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by Denise Mina
Pegasus Crime, September 2021
120 pages
$27.45 CAD
ISBN: 1643138456

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

North American readers may be reasonably familiar with the conflict between Mary Queen of Scots and her sister, Elizabeth I. As for her life before she wound up incarcerated in England and ultimately beheaded on a charge of treason at the age of forty-four, some of that is perhaps less commonly known.

Mary's life was short but packed with incident. As the only living offspring of King James V of Scotland, she was crowned Queen on his death when she was six days old. For various political reasons, she was hotly sought in marriage before she was out of the cradle. Eventually she was promised to France, married the Dauphin when they were both fifteen, and was widowed the following year. She returned to Scotland and, four years later, when she was twenty-three, married Lord Darnley, her cousin, someone who also had a claim to to the English throne. Two years later, having borne a son, she was again a widow.

Denise Mina's stunning short novel, RIZZIO, takes place during this marriage. The title character was Mary's private secretary, an Italian courtier and accomplished musician in his early thirties. Darnley, barely out of his teens and something of a spoiled brat, became jealous of Rizzio and suspected him of having fathered the child Mary was carrying. So on the evening of the ninth of March in 1566, he cooperated with a group of rebel Scots, who, led by Lord Ruthven, invaded Holyrood Castle, seized Rizzio, dragged him through the halls and stabbed him to death. (Visitors to Holyrood today can see the splash of red that marks the spot where Rizzio met his end.) A couple of years later, Darnley also was assassinated.

This is a familiar story to Scottish readers. How to take it on and present it at once honestly and freshly represents a genuine challenge to a Scots author and happily Mina is well up to the task. She assumes a familiarity with the underlying political strife that fueled the attack, one that, being aimed at Catholic Mary, made Catholic Rizzio an appropriate target. Instead she focuses on the invaders and on the appalling Darnley.

There's not much to choose between them. Ruthven is wearing a mismatched suit of armour and a sort of steel cap on his head which must have looked much like a stew pot. He is clearly unwell and appears much older than he is. If he looks mad, his second, Henry Yair, is even madder. Everything about this assault is tentative, except, of course, the murder of Rizzio, who seems the only sane man in the place. But even he is driven to hide behind Mary, clinging to her skirts and pleading to be saved.

Certainly the women are more in control of themselves if not of the situation. Mary manages to maintain her dignity even as her husband seems intent on procuring a miscarriage as he savagely digs his fingers into her swollen belly. Another menaces her with a pistol, unafraid of being charged with treason, sure that the uprising will succeed and Mary will be dethroned. There is a strong sense that no one has adequately thought through what they are doing and what will come of it. But one thing is clear - none of them can abide having a woman on the throne. To Ruthven, it is a violation of divine law. A woman must obey, not rule.

Mina relates all of in extraordinary prose. No one wanders about speaking fractured Shakespearean. Nothing is said that could not be uttered today, but the reader is never jolted by anachronism. The entire narrative unfolds in strong, direct, and moving language. It is a remarkable achievement.

RIZZIO is the first Darkland Tale, a new series from Polygon in which the "absolute best of Scotland's contemporary writers" will "radically re-imagine well-known stories drawn from history, myth and legend." Where the series will go from here I do not know, but I am sure that subsequent authors have been set a high bar by Denise Mina, who has found a way to bring the past into the present so that it cannot be readily dislodged or dismissed.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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