The Private–and Public–Life of Elizabeth I

LegacyI think you know that I love Susan Kay’s Phantom.  But I won’t gush on about it (for the third time); I mention it only as context for why I decided to read Susan Kay’s Legacy.  And to acknowledge that I set the bar unattainably high for this book.  I didn’t really expect it to be another Phantom–but can you blame me for hoping?  Well, it wasn’t another Phantom (but nothing is) and while it was good, in the end I feel a bit…mixed.

There are actually some resemblances between the two books.  Just as Phantom explores the life of the Phantom of the Opera, from pre-birth to post-death, Legacy explores the life of Queen Elizabeth I, from Anne Boleyn’s first flirtation with King Henry VIII, all the way up to Elizabeth’s death.  We follow Elizabeth from a precocious child to an adrift young girl, to a clever woman in mortal peril from shifting politics, to a masterful queen, to a legend (or even a goddess) in her own time.  And we see the various men who orbited around the Virgin Queen.

While the focus is on Elizabeth, just as it was always on Erik, Legacy has a wider-angle lens.  Phantom has a scope across decades and continents, but Legacy plays with the intrigues of courts and the ups-and-downs of European history for nearly a century.  Kay spent 15 years writing Legacy and it shows, in good ways and bad.  It’s obviously meticulously researched, and while I appreciate and am impressed by the historical details…it also means that it’s a book about history as much as it is about Elizabeth.  So if you like British history (and I do), this is masterfully presented–but it also removes us from the characters to some extent.

The characters are also difficult.  You may tell me that the Phantom of the Opera should not be relatable–but Kay’s version is.  Legacy is populated by the royal court of England, and almost without exception they are self-serving, conniving, power-driven individuals with very little loyalty and few qualms about selling one another out for political advantage–even if the one they’re sacrificing is a sibling or a wife.  I fully believe this is based in real history so I’m not claiming it’s not plausible–but it doesn’t make for a group of characters that I’m going to get attached to.

The book is interesting all the way through, but it was a good 300 pages (or about halfway) before I much started caring about anyone.  I did eventually care about Elizabeth, and about the two most constant men in her life–childhood friend and quasi-husband Robin Dudley, and chief advisor Lord Burghley.  They’re the two people Elizabeth comes closest to having genuine relationships with, and I think that fact goes a long way towards my caring about all three.  The third man in Elizabeth’s life is the Earl of Essex, but you’ll have to wait quite a while for him to arrive!

Part of the difficulty getting engaged with the characters may have been the point of view.  Phantom alternates first-person narration, so you always know exactly who’s talking to you.  Legacy is omniscient, or a frequently-changing third-person limited (I have trouble telling those two apart) so we’re not as grounded in any one character.  The center is Elizabeth, but we get her story from constantly shifting eyes.

And there’s a lot of narration telling us the history.  The book isn’t dull history, or entirely history–there are romantic moments and moments of high drama and emotional tension.  But there’s also a lot of history.  Often very interesting history…but somewhat heavy history too.

The end of the book is ultimately quite sad, and if you know the course of Elizabeth’s life, that’s inevitable.  Because it’s history, I don’t think it’s giving much away to say she starts to lose her grip by the end.  Kay tells it well and it’s moving–although I realized that the end of Phantom is heart-breaking, tragic and beautiful, while the end of Legacy is just sad.

So the final verdict?  It’s a masterful piece of historical fiction–but be prepared that you have to be just as interested in the historical as in the fiction if you pick up this book.

Other reviews:
QG’s Book Reviews
The Misadventures of Moppet
A Girl Walks into a Bookstore
Rosebush Maze (also offering Phantom comparisons)
Confessions of an Avid Reader (who felt there was not enough history…so opinions may vary!)
Whew, popular book!  Anyone else?

2 thoughts on “The Private–and Public–Life of Elizabeth I

  1. dianem57

    I’m wondering if the characters were hard to follow (to keep track of) if Kay dove deeply into court intrigue. I find historical novels can be difficult to read when the author assumes knowledge of the time and people and doesn’t give a “cast of characters” listing or some other way to keep them straight as you’re reading.

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