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by Rory Clements
John Murray, January 2013
448 pages
17.99 GBP
ISBN: 1848544332

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The intelligencer I dubbed the Elizabethan Bond goes from strength to strength in the fifth and without doubt the best of the series so far. John Shakespeare is on his way to becoming one of the great historical detectives and his ability to unravel the most fiendish plots, together with his willingness to risk his own life and his all too human failings help illuminate one of the darkest and most dangerous periods of British history.

Rory Clements' army of followers will be delighted to know that his hero will soon be getting the mass recognition he deserves with a TV series now being developed, based on the books. No one better understands or portrays the divided loyalties, the twisted and complicated politics which dominated the reign of the Virgin Queen when the future of England was under threat from both without and within.

The plot is far too complicated to explain briefly better to read and be baffled as Shakespeare and his faithful sidekick Boltfoot Cooper face Spanish soldiers at Penzance, deal with robbers and fanatical, imprisoned Catholic priests in flooded Fenland and eventually uncover a hit squad of half mad or religiously motivated English and Irishmen whose aim is to assassinate Elizabeth and the principal officers of her court. His more famous brother William, as always, had his part to play and again, lurking in the background, is Shakespeare's nemesis, the evil and sinister Richard Topcliffe, the official witchfinder and torturer.

If it all sounds far fetched, it is no more dramatic than the many genuine attempts on the life of Elizabeth, which were all either betrayed or detected by her spymasters and Shakespeare's superiors Sir Francis Walsingham and his successors Lord Burghley and his driven son, Sir Robert Cecil. These multiple elements are, as always, well-handled and the narrative skilful. But it is in the often minute and obscure historical detail that Clements scores so heavily. Real 16th-century politics make his characters believable and his ability to bring to life the squalor, intrigue and dangers of Tudor England sets him apart from the rest. This blend of meticulously researched fact and fiction is rarely equalled and is often reminiscent of Bernard Cornwall at his best in the Peninsular adventures of Richard Sharpe.

The overall effect is a scenario which is not only believable and exciting, but buried beneath this rip-roaring adventure story, Clements points up topics that still resonate today in the forms of religious intolerance and the use of terror. This is a super read if the TV series sticks to the books as well as the Sharpe series, it will be just as good.

John Cleal is a former soldier and journalist with an interest in medieval history. He divides his time between France and England.

Reviewed by John Cleal, March 2013

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