Spring, 1648. When Thomas Hill, a bookseller living in rural Hampshire, publishes a political pamphlet he has little idea of the trouble that will follow. He is quickly arrested, forced on a boat to Barbados and condemned to life as a slave to two of the island’s most notoriously violent brothers.
In England war has erupted again, with London under threat of attack. When news of the king’s execution reaches the island, political stability is threatened and a fleet commanded by Sir George Ayscue arrives to take control of the island for Cromwell. The threat of violence increases. Thomas finds himself witness to abuse, poison, rape and savage brutality.
When a coded message from Ayscue to a sympathiser on the island is intercepted, Thomas is asked to decipher it. A disastrous battle seems inevitable.
But nothing turns out as planned. And as the death toll mounts, the escape Thomas has been relying on seems ever more unlikely…
The first book in the Thomas Hill series, The King’s Spy, was one of the first books set during the English Civil War I read and it was certainly one that opened my eyes to this fascinating era of British history. It also had a rather intriguing protagonist, a bookseller who was also a cryptographer. I really enjoyed that first book, especially since Andrew Swanston gave the reader the opportunity to try her own hand at decrypting the messages, though to be honest, I am not made for these sorts of exercises, yet I still found it captivating. The King’s Exile, the second book in the series has languished on my TBR-pile for a while, but when I finally opened it up it was very easy to get back into Thomas’ world. The narrative was very different from last time, with far less puzzles and decrypting and more surviving and action, yet all the same very entertaining.
The book is set in a very different locale than last time. Instead of Oxford and Romsey, we follow Thomas to Barbados in the Caribbean. Not only did this give Swanston the opportunity to show the corruption of Cromwell’s Republic, but it also allows him to showcase that the Civil War didn’t just affect England and its close neighbours such as Ireland and Scotland, but its colonies too. I loved this emphasis as I’d never really considered this and since we are usually shown the reverse position, where trouble in the colonies destabilises the situation at home. The difference between the rigid, strict nature of Cromwellian society and the more relaxed, less hidebound Barbadian planter society is shown and used to good effect, but Swanston doesn’t paint Barbados as a paradise, in fact he stresses the horrid conditions slaves and indentures servants were forced to live and work in.
One of my issues with The King’s Spy was that it was somewhat heavy on exposition, with Thomas regularly lecturing people and by extension the reader on the topic of cryptography. The King’s Exile however is far less prone to info-dumping and also less of a puzzle narrative; in fact, decrypting doesn’t come into play until very late in the book. Instead, Thomas has to rely on his wits and courage to first survive the brutal journey to Barbados and then the awful treatment by his owners. His trial-and-error explorations of edible fruits and philosophical approach to making sense of his situation were wonderful to read. And we also see him applying his mind to accounting and military strategy, which leads to some interesting situations.
Swanston has a very readable writing style and I loved the new characters we meet in this book. My favourites were Mary Lyte, a young lady who has grown up on Barbados, and Patrick, a mulatto slave, who due to his education and wonderful personality is treated more like an adoptive sibling than a servant. Patrick is wonderful, but there was one thing that was hard for me to resolve and that is his complete peace with his existence. I mean I can understand that his situation is about the best he could hope for short of being set free, but he doesn’t even really seem to mind the fact that he is still a slave, however much he’s loved. That just felt odd to me. Mary was amazing; her free spirit and her determination to decide her own destiny and doing so regardless of what her brother thinks was fantastic and I love how Thomas is secretly rooting for her to get her way. Another fantastic character whose iron spirit I loved was Thomas’ sister, Margaret. I loved how strong she is and how self-reliant. Her pulling a gun on the man who is responsible for Thomas’ exile was a great scene.
The King’s Exile is a great sequel to The King’s Spy, one that allows Swanston to prove that the cryptography included in the former wasn’t just a gimmick and that he doesn’t need it to write a compelling story. Because The King’s Exile is very much a character-driven story and all the stronger for it. Having enjoyed this book a lot, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on The King’s Return, the next book in the series which was published last month.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.