Execution (Giordano Bruno 6) by SJ Parris

Treason and plot…

😐 😐

Giordano Bruno has returned to England from Paris to bring a message to Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster. A plot is underway to assassinate Elizabeth and install Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne. Walsingham is aware of this already but sees a use for Bruno – to impersonate a priest who has arrived to bring Spanish aid to the conspirators. Walsingham also thinks Bruno might be helpful in finding out who murdered Clara Poole, a young woman who was one of Walsingham’s spies.

I’m afraid I found this incredibly slow and dull, and finally gave up just after the halfway point. Partly this may be because I already know the story of the Babington plot to assassinate Elizabeth quite well, and didn’t find this brought anything new to the table. I assumed that, given how well known the plot and its outcome are, the real story would be about Clara’s murder, with the Babington strand merely acting as an interesting background. But the emphasis, at least in this first half of the book, is almost entirely on Bruno’s infiltration of the conspiracy. Partly also, though, it’s because it moves at a glacial speed, being far too long for its content. Much of it is action-free, with too much dialogue. There’s one long, long section that takes place over a meal in an inn and is purely made up of all the characters discussing the plot so that Bruno and the reader know everything that has happened to date and who trusts and mistrusts whom – a lazy ploy of all tell and no show.

There’s no doubt that the research is good. The details of and background to the Babington conspiracy seem accurate, as far as I know, and the portrayal of the rather fanatical Walsingham is done very well. I don’t know much about the real Giordano Bruno so can’t say how accurate the fictional one is, but he’s quite a likeable protagonist. The descriptions of the London of this era ring true, and mostly the language is fine – neutral standard English rather than any attempt at Elizabethan dialect – with only the occasional jarringly anachronistic turn of phrase.

SJ Parris

As so often I seem to be swimming against the tide with this one – it’s getting almost universal praise from other reviewers so far, most of whom seem to be dedicated fans of the series. So perhaps it works better if you already have an emotional attachment to the recurring characters, or perhaps if you don’t know about the Babington plot going in. Though I can’t imagine anyone remotely interested in the Tudor period who wouldn’t already know what happened to Elizabeth and Mary respectively, making it obvious whether the plot succeeded even if you hadn’t heard of it before; and knowing the outcome means there’s no suspense. With such a well known event as the background, the murder story or Bruno’s personal story would have had to be much stronger than they are to dominate the foreground.

Despite abandoning it, I don’t feel it deserves the 1-star I usually give to books I don’t finish. It’s well written and well researched – I fear it simply didn’t hold my interest.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins, via NetGalley.

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Tombland by CJ Sansom

An England ripe for rebellion…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s the summer of 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne following the death of Henry VIII two years earlier. Since Edward is still a child, the guardians appointed by Henry have in turn appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil – the new Book of Common Prayer has just been foisted on a population tired of constant change and with newly developed religious opinions of their own – and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by his new patron, Princess Elizabeth, to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

Generally speaking, when I see that a book has 800 pages I groan and run in the opposite direction. But with Sansom, I sigh and wish it was a few hundred pages longer. His ability to create an entirely immersive and believable Tudor world is second to none, partly because his own background as a historian means that the history is accurate. Sure, he manipulates it a little for literary purposes and he uses his imagination to fill in historical blanks, but he never strays far from actual events; and his characters are equally well and credibly depicted, whether they are real or fictional. Matthew Shardlake, as fans know, is a decent man with real empathy for the poor and disadvantaged, so it’s no surprise that this is a sympathetic portrayal of Kett’s Rebellion, showing him and his followers in a light that may be a little more idealistic than was really likely. But I bow to Sansom’s greater knowledge – maybe they did behave as well as he suggests – and I bow even more deeply to his skill in story-telling, because I was happy to buy into the idea of Kett as a principled leader and his followers as mostly disciplined and fair-minded men and women.

The bulk of the book is spent with the rebels, as Shardlake and his young assistant Nicholas get caught up in events. Nicholas is a son of a landowner, so has a different opinion from Shardlake initially, although his viewpoint is shaken as he is forced to witness some of the cruelties the poor are forced to suffer at the hands of the ruling class. Sansom uses him, though, to give the other side – to make the case for the landowners. Jack Barak is back, too, coping well after the events of the previous book. Being from lower stock himself, he is naturally drawn to the rebels, so with all three of the companions standing at different heights on the social ladder, it’s unclear whether their friendship will be enough to hold them together when the fighting begins.

