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I seem to be reading a lot of novels these days that set their events in the time of the Tudor monarchs, Henry VIII and Elizabeth. In style this one is similar to the Shardlake stories of CJ Sansom and the Giordano Bruno stories of SJ Parris. Whilst these writers have constructed their heroes entirely fictitiously, Clements has chosen to use the affectation of creating in John Shakespeare a brother for William that in fact he never had!
Why it should have been felt necessary I really don't know, other than that it might give the author access to a larger group of potential readers than he might otherwise enjoy! Indeed this, his first novel of the series, does introduce William but, ironically, in a very minor role.
The story is a typical murder mystery, with John established as an agent working for the very real Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's Spy Master. A young woman of high birth has been found brutally murdered and suspicion is directed towards the Catholic community in these times of religious hysteria and impending war.
Like all good stories, our hero has, in Richard Topcliffe, an implacable enemy. Whilst Shakespeare reports to Walsingham, Topcliffe reports directly to the Queen who, in the interests of self-preservation, is prepared to turn a blind-eye to his activities. They both seek to serve the Queen but their methods are miles apart: Topcliffe has no compunctions over the use of torture to meet his ends and even John Shakespeare is not safe from his attention.
Of course, the murder is only the first of many and, as our hero tries to track down the perpetrator, it is clear that there are other important targets, not the least of whom is that thorn in the side of Spain, Sir Francis Drake. Along the way, associations are formed, some ill-advised for our hero in these times of paranoia, and he has some close encounters with characters on both sides of the religious divide.
The book is well written and very enjoyable, once you have discounted the identity of the unlikely hero. It is certainly nearly up to the standard of the aforementioned authors. It has a good feel for tension and drama and builds its plot to a climax well. The principal characters are left, at the end, with an uncertain future, which is clearly a device to encourage you to read the next book. Indeed, the paperback version that I read even has at the end a couple of chapters from that book. I will be looking forward to reading it in full.
Abridged version also posted on Goodreads.
The Tudor murder-mystery market is starting to get a bit crowded. First there was C J Sansom's Shardlake, whilst more recently S J Parris has got into the game with Elizabethan spy Giordano Bruno. They have now been joined by John Shakespeare, spy in the pay of Sir Francis Walsingham, Tudor England's equivalent of M.
Set in England in the 1580s, England is gripped by fear. The impending execution of Mary, Queen of Scots is expected to draw reprisals from Catholic Europe and King Philip of Spain is amassing a great Armada to launch an invasion of England. Meanwhile, a Catholic assassin is sent to England to kill the great naval commander Sir Francis Drake. John Shakespeare must prevent this from happening.
Familiarity with the creations of Sansom and Parris does lead to a feeling that Martyr is slightly lacking in originality, since it follows many of the precedents laid down by them (although in fairness, Martyr was released at approximately the same time as Parris' first book). The basis plot (uncovering a dangerous Catholic cell; stopping a murderer) is almost identical to the plot of Heresy, as is the idea of the central character being in the employ of Sir Francis Walsingham. Shakespeare's loyal companion, Boltfoot Cooper is very similar to Shardlake's Jack Barak, whilst his bitter and dangerous rivalry with Richard Topcliffe mimics Shardlake's enmity with Sir Richard Rich.
So far, so generic. Thankfully, Martyr manages to rise above these superficial comparisons and, despite a few weaknesses, provide an historical murder-mystery that is both interesting and sufficiently different to make it worthwhile. Some people have even gone so far as to say they prefer Clements' books to the Sansom ones as they are faster paced. Personally, I'd dispute that. For me, there were times when the pace actually seemed to be a little plodding, with Shakespeare's investigation stuttering, rather than flowing smoothly.
Despite this, the plot was never less than interesting. It progressed in a clear and logical manner and kept me hooked throughout. Whilst the outcome will come as no real surprise (after all, we know from history that Francis Drake did not fall to an assassin's bullet so Clement can't spring any surprises.). What he can do though is create a feeling of suspense. The cat and mouse drama that plays out between Shakespeare and his quarry is fascinating and, in the best traditions of the thriller, there are plenty of red herrings to side-track both hero and reader.
