The English Civil War presents its fair share of challenges for novelists. One of the toughest hurdles is to get the reader invested in a conflict in which neither side can, in retrospect, claim the mantle of ‘the good guys’. It takes a talented author to break through the moral murkiness and create a story we can really care about.
One author who achieves this is Andrew Swanston, whose historical thriller The King’s Spy – the first in the Thomas Hill trilogy – I had the pleasure of reading recently. The first trick to Andrew’s success, I think, lies in his creation of a protagonist the reader can get behind, even if the cause he serves seems flawed. The second is that he establishes a particular sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ while not forcing us to feel any special allegiance to either side in the war. And the third… well, it’s a damn good thriller!
But, first, back to that protagonist. He is Thomas Hill, a bookseller from Romsey. If you’re thinking that sounds like a pretty humble occupation for a hero of the Civil War, you’d be right. But it soon becomes clear that Thomas is rather special. He’s one of the few people in the country to have mastered the skill of cryptography (code-making and code-breaking, in layman’s terms) – something that makes him highly valuable in the war. Thomas is persuaded by an old mentor to join the king’s service in Oxford, where most of the book is set (a setting that Andrew conjures in gritty, vivid detail as the Royalist army turns the city into a squalid camp). He soon finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy and unable to trust anyone, with a seemingly indecipherable encrypted message serving as his only hope of unmasking the dark forces stirring around him.
The great thing about Thomas is that he’s no zealot or ideologue – he’s more than aware of the moral complexities of the conflict, and his main aim in serving the king is to try and bring the war to a speedy conclusion and save as many lives as possible. In any case, Andrew doesn’t waste time trying to invest the reader in a Royalist victory as a righteous outcome in itself. Instead, he focuses on Thomas’s attempts to make the best of a bad set of circumstances and do as much good as possible. At all times, Thomas remains sympathetic and likeable, not least because the situation he finds himself in is not quite of his choosing, but also because he tries to see the best in people, despite the depravities of war in evidence all around him.
The other characters are compelling, too, particularly Simon de Pointz, Thomas’s effective sidekick in the story and a combat-ready friar if ever there was one. The villains are fantastic as well, but I’ll leave you to discover who they are for yourself.
At the core of the novel is a mystery, and it’s an excellent one. The encrypted message is a key part of it, and Andrew offers some fascinating detail on the techniques behind cryptography – all of it in an intelligible format. The book never becomes mired in codes, though. There’s plenty of human action and more than one shocking twist as the story goes on. As the plot shifts from finding out who is behind the conspiracy to figuring out how, against all odds and with time running out, to prove it, the suspense only grows.
Whether you’re an English Civil War buff or not, if you like historical thrillers, The King’s Spy is a must.