It’s 1592 and Elizabeth I has ruled England for nearly 35 years. The Virgin Queen has never named her heir, creating both uncertainty and opportunity. John Shakespeare used to be an "intelligencer" for the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster. With reluctance, Shakespeare is drawn back into that life when the Earl of Essex insists upon commisioning him to find a woman who should be dead—a survivor of the lost Roanoke settlement has been sighted in London. Essex wants her as does his mysterious ally, a dangerous Irishman called McGunn. Walsingham’s successor, Sir Robert Cecil, also wants Shakespeare to take the commission, as he suspects Essex of treason.
Clements does an excellent job of recreating Elizabethan England: the sights and smells; the concerns of the day, like plague and popery; the religious schisms that have split families and nations; the intrigues and brutality and treachery. Shakespeare is a decent, capable man in a dangerous position who knows too much yet not enough. He manages to keep his head on his shoulders and also shields his younger brother—an up-and-coming poet—from his own deadly foolishness.