In addition to a strong plot, Clements also has a very readable style. Although there are some parts of the book which are quite detailed, for the most part this adds to the book rather than detracts from it. Chapters are deliberately kept fairly short (typically around 8-12 pages long) so that when you reach the end of one chapter, you are tempted to carry on for just one more. Many were the time when I determined I would read to the end of the current chapter and then stop... only to find myself reading on well past that point. This is because Clements gradually builds the sense of mystery and intrigue, developing plot points that pique the reader's interest and make them want to keep going. He has no need to resort to the clumsy cliff-hangers so beloved of Chris Kuzneski, but establishes the same "must-read" effect via a carefully and cleverly constructed narrative.
From a historical point of view, Clements creates a very convincing world. From the drudgery and misery of the average citizen of London through to the pomp and ostentatiousness of the Elizabethan Court; from the sights and foul odours of the City of London through to the attitudes and outlook of its citizens, Clements does a very good job of re-creating the Elizabethan world. It's clear that Clements has done a massive amount of research, not just reconstructing the layout of Elizabethan London, but in recreating the life of both the high and the low-born. This creates a very convincing backdrop against which the main plot takes place and the rich historical depth is one of the book's key attractions.
If there is a criticism, it's that Clements is sometimes a little too faithful. With the Sansom and Parris books, the historical information is there to provide context and is deftly woven into the plot. Clements sometimes seems a bit too keen to establish how much research he has done; I did occasionally feel he was crowbarring information in for the sake of it. Both Shardlake and Bruno hang around the periphery of the London political scene. They interact with genuine historical figures, but their adventures are self-contained. Reference is made to genuine historical events and their adventures stay consistent with them, but they stand alone and only impact on those events tangentially. Clements, on the other hand, can be a little too keen to give Shakespeare a role in all the major political plots of the period.
One of the real drawbacks I found was that none of the central characters were actually terribly likeable and rather unpleasant and harsh in their outlook. Shakespeare himself seems all too ready to resort to threats of torture (or actual torture) to pressure people into giving the information he requires. OK, this is probably a fairly reasonable and accurate portrayal of the spies who worked for Walsingham, but here historical accuracy comes at a price. Shakespeare's outlook on life very much clashes with twenty-first century sensibilities and makes it hard to identify with him. There were times when I found myself actively disliking the central character and siding more with his victims.
Some people may also baulk at the quite graphic descriptions of torture. Unlike Sansom (who tends to be fairly restrained when it comes to such matters), Clements takes great delight in describing the effects of various forms of Tudor torture on the human body. As with other elements of the book this, provides convincing period detail, but some people might find it a little hard to stomach.
If you're a fan of historical murder-mysteries, you can't go wrong with this. It might not quite be on a par with Sansom or even Parris, but it's not far off the mark; there's certainly more to like than to criticise.
This is one of those daft publications where the print version is actually cheaper than the Kindle one. Copies of the paperback can be picked up new for around £4.50, whilst second hand copies will only cost a couple of pounds. The Kindle edition, meanwhile, will set you back £5. At the end of the day, though, it doesn't 'Martyr' (ahem) which one you read - you'll enjoy it.
Hodder Ome, 2010
© Copyright SWSt 2012
I have just finished reading this book and found it quite hard to get into. It's set in Elizabethan england and the main character is a man called John Shakespeare who is an intelligencer for Walsingham. The story follows his journey of trying to track down 2 jesuit priests- one of whom is suspected as having killed and mutilated a well known lady. Sir Francis Drake plays an important part in the tale as the priests are suspected of trying to kill him to stop him reaching the Spanish coast and stopping the waiting armada from setting sail. Drakes character is a good one- extremely lucky and practically invincible! There is a small love story involved with Shakespeare himself but i feel a lot more could have been made out of it to have given Shakespeare a more well rounded personality as at times he seems like quite an unispiring hero! Theres a good twist at the end, quite unexpected. I got more into the story once Drakes character had entered it as he seemed to bouy up the tale a little and added some light relief. I enjoyed the book but once i'd put it down i didn't feel in any rush to pick it back up again!
