Elizabeth I of England continues to fascinate. She has been the subject of books that claimed she was the actual author of Shakespeare's plays, the secret wife of the Earl of Leicester and, equally secretly, mother of both Bacon and Essex, as well as a freak with a mysterious deformity that made her reign as the Virgin Queen one not of choice but of necessity.

reach the book's thin middle, where no one changes and predictable events meet with predictable reactions. Does Dudley dare to push for the queen's hand in marriage? She will send him away until he learns his place. Does Cecil dare to challenge her decisions? She will banish him until he learns his place. Unfortunately, it does not take long for the reader to learn everyone's place, and the plot languishes. When character fails to hold the reader, events must be made to do the job.

That is difficult here because the events of Elizabeth's life are so well known. We know that Essex's rebellion is doomed to failure, and that Leicester will never be allowed to take the step that would make him king.

Ordinarily the writers of historical fiction get around such difficulties by making up subsidiary characters and letting them provide the tension the main cast lacks. That's why so many such novels focus on the unknown lady-in-waiting instead of the too-well-known queen. Kay has written an extremely ambitious book, one that is as true to the known facts as fiction needs to be. Enjoy the beginning, with the creation of Elizabeth's character, and weep at the end when she dies. In the middle, do what her subjects did during most of her reign: Let her get on with her business while you get on with yours.