All it would take – so I believed – was one ruler willing to allow people of different faiths to live alongside one another without persecution, and surely they would begin to recognise that their common humanity superseded the division they had been taught to fear?
Caveat: I received this book free from the publisher, courtesy of NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
The Tudor period does hold such a firm and rich grasp on our imaginations in this country! From the Tudor detectives of C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series and Rory Clements John Shakespeare series to the royals of Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl to – of course – the Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel. The Tudor period seems to be our creation myth of modern England, performing the same imaginative role for us as The Trojan War did for Rome. And, I wonder whether, perhaps, the image of a Britain throwing off and contending with the controls imposed on it by a foreign power chimes with our Brexit age? If so, the violence and butchery and fear shown in these novels does not bode well for our future…
Anyway, S. J. Parris has now penned six novels featuring Giordano Bruno set in that period. It is a series I have always intended to read but which, inevitably, have never had time to. So when this came up on NetGalley, I took the opportunity.
Our plot is fairly straightforward and, like much of the novel (its characters and plot and settings), taken from history, in this case the Babington Plot : a group of disaffected Catholic sympathisers are plotting to execute (or murder, depending on your political affiliations) Elizabeth I and replace her with her sister, Mary Tudor, currently under arrest. Frances Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and spymaster, is fully aware of the plot and has already infiltrated it, but is delaying arresting the conspirators because he wants to secure definitive written proof of Mary Tudor’s active involvement in it in order to execute her. One of Walsingham’s spies is brutally murdered, however, and Walsingham recruits Bruno to investigate why: his concern is whether she was murdered because his infiltration was discovered, or perhaps because another of his spies has been turned… Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? as Juvenal might have said.
The conspirators are led by the Catholic Father John Ballard, with his right-hand man Jack Savage, and are funded by Anthony Babington supported by his friend Chidiock Tichborne; the spies are Robert and Clara Poole and Gilbert Gifford and, thanks to the handy arrival of a Spanish Jesuit whose identity Bruno could steal, Bruno himself.
There are almost more spies that conspirators in the conspiracy!
Whilst this is my first foray into S. J. Parris’ novels, there was no sense of being left behind here: previous incidents are alluded to, and characters from previous novels recur, but with either such glancing relevance that they can be skimmed over, or with enough exposition that readers don’t feel adrift without that previous reading.
This scenario leads to some interesting character dynamics: the conspirators were presented as broadly decent and engaging men: young and naive, perhaps, idealistic and innocent, caught up in a game that they didn’t fully understand. Not one of them fell into the trap of being a pantomime villain. Even with Ballard, the most zealous and fanatical, S. J. Parris took care to present as a priest who genuinely cared for his flock and took enormous risks to provide the comfort of Catholic communion in a setting where to do so would risk his own life. At times, perhaps, the feeding of characters’ backstories was a little … clumsily handled and created some slightly unconvincing dialogue. But it at least allowed for some rounding out of the characters.
Spying and subterfuge is a wonderful seam of imaginative potential: the mixed loyalties, the developing of friendships under a false guise, shifting and conflicting loyalties and identities. To some extent these are present here – the very real and gruesome outcome for the conspirators was not flinched away from – and I was left feeling a little uncomfortable with the resolution: for me, I’m not sure that there was much to choose between having Mary or Elizabeth on the throne.
The risk with novels like this is that the protagonist feels a little anachronistic: Matthew Shardlake does, and so does Bruno here. The views he holds, the hopes for an end to religious persecution and a rise of basic human kindness feel like a twenty-first century ideal imposed onto the sixteenth century, and a little show-horned into the narrative. Overall, though, Bruno is a decent companion in the novel if perhaps unsubtle and unsubtly created: his occasional flashes of fighting prowess and his self-interest in Ballard’s assessment of him are perhaps a little clumsy.
Personally, I had more of a problem with the depiction of Thomas Phelippe who, like Bruno, has a real historical counterpart from whom Parris has derived her character. He was Walsingham’s cryptographer and cryptanalist who deciphered the coded letters between Mary and the conspirators – and in Parris’ depiction of him she has clearly put him somewhere ill-defined on the autistic spectrum. And I’m not entirely comfortable with that depiction: he is (mainly) emotionless, humourless and isolated, and disinterested in the politics and theology of the regime – and Bruno assumes him to be capable of ordering and planning the execution of a colleague who had become a liability without a second thought.
In fact, I was a little piqued by Parris’ depiction of minorities generally and she felt a little cliched, a little too tropey for me. Two of her characters are revealed to be homosexual, a fact which contributed nothing to the plot and felt oddly out of place. She has a female Moorish character who grows medicinal herbs and tends to the local whores – she is a great character but the depiction of her as a herbalist / suspected witch felt far too familiar.
The novel’s plot itself is well constructed and gathers pace well: the outcome and final revelation was not entirely a surprise (the cast of characters was rather small, after all) but well structured and the clues that were needed were all there. It did perhaps tend a little towards melodrama in the final chapters, but it was a good decent fun ride.
Will I be looking to pick up the rest of the series? Yes, I probably will when the mood for a light, popcorn novel strikes.
Plot / Pace:
Publisher: Harper Collins
Date: 9th July 2020