Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett’s 1988 The Armor of Light is a standalone historical fantasy novel.
Court astrologer John Dee approaches the aged Queen Elizabeth with disquieting news. If nothing is done, then at some time in the next century a British monarch will be put to the axe. The Virgin Queen is horrified by this monstrous reversal of the natural order.
The key to the affair is James VI, King of Scotland, who even now is the focus of a dire magical plot. In a normal state of affairs, the death of a Scotsman is no great matter (to the English). In the case of James VI, he is the man who will inherit Elizabeth’s crown when she dies. His fate is significant.
Someone will have to travel to Scotland to deal with the matter. That someone is two people: Sir Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe.
In this setting, Sidney did not die at Zutphen and Marlowe was not murdered in a tavern. Sidney is an experienced courtier. Marlowe is, of course, a well-known playwright but even more importantly, he’s a spy as well. Both are skilled magicians, which is useful in a world where magic is neither mere entertainment nor superstition. The downside of magic being real is that infernal forces are real as well. Hell is real, demons are real, and demons dabble in the affairs of mortal men.
An earlier plot against James failed in its immediate goal by a sufficiently narrow margin that it’s reasonable to think that success is possible. The Earl of Bothwell commands dark powers, which, combined with his ability to suborn men who should know better, makes him a deadly enemy. Sydney and Marlowe are skilled magical practitioners but they observe limits that the Earl does not. Furthermore, they are in a foreign land far from their political allies. Can the pair hope to prevail? or will Hell win out in Scotland?
I couldn’t buy into the novel’s assumption that Charles I’s date with the executioner was a horrific calamity or that tweaking history to preserve Stuart rule would be good. The Stuarts were stubborn, willfully blind, foolish autocrats. It could be argued that testing axe sharpness was probably a productive use of Charles I’s previously scarcely-used head.
(I can see why Elizabeth might be cool on the idea of executing monarchs but it happens that I am also not as keen on the Tudors as historical authors seem to be.)
This is an interesting look at a magic-rich Elizabethan Britain. It’s not the best work by Barnett and Scott; one can tell that it’s an early book. The novel is a bit uneven, in that the authors created more characters and plot threads than they could seamlessly integrate into one work. The novel might have worked better if it had been a bit longer (more time to weave threads together) or if it had been shorter (forcing drastic cuts). A heavier editorial hand might have helped. Too bad that the book’s first publisher was a firm that eschewed close editing of submitted works. Ah well. Still worth reading.