Write a historical-fiction trilogy in which Volumes 1 and 2 posit the existence of a previously unknown (and partly African) branch of the English royal family, starting in the...
It’s a brilliant idea:
Write a historical-fiction trilogy in which Volumes 1 and 2 posit the existence of a previously unknown (and partly African) branch of the English royal family, starting in the 17th century. Then, in Volume 3, leap forward to the present day to trace the process by which a bickering circle of academics stumble across this lost royal lineage’s latest heir: a smart, headstrong black botanist living in Barbados.
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British novelist Jane Stevenson laid out her 17th-century turf with great imaginative skill in “The Winter Queen” and “The Shadow King.” In the first book, she made it plausible that an African prince, captured into slavery, could have wound up in The Hague at just the time when Elizabeth of Bohemia (sister of England’s Charles I) was in exile there.
The clandestine love affair and marriage between these two was beautifully rendered. And the fate of their son, Balthasar, in the second book, was both poignant and slightly absurd — especially as tampered with by British playwright-spy-adventuress Aphra Behn (credited by the Columbia Encyclopedia as the “first professional female English author”).
In “The Empress of the Last Days,” we move forward to 2002. Early on in the book, a bundle of papers is discovered in the Dutch city of Middelburg. In it are manuscripts by Balthasar’s father, letters from Elizabeth, a wedding and birth certificate proving Balthasar’s royal lineage, and a previously unknown play by Behn that looks like a dress rehearsal for her most famous work, “Oronokoo” (about an African prince sold into slavery).
The action then splits between England and the Netherlands. The cast includes Corinne Hoyers, a graduate student at the University of Utrecht, and Michael Foxwist, a don at Oxford University. Both are worried about their careers, perhaps with reason — for academia, as Stevenson depicts it, has rarely seemed so bitter-minded and territorial.
Still, after various power struggles, Corinne and Michael end up with access to the archival goods. It’s Michael who gains custody of a secret that has tabloid-headlines potential: that a certain “M. Palaeologue” at the University of the West Indies has more right, under the rules of primogeniture, to sit on the British throne than Queen Elizabeth II.
When Michael’s enthusiastic (and wealthy) Uncle Harold offers him hard cash to track down this “rightful King of England,” Michael accepts — never mind that his own aim is to debunk the whole notion of the monarchy. Michael then hops a flight to Barbados — and promptly falls in love. For M. Palaeologue turns out to be a “she”: Melpomene, named after the Greek muse.
So far, so good. The trouble is that “Empress,” for all its terrific premise, is awfully shaky in execution, especially in its alarmingly bald and clumsy dialogue.
Stevenson may be trying to show readers how awkward and inadvertently condescending Michael is when venturing into unfamiliar racial situations. But too often his bumblings — and those of his colleagues — sound more like stridence or cluelessness on the part of Stevenson herself. Characters dwindle to authorial mouthpieces. (“Nobody talks about African wisdom unless they’re black themselves,” a friend of Corinne tells her. “It just upsets people’s world views to think about black knowledge.”)
And would any educated, experienced man in 2002 blurt out, right after a bout of passionate lovemaking, “Urban legend has it that black men are a lot sexier. I hope I didn’t disappoint you.”
Stevenson, alas, appears to be giving this to us straight, with none of the playful, stinging qualities she brought to her debut collection of novellas, “Several Deceptions” (still her best book).
“Empress” can nevertheless be intelligently provocative at times, as it weighs the power of story to distort truth, or points up the absurdity of the whole notion of “royalty.” (Melpomene’s take: “If you pretend social facts are biological facts, it gives them authority.”) Still, the novel’s rough passages suggest either that Stevenson is out of her depth here — or that she needed to go through a few more drafts to get her tone right.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has also published four novels.