s life – the crucial moment when, if we’re fortunate enough to recognize it, we can make a choice that will forever alter our fate. Elizabeth was the catalyst I’d sought without ever knowing it; poisonous or benign, she offered me the key to a new existence.

True to the title, secrets abound in this book – not the least of which is the secret of Brendan’s own paternity (didn’t expect to read a historical novel where an orphan’s paternity wasn’t shrouded in secrets, did you? When Cecil suggests, early on in the book, that such matters are usually boring local parish affairs, you almost want to throw a cabbage at him). Gortner handles it all with deft economy, frequently vivid descriptive passages, and some sharp insights from his young narrator. And if that young narrator himself remains just a bit too nebulous as a character, well – he’s still learning his way, and there are more books promised in this series. We can wait a bit, particularly if we have novels this entertaining to help pass the time.