Review: A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago (2021)

Blurb

Based on the true scandal that rocked the court of James I, A Net for Small Fishes is the most gripping novel you’ll read this year: an exhilarating dive into the pitch-dark waters of the Jacobean court.

Frances Howard has beauty and a powerful family – and is the most unhappy creature in the world. Anne Turner has wit and talent – but no stage on which to display them. Little stands between her and the abyss of destitution. When these two very different women meet in the strangest of circumstances, a powerful friendship is sparked. Frankie sweeps Anne into a world of splendour that exceeds all she imagined: a Court whose foreign king is a stranger to his own subjects; where ancient families fight for power, and where the sovereign’s favourite may rise and rise – so long as he remains in favour.

With the marriage of their talents, Anne and Frankie enter this extravagant, savage hunting ground, seeking a little happiness for themselves. But as they gain notice, they also gain enemies; what began as a search for love and safety leads to desperate acts that could cost them everything.

Review

A Net for Small Fishes has everything a good historical fiction novel should have: gloriously rich descriptions, light but impeccable period details, a thrilling plot, and, most importantly, unforgettable characters.

The friendship between Anne and Frankie is what propels this story along, and it is beautifully depicted. At times it seems almost like a love story, as the two women become more and more intertwined, and their similarities and differences become more apparent. I loved the intense focus on these two characters – it adds an intimacy to the sweeping political drama of the Jacobean court, pushing kings and men to the side to zoom in on an intensely personal relationship. It works so well, and I was captivated till the last page.

Anne is a great first person protagonist, standing on the edge between two worlds: the sumptuous excess of life at court and the constant threat of poverty, exacerbated by her changing circumstances as the novel progresses. Through her, we are allowed to see all walks of life – she has a unique insight into society that provides a clear-eyed perspective. She is also capable of seeing her friend’s flaws; even while she is dazzled by the life that Frankie can offer her, she is aware that if Frankie doesn’t play the game right, it could all come crashing down for both of them. There is real peril here, which only increases as the story goes on.

Jago immerses the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of Jacobean England: the fetid stench of the Thames in summer; the ornate furnishings of noble bedchambers; the spectacle of the bear pit – reading this book is such a sensory experience. It’s also incredibly emotionally powerful – I was so invested in the characters, anxious at every fluctuation in their fortunes. This is historical fiction at its finest, and I am definitely going to seek out more work by this author.

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago is published by Bloomsbury and is available to purchase here.

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