Violetta is a young noblewoman with a story to tell. She and her companion, Feste, arrive in London looking for succor, and for an icon native to her country and the town that her father once ruled. Taking shelter with Sir John Falstaff and his wife, she finds her host poor and dying. His once-great house is in shambles, much as her country is, and only his wife remains to tend him in his illness.
But through him, Violetta and Feste meet William Shakespeare, and he slowly draws out of them the story of their escape from Illyria and the actions that set its collapse into motion- the marriage of Violetta's parents, and her uncle and his wife. The most trouble, it seems, came from the fact that the "man" that her aunt by marriage had fallen in love with was not, in fact, Violetta's uncle, but her mother, who was her uncle's twin, and pretending at the time to be a man.
Even after their respective marriages, the two women remained unusually close, and Violetta's uncle spent much of his time at sea, apparently feeling somewhat cuckholded by his own sister, even though the two women were not lovers, simply close. Then, one morning, Violetta's mother disappeared, her clothing left on the beach as if she had merely gone for a swim and never returned. Her husband searched for her for weeks, and finally have an empty coffin an elaborate funeral in her stead.
Her friend, Olivia, the woman who had married Violetta's uncle Sebastian, went into deep mourning for her friend, and once more Sebastian abandoned her, leaving the men of his retinue behind, who sent the household into a complete shambles. When only two servants were left, he came back and banished them, but his plans for the city were not over yet.
Meanwhile, in the present, Sebastian has come to London, but also Stephano, the young man who Violetta loves. As Sebastian has taken rulership of Illyria, the Queen's Spymaster contacts Shakespeare to have him keep an eye on Violetta and Feste and to ensure that their conflicts don't carry over to England.
But even Will Shakespeare and the Queen's spymaster can't keep the odious Sebastian from attacking Violetta and Feste in England. While Violetta must deal with Sebastian, and Feste's jealousy of the relationship with Stephano, who he doesn't trust, but whom Violetta loves above all else. As love, frustrated love and bitter jealousy and hatred clash in the characters, Will must help Violetta stay alive and find the missing artifact that Violetta has vowed to bring home. But can he keep her safe from Sebastian's thugs, and his plan to sell her into prostitution in Italy once again, which she just barely escaped the first time?
This book, as adult readers can probably see, is based on Shakespeare's famous play, "Twelfth Night", and we are to presume that this is how he heard about the story and set about writing it as a play. But the play is the background for two of the characters, and only partly, as rest of the play itself unfolds in the pages of the book.
Even if you have seen the play or read it, and know what it is about, Ms. Rees makes the mysteries of the story have real depth. You wonder, along with Feste, whether Stephano is trustworthy or not, and you can also feel his thwarted love for Violetta, and the pain he feels at loving her when she loves another. Not only did he fail to win the race of her love, but he was never in the running- because she had already pledged herself to Stephano.
I found this an interesting story, but people who aren't interested in Shakespeare might find it a tad draggy in parts. The flashbacks are wonderful and kept me interested in the story. I don't know if I'd be as interested in another story in the same sort of vein, but I'd still recommend it.