Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tudor Mysteries! The Newest, the Best, and the Ones to Watch For...

The Queen is dead; long live the Queen! So begins The Tudor Vendetta by C.W. Gortner, the third in a trilogy of mystery novels revolving around a young man whose life is interwoven with that of the young Elizabeth Tudor

When Brendan Prescott hears the news, he is ready to hop on his horse and head off to London in a second. After all, he has been in exile in one of Switzerland's Protestant enclaves for years, having had to flee the Catholic court of Mary Tudor to protect both himself and the young heir to the throne, her half sister, Elizabeth. But now the bitter middle-aged queen is dead, and with her, her reign of religious terror, and Elizabeth has ascended to the throne. Before long, Brendan and his mentor, spymaster Francis Walsingham, who has spent the last several years trying to teach him everything from how to detect poisons to the intricacies of secret codes, will indeed be back in London. But all is not well at court. Elizabeth may be on the throne, but that doesn't mean that her enemies have been vanquished. Nor have Brendan's own foes all disappeared: his old enmity with Robert Dudley, now the queen's favorite, burns as hot as ever, and he keeps having uneasy dreams about a villain who should be -- who almost certainly is -- dead. And yet... And meanwhile, he can't find a way back to the love of his life, Kat, whom he had to abandon without a word when he fled to the Continent to escape the old queen's wrath and vengeance.

So when Elizabeth calls on Brendan to solve a puzzle, warning him that it involves a dark secret of her own, he is all too eager to help. At the very least, it will extricate him from his woes at court and give him a way to demonstrate his loyalty. But when he heads north to investigate the disappearance of Elizabeth's loyal lady, Blanche Parry, he finds enmeshed in even more secrets than he had imagined. It's bad enough to discover that he has been asked to conduct his investigations in a household of devout Catholics who have little reason to love the new queen; far worse to discover that the secrets they are keeping threaten not only his life but the safety of the realm.

This is more of a rollicking adventure yarn than the kind of mystery yarn that relies as much on rich character studies and detailed, slowly developed plots. They are fun and lively entertainment -- puzzles are solved, sure, but the next event is just as likely to be a swashbuckling sword fight, a desperate race on horseback to save a life, or rescue someone from poisoning, as it is anything that reveals something about Brendan's personality beyond the basics established at the outset. He's an adventure hero of a certain type, and that's pretty much all you need to know. Which is fine, because this is entertainment fiction, pure and simple.

Two caveats, one large and one small. If you're a historical purist, you may want to approach with caution. Gortner takes some liberties with the known facts -- and even the probabilities -- of history in his stories, including the parentage of Brendan himself, and one of the biggest is the key revelation of the novel. I confess my eyes rolled and I groaned to myself: it was simply such a challenge to my credulity. But it's not literally impossible, as are the most bizarre inventions of Carolly Erickson, so I tried to ignore it and soldier on, and soon got back into the flow of things. But if you're really a stickler for this kind of stuff (I'm struggling to avoid spoilers) you may want to beware. The second caveat is much smaller. Read the first two books first: you'll understand why Brendan feels his fate is so tied to Elizabeth's, why he loathes the Dudleys, understand just why Kat is important to him and why even dreaming of the assassin from book two terrifies him so much. The brief explanations provided are adequate, but you won't feel you've just walked into a movie half an hour after it has started. And you'll have so much more fun: while the novels aren't as thoughtful or well-constructed as are Gortner's biographical historical novels (The Last Queen, etc.), they are still fun. 

A copy of the book was made available to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tudor England, and especially Elizabeth England, seems to be increasingly fertile ground for authors writing historical mysteries. I can think of several other fabulous mystery series that you might want to hunt down, the grandaddy of them all being one set in the era of Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father.

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom: This is the first in a series of books; the latest, Lamentation, will be making its U.S. debut early in 2015 and I can say (having read it) that it may be the best of them all. Sansom's hero is an unlikely figure: Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer and a hunchback who, in spite of himself, keeps getting embroiled in the doings of the great and the good at court. Sansom does a simply amazing job of combining the lives of ordinary Londoners (and their court cases) with the high stakes political battles -- the dissolution of the monasteries, war with France and in the upcoming book, the battle over which court faction will be in pole position when the king dies, to hold power for the young Edward VI. Just, wow.

To Shield the Queen by Fiona Buckley: First published in the late 1990s, this series is being reissued and continued -- hurrah! Young widow Ursula Blanchard is asked by Elizabeth Tudor to help quash rumors about the ill health of Amy Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley, her favorite. Then Amy dies -- of a broken neck. Murder, suicide, or...? Ursula sleuths for the queen and juggles her own divided loyalties, as she is wooed by an attractive man who may not be a supporter of Elizabeth. First of a great series.

Martyr by Rory Clements: You didn't know that William Shakespeare had a big brother, John, who was in Walsingham's employ as an "intelligencer"? For shame! *Grin* These novels are lots of fun, set in the final decade or so of Elizabeth's reign, a period that we tend to think of as calm (Mary Queen of Scots now headless; the Armada sunk). Not in Clements's eyes! Great plots; richly-developed characters and lots of shades of grey. His evil characters are those incapable of seeing the world except through rigid and violent eyes of zealots, whether Protestant or Catholic. I'm now reading the latest book, The Queen's Man, which is a prequel. 

Heresy by S.J. Parris: The first in another Elizabethan series, this one revolving around an unusual real life character: renegade monk Gioradano Bruno, who fled to England to escape the Inquisition. It worked, albeit briefly, and the author has imagined a role for him here as spook: a philosopher of whom the authorities can take advantage, with entrĂ©e to places those authorities can't go (like the French embassy). Parris sets her stories in the 1580s, and real life characters range from the likes of Sir Philip Sidney to Walsingham -- and she tosses in some great stuff about the philosophical debates of the age, to boot. 

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