Dark Aemilia

£8.99 Buy now Recommend

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.

imageRead first chapter

‘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.
View source

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.
View source


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.
View source

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.
View source

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.
View source


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.
View source

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.
Dark Aemilia PB

Buying options