Revenger (John Shakespeare #2) by Rory Clements

urlThe second book in the John Shakespeare series, Revenger, is a terrific and taut addition to what’s fast becoming one of my favourite Elizabethan series.

While the first book was set in 1587, this one moves ahead five years in time to 1592. Sir Francis Walsingham has been dead two years, the Spanish Armada defeated in 1588 and the Earl of Leicester, the queen’s favourite, dead four years. Two groups of people now contest the reigns of power, headed by two men who loathe each other: the Earl of Essex on one side and Robert Cecil on the other. These men are ones that John Shakespeare, retired from spying and now a schoolmaster, hopes never to have to deal with again – or so he claims.

Summoned by Cecil to not only solve the mystery of a young woman from a missing colony in the New World who has suddenly appeared on English shores, as well as find papers the Earl of Essex has upon his person and intends to use to bribe the queen, and solve the death of two young lovers at a wedding, John, along with the loyal and able Boltfoot Cooper, is dragged back into intelligencing.

Forced to confront old enemies and make some new deadly ones, John is nothing if not persistent.

In the meantime, his marriage to Catholic Catherine is falling apart as he struggles with her Papist tendencies and the danger it poses for not just his beloved wife, but their whole family. How can he protect them when England needs him too?

And, watching and waiting in the wings to pounce, is the psychopathic Richard Topcliffe who would like nothing better than to slowly and tortuously kill both John and his beautiful wife.

But when John uncovers the extent of the plot that’s brewing and understands the players involved, he realises the queen is facing the biggest threat to her safety yet. Only, exactly who poses the biggest threat isn’t yet clear for there are those claiming to be working for her that seem to have their own interests at heart, interests that if curtailed pose great danger to not just the realm, but John and his family.

Once more, Clements captures the era authentically and with a storyteller’s flair. The plot is fast-paced, the writing wonderful and the characters believable. Sometimes compared to C.J. Sansom (my absolute favourite Tudor historical fiction writer – his books are brilliant) and the Shardlake series, I’m not convinced the unfavourable comparisons are fair or accurate. For a start, the Shardlake books are set during Henry’s reign, Shardlake is a lawyer and the entire tone and pace is very different to what Clement offers.

I enjoy both series, which though set a few decades apart, reflect the eras they explore with accuracy and beauty, demonstrating that from one generation to the next there were huge ideological and social changes affecting and defining England and its people.

I think both writers do their chosen material great justice and bring so much pleasure to readers.

Again, I finished Revenger and moved straight on to the next in the series, Prince. A terrific read.

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Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England by Dena Hunt

This was a really interesting read if for no other reason than it examined the paranoia and cruelty extant around recusants during the latter part of Elizabeth 1st’s reign – 1581. Focussing on a small cast of mostly Catholics, who are hiding their faith and the various rites that form part of their belief system from tTreason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan Englandhe Protestant majority, the novel, which occurs over a few days, explores their desperation and fear.

There are two principal characters around which the rest of the cast orbit: a young woman who desires to be a nun but was forced into marriage with a Protestant to protect her, and a freshly minted priest sent to English shores by the Society of Jesus to offer solace to English Catholics and convert other souls.

Because it’s told from the Catholic point of view alone, it does read like propaganda, the reign of “Bloody Mary” – where a few hundred “heretic” Protestants were put to death, and the mass slaughter of the Hugenots across France and other parts of Europe – conveniently forgotten. Likewise, the fact two Popes issued Bulls against Queen Elizabeth, offering to pardon anyone for murdering her, as she was a heretic, thus encouraging civil war and worse, is overlooked as the tragedy and betrayal of these good Catholic folk is portrayed.

With few exceptions, Protestants are very much the villains in this novel. They’re either bloodthirsty hunters of Catholic souls or vainglorious and self-righteous about Catholics and gloating in the deaths and exposure.

In the end, this is what troubled me; how black and white the book appeared. I didn’t mind reading about the whole religious schism and fears of plots and heretics and what it signified for the Queen and government from a Catholic point of view at all. Writing in this period myself and having spent now almost two years immersed in it, the whole question of religion and how political as well as personal it was is utterly fascinating and distressing. Knowledge of the early Renaissance (and other historical periods) also reveal how many wars and injustices, as well as bloody murder, have been committed in the name of God. This is by no means a modern phenomenon. We really haven’t learnt from history. What I didn’t like was the reductive way in which both sides of the religious coin were portrayed – as simplistic “goodies” or “baddies” – even though some of the characters themselves were really interesting beyond and because of their faith. While the novel is mostly historically accurate, a few more shades of grey would have also reflected the actual period, as well as the politics and even religion better as well.

Nonetheless, it was interesting to read about this fraught time from a different, if very myopic religious, point of view.

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Book Review: The Elizabethan World Picture by E.M.W. Tillyyard

This is a gem of a book that basically explores the Elizabethan way of viewing the world by examining popular literature and philosophies oThe Elizabethan World Picturef the period.

