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An exhilarating tour of Elizabethan London - The Dark Lady by Akala

The Dark Lady by Akala

The Dark Lady is an intriguing, mesmerising and electrifying YA debut from acclaimed rapper, writer, poet and activist Akala. This introduces Henry, a teenage orphan of mysterious origins with extraordinary abilities with words. Henry can understand and translate texts in any language, and constantly composes sonnets. By day, Henry does what he can to survive on the mean and pungent streets of Shakespeare’s London. By night, his dreams are haunted by an enigmatic dark lady – could this be his mother, and does it mean she is still alive?

Although he was born and raised in London, Henry’s dark skin means he is seen as a foreigner, and a threat, by many. The slur “Moor” is frequently flung at him with contempt. Henry lives in extreme poverty with two witches who took him in as a baby. There are two other youths the same age as him, with whom Henry gets along, but he never feels he truly belongs. Henry can’t stop thinking about the mother who seemingly abandoned him at birth.

Starved and beaten his whole life, Henry occasionally steals to survive, despite the risk of being hung as punishment. When a burglary doesn’t quite go to plan, Henry’s life suddenly moves in a different and surprising direction. This causes Henry to question who he really is, and who - if anyone - he can trust.

Henry is a brilliant protagonist; he’s streetwise and strong, but sensitive to the suffering of those around him, even strangers. He's generous even when he has very little himself. I loved seeing Elizabethan London through Henry’s eyes, in all its squalor, brutality and intoxicating beauty – you really feel as though you’re there! I love Mary too and the other characters are just as fully fleshed out and fascinating. I’m dying to know more about all of them – even the villains.

It’s clear that an enormous amount of research has gone into creating such a convincing work of historical fiction. Included is a list of suggested reading which features books the author found useful, for anyone who might like to further explore the Elizabethan world. Akala uses real slang from this era, and the authentic language makes this an even more immersive experience. Readers get to see Hamlet performed for the first time, as well as Romeo and Juliet, and bask in the atmosphere of the Globe. The book's title, and the woman it mentions, could also be a reference to the subject of Shakespeare's sonnets 127–154. The bard himself even makes more than one appearance!

I was hooked from the first page and found The Dark Lady so compelling, I finished it in a few hours. The ending leaves lots of questions unanswered and plenty of room for a sequel. I am desperate to discover what happens to Henry next, and hope this is just the first of many more thrilling accounts of his exploits.

About the author:

Akala is a BAFTA / MOBO award-winning hip hop artist, writer and social entrepreneur from London. In 2009, he co-founded The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, a music theatre production company that explores the social, cultural and linguistic parallels between William Shakespeare’s works and that of modern day rappers. Akala has led many hip-hop Shakespeare youth arts, education and music projects across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Appearing on TV networks globally, he has gained a reputation as one of the most dynamic and articulate talents in the UK. Akala is also the author of Natives, a bestselling memoir, and The Ruins of Empires, a graphic novel illustrated by Tokio Aoyam.

The Dark Lady was published by Hodder Children's Books on 22nd April 2021 - see this book on the publisher's website

A huge thank you to the publisher for the advance reader copy I received via NetGalley - all opinions expressed are my own.