It’s 1575. Mary Queen of Scots has been ousted from the throne of Scotland in favor of her young son James and a series of regents. This revolution has been mostly a religious one, with Queen Mary a Catholic and James (referred to as Jamie Saxe) being raised Protestant. But there is also a struggle between the Calvinists and milder forms of Protestantism.
This struggle is reflected in the home of young William Fowler, whose father is a Calvinist and whose mother, with contacts in Queen Mary’s court, is French and Catholic. However, William’s father is accidentally killed during a siege on Embra. Now William is off on the Sonsie Quine to school at St. Andrews. On the ship, he meets a red-haired boy who asks to borrow his dirk. This meeting proves fateful, as William finds out years later that the boy is Watt Scott of Buccleuch. (For Dorothy Dunnett readers, I believe this is the grandson of the man of the same name in the Lymond chronicles.)
William has an affinity for poetry, and at school he befriends another scholar, Tom Nicolson. He struggles within himself over the religious issue as he feels pressure to commit one way or the other. He also falls in love with Rose Nicolson, Tom’s beautiful sister, a fisher girl with a remarkable mind.
As the King gets older, the Catholics and Protestants compete to control him. The country remains Protestant with the Calvinists gaining power while the Catholic side gains strength at court with the arrival of a favorite from France.
As he approaches graduation, William wants to marry Rose, but she is betrothed to a fisherman with the influence to protect her. She needs this protection because her remarks have been misunderstood as evidence of witchcraft.
William, despite himself, is forced closer to deciding between the two religions and finally decides that Protestantism is the least bad alternative. He also meets Scott again and is drawn into political intrigue.
This is not dry stuff. Greig is great at depicting the realities of living in this difficult time and place. I was fascinated from page one. This novel became part of my Walter Scott prize project by getting on the shortlist, but being a fan of Greig, I had already read it.