Quoting extensively from the likes of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser and Sidney (among many others) and making reference to the Greek philosophers that influenced Elizabethan thought, particularly (pun intended) Plato, Tillyard explains the way people of the 15th and 16th centuries understood their relationship to the corporeal and spiritual world and how they established hierarchies of being from oysters through to lions; from paupers to kings. How these all existed in a complex and simple relationship, a chain of being within the cosmos. How this was all regarded as functioning within very ordered vertical and horizontal planes and within a deep religiosity, is also explored. While anyone familiar with Elizabethan literature and history will not be unfamiliar with Tillyard’s ideas, it’s the way they’re explained and how literature and plays are used to both provide and support evidence that makes this book particularly delightful.

I think the most surprising thing to come out of the text for me was Tillyard’s summation that for all we think of the Elizabethan poets and dramatists as having some special relationship to their muses, the world and imagination, what they produced was quite “ordinary”. What he means by this including the music of the spheres in a poem, or likening the queen to the sun or moon and stars, linking the macrocosm and microcosm – was rather commonplace thinking for the time. He is not diminishing the accomplishments of the poets etc but rather asking us to understand that all Elizabethans read the world in that way, so the language of Shakespeare, Milton and Marlowe etc. was speaking to like-minded people who lived and breathed the allusions rather than grasping at powerful and beautiful metaphors that prove elusive to so many now. While an obvious point, I loved reading it and have subsequently tried to read Spenser with that view of the world in mind. It really does change things and make them easier to grasp. Not as easy as I’d like, but for that to happen, I’d have to step back in time awhile. Now, where’s my Tardis….?

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Book Review: Sacrilege by S.J. Parris

The third book in Parris’ Giordano Bruno heretic and spy series, Sacrilege finds our philosopher hero, Bruno, at his most vulnerable yet. Still living in the French embassy it’s not until Bruno discovers the identity of the person following him through the streets of London that he’s reconnected with someone from his recent past, someone for whom he has strong feelings. When asked to Sacrilegehelp this person clear their name of a crime they didn’t commit, Bruno is unable to refuse. Seeking the permission of his employer, the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham to go to Canterbury, he’s also tasked with uncovering any Catholic plotters in the heart of a city once famed as a site of pilgrimage and the place where Thomas Beckett’s bones were once buried.

Travelling under a non-de plume, Bruno arrives in Canterbury and discovers plots and plans aplenty. But when the body count rises and he’s accused of terrible crimes, it’s not just his friend’s name he has to clear or Sir Francis’ suspicions he has to lay to rest. Bruno finds himself fighting for his life and the only way he can save himself and his friend is to uncover a conspiracy so dark and tightly controlled that has the potential to bring down the greatest men in Canterbury – men who will stop at nothing to protect their own hides, even if it means killing innocents.

Once again, this is a terrifically written and paced novel that allows fans of the series even more insights into the central character and the strengths and, indeed, weaknesses that make him so appealing. Whereas other books have focussed a great deal on the ideologies and philosophies that shaped the era, the laws of the cosmos, the role of magic and mathematics, divine intervention and Bruno’s opinions and studies in these areas, lending the books a historical authenticity and the demonstrating the author’s research and understanding, this novel relies more on character and plot and I think is better for that. Any references to beliefs or famous treatises and how they influence Elizabethan thought is seamlessly woven into the narrative rather than sitting apart as a dinner conversation or dialogue/debate between two learned men. It’s as if Parris is more comfortable with her material now and the reader can appreciate her considerable knowledge and she can just get on with the story. And what a story it is – treachery, sacrilege, betrayal, love, death and faith all feature as does the book for which Bruno will sacrifice anything… or will he?

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Book Review: Daily Life in Elizabethan England by Jeffrey L. SIngman

Daily Life in Elizabethan England

This is the second book I have read in this series and it certainly won’t be the last. Part of the “living history” movement, this volume seeks to really immerse the lay reader in and provide them with the basic tools for reimagining what it would have been like to live in Elizabethan times. As Singman writes in the introduction, “If history only touches the historians, it is truly a lifeless form of knowledge.” Hear. Hear.

Daily Life in Elizabethan England seeks to correct the notion that history might be lifeless by first creating a context for understanding the times (which were fraught with religious tensions, espionage, plots and amazing discoveries) and then describing the daily life of people from different classes and professions – from the highest to the lowest and back and forth. Focusing on such things as religion and religious practices, literacy, education, clothes (patterns for various garments are included), music (there are lyrics and some basic sheet music), entertainment (there are various card and board games as well as others described at the end in detail), including jousting, bear and cock-baiting and other sports, relationships, family, trades, Singman beautifully sets the Elizabethan scene. Allowing us to imagine wandering crowded streets, entering a crofter’s or gentleman’s house, travelling across the country or abroad, he endows with the rudimentary knowledge to make our way. Warning us of diseases like the plague (which struck England many times throughout this period), the “sweating sickness” and other ailments, and to be wary of pickpockets, cut-purses and highwaymen, he also urges us to enjoy the delights of the theatre because of course, this was the era of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Johnson and many other wonderful creative souls.

Reminiscent of Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide series, this one functions as a compliment rather than replicating the information and I found it provided information Mortimer’s didn’t and vice-a-versa.

Written in an easily accessible and always fascinating style, this is a must-read for teachers or students of history, a fabulous reference for writers and a great read for those curious about a resplendent, violent, rapidly changing, and extraordinarily inventive milieu.

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