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Revenger is the sequel to Rory Clements' Martyr, the book that introduced the world to spy John Shakespeare (fictional brother of playwright William). In his last adventure, Shakespeare foiled an attempt on the life of Sir Francis Drake; this time round, the stakes are higher as he is called out of retirement to uncover a possible plot by the Earl of Essex to seize the throne from the aging Queen, Elizabeth I.
Martyr was an excellent read, albeit one which perhaps showed a lack of imagination at times. It carefully followed the successful blueprint established by C J Sansom's Shardlake books so whilst it was fun, you were always left with that slight nagging feeling that you had seen it all before.
Revenger is better and bears all the hallmarks of an author now more comfortable with both his trade and his characters. By setting itself later in Elizabeth's reign (the plot occurs in 1592), it removes itself from direct comparison with the Shardlake books (which are mostly set in the era of Henry VIII) - something which helps it to establish its own identity.
Although I greatly enjoyed the first book, I did have a couple of criticisms. In particular, Clements tried a little too hard to insert his character right into thick of the political maelstrom of Elizabeth's reign, giving this fictional character a crucial role in very real events. One of the strengths of the Shardlake series is that (Dark Fire aside) the major events of the Tudor regime are incidental; providing crucial background information but completely separate to Shardlake's quest. This latter approach works better, because it feels more natural and realistic.
There's still that same tendency to insert Shakespeare at the heart of things in Revenger, but it works much better this time around. The central plot (the Earl of Essex's aborted attempt to seize the English Crown) really did happen and really was thwarted. Whilst this was not done by John Shakespeare, Clements more convincingly integrates his character into these events without making it seem contrived and artificial.
Further improvements over Martyr include the way Clements weaves historical detail into his plot. At times in Martyr, he seemed a little too anxious to show the reader everything he knew about the Tudor period and this led to passages which were little more than history lessons and which slowed the plot down.
Whilst there is just as much historical detail in Revenger, it is provided in a way which sounds much more natural. Clements weaves the wealth of historical information (references to people or places, descriptions of conditions in Elizabethan England) into the book in a way that is seamless. Rather than feeling you are back in the classroom, Revenger uses historical detail and references to provide essential background and context which make the London in which Shakespeare operates feel like a very real and vibrant place.
Clements also seems a lot more comfortable with his characters and uses them more effectively. In particular, he has learned some of the lessons from Martyr which occasionally tried to introduce too many characters at once. The emphasis is very much on John Shakespeare, and his interactions with other characters (both real and fictional) are the most important aspect of the book. It's perhaps a slight shame that some of the supporting characters are lost (Shakespeare's wife is packed off to York; his companion Boltfoot Cooper occupies a more marginal role), but the renewed focus on Shakespeare makes him feel far more convincing as a character than he did in Martyr.
He's also a lot more likeable. Another of my complaints about Martyr was that Shakespeare wasn't actually a terribly nice person. As soon as he came across a problem, he used his position of authority to threaten torture and death to anyone who might cross his path. Certainly this was a realistic portrayal of 16th century attitudes, but it doesn't make for a character that you can root for. Whilst there is still an element of this in Revenger, it is more diluted and used sparingly, making Shakespeare far more palatable to the modern reader.
Clements has developed a very readable style that works well. This was already pretty well honed in Martyr, but it just feels that little bit more polished here and so the book is that little bit more enjoyable. He writes in short (ish) chapters which contain regular breaks, making it a nice easy book to pick up and read just a few pages or to read in big chunks. He also has a very strong understanding of storytelling and moves the plot along at a good, strong pace. It's never as breathless or shallow as (say) a James Patterson thriller, but neither does it plod along or get bogged down in excessive detail. The plot is exciting, well handled and moves along at just the right pace.
Right from the earliest pages, Revenger had me hooked. Whilst enjoyed Martyr, it did take a little while to get going and could be a touch little slow-paced. Revenger effectively hits the ground running and never stops. It mostly addresses the core weaknesses of the first book and as such I found it a lot more enjoyable to read. If you enjoy the historical novels of S J Parris or C J Sansom, then Rory Clements' books are really something you should check out.
Revenger can be picked up for around £5 in Kindle or paperback format, but second hand copies are a lot cheaper than that (around £2-3). That's less than the price of a pint of beer for a book that fans of historical fiction will want enjoy reading again and again (unlike a pint of beer, which you can only enjoy once!)
John Murray, 2011
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013
I'm a big fan of these sort of historical, action novels. Made popular by Bernard Cornwell and later Conn Iggulden with the Emperor and Genghis Khan series, there's been an explosion in stories across the breadth of history. I wish we'd had these sort of books to read in 'O' Level History rather than the boring old textbooks we ended up with!
But I digress. Revenger is the second novel by Rory Clements to feature his character John Shakespeare (older brother of a certain William Shakespeare) who is what is known as an 'intelligencer', a kind of spy working for representatives of her Majesty.
Without going into the plot in great detail, this story features a conspiracy plot against the Queen which spirals into a potential disaster threatening thousands of lives. For those who aren't familiar with this period of history, it's a detailed window into the workings of the court of Eizabeth and shows that political machinations of the late 16th century are not always so different from what they are now. But it's not without it's fair share of action and John Shakespeare has the fighting skills of Sharpe combined with the investigative cunning of Shardlake.
I'd thoroughly recommend this novel and the rest of the series to anyone who's enjoyed similar titles from other writers of this genre. It's a great read and I look forward to more from Rory Clements in the future.