1653: The long and bloody English Civil War is at an end. King Charles is dead and Oliver Cromwell rules the land as king in all but name. Richard Treadwell, an exiled royalist officer and soldier-for-hire to the King of France and his all-powerful advisor, the wily Cardinal Mazarin, burns with revenge for those who deprived him of his family and fortune.
He decides upon a self-appointed mission to return to England in secret and assassinate the new Lord Protector. Once back on English soil however, he learns that his is not the only plot in motion. A secret army run by a deluded Puritan is bent on the same quest, guided by the Devil’s hand. When demonic entities are summoned, Treadwell finds himself in a desperate turnaround: he must save Cromwell to save England from a literal descent into Hell.
But first he has to contend with a wife he left in Devon who believes she’s a widow, and a furious Paris mistress who has trailed him to England, jeopardising everything. Treadwell needs allies fast. Can he convince the man sent to forcibly drag him back to Cardinal Mazarin? A young king’s musketeer named d’Artagnan. Black dogs and demons; religion and magic; Freemasons and Ranters. It’s a dangerous new Republic for an old cavalier coming home again.
When Solaris announced Clifford Beal’s Gideon’s Angel my interest was immediately piqued. Fantasy and historical fiction are solidly in my wheelhouse and with Anne Lyle’s The Alchemist of Souls I’d had it confirmed that a marriage of the two could be a beautiful thing. Combine that with a setting in an era I discovered in more detail last year and I really couldn’t wait to read Gideon’s Angel. It even made my most anticipated reads list for the first half of 2013. Happily, the book lived up to my expectations and was a wonderful read.
We start the book in the past, about eight years before the story proper is set, and meet our protagonist Richard Treadwell at the point where his life falls apart—he’s fighting a duel to the death to prove his innocence. While a strong start, which is instantly exciting and has you rooting for Treadwell, it also serves up a bit of confusion, as the next chapter starts in 1563 but moves to a flashback set somewhat earlier, co-starring a young musketeer named d’Artagnan. We then move to a different time in the next chapter, but it wasn’t clear how much time has elapsed, so by this point I was completely confused as to where we were in time. However, this is also the point the story takes off and I forgot all about the timeline and just sank into the adventure. However, those first two or three chapters did give me pause and made me double check historical stuff to make sense of things, which made the book have a bit of a wobbly beginning for me.
Once the story gets on its way, however, and the action is moved from France to England, after an interview with Treadwell’s current employer Cardinal Mazarin, it settles down to business. Treadwell is an old campaigner, who’s fought as a soldier of fortune in numerous campaigns, both on the continent and on English soil. As such, he’s experienced and one could say rather jaded and cynical. Despite this, he seems a good man, who might not always act honourably, but tries to do right. He’s also more than just a soldier, he is a sensitive who has seen some dark things in his time as a fighting man. Things he’ll encounter again on his current mission. I loved Treadwell’s decisions, especially once he discovers the Fifth Monarchy plot and its consequences. I also liked where Beal takes Treadwell’s faith and that in the end his faith seems somewhat restored.
Along the way Treadwell finds allies in unlikely places, the most important of which is the Ranter Billy Chard. Chard is a fantastic character, who reminded me a lot of Blackadder’s Baldrick. He makes for a staunch comrade and his courage and steadfastness in the face of darkness is impressive. But what I really loved about him was his irreverence and his temper; Billy has a hard time keeping his mouth shut and is easily insulted, he’s also very funny and his banter with Treadwell give some much needed comic relief at times. Treadwell and Billy are joined by Elias Ashmole and Rodrigo da Silva, a Portuguese converso, who both bring different mystical powers to this group of unexpected allies. Rounded out with the expert swordsmanship of d’Artagnan and our band of heroes is complete. All three of the later companions are given believable motivations to stand with Treadwell against the dark forces arrayed against Cromwell and the Commonwealth and are characters in full, not just cardboard cut outs used to fill out the band.
There are only four named female characters, who are all strong in their own way. Treadwell’s wife, who was left to fend for herself after his exile, his mistress, who isn’t content with being abandoned and decides to make her way to England on her own, da Silva’s daughter, unafraid to follow her father into danger, and Anya, a Cunning Woman who Treadwell first met in Germany and whose magic has kept him safe all these years. And while they are interesting, their seeming dependence, except perhaps Anya, on the presence on their men in their life – Maggie, Treadwell’s mistress doesn’t want to be without him to face the consequences of their liaison alone, while da Silva’s daughter would rather die with him in battle, than be left an orphan and alone – bothered me a lot.
Beal puts an interesting spin on the dissolution of the Barebones Parliament and the establishment of the Protectorate. He seems to have a solid grip on not just the historical facts of the era, but the religious underpinnings of its unrest as well. He shows us the various factions and the splintered nature of the Protestant faith in England and the intolerance there was towards those of a different faith, such as Catholics and Jews. But he doesn’t just make good use of the mystical teachings of the various faiths and cults, but he also includes the mystical brotherhood of the Freemasons, a society that has fascinated me ever since I researched them for a paper. He interweaves all of these in a tight plot, where faith is shown as a weapon for both good and evil.
Gideon’s Angel is an exciting and compelling debut. Beal shows a deft hand at mixing historical fact with fantasy and mimicking the period’s language without becoming incomprehensible to modern readers. I really enjoyed the resolution of the novel and the choices Treadwell makes for his future. While Gideon’s Angel is a story complete in and of itself, Treadwell’s choices and profession leave an opening for more tales of his adventures and I would love to spend more time with him. If you enjoy historical fantasy such as the work of Anne Lyle, you definitely shouldn’t miss Gideon’s Angel.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.