The Cobbler’s Boy- Elizabeth Bear and Katherine Addison

Image result for cobbler's boy elizabeth bearThis is a really fun murder mystery/adventure set in 16th-century Canterbury as a 15 year old Christopher Marlowe, the future playwright, struggles to build a future beyond what his abusive father (the cobbler of the title) envisions for him. Oh, and someone’s just murdered the older scholar friend who gave him a window into a new world.

Enter Tom Watson (a real historical figure, though used fictitiously) who is also trying to solve the murder. Unfortunately, this puts both Kit and Watson in grave danger. Meanwhile, Kit is experiencing a secret first love with another boy and negotiating his relationships with his mother and younger sisters, all excellently characterized. Throw in a mysterious Greek book, a couple of murder attempts, and an archbishop, and you have a great mystery/coming of age tale.

This features the same historical main character as Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age books Ink and Steel and others, but stands alone and is straight-up historical fiction rather than historical fantasy as those are. Still, if you’d like more of Marlowe’s fictional adventures after this, check those out!

Spoilery quibbles below:

My two quibbles with this book–one, the religious conflicts that drive the murder plot could have been more fleshed out, and two, toward the end Kit does something SO STUPID-failing to ask for help from someone who’s shown himself helpful when he’s in over his head-that I almost couldn’t believe it. This is explained as a result of his father’s abuse, but I wish that decision and its motives had been more fleshed out as well…but this is an excellent read

Tamburlaine, Part One- Christopher Marlowe

This is unusual for a Marlowe play in that the anti-hero doesn’t get his comeuppance (and won’t in the sequel, either). Unfortunately, I put off writing this post until some time after I’d read it, so I’ve largely forgotten what I wanted to say! Therefore, bullet points.

-Zenocrate is not a good person. She regrets the deaths of Bajazeth and his wife, but only after she helped torment them to suicide. She’s a pretty good partner for Tamburlaine– a little softer, but not going to have serious moral qualms.

-The language, oh my God the language. It’s lovely, and consistently so. Here’s a particular favorite bit:

Nature that framed us of four elements,
Warring within our breast for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wandering planet’s course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.
It’s both beautiful and illustrative of Tamburlaine’s character– all that striving focused on something ultimately a bit anticlimactic and unworthy.
-The symbolism of the black tent is terrifying. Read it and you’ll know what I mean. Also the contrast of Tamburlaine’s speech about beauty while having the virgins slaughtered.
-I was surprised by how much dignity Tamburlaine’s incompetent enemies were allowed.

King John – William Shakespeare

For one of the less-beloved histories, this was quite funny and entertaining. It was a lot less dull than Henry VI Part I and moved along briskly. The Bastard is a fantastic character and Hubert and John himself both interesting. The supporting characters, from Constance to Arthur to the Dauphin to to Salisbury to Pandulph, are consistently and distinctly characterized.

One thing that I think people miss is that the first half of the play (everything up till John suborns Hubert to kill Arthur) is hilarious, and deliberately so. The whole business with Angiers and the papal legate should have the audience rolling on the floor, to say nothing of the Bastard’s antics. The play takes its cue from him- capable of seriousness, but always with an edge of humor.

Highlights include anything with the Bastard (who banters with Eleanor of Aquitaine in his first scene!), Hubert and John’s interactions, anything where John is a blatant hypocrite, and Constance’s “I am not mad. This hair I tear is mine” speech. And the bit where the Bastard stops the lords from murdering Hubert and then turns out to wrongly suspect Hubert himself.

Not top-grade Shakespeare but not as bad as its reputation either, and not the worst of the histories.

The New Penguin edition was annoying in that it had endnotes instead of footnotes, requiring constant flipping back and forth. It only cost a dollar secondhand, so I couldn’t say no, but if you have a choice, go with Signet instead.

Cry Murder! In a Small Voice – Greer Gilman

A novella for Elizabethan/Jacobean drama nerds. The language is deliberately difficult, and in the second half I was frequently unsure what exactly was happening, and the ending was unsatisfying, but this was still a fascinating read. Lots of Shakespeare, and a surprising number of Marlowe references (“…his Lucan still unfinished, plays unthought of. Overtaken: and would never now be thirty. Zeno’s poet. An were I that witch of Thessaly, I’d conjure Kit and say, translate me.”). Even before I read the acknowledgements, the influence of Sonya Taaffe (author of the marvelous poem “Lucan in Averno”) was clear. Everything is better with Pharsalia references.

But this is the Ben Jonson show, as Ben goes up against the Earl of Oxford, with a stopover in Venice, in a fight that appeals to the grieving father in him. The reason the ending bugged me is that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the protagonist, but his storyline and character arc are wrapped up nonetheless.

The story is chock-full of period allusions, in-jokes, and references (for example, the secondary antagonist named Nightborn is pretty clearly a twist on Edward II’s Lightborn). It’s also full of wordplay, and replicating Elizabethan wordplay is certainly no easy task. Those aspects, as well as Ben Jonson as a fully realized point-of-view character, make it well worth the price of admission for fans of Renaissance drama.