THE WINTER QUEEN

By Jane Stevenson

Houghton Mifflin. 308 pp. $25

In Jane Stevenson's novel "The Winter Queen," the earnest residents of 17th-century Holland live in "an age of dreams and visions," when everyone from royalty to scrubwomen frequently ponders the mystery of God's purposes. Their country is a place where divergent strands of faith -- including alchemy, Protestantism, Catholicism and various obscure superstitions -- can reside uneasily alongside each other in the breast of a single believer. Among such fervent souls one could quite likely find an African who, though immersed in and devoted to Christian principles, makes a modest living by consulting the pagan oracles of his native land. Black men in Holland were not uncommon then, Stevenson writes, not even one such as Pelagius van Overmeer, "tall, soberly dressed" and "middle-aged."

Pelagius has acquired a reputation among his adopted countrymen, some of whom regard him as a seer and perhaps even a caster of spells. Word of his skills reaches Elizabeth, the former queen of Bohemia who lives in genteel exile at a palace in The Hague.

Abjectly struggling in his humble garret, Pelagius at first appears to have little in common with the spirited queen. Despite being a widow with 13 children and lacking a throne to call her own, Elizabeth lives in relative opulence. Somehow, something in the black man's bearing tells her that he is also of royal blood. He is the eldest son of a king, sold into slavery by his enemies. He spent 20 years in bondage to a scholar who eventually freed him and sponsored his education. Following the death of his patron in 1638, Pelagius left his doctoral studies at Leiden University and fought off starvation by serving as a reluctant spiritual adviser to Dutch seekers after wisdom.

His counseling sessions with Her Majesty lead to friendship and, improbably, to love. The first three years of their secret marriage form the plot of "The Winter Queen."

Because the idea of Yoruba royalty has little currency among European nobility and the notion of a queen consorting with a commoner of any race is unacceptable, Elizabeth and her loyal retinue take care to keep her union secret. Accordingly, Pelagius joins the palace staff as a corresponding secretary and personal physician. Regular access to the royal bed and intimate talk with his soul mate bring Pelagius more happiness than he'd ever hoped for. After a lifetime of denial, he is convinced that his incredible path to the queen's heart is part of God's plan. He is "the instrument of a great purpose," he believes. "No other explanation was possible."

But politics keeps intruding, most pressingly in England, where Elizabeth's brother is king, and her hotheaded sons seem eager to bloody their hands in that nation's brewing civil war. The queen responds with fortitude. To her somber husband's consternation, she turns her attention away from affairs of the heart and toward the affairs of state. "The mother of a prince cannot toss away the world for love," she explains. "We all live under necessity, my beloved, and my duty is clear."

While the queen must busy herself with palace intrigues and is somewhat constricted by the demands of her station, Pelagius is free to wander the cold streets, to brood, fret and occasionally exult. Because he is frequently in motion and thus carries the plot along, much is expected of his character. Stevenson handles that requirement with ease. Immensely learned, well-traveled, multilingual and quick-witted, dignified yet fiercely loving, Pelagius is a magnetic and consistently interesting creation.

So often black male characters in fiction are called on to satisfy the demands of both literati and sociologists; they must be compelling in the conventional sense but without threatening dearly held and frequently contested notions of black masculinity. (Just look at the loads of criticism offered against and in defense of Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas, for instance, or William Styron's Nat Turner.) Admirably, Stevenson seems to have given little thought to all that, and the confidence with which she approaches her task easily counters the tired argument that literary novelists avoid writing in depth about characters outside their own races. Her Pelagius, never forgetful of his years as a slave, simply wants to remain free to think as he pleases and love whom he chooses -- and he guards these freedoms with resourcefulness and courage.

No wonder the palace chaplain suspects that brave, stately Pelagius, once heir to the throne in his own land, may be the sovereign whose arrival is predicted in the chronicles of alchemy. "All the writings of the philosophers speak of the wedding of a king and queen," he tells Elizabeth. "The renewal of the world depends on their conjunction."

Will the chaplain's words turn out to be prophetic? Are Elizabeth and Pelagius in some way responsible for a new world waiting to be born? Jane Stevenson will keep us clueless until her sequel is published in 2003 ("The Winter Queen" is the first of a planned trilogy), but we shouldn't be surprised if cosmic events ensue. This is an age of dreams and visions, after all.