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Traitor is the fourth book telling the adventures of Tudor spy John Shakespeare as he seeks to protect Queen and country from the threat of invasion by Catholic Spain. Competition in the Tudor-based historical novels has hotted up recently and from strong beginnings, the Shakespeare series has shown that it can hold its own against Sansom's Shardlake or Parris' Bruno. Traitor is no exception and is arguably the best Shakespeare adventure to date, combining the strengths of the earlier books with a few new tricks.
Set once again in 1590s Elizabethan England, Shakespeare and his companion Boltfoot Cooper are charged with protecting a man who possesses a secret weapon - a glass-lens device which allows him to see objects which are far away. Such a device will give England a crucial advantage in a planned assault on a Spanish fort and must be kept safe at all costs. Unfortunately, Shakespeare risks becoming distracted by the mysterious death of Lord Derby in Ormskirk, some personal issues relating to his adopted son and a mysterious woman who may not be all she seems.
Traitor is Clements' most assured entry to date. At first glance, you might look at that plot summary and think it is over-complicated, trying to introduce too many complex elements. That was certainly one of my first thoughts, but these soon disappeared within about 50 pages. Clements does an excellent job of keeping all these different balls in the air and weaving them into a connected and coherent narrative.
Traitor is just as readable as the earlier John Shakespeare novels, thanks to an excellent plot which weaves real historical events in with fictional ones. Clements now clearly feels at home in Tudor England and convincingly sets out what life might have been like, creating a fascinating and evocative background against which the plot is set. He skilfully takes the known facts of the lives of real historical characters (such as the genuinely mysterious death of Lord Derby) and adds a fictional layer over the top which is convincing, but consistent with the known facts. This blend of fact and fiction is managed so well that it's often hard to know where one ends and the other begins.
A convincing setting would, of course, be of little interest if the plotting were dull and pedestrian. Once again, there is nothing to fear as Clements moves things along at a cracking pace. Within the first few pages, he caught up in the mysterious death of Derby, an event which leads him to uncover wider, more serious threats to Elizabeth I's reign. Clements moves between these elements seamlessly, providing enough detail so that the reader does not feel lost as to what is happening, but never dwelling on one for too long so that they become bored.
Traitor benefits massively from a widening of its sphere. Previous books have predominantly focussed on the character of Shakespeare (occasionally following his assistant Boltfoot Cooper). This helped to establish the character of Shakespeare and his motives, giving the reader a genuine insight into his behaviour. However, it has also been a little restrictive in terms of the plotting.
Traitor addresses this by concentrating not just on Shakespeare and Cooper, but also introducing Shakespeare's adopted son Andrew. In a well-written and interesting sub-plot, Andrew is accused of a serious crime in his Oxford University College and goes on the run. There, he comes into contact with a bunch of vagabonds before being pressed into the army. Previous sub-plots in the Clements books have been slightly weak. This one works well, however, widening the scope of the action and allowing Clements to take a look at the underbelly of Tudor society.
Adding in a substantial sub-plot takes some of the weight off Shakespeare and Cooper and allows Clements the freedom to develop things in a slightly different direction. The issue of vagabonds and organised beggars was an important one in Tudor England, so it feels like a relevant sub-plot, not simply a narrative device. Moreover the plight of the socially dispossessed stands in direct contrast to the elevated circles in which Shakespeare moves and so adds an extra element of depth to the book. The language and dialogue of the vagabonds is so rich and convincing that the passages in which they feature are a delight to read. Indeed, I'd go as far as to say that these passages are more interesting than the main plot.
Traitor also broadens out the scope of the novel to take in the international dimension. Previous books have been firmly based in England (predominantly on London). This helped Clements to establish a feel for Tudor England but, like the limited cast of characters, it was starting to feel a little stifling.
Clements has obviously also recognised this and addresses this in Traitor. The novel starts in Ormskirk, Lancashire before moving to Portsmouth, Oxford and, eventually, France. Only a handful of scenes actually take place in London and this definitely works in the book's favour, adding a wider dimension to the story and the writing.
Clements has spent three previous books establishing and honing his writing style and this is the book where it really pays off. He provides exactly the right level of descriptive detail to ensure the reader is up to speed with settings and characters, without providing historical information for the sake of it. His writing style perfectly complements the plot - it's fast-paced and exciting, but pace is never achieved at the expense of essential detail. Traitor is an insanely readable book. It was one of those titles I just didn't want to put down.
There's not a lot to dislike here unless you're not a fan of historical novels, or disliked previous Clements novels. Personally, I thought that thanks to the quicker pace and expanded setting, this was the best of the series to date. You do, however, need to have read the previous books in the series, since there are several references to these that will mean nothing to the uninitiated.
Clements seems to be writing at a cracking pace, churning out around two John Shakespeare novels a year. Whilst this can have its disadvantages (leading to stretched, rushed books), so far it has worked. Rather than getting weaker, the Shakespeare books are improving with each new title and I for one am looking forward to the next adventure.
John Murray, 2012
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013