Book Review – Fools and Mortal by Bernard Cornwell – Recommended

So releasing today is Bernard Cornwell’s foray into Elizabethan England. Here’s the blurb;

“A dramatic new departure for international bestselling author Bernard Cornwell, FOOLS AND MORTALS takes us into the heart of the Elizabethan era, long one of his favourite periods of British history.

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.”

When I first read the blurb for this book (quite some time ago), I was disappointed and felt that despite all of Bernard Cornwell’s prior success he had decided to sell his soul to Satan. The Tudors and the Elizabethan period, in particular, have, as far as I’m concerned, been done to death. I vowed I wouldn’t read the book – I won’t read anything that’s Tudor/Elizabethan anymore because I can’t believe that there’s anything to say about the period that hasn’t been covered elsewhere.
However, when this came up on NetGalley, I decided to take a chance. I’d read a few other reviews, and looked at the ‘star’ ratings on Goodreads and was just a bit curious.
My first impressions were not that great – it’s a ridiculously easy book to read – even with all the quotations from the plays – but none of the characters are at all ‘pleasant’ and London, as ever, has been depicted as gross and disgusting (even if it’s historically accurate, I’m sure that there’s no need for such detail). It probably doesn’t help that the book is set during the winter and so everyone is cold and freezing most of the time.
Yet, I was intrigued enough to keep on reading – quite avidly. And so I did. Slowly some of the characters developed a few more personable traits – Will Shakespeare is a grumpy man to his brother, but sometimes pleasant to others – his brother is needy and a little desperate. All of the other ‘players’ are sketched with firm strokes, although we never really get to know them well.
The storyline concerning the work of the players, the way the theatres of London worked, and the precariousness of their position, is told very well. But the ‘main’ story (perhaps – maybe it’s not actually the main part after all – in true Shakespeare play within a play style) is a little weak and ends quite abruptly.
The story is at its best when describing the Shakespearian play being ‘played’ and it’s here that most will find the story a real joy to read and will appreciate the vision of Shakespeare that Cromwell has.
It would perhaps have been better to release this book under a pseudonym. Fans of Uhtred will be disappointed – and those who love stories of Elizabethan England might be put off by the ‘warlike’ nature of many of Cromwell’s previous books. It means that the people who would enjoy this book might miss it all together, whereas those who shouldn’t read it, just might and will be disappointed by it.
It’s a shame really. The book will more than likely be a huge commercial success – but in terms of ratings and reviews, it might well falter for these reasons.
Overall, I enjoyed the novel, although perhaps not quite as much as the wonderful Shakespeare ‘comedy’ written by Ben Elton on BBC2 at the moment, Upstart Crow (catch it on iPlayer as it has just finished on the TV).

And you can get a copy here, from today;

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