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In a burnt-out house, one of Queen Elizabeth's aristocratic cousins is found murdered, her young flesh marked with profane symbols. At the same time, a plot to assassinate Sir Francis Drake, England's most famous sea warrior, is discovered - a plot which, if successful, could leave the country utterly defenseless against a Spanish invasion.
It's 1587, the Queens reign is in jeopardy, and one man is charged with the desperate task of solving both cases: John Shakespeare. With the Spanish Armada poised to strike, Mary Queen of Scots awaiting execution, and the pikes above London Bridge decorated with the grim evidence of treachery, the country is in peril of being overwhelmed by fear and chaos. Following a trail of illicit passions and family secrets, Shakespeare travels through an underworld of spies, sorcerers, whores, and theater people, among whom is his own younger brother, the struggling playwright Will.
Shadowed by his rival, the Queen's chief torturer, who employs his own methods of terror, Shakespeare begins to piece together a complex and breathtaking conspiracy, the implications of which are almost too horrific to contemplate. For a zealous and cunning killer is stalking England's streets. And as Shakespeare threatens to reveal a madman's shocking identity, he and the beautiful woman he desires come ever closer to becoming the next martyrs to a passion for murder and conspiracy whose terrifying consequences might still be felt today.