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Meet Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" in Dark Aemilia by Sally O'Reilly

Cover of Dark Aemilia by Sally O'Reilly
Cover of Dark Aemilia by Sally O'ReillyPicador

Dark Aemilia by Sally O'Reilly

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Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly (Picador; On Sale May 27, 2014)

The daughter of a Venetian musician, Aemilia Bassano came of age in Queen Elizabeth’s royal court. The Queen’s favorite, she develops a love of poetry and learning, maturing into a young woman known not only for her beauty but also her sharp mind and quick tongue. Aemilia becomes the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, but her position is precarious. Then she crosses paths with an impetuous playwright named William Shakespeare and begins an impassioned but ill-fated affair.

A decade later, the Queen is dead, and Aemilia Bassano is now Aemilia Lanyer, fallen from favor and married to a fool. Like the rest of London, she fears the plague. And when her young son Henry takes ill, Aemilia resolves to do anything to save him, even if it means seeking help from her estranged lover, Will—or worse, making a pact with the Devil himself.

In rich, vivid detail, Sally O’Reilly breathes life into England’s first female poet, a mysterious woman nearly forgotten by history. Full of passion and devilish schemes, Dark Aemilia is a tale worthy of the Bard.

This beautifully written historical fiction novel tells the story of a burgeoning romance between the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, and “Dark Aemilia,” or Aemilia Bassano – and what happens when everything goes wrong. Based on the true mystery of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, Dark Aemilia is a period piece thrill ride.

While I generally enjoyed the story, a few things got in the way – I didn’t enjoy that we were always told that Aemilia was clever, but not really getting any confirmation of the fact. In fact, most of her actions are impulsive and rather stupid. I find it hard to believe that she’s a good poet – or at least, good enough of one that her work would “inspire” Macbeth. I was hoping I’d be convinced by the end, but simply wasn’t.

There was a random supernatural thread in the plot – demons, oh my! But I always love when Biblical or mythological elements are brought into a novel, so that was a pleasure.

While I generally mock reviews that call a character “unlikeable” (are we supposed to like every female character? I’d rather be moved or inspired by them instead), Aemilia showed no growth. She was generally stubborn, cruel, vindictive, and relatively one-dimensional. Her only true love was her son apparently, but again, I wasn’t really convinced of anything Aemilia does.

Still, I enjoyed the book overall, and would recommend it to Shakespeare buffs looking for an alternative storyline, historical fiction obsessives, and overly dramatic English majors.