The play is so great a success that the company immediately commissions Master Shakespeare to write a second part and even a third. Master Lazarus gets down with quill and candle to compose them each day and night while the drunkard from Warwickshire plays bowls at Newington Butts, drinks at the Mermaid and is now and again entertained by my Lord Essex. (p.139)
Rose Hassan is a mixed-race schoolgirl, living in Brixton with her mother and hoping to study drama at university. Her mother falls ill and Rose has to take over her job as carer and amanuensis to the elderly Mr Bernier. Mr B, as Rose calls him, needs Rose to be his eyes and ears, visiting a churchyard in East London and transcribing the diary of Elizabethan alchemist Simon Forman. Within the pages of that diary is concealed the secret identity of the man who authored Shakespeare's plays, and the true fate of Christopher Marlowe. And out in the real world -- riots in Brixton, a burglary, Mr B's shady past as Education Minister for a small Caribbean republic -- Rose finds herself targetted by people who want to know Mr B's true identity.
Black Swan was a quick and somewhat unsatisfactory read. There's a marvellous story in there -- Lazarus, the former slave who fakes his own death and finds love, learning and liberty in London -- but it never seems to become wholly clear.
I was surprised to find that this novel was published as YA: I found it complex, with a confusing finale, and younger / less experienced readers could find the Elizabethan passages dull. Few of the characters come to life (though Rose is vivid and likeable, despite being remarkably sanguine about the dangers she's in) and the voices aren't distinct enough. Neither Elizabethan nor contemporary London felt real, and the language never really sang.