The Protector | S.J. Deas | 2015 | Headline | 327p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1646 and England is holding its breath. After four long years of slaughter there is every chance that the Civil War may be about to end. All that is needed is for the siege of Oxford to be won and for Charles to agree to terms. Everything hangs in the balance; nothing must be allowed to endanger the delicate negotiations or the fragile dominance of Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. But when Anne Agar is stolen from London’s streets, Cromwell has no choice but to believe it a conspiracy against his name. Anne is sister to John Milton, poet and a prolific, highly influential supporter of Cromwell. Cromwell and Milton believe that Anne has been kidnapped – her release to be guaranteed by Milton’s silence or, even worse, transference to the Royalist cause. Anne must be recovered. Cromwell turns to William Falkland for help. Once a Royalist and now occasionally and reluctantly in Cromwell’s payroll (and debt), Falkland is ideally placed to move among both sides of the conflict even though, it’s fair to say, both sides have cause to wish him dead.
William Falkland is a reluctant investigator. Feeling little allegiance to either side in the Civil War he wants nothing more that to pursue his own cause – to discover his own missing family. Falkland’s wife and children are lost, among the many dispossessed of war, no doubt believing that William himself is dead. In return for finding Anne, Cromwell promises Falkland help in his own search. Falkland has little reason to believe in Cromwell – and his evil-smelling agent Warbeck – but he has reached that stage where he has no choice left.
What follows is an absorbing and fascinating pursuit across London and the eastern counties of England on the trail of Anne Agar’s kidnappers. The biggest stumbling block to finding Anne is Milton, her cantankerous and arrogant brother who can’t bear the sight of Falkland, but Falkland is determined, especially when he discovers that he has something in common with Anne. Anne’s husband is another lost soul and she has been searching for him for three long years, refusing to believe that he died at Edgehill like so many other men. Helping Falkland again is Kate Cain (who also featured in The Royalist along with Warbeck). Kate is similarly trying to find a new life for herself now that war has separated her from her past.
The Protector is a thoroughly enjoyable and involving Civil War mystery, at the heart of which is an intriguing mystery protected and pursued by some interesting figures, both historical and fictional. The portrait of John Milton is especially memorable. The hunt for Anne reveals a countryside damaged by war, hiding terrible war crimes, populated by people who have very little left to lose. This is vividly portrayed by S.J. Deas as is the chase itself which is thrilling and pleasingly twisty to the end.
Through it all, though, runs a sympathy and sadness at the great cost of this English Civil War, a cost that extended from the battlefields and into so many homes. The despair, grief and defiant hope of people such as Falkland and Anne is movingly described. While I wish that this book, like its excellent predecessor The Royalist, were longer, allowing a deeper investigation into the interesting themes it raises and figures it presents (I would dearly love to know more about Warbeck), The Protector is a fine novel, well-written and exciting, and it richly evokes this terrible yet dramatic period of English history. It is all the sadder for our privileged knowledge that the war still had several years to run.
The Protector, like The Royalist, is a standalone novel. You don’t need to have read The Royalist first, although I certainly do recommend that you read them both. I look forward to meeting William Falkland again.