Stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood because Royal Shakespeare Company rhetoric coach Benet Brandreth – a man likely to be happier with a quill in his hand than a pen – returns to 16th century Venice in the company of the Bard.
The Assassin of Verona is his second thrilling novel in which he imagines a young Shakespeare spending his famous ‘Lost Years’ as a daredevil spy, swashbuckling his way through death and danger in the guise of a steward to the English Ambassador.
And in true classic style, Brandreth packs this sparkling, all-action adventure with those essential Shakespearean ingredients – romance, tragedy, history, comedy – served up with a liberal sprinkling of tantalising references to the plays and poems, and lashings of the great man’s wit.
There is much ado in Venice in 1586 as William Shakespeare, disguised as William Fallow, a steward to the English Ambassador, and his close actor friends Oldcastle and Hemminges, are treading a fine line between safety and discovery.
Venice is a city of light and shadow and these covert agents possess a deadly secret… the names of the Catholic spies in England who want to destroy the Protestant Queen Elizabeth. And before long, the Pope’s merciless agents are closing in on them. Fleeing the city will be their only option.
Meanwhile in fair Verona, Aemelia, daughter of Duke Leonardo Barbaro, is struggling to conceal her passionate affair with her cousin Valentine, a man considered too lowly for aristocratic Aemelia.
But darker times lie ahead with the arrival of the sinister English priest Father Thornhill at her father’s estate, a man who is determined to seek out anyone who does not conform to the Pope’s ruthless agenda.
Events will converge in the forests around Verona as a multitude of plots are hatched and discovered, players fall in and out of love, and disguises are adopted and then discarded. Can Shakespeare and his friends escape with their secrets… and their lives?
Brandreth captures the essence of Shakespeare in this dazzling romp – his genius, his spirit, his wit and his seductive sense of adventure – as we embark on a rollercoaster journey through intrigue, suspense and heart-stopping escapades.
Along the way, we discover the themes that will become part of the Shakespeare canon – forbidden love, mistaken identity and cross-dressing – but there is also a familiar brand of Shakespearean darkness lurking in the shadows of this playful adventure, an eloquent reminder that in the midst of life there is always death.
Written with the passion, the knowledge and the razor-sharp use of language that are fast becoming Brandreth’s hallmarks, this is an exciting and entertaining reimagining of both Shakespeare and his world.
(Zaffre, hardback, £16.99)