My first impression on looking at the front cover was that the book was a pretty typical historical novel: overpowering Gothic font on a burnished parchment-effect background. I've had this book for a while and only turned to it when I had run out of all other reading material. But although this book wasn't exactly groundbreaking, there is definitely something that sets this book apart from any other historical novel.
Firstly, the main character is a certain John Shakespeare. Now I know what you're thinking - he's probably got nothing to do with the actual famous Shakespeare. Wrong! The book is set in Elizabethan England and John Shakespeare is the brother of William Shakespeare, who at the time had just moved down to London to be part of a crew of players. However at this moment in time, it is John who is more important to Britain. John is in the employ of Sir Francis Walsingham, who is often remembered as the man who co-ordinated the intelligence services in the 16th century. In other words, John is a spy. When I realised that this was ultimately a spy novel, I suddenly got a lot more interested!
I'll briefly set the scene for you: it's 16th century London and religion is big on the agenda. With Catholicism having been recently outlawed, Catholics are being hunted down and hanged by Queen Elizabeth's government. Anyone wanting to practise the faith has to do so undercover to avoid the risk of detection. Protestantism is the only acceptable religion. In the wider world, Sir Francis Drake is out fighting the Spanish menace on the high seas whilst the Catholic King Philip of Spain plots to kill him. When Drake makes a brief stop in England, it is in everyone's interests to keep him alive, for the sake of the country. This task is delegated to Shakespeare, and is more difficult than it seems, with foreign Catholics potentially finding their way into Britain every day with the desire to assassinate Drake. At the same time, a lady of high-ranking has been found horrifically murdered, and it seems that it had something to do with Catholicism. Shakespeare has also undertaken to investigate this.
So there's quite a lot going on for Shakespeare, and there is a lot more that he has to contend with which I won't reveal! I felt the Clements' style was very readable and I found myself completely drawn into the book from the second or third chapter. John Shakespeare is a very likeable character as from the beginning we are shown his gentler, domestic side, and it becomes clear that his main motivation is not his love of adventure or a hatred of Catholics but rather a strong love for his Queen and country, a trait which I found endearing although simple. However, this naive faith is put severely to the test throughout the book which leads him to question the real nature of the laws of the land.
The chapters are nice and short at about 10 pages each. I read two or three chapters a nights and so it neither kept me awake too late nor bored me. Although the plot is pretty complex it's OK to leave the book for a few days and come back to it because you find you remember most of what has already happened. At 402 pages it's probably just about the right length; in fact I felt that there were some events which could have been dragged out a bit more.
With regard to content, this is very much a book for adults. There are a lot of sexual references and with prostitution being rife in London this is frequently mentioned; even Shakespeare has a brush with a brothel! However, rather than this being vulgar I found it gave you a good feel for what London must have been like for many people in Elizabethan England. It is clear that the novel has been very well researched from the quality of the language used, although it is easily understandable. It seems that every little detail has been researched as it lists 'The Englishman's Food' as one of the books that merited a special mention!
I may have painted this book to be something of a historical action book but there are also strong themes of romance and friendship which run through the novel, which I found I liked as much as the spying! However, I don't think there are a lot of emotional moments in the novel, even though some scenes had a lot of potential for this, so I think Clements could have perhaps explored this further to give more light and shade to the book.
I think that the major niggle that I had with this book was the idea of using Shakespeare as a name in the first place. John Shakespeare is an entirely fictional character; the playwright Shakespeare never had a brother called John. Therefore I found that it was a slightly gimmicky thing to do in order to make the book seem a bit quirky and different. Halfway through the book I was convinced that John must be a factual character until I googled Shakespeare and found he was Clements' own creation. I admit, I felt a little bit cheated, although I suppose that is testament to the author's skill in creating a character of such depth. I just felt that the plot was strong enough without having to bring in this cheap trick. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth, which suggested that Wilde was some sort of detective. Therefore I suppose I shouldn't judge Clements too harshly for suggesting that William Shakespeare's brother was a spy.
Overall I felt that the book was a really good read and that it definitely had potential to go further. In fact the first two chapters of the next book in the series were included in my paperback version, and I can tell you that I was definitely intrigued! Although there were moments when the author could have gone further, I was very much satisfied with it and I think this series could really be a hit with a lot of people!