‘London stank.’ The punchy opening line to The Dark Lady by Akala sets the tone for this smart and inspired YA adventure, set in the fetid and brutal streets of Elizabethan London. A novel laced with the supernatural, it gives us Henry, an orphan and pickpocket possessed of extraordinary powers, in thrall himself to the poetic magic of William Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. An intriguing combination in a tale that will take Henry from London’s foulest gutter to its most exclusive gentlemen’s society.
The novel opens at the tail end of the sixteenth century with Henry and his scallywag friends perched on the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral, watching ‘the swell of tiny people in the tangle of cobbled streets far below.’ Henry’s attention is focused across the river, towards his beloved Globe theatre, the black flag fluttering above it indicating that today’s performance will be a tragedy play. A budding writer himself, Henry is keen to see Shakespeare’s latest offering, the ticket price presenting no obstacle for nimble, thieving fingers. But his purloining ways are destined to draw him into a drama of appropriately Shakespearean proportions.
There are some fascinating themes in this novel. Inspired by Shakespeare’s sequence of Dark Lady sonnets, Akala has said that he wished to write an Elizabethan story that highlights the presence of black people like Henry. The story contains an inevitable dark vein of racism but also, audaciously, the glow of magical realism. For Henry has a secret string to his bow. Placing himself into a trance-like state, he is able to translate books from any language, ancient or modern. There are men in high places who could make use of a talent like that. And believe me they do, in a vivid tale that ticks every Shakespearean box. Betrayal, poison, murder and a dash of lust, enhanced by authentic Elizabethan street slang and some gloriously evocative description of a bygone London.
An ambitious and original read.
The Dark Lady by Akala is published by Hodder, 320 pages.