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The Bard identity - License to Quill'

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Comic novel presents William Shakespeare as secret agent

It has long been speculated that there was much about William Shakespeare that we simply don't know. The keeping of records in his time was fairly spotty, so there are some gaps that historians have basically filled in using research and educated guesswork.

Jacopo della Quercia has chosen rather a different path to fill in those gaps. His novel 'License to Quill' (St. Martin's Griffin; $16.99) posits that Shakespeare along with poet and peer Christopher Marlowe was in fact an undercover operative with the English government, working as a spy in the battle against the enemies of his country.

Yes, really.

William Shakespeare is first and foremost a playwright, renowned for his wide-ranging and popular works. He also has a past as an espionage agent for the Crown's Ordnance Office (a 'Double-O' operative, if you will), though he's been out of the game for a while. When he is approached by a gentleman calling himself John Johnson a gentleman who turns out to be named Guy Fawkes for help in executing a plot against the government, Shakespeare is drawn back into that world. On orders from his old boss, he agrees to the request made of him by the conspirators to write a play with an anti-monarchist message based in Scotland.

(No spoilers, but you can probably figure out which of Shakespeare's plays we're talking about here.)

Meanwhile, in Italy, Christopher Marlowe who also served as a Double-O operative once upon a time has been living under an assumed name after faking his own murder years previous. However, he is drawn into the plot as well, finding himself in the crosshairs of a deadly group of assassins who want him out of the way for reasons he doesn't fully understand.

Underhanded politics, tenuous alliances, cloak-and-dagger spycraft and a little bit of folklore for good measure that's just part of what follows as Shakespeare and Marlowe plunge ever deeper into the murky waters of conspiracy. With only the help of the spymaster Walsingham ('W' for short), quartermaster Sir Francis Bacon and W's secretary Penny and a few unexpected friends along the way these two men must find a way to thwart the Gunpowder Plot conspirators and save not just England, but all of Europe.

And if Shakespeare can win the day, he will get to retain his most precious possession complete creative freedom when writing and performing his plays. His license to quill, if you will.

This isn't della Quercia's first foray into the realm of alternate history; his debut novel was last year's excellent 'The Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy.' Here, he goes farther back in time to a place where the blanks to fill in are larger and more numerous; using actual historical events and records as jumping-off points, he lets his imagination run rampant much to the reader's benefit.

'License to Quill' is an unlikely combination of elements. Meticulous research, detailed storytelling and strong characterization as well as an abundance of humor that strikes a remarkable balance between highbrow and lowbrow all come together into one piece of eminently readable, wildly enjoyable fiction. It is part spy thriller, part satire, part historical fiction and all fantastic.

This is not genre gimmickry at work, no mere parodic pastiche; while della Quercia has certainly penned his share of comic pieces, he has legitimate skills of scholarship and he wields them with aplomb. It is precisely the juxtaposition presented by those two seemingly disparate approaches that makes his work so entertaining. He folds his tales expertly into the historical narrative, deftly mining the past and incorporating his findings seamlessly; he also offers footnotes and additional readings should the reader's interest in the real-life history be piqued.

'License to Quill' works on a number of levels. History buffs and Shakespeare fans will obviously love this book, but really, anyone who enjoys fast, funny narratives populated by compelling characters and built upon a foundation of true events is going to dig this book.

I certainly did.

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