Frances is nobly born -- a member of the almost-royal Howard family (descendents, all of Edward I via a younger son) -- young, and, most importantly for this story, very, very pretty. But whereas the other pretty young girls whose Plaidy accounts I've read this last year or so (Mary, Queen of Scots and Lucretzia Borgia) were pathological people pleasers, Frances Howard is only interested in pleasing herself. Married at age 12 to the 14-year-old Count of Essex, she is considered too young to live with him as his wife and so the Count is sent off to France to get some more education and she, being young and pretty and nobly born, gets to hang out at the royal court, where within just a few years she has seduced and discarded no less a lover than Henry, Prince of Wales and then set her sights on the king's favorite, the very good-looking and charming Robert Carr. Who, let us just observe, knows how to play a fish when he has one on the line.
But then Frances is a very strong fish, determined to pull Robert into the water with her by any means necessary, including witchcraft and poison. Ulp.
And also, perhaps, forgetting to wear a top?
Carr, by the way, emerges as almost as unlikeable as Frances, a spoilt young man who exploits his status as King James' bestie (there's only a slight homoerotic subtext here) pretty ruthlessly and is glad to take the position as King's secretary even though he's barely literate, the Renaissance equivalent of a dumb jock, knowing he can just find some underling to do the actual work for him. Enter poor Thomas Overby, who effectively becomes Carr's ghostwriter and thus gets ensnared in Frances' sordid machinations to become Carr's wife instead of Essex's.
Then there's this guy:
Trust me. Or at least, trust my brow ridges!
Simon Forman, astrologer, fauxsician, womanizer and all-around scoundrel, probable father of Frances' friend Anne, sees ducat signs and all the gossip he can eat when this beautiful brat crosses his threshold. His appearance in this novel is by far the best thing about it, and comes just in time, at a point when this reader had come to the realization that she hated pretty much everybody of any importance in this story (note, this does not include poor Elizabeth Stuart, the future Winter Queen, who barely shows up here, alas) and was ready for someone to make them all miserable. Alas, there is not nearly enough Simon Forman in this novel, but one takes what one can get, no?
Before long there is a giant conspiracy to off anyone who stands between Frances and her chosen husband, and yes, that includes her original husband. Some plots work, some don't, and soon we see poor, poor Frances (heh) not enjoying her rewards one bit, haunted by guilt and suspicion, waiting for the day when her crimes are discovered and her downfall enacted. After many chapters of watching her scheme and step on toes, this is is pretty satisfying, especially since Plaidy didn't even try to whitewash this frankly awful woman.
This doesn't quite qualify as a hate read, because the storytelling and the prose are quite good, as one expects from Plaidy, but it comes close, just because its two main characters are so thoroughly unappealing. Heh.