Robert Kett at the Oak of Reformation
by Samuel Wale (c.1746)

The murder plot is how the book begins and ends, and it rumbles on as a background to the rebellion plot in the lengthy mid-section, but Sansom never allows it to be lost sight of entirely. John Boleyn, a landowner and distant cousin of Anne Boleyn, stands accused of murdering his first wife, Edith. Edith had left him and disappeared some years earlier, and he had eventually had her declared dead and married again. But now Edith’s newly murdered body has been found, displayed in a sordid fashion near John’s estate. Shardlake must find out where she’s been for the last nine years, and who, other than John and his second wife, might have wanted her dead.

The personal lives of the recurring characters are brought up to date, too. Jack’s relationship with his wife Tamasin is rocky, partly because she’s never forgiven Shardlake for the events in the last book (avoiding spoilers, apologies for vagueness). Young Nicholas is of an age to consider marrying and Matthew is concerned that he seems to have set his heart on a woman Matthew thinks is shallow and unworthy of him. Guy is old now and ill, and Matthew fears he may soon lose the man he considers his closest friend. And Matthew himself is feeling rather lonely. The old Queen, Catherine Parr, is dead and Matthew misses her more than a commoner should miss a queen. But he also misses his old servants, many of whom he had taken in as waifs and strays, and who have now grown up and left for lives of their own. So one of the things he wants to do in Norwich is look up his old maidservant Josephine, now married and living in the city. The last time she wrote to him, she was expecting her first child and he’s worried that it’s been some months and he’s heard no more.

CJ Sansom

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, without stylistic quirks or “creative” writing, relying instead on creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. If I ever stand accused of murder, I hope I have a Shardlake to depend on. A great book in a brilliant series – my highest recommendation!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle, an imprint of Pan MacMillan.

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Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor (BBC Audio)

srw audio‘There is a history in all men’s lives…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This set comprises 20 15-minute episodes in each of which Neil MacGregor (of A History of the World in 100 Objects fame) discusses an object from Shakespeare’s day, linking it to the plays or the theatres and also using it as a means to shed light on the society of the day.

The Stratford Chalice
The Stratford Chalice

MacGregor is excellent, clearly an enthusiast both for his subject and for sharing his knowledge. He introduces a range of short interviews with experts on particular subjects, and the episodes are also interspersed with acted excerpts from the plays. Each episode focuses on one object linked to an aspect of the plays – for example, a model ship leads us to the witches in MacBeth – and then MacGregor tells us of how that would have resonated at the time, when witches were still credited with the power of raising storms, causing shipwrecks etc. In another, he looks at The Tempest and a ‘magical’ mirror and then goes on to discuss the intermingling of magic with science, telling us of the ‘magus’ Dr Dee and why he was considered by many to have magical powers. A woodcut leads to the one Irish character in Shakespeare’s plays, a soldier in Henry V, and gives an opportunity for MacGregor to discuss the troubled relationship between England and Ireland during Elizabeth’s reign. Every episode, though short, is packed full of information, interestingly told.

Apprentice's Cap
Apprentice’s Cap

The disc set doesn’t include picture of the objects, but I didn’t find that a problem as MacGregor brings them to life so well. However, if you want to see them, the BBC website still has the pictures from the series, some of them zoomable. In fact, if you’re a podcast person, at the date of writing the series can still be downloaded and listened to for free from the same page.

srw bookAnd if you prefer reading to listening, there is a book of the series (which I was also lucky enough to be given by Amazon Vine UK). This is without exception the most lavishly illustrated book I own, and is a thing of beauty in itself. Not just the objects are shown, but portraits, maps, drawings and photographs. Most are in colour and many are double-page spreads. A joy for any fan of Shakespeare or Tudor history and for the very first time on this blog I’m going to mention the dreaded words ‘perfect Christmas gift’ –sorry! (But it is!)

NB This audio disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK, as was the book.

