1553: Harsh winter falls across the realm. Mary Tudor has become queen and her enemies are imprisoned in the Tower, but rumours of a plot to depose her swirl around the one person many consider to be England’s heir and only hope – her half-sister, Princess Elizabeth.
Brendan Prescott’s foe and mentor, the spymaster Cecil, brings news that sends Brendan back to London on a dangerous mission. Intent upon trying to save Elizabeth, he soon finds himself working as a double-agent for Mary herself.
Plunged into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a shadowy opponent who hides a terrifying secret, Brendan races against time to retrieve a cache of the princess’s private letters, even as he begins to realize that in this dark world of betrayal and deceit – where power is supreme and sister can turn against sister – nobody can be trusted.
I first encountered Christopher Gortner’s writing last year when I reviewed The Queen’s Vow, about Queen Isabella of Castile. I loved the book and I was intrigued with this next book, written under a slightly different name – his biographical fiction is published as CW Gortner – and with a different approach to historical fiction. I have a weak spot for historical crime fiction and this historical mystery is close enough kin to that as makes no difference. Not having read the first book in the series, an oversight I’ll have to rectify in the future, I was worried that I might have missed too much back story, but luckily this book stands alone pretty well and the important bits get re-introduced quite organically in the narrative.
The Tudor Conspiracy contains a nice mix of historical and fictional characters. The book’s main character Brendan Prescott is fictional and a great protagonist. He’s a very sympathetic character, even when he does some pretty stupid things. While some of his actions could be ascribed to grief, his interactions with Sybilla, one of Mary’s maids of honour, killed me; I couldn’t believe he’d do that. I loved his squire Peregrine, who is your typical scampy side-kick and Brendan’s fiancée Kate. They formed a wonderful adoptive family and their chemistry was wonderful. Gortner’s portrayal of Elizabeth and Mary is interesting too. Gortner shows Mary’s softer side; he doesn’t just show her as the religious zealot responsible for so many deaths that she was nicknamed Bloody Mary. Instead he shows her compassion for others and the way her loyalty to her mother guide her religious beliefs. The more I read about her, the more I pity her. Elizabeth is a mix of a calculated survivor and a lonely girl desperate to have the love of her sister. Gortner’s portrayal of the Dudleys surprised me at first, but when I started to think about it I realised that Dudley is often portrayed as a venal and ambitious man, when not shown from Elizabeth’s point of view and at least in this book she seems not to be as smitten with him as she’s usually shown to be.
The plot is based on a true historical event, the Wyatt conspiracy, is quite interesting – it was also one I wasn’t familiar with – and the powers that Gortner positions behind it are somewhat unexpected. In addition to the internal politics, there are also influences from outside who impact English politics—Ambassador Renard and the Spaniards. While seemingly a straightforward marriage proposal from Charles V to bring England back into the Catholic fold through a union between his cousin and his son, Philip had grander plans and played for future stakes as it were. Gortner managed to slip some surprises into the narrative that were very skilful sleight-of-hand and which made the story even more complex and exciting.
The Tudor Conspiracy is a fantastic read, with well-written characters and a captivating plot. Gortner’s Tudor Court is a far less glamorous and far more dangerous place than we’ve seen it portrayed as on both the large and the small screen, but for all that it is far more compelling. I’m planning to check out the previous book, The Tudor Secret, and I’ll definitely be along for Brendan’s next adventure, The Tudor Vendetta, next year.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.