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It doesn't seem like two minutes since Elizabethan spy John Shakespeare leapt out of the pages of historical novel Martyr, yet here he is in this third adventure already. The previous two books have been an interesting mix of the historical and the thriller genre and have generally worked well - an interesting addition to an increasingly popular genre.
Prince takes place in the spring of 1593, towards the end of the Elizabethan age. Following the failed Armada seven years earlier, Spain is once again threatening England, whilst questions over who will succeed the aging Queen are starting to concern everyone. There is growing unrest in England over the increasing numbers of foreigners fleeing to the country to escape religious persecution elsewhere and this is something which some elements are seeking to use to destabilise Elizabeth I's regime.
If you have read the previous two Rory Clements novels in the series, then you will know exactly what to expect: a tale of intrigue that takes spy John Shakespeare the length and breadth of the country to uncover the latest threat to the state. In some ways, though, Prince is slightly clunkier than previous novels. Earlier books have concentrated on telling a good crime/detective story which just happens to be set in the Elizabethan period. It's a formula which has worked well to date with no real need to change. Clements, however, obviously feels differently and in Prince, he tries to draw in a few more parallels with the modern world. The concerns over the Dutch exiles fleeing to England, for example, clearly resonate with concerns voiced by some people today over immigrant workers, whilst the series of bombings in the novel are clearly meant to reflect guerrilla attacks on British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
These parallels just about work, but there are times when they are stretched too far. The tactics of dissenters in Elizabethan England were very different from those employed by discontented factions today, and the imposition of modern ideas didn't quite sit with the book's historical setting. One of the strengths of the previous books was that they were so far removed from 21st century life and the novel could simply be read as a piece of entertainment. By trying to draw modern parallels, Clements undermines a key strength.
But let's not be too harsh because, despite some weaknesses, Clements still creates both a highly readable book and a fascinating (and accurate) recreation of life in late Elizabethan England. It's clear that Clements has done a lot of research into the subject and he uses this knowledge well to inform both setting and plot. You can almost see and smell the sights and sounds of Elizabethan England, so evocative is Clements' world. He perfectly captures the tension between the puritanical elements of society (who frown on fun of any kind) and the bawdy, lewd behaviour which goes on elsewhere. He introduces historical facts (particularly the permanent jostling for position and favour at court) without making the reader feel like they are being given a history lesson. At the same time, he weaves his own fictional creations so seamlessly into the lives of real historical figures that it's often difficult to tell them apart.
Clements also has a knack for uncovering slightly obscure (but genuine) historical facts and weaving these into his storyline. Sometimes this is done in a very subtle way, other times it is more obvious. He makes sure he stays true to the known facts, but uses a little bit of poetic licence to fit them into his own storyline. A strong set of author notes at the end of the book make for fascinating reading and help the reader sort out fact from author fabrication.
It's also clear that with two books already under his belt, Clements has also grown in confidence as a story teller. Whilst there are a couple of elements of the plot which don't quite work, this is much better written than the (already excellent) previous books. It's a real page-turner and the plot races along, never sacrificing pace for detail but always keeping the reader's attention. I read it in just a few days and found it to be the best yet in the series. Whilst the plot is not particularly complicated, it is entertaining and you will want to keep reading to see how it all pans out.
In John Shakespeare, Clements has slowly fashioned a character that is both convincing as a historical character but acceptable to modern eyes. In the earlier books, Shakespeare (in his capacity as officer of the state) was too ready to threaten torture and death to anyone who refused to help him. Whilst this was undoubtedly a reflection of the way such men operated at the time, it did make him rather difficult to like as a lead character. Clements has now pulled back on some of these elements. They still exist, but are not so frequent as to make him unlikeable.
Shakespeare can still be difficult to get to grips with, however. Shakespeare always seems a little too detached and unemotional. Prince offered a chance to present a different, less-controlled side to Shakespeare and it never really emerged. The (rather obvious) personal tragedy that befalls Shakespeare partway through the book should be the excuse for him to set out on a roaring rampage of revenge. Instead, he pretty much carries on as normal, which doesn't quite ring true.
Clements also makes better use of his support characters than in earlier books, and this again demonstrates a growing confidence with his version of Elizabethan England. Rather than simply shadowing him and occasionally helping him out of scrapes, Shakespeare's right hand man, Boltfoot Cooper, is given more of a role, going off alone for much of the book in a side quest related to the main storyline.
Similarly, a couple of scenes are viewed from teh perspective of the two men behind the bomb plots and the dialogue between them is a delight to read - coming across like a couple of comedy characters from a (William) Shakespeare tragedy. These were really entertaining and the language used by the two men often amusing, without detracting from the otherwise serious nature of the plot. These little comic interludes balanced out the darker elements well, adding a little light relief.
The convincing setting, well-drawn characters and fast-paced plot help to create yet another excellent John Shakespeare adventure. On the evidence of the books so far, Clements' series is getting stronger and stronger, with Prince being the most enjoyable and readable to date.
The book is available from Amazon in both Kindle and paperback format for around £4.50.
John Murray, 2012
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012