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Tudor tales

Was the first Queen Elizabeth a sexy manipulator, a wise and just ruler, a pitiful woman traumatised by maternal deprivation, a passionate lover, a fearful despot, a woman with a past - or all of these at different times? And did she indulge in a bit of lesbian comfort in old age? The 16th century is well-trodden fictional ground but that hasn't stopped three more novelists from leaping into the murky realms of Tudor skulduggery.

The olive-skinned, black-eyed Emilia Lanier of Michael Baldwin's Dark Lady (Little, Brown, pounds 16.99) is half-Italian and a writer of poetry. From her unashamed necromancy, this resilient woman draws the strength to override the many assaults she undergoes. Not only is she mistress of the revolting Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, but she is also involved with a young man named Will Shakespeare. Marlowe and The Earl of Southampton are on the sidelines. So is Elizabeth, depicted as a disease-ridden but shrewd old warrior.

Baldwin aptly subtitles Dark Lady "a Shakespearean novel" because, of course, his fictional contention is that Shakespeare's Dark Lady Sonnets were inspired by Emilia. What impresses, however, is Baldwin's ingenious language, full of Shakespearean undertones, echoes and references. What fun he must have had. He has certainly found a neat way of breaking down the disorienting sense of linguistic anachronism that bedevils so many historical novels.

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell (Oriel, pounds 5.99) presents Elizabeth, aged 26 and passionate. A gothic old crone arrives cornily from the past and secretly presents the Queen with her mother's diary. This journal forms most of the narrative as Elizabeth learns that the image she has been fed of her mother as a philandering traitor is false. Anne had loved the baby daughter from whom she was separated shortly after birth, first by convention and then by execution.

It's a mildly intriguing idea: the diary device enables Maxwell to offer sensible theories about Elizabeth's unaccountable decisions. Maxwell, however, is American and her language grates trans-Atlantically against the grain of how we fondly imagine Tudor speech. And what a pity that neither she nor her publisher recognised the Adrian Mole-esque comic potential of that title.

A much more enjoyably grown-up novel is the crisply written Unicorn's Blood by Patricia Finney (Orion, pounds 16.99), which follows her first Elizabethan thriller, Firedrake. Mary Queen of Scots is Elizabeth's prisoner; Walsingham et al want her executed; Elizabeth has grave doubts. A secret book made when Elizabeth was 14 contains incriminating secrets. Although the Book of the Unicorn is missing, a number of people know of its existence. He who has it will wield undreamt-of power over the Queen. The result is a skilful and highly entertaining Frederick Forsyth-type web of twists and deceit in which no one knows whom she or he can trust.

At the beginning are lots of apparently disparate facets: an amnesiac tortured in the Tower; a former nun turned sewage collector and abortionist; Thomasina the dwarf-spy; Bethany, the Queen's favourite maid of honour and bed-fellow. All of this - and more - Finney teases out tantalisingly before letting the reader see how they jigsaw together, in an unusually satisfying read.

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