Fools and Mortals follows the young Richard Shakespeare, an actor struggling to make his way in a company dominated by his estranged older brother, William. As the growth of theatre blooms, their rivalry – and that of the playhouses, playwrights and actors vying for acclaim and glory – propels a high-stakes story of conflict and betrayal.
Showcasing his renowned storyteller’s skill, Bernard Cornwell has created an Elizabethan world incredibly rich in its portrayal: you walk the London streets, stand in the palaces and are on stage in the playhouses, as he weaves a remarkable story in which performances, rivalries and ambition combine to form a tangled web of intrigue.
I have been a fan of Bernard Cornwell since reading my first Sharpe book as a teenager. I have read everything, eagerly awaiting each new book and devouring it within days of its release. So when I was offered the chance of an advance copy of Fools and Mortals – well – I jumped at it.
Fools and Mortals is a major departure for Bernard Cornwell. There are no world-changing battles as in the Sharpe and Last Kingdom books, no ancient legends such as in the King Arthur and Thomas of Hookton series; in fact, this book is all about pretend, following the antics of William Shakespeare’s younger brother as he tries to make his way as a player in Elizabethan England. And it is fascinating.
‘Show me the nightgown!’ the twin whose sword was still scabbarded demanded, and the Percy tossed down the rochet. ‘Oh pretty,’ the twin said. ‘Is this what papists wear to vomit their filth?’
‘Give it back,’ Alan Rust demanded, slightly raising his borrowed sword.
‘Are you threatening me?’ the twin with the drawn blade asked.
‘Yes,’ Rust said.
‘Maybe we should arrest him,’ the twin said, and lunged his blade at Alan.
And that was a mistake.
It was a mistake because one of the first skills any actor learns is how to use a sword. The audience love combats. They see enough fights, God knows, but those fights are almost always between enraged oafs who hack and slash until, usually within seconds, one of them has a broken pate or a pierced belly and is flat on his back. What the groundlings admire is a man who can fight skillfully, and some of our loudest applause happens when Richard Burbage and Henry Condell are clashing blades. The audience gasp at their grace, at the speed of their blades, and even though they know the fight is not real, they know the skill is very real. My brother had insisted I take fencing lessons, which I did, because if I had any hope of assuming a man’s part in a play I needed to be able to fight. Alan Rust had learned long before, he had been an attraction with Lord Pembroke’s men, and though what he had learned was how to pretend a fight, he could only do that because he really could fight, and the twins were about to receive a lesson.
I know that not every Bernard Cornwell fan will be impressed by this new story; if they are only reading Cornwell for the blood-curdling action, they will be disappointed in this book. But if they read Cornwell because he is THE greatest storyteller, because he can transport you through time and space to a world that is recreated from history and his imagination, they will love this book.
I admit I was a little dubious at first, but once you start reading, it is – as usual with a Bernard Cornwell book – impossible to put down. It may be because this is not a war story, is not a crime thriller, and is a totally new departure for the author, that this story works so well. It proves just what an excellent wordsmith he is.
As has come to be expected with one of our greatest authors, the research is impeccable and interwoven in the story are many of the political concerns of the time, the opposition to theatres, the hunt for Catholics and their sympathisers, and even the constant need to impress the aging queen, Elizabeth I. However, Fools and Mortals is not a simple melodrama. There are many threads to the story, the development of professional theatre, love, intrigue, betrayal and sibling rivalry being just a few.
Everything about this book proves why Bernard Cornwell is one of the greatest storytellers of our generation. The writing is of his usual high standard, and keeps you engaged to the very end. The hero, if a complete contrast to Sharpe and Uhtred, is an engaging and entertaining protagonist, with whom the reader can readily invest their hopes and expectations of a great story. Richard Shakespeare is a young man, trying to find his role in life, whilst trying to survive medieval London and negotiate that age-old problem – a superstar older brother!
Any fan of Bernard Cornwell knows that he loves the theatre and the bestselling writer has put all his knowledge and passion into creating this amazing novel. It more than lives up to the high standards we have come to expect in all his work.
Fools and Mortals is released on 19th October in the UK.
My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.
©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly