The Succession: A Novel of Elizabeth and James

She killed his mother and kept him on a cheap allowance for decades, but James VI of Scotland learned to play the political game successfully and survived the Virgin Queen to become the supreme ruler of Britain and her fledgling colonies. Just the years-long strain of their relations would be enough in itself to create a satisfying novel for history fans. But George Garrett took it further in The Succession. He gives us the rulers’ views and often their exact correspondence, but he goes far deeper than most historical novelists in recreating the personalities of the age.

The Queen’s spying messenger riding hell-bent for leather; drunken and fearless border reivers; a condemned noble priest hiding in plain sight; an actor full of bluff and bravado; Elizabeth’s too-young, too-ambitious lover; and her brilliant, crookbacked secretary are all players on this stage of statecraft. This is no romance but rather a swirling journey back to a time when it meant something to be ruler of the realm. What’s at stake for these bit characters? Power, riches, adventure, sometimes freedom as well as their very lives. Some will perish by the Queen’s command on the rack or by the blade. The Succession is too intellectually and emotionally honest to pretend there are no losers when a crown’s at stake.

 What makes this book a true pleasure for repeated readings is the author’s wonderful command of language. George Garrett’s characters tell their portions in very different ways. There’s no mistaking the border raider’s words with those of the courtier. Characters reveal different facets of themselves to each other as all try to win at the deadly game of royal politics.

Another critical part of successful historical fiction is creating a realistic, albeit literary, sense of place. The poet/professor Garrett did it without breaking stride, as the messenger awaits word of a royal birth to the doomed queen:

“By the glare of the horn lanterns, smoky flickering of torchlights, and by the dull glow of the fires made of peat and charcoal, he spent the night in the crowd of Scots. Under the moon and stars in the open space of the Castle Close. And because the windows of her chambers within the Palace face out over the walls of the Citadel, looking east over Edinburgh, he was not able to see the light of the candles burning for the Queen there. But he could see what he wanted to, what he had planned to.”