The year is 1566 and 24-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, is six months pregnant. As she sits down to sup with her most trusted friends in her parlour she is unaware of the murderous plot brewing outside her doors. Some of Scotland’s highest ranking nobles have plotted the murder of Mary’s secretary and friend, David Rizzio, a handsome Italian. Her own husband, Lord Darnley, is in on the plot and wants her to witness this murder. What follows is the pregnant Mary being held hostage in her own bedchambers and her forced abdication.
The abdication, capture, subsequent escape, and eventual execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, has been the subject of many literary depictions. Rizzio by Denise Mina focusses on the happenings at Holyrood on one particularly fateful weekend. Mina’s writing is compelling, her prose lifts history off the pages and places a vivid portrayal in the readers’ imagination. There is a constant tension throughout the book, reflected in taut prose and terse exchanges, particularly between Queen Mary and others.
Thematically, Mina brings out the feminist aspects in this poignant moment in history. But it is subtle, woven into the dialogue. As the Queen’s capture draws near, the story takes on an ‘us’ versus ‘them’. There is a small but strong clique of women who lend their support to Mary even as the men band together to overpower her. Religion clashes through the pages, but so does gender, and sometimes class.
Being a modern retelling, all characters speak in modern English, rather than the language of 16th century Scotland but this makes the book much easier to read and lends a certain universality, although purists may be disappointed. The only anachronism that’s slightly confusing is the tennis scene it opens with; because there’s nothing else in the following chapters that’s quite so modern.
But this is a minor point in what is otherwise a fantastic read and a true gem of retellings. Mention must be made of the stark cover design too. The jacket a shocking lemon yellow serving a stark contrast to the crimson bloodstains that mar the title of the book – a thrilling invite into a young Queen’s innermost sanctum and the story of those who seek to desecrate it.