It is 1558 and Bloody Mary is dead. London rejoices as their young Queen Elizabeth takes the throne that almost cost her her life. This is the signal for her supporters to return from their enforced exile on the continent, among them spymaster Frances Walsingham and his assistant Brendan Prescott, Elizabeth’s most trusted spy, the man who keeps so many of her secrets. He’s a natural, having so many great secrets of his own. Brendon’s absence cost him much. He didn’t tell his lover Kate, Elizabeth’s lady in waiting, where he was going, anxious to keep her safe from his enemies while struggling with the memory of his previous mission in Elizabeth’s service. But Brendon’s return to court is not without its dangers. It means a reunion with Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s favourite and a nasty bit of work if ever there was one, and then there’s the matter of the disappearance of Elizabeth’s closest attendant Lady Parry in Yorkshire. Elizabeth suspects foul play and so almost before Brendon has chance to reacquaint himself with London and all that he’s missed he’s despatched to the north on what will become a most troublesome and fascinating mission.
The Tudor Vendetta is the third and final book in Christopher Gortner’s Elizabeth’s Spymaster trilogy – the previous novel, The Tudor Conspiracy is a hard act to follow, bringing to life as vividly as it does the bitter and unwell court of Mary Tudor. But, if anything, The Tudor Vendetta is even better, demonstrating that Elizabeth’s life is in just as much danger as it ever was when she was heir to the suspicious Mary Tudor, giving us a mystery that is even more thrilling and atmospheric.
The novel is divided between time spent at Elizabeth’s court in London and Brendon’s travels to the house of Lord Vaughan in Yorkshire’s East Riding. While I thoroughly enjoyed the luxurious London scenes, the brittle happiness of Elizabeth, the tension between Brendon and Kate, and the confrontations with nasty Dudley, the novel came into its own for me during the Yorkshire chapters. As soon as Brendon arrives there, it is clear that something is terribly wrong. Lord Vaughan has just that day buried his son, the manor is almost emptied of servants, strangers are glimpsed on the estate, doors are locked, the darkness is oppressive, exceeded only by the unhappiness of the house. It’s as far from London and Elizabeth’s new court as it can be and of Lady Parry there is not a trace.
Christopher Gortner is such a good writer, showing great empathy for his characters, whether major or minor, as well as for their surroundings and animals. Here we have the growing and really tender relationship between Brendon and Shelton, his father, who is such an important and memorable figure in this novel. In The Tudor Vendetta Gortner’s powers reaches their height in the Yorkshire scenes. For me, the whole episode had something of a Hounds of the Baskerville feel about it – frightening, melodramatic and sinister but also strangely comforting and beautiful. I was captivated. On top of that the mystery itself is fabulous! It took me in completely and I never guessed.
The atmosphere, tension and mystery are the most important elements of The Tudor Vendetta, and a fine job they do, but I really enjoy the portraits of Elizabeth and Dudley in particular. These are complicated people, albeit glimpsed relatively fleetingly, struggling with past events and even though Dudley has bullied Brendon since they were children and his saving graces are near enough non-existent, there are signs here that there may be more to him. Although this is the final book in the trilogy, I would have enjoyed spending more time with Brendon, Dudley and Elizabeth in London.
Without doubt, The Tudor Vendetta would do very well as a standalone novel. There are more than enough hints of the difficult history that Brendon, Kate, Shelton, Elizabeth and Dudley are having to deal with and all of these characters, even Dudley, are changing as a result of the past. The novel is satisfactorily complete in itself while also looking ahead to the future of a glorious reign. Relationships are changing and events are moving on. Nothing will be the same again, thanks in no small part to the courage and honour of Elizabeth’s spymaster Brendon Prescott.