You have to admire Madison author Margaret George for taking on huge subjects - Henry VIII, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy - researching them exhaustively and creating creditable fictions about their lives. For me, great historical fiction gives flesh, blood and psychological complexity to times and personages that can seem flat on the pages of history books. George's own The Autobiography of Henry VIII With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers (1986) is a masterpiece of the genre, giving us not one but two compelling voices and a fascinating portrayal of the notorious six-times married king as a grieving psychopath.
Elizabeth I: A Novel opens as the English queen, her councilors and navy prepare to meet the Spanish Armada and takes us to the end of her reign. The Elizabeth we meet is reserved, emotionally circumspect in her telling of the story, a choice the author may have made because the enigma of Elizabeth's inner life has never been fully cracked. She grew up a cautious woman in very dangerous times and learned to keep private her thoughts in relation to sex and religion. No historian can say with certainty the exact nature of her relationships with the various male players in her life, though she often proclaimed herself to be married to England.
The result of this choice for a historical fiction, alas, is to take the life out of it. Elizabeth comes across more like a schoolteacher than a queen and empress, though an admittedly regal schoolteacher. The first-person narrative places a tremendous burden on the narrator - Elizabeth herself - to provide information, context and glimpses of her very private self. Often, Elizabeth's narrative and the pages and pages of dialogue with her councilors bog down in reportage. There is so much information to impart, so many characters to introduce, so many events to get through. The reader is in danger of sinking under the weight.
I am often the one reviewing historical fiction with the complaint that the writer has taken too many liberties with historical fact. I hated Showtime's The Tudors for all its inaccuracies and anachronisms. And don't get me started on Braveheart. But in the case of Elizabeth I, I'm afraid all that meticulous adherence to fact simply overwhelms the fiction.