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The trouble with history is that we know how it ends. Anne Boleyn’s head will roll; the revolutionary brothers will turn on each other; the Empire will fall.

It takes considerable skill in the writing of historical fiction to make the reader share the characters’ sense of oppressive uncertainty about the future. SJ Parris’ series about the sleuth, spy and renegade monk, Giordiano Bruno re-creates the atmosphere of Queen Elizabeth 1’s England in all its vivid paranoia. This is a small island, still stained with martyrs’ blood, and surrounded by Catholic enemies . The Virgin Queen is aging and childless, and the issue of succession looms. Secret papists committed to her downfall pray and plot in the shadows.

Bruno is based on a real character, an Italian philosopher who fled from his monastery after a banned copy of Erasmus was found hidden in his privy. Parris brings him into the service of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster. In Treachery, the fourth instalment of the series, Bruno is in Plymouth on a mission for the Queen with his friend Sir Phillip Sydney, the flamboyant poet and courtier.  Sir Francis Drake is in town, preparing for an expedition against Spanish America.

A murder on board threatens to scupper the expedition. The victim - a dissolute gambler - was strung up to imitate a suicide. But Drake suspects foul play and Bruno finds himself press-ganged into solving the mystery. Sir Phillip, meanwhile, is planning his own treachery – abandoning his mission and cosseted place at Elizabeth’s court and landing a place on Drake’s expedition.

With a murderer at loose, and an idle fleet causing mayhem in the dangerous streets of naval Plymouth, Bruno struggles to unravel the plot. Throw in some old enemies, a beautiful widow, and a mysterious manuscript which may be a lost gospel and this is a book to make you long for filthy weather, a deep armchair and a thick blanket.

There are echoes of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series here. But Parris is better than the usual run of imitators. Her prose is taut and compelling. Her wielding of the historical material is always convincing but never overwhelming. Treachery’s plot turns less on theological issues than its predecessors, which was a minor disappointment for this reader. I am a sucker for Early Modern religious wrangles, however, and will admit that the more straightforward storytelling of Treachery remains inventive and full of surprises.

The real strength of the series is its protagonist. Witty, brilliant, bookish Bruno is a delight of a narrator. His relationship with his friend Sir Phillip is deftly drawn; full of light and shade.   Sir Phillip’s charm shines, even though he can be petulant and spoilt.

If, after reading these enthralling, thrilling books you want to find out how it ends for the real Bruno, do not be tempted to Google him. You will be too fond of Parris’ creation to bear the end of the story. Let the fictional Bruno sleuth on for many more instalments, ferreting out papists and chasing rare books. Sometimes, fiction is more bearable than fact. 

 


Comments

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Yes, historical fiction can definitely be a tricky thing to write. This is why I would often prefer the "safer" side of contemporary fiction. It allows me to be creative and does not curtail my imagination from coming up with various scenes. However, I do want to challenge myself and think outside of my comfort zone. This is why, for 2016, I am working on a retelling of sorts of a period character. Wish me luck!

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09/23/2016 11:28pm

Medieval punishment methods are really giving me goosebumps. Kings order their queens beheaded just to get a new one. Unbelievable. I feel lucky I did not live in that time. Maybe I will get more severe punishment simply by talking like this. It's nice to read about history because it tells us people never change, only the way they do things but their choice of actions are still the same.

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03/23/2015 10:47pm

Thank you for sharing, which for me is quite useful.

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02/10/2016 8:23am

We totally know how this all will end.

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03/12/2016 4:37am

I will book mark your weblog for long term updates.

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05/11/2016 1:58pm

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