Dark Aemilia

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Shortlisted   —Premio Letteraria2015

Finalist   —Premio Vino del TerriccioJune 2015

Nominated   —Kirkus Reviews Fiction Prize2014

In the boldest imagining of the era since Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth, this spellbinding novel of witchcraft, poetry and passion brings to life Aemilia Lanyer, the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnets – the playwright’s muse and his one true love.

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‘For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright; 
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.’
– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 147

The daughter of a Venetian musician but orphaned as a young girl, Aemilia Bassano grows up in the court of Elizabeth I, becoming the Queen’s favourite. She absorbs a love of poetry and learning, maturing into a striking young woman with a sharp mind and a quick tongue. Now brilliant, beautiful and highly educated, she becomes mistress of Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain and Queen’s cousin. But her position is precarious; when she falls in love with court playwright William Shakespeare, her fortunes change irrevocably.

A must-read for fans of Tracy Chevalier (Girl With a Pearl Earring) and Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus), this novel by Sally O’Reilly is a richly atmospheric novel compellingly re-imagines the struggles for power, recognition and survival in the brutal world of Elizabethan London. She conjures the art of England’s first professional female poet, giving us a character for the ages – a woman who is ambitious and intelligent, true to herself and true to her heart.

Dark Aemilia book group guide


This Elizabethan saga about Shakespeare and his possible mistress is entirely different – a glimpse into a different time, a different place and true human drama – which gripped me until the end. It is well written and the plot is enhanced by the knowledge that the characters are historically accurate, although the story line is fiction. I thoroughly recommend it as an individual read, particularly if you like Shakespeare, and if your group fancies something set in this period, there are a multitude of issues to discuss.

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The New York Times Book Review

More tantalizing than the thought of Shakespeare in love is the thought of Shakespeare in lust... [Dark Aemilia] seethes with intrigue, sourcery and sex... O'Reilly lends her heroine a modern sheen by emphasizing her intelligence and her feminism... Was the real Dark Lady this Dark? Let's hope so.

Emporia Gazette

A fine addition to the trove of historical fiction of the period.

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In rich, vivid detail, Sally O’Reilly breathes life into England’s first female poet, a mysterious woman nearly forgotten by history. Full of passion and devilish schemes, Dark Aemilia is a tale worthy of the Bard. This beautifully written historical fiction novel tells the story of a burgeoning romance between the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, and 'Dark Aemilia', or Aemilia Bassano – and what happens when everything goes wrong. Based on the true mystery of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, Dark Aemilia is a period piece thrill ride.

New York Post: Must Read Books

We all know Shakespeare wrote love sonnets. Now, O’Reilly’s new novel brings us the Bard’s sonnet-writing lover and sonnet-inspiring muse. In this fictional take on Shakespearean-era poetess Aemilia Layner, a smitten Will pursues Aemilia, a lady of the court, and carries on an affair with her until she becomes pregnant. Later Aemilia meets the real Macbeth, and also employs witchcraft to save her child. Historical fiction, with the emphasis on the fictional liberties.


Draped in the lure of magic and fantasy that weaved its way through many of Shakespeare’s plays, Dark Aemilia lives and breathes the late 16th century. This first-person narrative, rich with description and detail, makes you feel the air the characters breathe….O’Reilly’s debut novel is a sweeping success, a tale full of action and intrigue and as deep as any ocean. Live vicariously through the eyes of one of the first proto-feminists to have lived. See as the author steps into her head and creates a world that is more realistic than the one outside your window. Let this book redefine the way you see love.

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Reader's Oasis

First-rate, gripping historical fiction, full of passion, drama, and sorcery... [Sally O'Reilly] skillfully brings Elizabethan England to life with much lush, colorful detail, especially in some marvelous passages set at the Globe Theatre. I was absolutely riveted by her depiction of London in the terrifying grips of the plague... the supernatural scenes fit well, and serve to highlight the thin line between reality and magic in the superstitious minds of the English in the Elizabethan period. In this world, in which belief in witchcraft was unquestioned, it makes perfect sense that Aemilia calls upon the supernatural at her darkest hour.

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Fleur in her World

The sixteenth century lives and breathes from the first word, with a wealth of details and such colour in the rich, lush prose. Elizabeth’s court is painted with such bright colours, and I was utterly captivated... It was Aemilia herself who pulled me through the story. She was fascinating, she was infuriating, and she was a real, fallible woman who was prepared to fight for the things she wanted. And most of all she fought for the son she loved so dearly... I met a fascinating woman. I am so, so pleased that we met.

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Beautifully written, with a real authenticity, the story reads like a time travel journal effortlessly taking the reader into the very heart of Elizabethan London, to a land alive with political mayhem and society scandal. The glitterati of the great, and the not so good, of Elizabeth’s court are shown as bright and brittle butterflies, who flit into and out of the story, and yet it is in the minutiae of daily life where the story really comes alive. With comparable ease, we are taken from the squalor and stench of death-carts and plague-pits, through to the posturing and raucous swagger of the actors who parade centre stage at the Globe theatre... reading groups with an interest in good historical fiction will find much to discuss about Shakespeare’s Dark Aemilia.

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Serendipity Reviews

Its language crackles with intensity and the words are so vivid and vibrant that they dance in your head long after you’ve put down the book. And Aemilia, the dark lady, lives on.

Matt Thorne

An extraordinarily accomplished work. O’Reilly establishes Aemilia’s voice as a strong balance to the Shakespeare of this novel, a near-impossible task.

