SUMMER, 1643. England is at war with itself. King Charles I has fled London, his negotiations with Parliament in tatters. The country is consumed by bloodshed.
For Thomas Hill, a man of letters quietly running a bookshop in the rural town of Romsey, knowledge of the war is limited to the rumours that reach the local inn.
When a stranger knocks on his door one night and informs him that the king’s cryptographer has died, everything changes. Aware of Thomas’s background as a mathematician and his expertise in codes and ciphers, the king has summoned him to his court in Oxford.
On arrival, Thomas soon discovers that nothing at court is straightforward. There is evidence of a traitor in their midst. Brutal murder follows brutal murder. And when a vital message encrypted with a notoriously unbreakable code is intercepted, he must decipher it to reveal the king’s betrayer and prevent the violent death that failure will surely bring.
The King’s Spy is the second Civil War novel I’ve read as part of the Transworld Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. And while both novels contain Royalist viewpoints – though neither are wholly so – they each give a totally different view of the proceedings. The Bleeding Land, the other novel mentioned, is far more focused on the visceral reality of the battles and motivations of the Civil War, on what it meant for people not in power and how the Civil War affected families and communities. While we also see Thomas torn from his family by a summons from the King to Oxford and he does see battle, the Civil War is far less central to the story. Instead, it is the backdrop against which Swanston is able to set his mystery. And it’s not just this that differs; there are also differences in characterisation. For example, Prince Rupert, who in The Bleeding Land is a courageous, though rather cavalier, figure who is admired by the protagonist, in The King’s Spy is a dissolute and does the King’s cause more harm than good with his subjects. Similarly, the soldiers are mostly portrayed as knaves and profiteers, who destroy the once beautiful and peaceful town of Oxford, while in The Bleeding Land the view is far more balanced and probably even leaning towards the positive. It’s interesting to see such different treatments of the same era, though ultimately it doesn’t really affect how the stories are judged.
The narrative centres around an interesting mystery – who is the traitor in the King’s court and behind the murders that plague it – that has to be solved by decrypting coded messages that have been intercepted, which is where Thomas comes in, but the book had some flaws. These come mostly in the form of major info dumps, somewhat disguised as Thomas giving lectures on en- and decryption to interested characters. While the necessity to convey the information to the reader is clear, after the first or second time, it started to feel inelegant. My complete density when it comes to mathematics probably didn’t help in this respect as decryption relies heavily on mathematical acumen to function and I rather felt a little boggled by the explanations at times. What is cool is that the encrypted texts are included in the text along with some of the tables Thomas uses, so if a reader was so minded, they could have a go at decrypting the texts themselves, at least the easier ones. Obviously, I’m not such a reader, but that the option is there is great.
Thomas as a protagonist was a good character though; he’s likeable, intelligent and well-motivated. The one thing in his arc I did have my doubts at was his relationship with Lady Jane Romilly. This seems to run pretty deep after only a few meetings and also seemed a little socially unbalanced. I can’t imagine an attendant lady of the Queen having time for a man who is essentially a rather obscure tradesman, even if currently employed by the king. Another thing that bugged me was the way Thomas finally cracks the crucial message’; in a rather ‘A Beautiful Mind’-esque scene, the answer just comes to him. It struck me as odd, but this might be mostly due to the fact that I immediately linked the visual description to A Beautiful Mind, which is one of my favourite films (yes, Paul Bettanny and Russell Crowe, I just can’t help myself. I even love Master and Commander as a result!) His main sparring partner, Father Simon de Pointz, a Franciscan friar part of the Queen’s Household, is an entertaining character and a good foil for the more serious and scholarly Thomas. I liked their interactions and the surprising depths to this rather worldly ecclesiastic.
Overall, The King’s Spy is an enjoyable book, with definite merits and I’d be interested to read more about Thomas and Father Simon de Pointz. I’d love to see how Swanston develops his writing style and see whether he can move away from the infodumpy lectures, while keeping the cryptographer angle that makes Thomas so intriguing. This first outing for Thomas Hill was a good read, but there is definite room for growth.