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Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn

winter kingThe Hybrid Rose…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Like many people, I have always had an interest in perhaps the most famous of all the Kings, Henry VIII. However, prior to reading this book, I really knew nothing about the reign of his father, Henry VII, or indeed of Henry VIII’s early years. This book has helped fill much of that gap in my knowledge. As a non-historian, I wouldn’t pretend to be able to comment on the historical accuracy, but I found the book very well written, the arguments convincing and the whole a very interesting read.

Henry VII
Henry VII

Penn paints a picture of a monarch who spent his early years fighting first to gain and then to hold the throne at the tail end of the Wars of the Roses and who in his later years became obsessed with the need to consolidate his position and ensure an undisputed dynastic inheritance for his son. The author’s study of how Henry VII used bonds and fines as a method of exerting control over the aristocracy and of curtailing the power of any potential rivals was fascinating although, for my personal taste, a little over-detailed at times. I found it both interesting and unexpected that Henry VII chose to do this by financial control rather than by the axe later so beloved of Henry VIII.

Thomas Penn (photo: Justine Stoddart)
Thomas Penn
(photo: Justine Stoddart)

The most interesting parts of the book to me were those that dealt with the young Princes Arthur and Henry and with poor Catherine of Aragon, used for years as a pawn in a game of diplomatic chess. The author paints a sympathetic picture of how powerless Catherine was in influencing and determining her own fate – not unusual, of course, but often left undescribed. Penn also gives some great descriptions of state occasions: the marriage of Catherine to Arthur and later to Henry VIII, coronations, funerals, and the socially important jousting tournaments. We also learn who were the influences on Henry VIII’s education, both intellectual and chivalrous, and learn about the early careers of some of those who would be so significant in his later reign – More, Wolsey et al.


The Tudor Rose (wikimedia)
The Tudor Rose

The book is very much a biography rather than a social history and as such concentrates almost exclusively on royalty, aristocracy and the rich. Personally, I would have liked the author to shed a bit more light on how Henry VII’s reign impacted on the commoners. But that small criticism aside, I found this an entertaining and educational read, accessible to the non-historians amongst us, and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Tudor period.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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The Queen’s Agent by John Cooper

Driven by faith…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

The Queen's AgentThe problem with Walsingham, as a subject for biography, is the shortage of documentation, particularly relating to his private life. As Cooper explains, his private papers were taken along with his public papers after his death for the benefit of future secretaries, but later most of the private papers were destroyed as they were considered unimportant. This means that Cooper has to work hard to fill in Walsingham’s early life and give us a flavour of the man. Although he succeeds to an extent, I didn’t feel that Walsingham came truly to life as a full, rounded personality in the book.

Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots
However, Cooper gives us a clear, well written and very readable account of the main political issues of Walsingham’s time as secretary, including of course his role in the torture and death of many English Catholics while stemming the threat of Catholic revolt, as well as the part he played in the death of Mary, Queen of Scots. He explains very clearly the religious and political upheavals across Europe and a chapter is devoted to the Spanish invasion that never was. He also describes Walsingham’s involvement in the settlement of Ireland, a problem that remained unresolved throughout his career; and relates the part Walsingham played in promoting the exploration and settlements in America and elsewhere that went on to become the beginnings of empire, which was something I hadn’t been aware of.

Cecil, Elizabeth R & Walsingham
Cecil, Elizabeth R & Walsingham
Much of the book, though, concentrates on what Walsingham is perhaps best remembered for: his role as spymaster and ruthless interrogator. Here Cooper has gathered a huge amount of detail about the murky and convoluted world that these double- and sometimes triple-agents were playing throughout the courts of Europe, and shows evidence of occasions when Walsingham was involved in what we would now think of as entrapment. Walsingham’s uneasy relationship with Elizabeth is well portrayed and Cooper shows that he often had to subsidise the expenses of his spies from his own pocket due to Elizabeth’s reluctance to pay. This gives weight to the picture Cooper paints of Walsingham as a man driven, not by hope of patronage or reward, but by his patriotism and above all by his faith.

Overall I found this a very interesting read, with Walsingham set well into his historical context, but though Cooper has shed a considerable amount of light on him, he remains a rather shadowy figure – which in the end seems quite appropriate. Recommended.

NB This review is of a proof copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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