Danielle Trussoni

A richly imagined portrait of Shakespeare's muse and mistress, Dark Aemilia has all the fire and beauty you'd expect from a romance about the bard. Aemilia is modern in her sensibilities, using her wits to guide her through a Shakespearean-era England that is both familiar and revealing. Sally O'Reilly has written an irresistible novel.

We Love This Book

Dark Aemilia is a rollicking tale of poetry and passion, witchcraft and treachery, love and intrigue in a world of beauty and danger. There are several approaches to historical fiction. Some adhere closely to documented fact, merely filling in the gaps in speech and thought to provide colour and detail but not really changing our perceptions. Others take historical events or figures and use them as a jumping-off point into the world of what might have been, questioning outcomes and providing alternatives. Sally O’Reilly’s novel set in the world of Elizabethan England is a colourful and absorbing example of the latter approach.

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Vulpes Libris

This is a passionate and moving love story with enough scandalous tension to keep the reader on the edge of their seat...O’Reilly cunningly weaves Aemilia’s story (daughter of a Venetian musician and the Queen’s favourite) into the biographies of people from Queen Elizabeth I to Moll Cutpurse, a famous cross-dressing fence and thief. These details make the story utterly believable and hints of the supernatural give it a fresh twist. Dark Aemiliais a must-read for any fans of well-written romance or period drama.

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Historical Novel Society

Sally O’Reilly has presented a colourful, enthralling, erotic, magical and mysterious novel based on extensive historical research... The story contains realistic characters and is full of passion, and intriguing plot developments that enthral from start to finish. Historical notes, a chronology of background events, a glossary of terms, and short biographies of actual characters complete the book. Aemilia’s story was so compelling I did not want it to end. It demands a sequel. Highly recommended.

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Publisher's Weekly

A lush what-if about the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets that mesmerizes with its descriptions of the Bard’s London from 1592 to 1616, the year of his death. The novel posits that celebrated real-life poet Aemilia Lanyer was Shakespeare’s inspiration for that mysterious figure. O’Reilly chronicles a secret affair between Aemilia—the mistress of a rich, elderly courtier to Queen Elizabeth I, and, later, wife of a court musician—and the up-and-coming playwright, as they fall in and out of love, eventually reconnecting when Shakespeare stages Macbeth and a deadly curse plays out. In this telling, it’s Aemilia who contributes some of the play’s most famous lines. She is presented as a prototypical feminist, challenging convention as she tries to save the son that she had with Shakespeare. O’Reilly casts her story with witches, doomed royals, evil courtiers, and star-crossed lovers, as if it were a Jacobean play. But her finest accomplishment is not the tribute she pays to these historical figures, but the bold imagination she displays in bringing them together.

Kirkus Reviews

This is first-rate historical fiction: marvelously atmospheric and emotionally engaging... A gripping novel that gives feisty feminist voice to the unknown woman who inspired Shakespeare’s sonnets... O’Reilly brings her star-crossed lovers together and drives them apart through plot twists that are, for once, credible outgrowths of the characters’ personalities and beliefs, finally giving them a tender, heartbreaking parting.

Susanna Jones

Dark Aemilia captivates in its depictions of Elizabethan London, from theatrical life at the Globe to the dead-carts and plague pits of the streets. O’Reilly writes with a sharp wit and lightness of touch but tells a story that is dark, erotic and mysterious. Aemilia is an engaging protagonist, intelligent and proud but not above some moral bargaining. For those readers of history who glimpse an intriguing woman in the shadows of men and ask, but what was it like for her, this novel is a treat.

Celia Brayfield

O’Reilly is a highly gifted writer and her story rests on extensive historical research, but it’s effortless, dazzling and richly evocative of Elizabethan London. Aemilia is a true heroine, passionate, driven and courageous in facing the dark forces arrayed against her and her son.

Alison MacLeod

Dark Aemilia is a triumph of imaginative daring and meticulous research. Sixteenth-century London is conjured to life again on these pages: its mores and intrigues, its stink and wonder. Aemilia is a compelling character – passionate, intelligent and tender – whether we find her in the court of Elizabeth I or on the dark brink of a plague pit. This is a story about the random play of life and death, of creation and despair, and is a timelessly human drama. Dark Aemilia is a vivid reminder of each person's sovereign right to an imaginative life. It is also a powerful meditation on the mystery and fragility of love.

Fay Weldon

Dark Aemilia makes one gasp with pleasure and nostalgia for a world one never knew. Profoundly romantic and erotic yet intelligent – glittery in its descriptions yet wholly believable. How glad one is to live now but how one envies the past!

Huffington Post: Books That Will Sweep You Off Your Feet

First-rate historical fiction: marvellously atmospheric and emotionally engaging.

O, the Oprah Magazine

Seductive, sharp-witted lady-in-waiting Aemilia Bassano, who later becomes known as England's first published female poet, falls into a love affair with the Bard himself, loses favor with the court, and resorts to black magic and sorcery to save her child, in this textured work of historical fiction.

Washington Post

[This] wildly romantic novel is a pleasure for anyone who enjoys well-crafted historical fiction and a special treat for Shakespeare lovers... O’Reilly creates a fiery, proto-feminist heroine and entangles her in a star-crossed affair... It’s unlikely that a single woman inspired Shakespeare’s gallery of protean female characters, but in O’Reilly’s able hands, it makes a wonderful premise for absorbing, satisfying fiction.

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Dark Aemilia PB