This was a book that promised much but, for me, didn’t quite deliver. It’s a fantasy novel that appears to be trying to do the same sort of thing the incomparable Guy Gavriel Kay has done in his recent novels (I’m sure other fantasy writers do it too, but GGK is the one I know best): set a story in a fantasy world that closely parallels our world at a specific period in history. The fantasy element allows the author to introduce characters and events that aren’t strictly historical, and also, of course, to bring in magical elements.
The Queen’s Bastard is set in a parallel Elizabethan era, in which Lorraine, the queen of Aulun, is a dead ringer for Elizabeth I. Except that Lorraine has a secret illegitimate daughter, Belinda, whose father is courtier and spymaster Robert Drake (a bit of an amalgam, even in his name, of several of the men in Elizabeth’s life). Belinda has been trained as an undercover assassin, sent by her father to kill people throughout Europe for the greater glory and security of her mother’s throne. She also has paranormal powers that she doesn’t fully understand or know how to use — until she meets someone else who shares them.
So far, so good. Good concept, good set-up. The “parallel history” aspect was the first thing that bothered me, though, because of the inconsistency with which it was handled. I found it jarring that in this parallel world, where England = Aulun and other countries and their leaders are similarly reinvented, the dominant religion is Christianity. I can’t help making comparisons here to GGK: in his parallel-history Europe, the worship of Jad, the sun god, is an obvious parallel to Christianity yet at the same time gives the impression that this is a separate and internally consistent world. In Murphy’s parallel Europe, the Protestant Reformation has happened, and is called the Reformation, yet the Catholic church is called the Ecumenic church. Why change some names and details, and not others? If Lorraine is an alternate-world Elizabeth, and her late sister Constance is obviously Mary Tudor, why on earth would you name their father Henry???? I just don’t understand the logic Murphy was using in creating this supposedly parallel fantasy world.
But, OK. Let’s move on from the sloppy world-building to characters and plot. The story is tight, the conflicts that face Belinda real and engaging, and I kept turning pages to see how things would end. Full marks for plot. The biggest problem with character is that there was no single character, including the main character Belinda, whom I really liked. Belinda’s hard to get a handle on, and while there were points where I sympathized with her, there were places where she went far, far beyond “likable main character with believable human flaws.”
One big problem for the book, with me, had to do with the sex scenes. For someone who’s a hardcore Church Lady like me, I actually have a surprising tolerance for sex scenes in novels, even somewhat graphic ones (though I prefer less graphic), if I’m convinced it’s appropriate and necessary for the story. The sex scenes in this novel were much more graphic than I liked, though for some readers that might be a positive point if that’s what you enjoy reading. The combination of sex with violence is almost always a turn-off for me in a story, though, and there were several instances of that, culminating in a scene I personally found so graphic and offensive I skipped most of it. Not only was it unpleasant to read, it radically altered my view of some characters and made it impossible for me to like or sympathize with Belinda for the rest of the book.
There were several times when I almost put down this book without finishing it, but the interest created by the plot drew me forward and I decided to push on to the end. If you enjoy fantasy with strong sexual elements, and are not bothered by inconsistent or sloppy world-building, then you might well like this novel. It’s the first in a series, and although I continue to the end, I wasn’t left with any desire to read the next book (though there were plenty of intriguging plot threads left to be picked up in later books). I simply didn’t like Belinda enough, or find her world believable enough, to want to spend anymore time with her. If I want to read more by C.E. Murphy, I’ll be going back to read the sequel to her novel Urban Shaman, which was, for my money, a much better book.