"the attention to historical detail was excellent and made for an immersive read. I particularly enjoyed all the bits and pieces of plays and poems scattered throughout the narrative. "
Blood and Ink by DK Marley is the tale of Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, Renaissance poet and playwright, near contemporary of Shakespeare. In Marley’s novel, our playwright is an unwanted child who is effectively sold to Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, who noticed the boy’s intelligence when he visited a local school. Placing the young Marlowe under the mentorship of poet and spy, Sir Phillip Sydney, Marlowe continues his education as well as learns how to be a spy for Walsingham. As the years progress, Marlowe convinces Elizabeth to support his plays on-stage in exchange for his services to her. However, when factions more loyal to money and personal advancement than to the Queen step in, Marlowe makes a sacrifice that alters everything he has understood about the world, his writing, and himself.
This was an interesting novel and can potentially be classified as alternate history, depending on one’s perspective. It takes one of the more popular theories about Shakespeare, which is that Marlowe was actually the author of his works, and runs with it in a way that is believable. There are theories that Marlowe didn’t actually die at the inn in Deptford and that his death was, in fact, staged so that he could go either into hiding, exile, or continue his spy work for Walsingham. The author poses some of the more common and interesting questions in her note at the end of the book, including why Shakespeare, one of the greatest playwrights of his day, was buried in a common churchyard rather than in a glamorous cemetery; why the Queen provided her own coroner to preside over the inquest of Marlowe’s death when it wasn’t in her purview to do so; why we never heard anything at all about Shakespeare until after Marlowe’s death; the education of Shakespeare and Marlowe (Marlowe had a degree from Cambridge, Shakespeare was relatively uneducated); and why was Shakespeare’s grave dug 12 feet deep instead of only the usual 6 feet? Marley takes pains to answer these questions and more in the novel and does so quite thoroughly. She also is careful to note that she herself is a Shakespearean, at least until there is solid proof that someone else was the author. But it makes for a good story.
Various themes were at play throughout the novel, ranging from nature vs. nurture to loyalty to ambition to betrayal. The ways in which all these themes intertwine and influence one another are fascinating and very finely wrought, particularly the ways Marlowe had to balance his work as a spy with his calling as a playwright. The mix of blood and ink throughout the narrative is a stark reminder that his dreams come at a steep price, one that may be too much to bear.
Overall, I think some of the characters were a tad one-dimensional, though Marlowe himself and the major secondary characters like Walsingham or Queen Elizabeth are complex figures. Shakespeare was the next most well-fleshed character besides Marlowe, which makes sense, though his motives were only apparent near the end of the novel. The last quarter or so of the book felt unnecessarily long and dragged down the pacing somewhat.
However, the attention to historical detail was excellent and made for an immersive read. I particularly enjoyed all the bits and pieces of plays and poems scattered throughout the narrative. It was fun to see words that we automatically credit to Shakespeare coming from Marlowe’s pen or lips in this story, and it definitely reminds me that it’s time to reread the plays again. It has been too long. I look forward to more from this author in the future.
© Kristen McQuinn
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