Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The King's Spy by Andrew Swanston

Summer, 1643 and the English Civil War is still being dominated by Royalist troops, but the Parliament men are gaining ground every day and after the Battle of Edgehill, Charles I makes a bad decision, fails to reach London before his enemy Lord Essex and instead, flees to Oxford with his court.

Thomas Hill, a Romsey bookseller, and scholar of philosophy and mathematics, is approached by  a messenger who tells him the king's cryptographer is dead and Thomas’s skills are required in Oxford.
Thomas is ambivalent to the war, his only wish being for an end of bloodshed, and hoping his skills will achieve this, he accepts.

Oxford, however is not the same city where he was a student; Royalists are barely tolerated,  his former tutor is old and blind, and there is evidence of a traitor in their midst. Those around Thomas start dying, brutally, and when a vital message encrypted with an unbreakable code is intercepted, Thomas must decipher it to reveal the king's betrayer and protect Queen Henrietta Maria.

Andrew Swanston’s story reminds me of the novels of C J Sansom in that it throws the reader into the gritty, violent and toxic daily life of soldiers and townsfolk alike and what they had to endure during a war where neither side possessed much honour.

The author’s descriptions of Oxford during the Civil War are masterly, portraying a town ravaged by gunfire, disfigured by defensive earthworks and overflowing with the human waste of a massively increased population who occupied every cellar, garret and college building.

Thomas Hill is a man of principle, whose loyalty lies with his widowed sister and his two nieces, but when he begins working for King Charles, he finds the fascination of mathematical conundrums capture his imagination, until enemies start turning up in different forms.

I liked the way Thomas’ pacifist nature subtly changes when his friends get hurt and his family is threatened. He realises he cannot simply do his duty and return to his life in Romsey as if nothing has happened, the fight has become personal and he must put a stop to the bloodshed, despite his aversion to the vain and detached King.

Anyone who likes mystery and suspense will enjoy this story, and if 17th Century enthusiasts will like it even more. A definite keeper and I look forward to reading the next Thomas Hill Book.

An Interview with Master Thomas Hill, Andrew Swanston's hero of 'The King's Spy' appears on this blog tomorrow.