All the Queen's Players tells the story of life in the court of an aging Queen Elizabeth I and the demise of Mary Queen of Scots, through the eyes of Rosamund Walsingham, neice of spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. The first hundred pages or so of All the Queen's Players was rather dull. The novel begins with Rosamund witnessing Mary Stuart's execution. Then it flashes back to Rosamund's removal from the country into a life of intrigue and court life. Rosamund, who lived a quiet, fairly isolated existence in her family's Sussex estate, travels to London at the request of her uncle Sir Francis. She is accompanied by her brother Thomas, also a spy, and his lover Christopher Marlowe, the playright. Once in London, she discovers that she is to be sent to court as a maid of honor to the Queen while also working for her uncle, reporting on the Queen's moods as well as observing interactions amongst the courtiers. At this point in the novel, the focus is largely on Rosamund with chapters on Will Creighton, a courtier who becomes Rosamund's love interest, and the sexually adventurous Agathe, Lady Leinster and her lover Arnaud to Vaugiras. It is uncertain for those first 150 pages or so why the novel spends any time on Agathe and Arnaud.
Ultimately, Rosamund - who is rather innocent - finds herself in the midst of a plot straight out of Chaderlos de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons and finds herself banished from court. As punishment, she is sent to Mary Stuart to spy for her uncle as he engages in counter-intelligence operations to get rid of the Queen of Scots. Through Rosamund's eyes - with brief mentions of Thomas Walsingham (her brother) and Will Creighton, the reader sees the Babington plot unfold and sees Mary careen towards her execution. Ultimately, Rosamund finds contentment, having managed to find redemption through marriage.
All the Queen's Players turned out to be a more entertaining read than I expected. The back cover seemed promising, but the first 100 pages or so were very dull. The novel took a while to "get going" and I had a hard time becoming interested in the spy games. Further, it was uncertain how the different plot lines were connected. I found the second part of the novel to be far superior to the first half.
The novel was too much of a bodice ripper at times - it certainly could have done without the Dangerous Liaisons copycat plot. (I found myself mentally referring to cetain characters as Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil instead of the names used in All the Queen's Players.) I also noticed in the beginning of the novel that the fork made an untimely appearance - earlier than forks were available in England. It automatically led me to question the authenticity of the novel. This was only heightened by Rosamund's rather anachronistic views of sexuality (the author "told" us that she was an innocent, but she was no Cecile de Volanges either, as evidenced by her frank conversations and flirtatious ways and her easy - and anachronistic -acceptance of her brother's homosexuality). In short, Rosamund did not ring true to me as a sixteenth century character. While the author seems to "excuse" this due to Rosamund's lack of a mother, she seemed a bit "freer" than a teenage 16th century girl. I don't want to spoil the conclusion, but certain actions described in the 1593 section seemed anachronistic for the 16th century landed man.