Treason | James Jackson | 2016 (6 October) | Zaffre | 300p | Review copy | Buy the book
Elizabeth I is not long dead. James I, a Protestant, wears the crown and his throne is not yet steady. As far as Spain is concerned, it is still at war with England and surely now is the time for a true Catholic to seize the throne. James has inherited his chief statesman Lord Cecil, his ‘Beagle’, from Elizabeth, rewarding his cunning with an Earldom. A master of intelligence, Cecil has deployed his agents to seek out Catholic plots against the king. One agent in particular, Christian Hardy, is ready, waiting for his great enemy, the appallingly brutal ‘Realm’, to make his move. But in the background a network of Catholics stirs. Secrecy is paramount but one among them is revealed to us as the explosives expert – Guido or Guy Fawkes. It is Guy Fawkes who will light the wick.
Many of us, at least on this side of the pond, remember, remember the 5th of November when Guy (or Guido) Fawkes attempted to blow up James I and his ministers at the state opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605. With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that the Gunpowder Plot, audacious in the extreme, was doomed to failure from the outset but, during those paranoid days, so soon after the death of Elizabeth I, Catholics and Protestants were more suspicious of each other than ever. The Protestant King was very possibly quite sure that a plot would get him in the end, while the Pope and Spanish King could be confident that their agents and priests, hidden away in the country manors of England’s surviving Catholic aristocrats, would perform fearlessly their ultimate duty for God.
James Jackson’s Treason presents the tangled web of months of intrigue and treachery that led up to 5 November. The narrative flits between our cast, the proceedings laid out before our eyes like a play on a stage. William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson feature, playing minor parts, observing from the wings almost like a chorus as one conspirator meets another, meets another and so on. There are multiple strands of plot at play here – there is the Gunpowder Plot, there is the counter plot and then there is the blood curdling, black vendetta between Hardy and Realm. Occasionally James I and his Beagle pop in to take a look at how affairs are proceeding, the two of them forming an unlikely pair, and then there are others who think they can influence the game and, more often than not, pay a terrible price for their amateur schemes. Plans are pulled together in country estates but London draws them in, even the King can’t stay away from his capital forever.
The Jacobean period isn’t one I know well at all, outside of its theatres and playwrights, and so I was fascinated to read my first novel on the Gunpowder Plot, a subject in which I’ve always been interested. The focus here is very much on the nitty gritty of the plots and, as I mentioned, there’s more than one of them. It’s a complicated picture and its tension is increased by the way in which the narrative moves back and forth between the protagonists. It’s immediate, exciting, and very dark.
The presumably fictional battle between Hardy and Realm is grim and even overshadows the historical Gunpowder Plot. I saw neither Hardy or Realm as a hero, certainly not Realm who’s as nasty a piece of work as any I’ve met in historical fiction, but I also found little to like in Christian Hardy. You can see why he is as he is but the damage done to him has made him impossible to like. Women are used as pawns by both Hardy and Realm. These two men are cold to the heart and locked in a battle that one senses cannot end well.
Treason is such a well-written book, its complicated plot kept tightly under control, the dialogue intriguing. The Gunpowder Plot itself is covered in such fascinating, meticulous detail and I lapped this part of the novel up, enjoying in particular the two characters who radiate some charm in this dark world of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, Adam Hardy and the Princess Elizabeth, but I still wouldn’t trust either of them as far as I could throw them.
There are touches of real beauty and poignancy in James Jackson’s prose – so much is at stake here – but I must admit to finding the novel relentlessly grim, the majority of its characters too difficult to care for. The biggest issue is history itself – we all know how the Gunpowder Plot ended and the move towards that conclusion is inevitable (inevitably). That aspect of the novel is offset, though, by the feud between Hardy and Realm, a storyline that refuses to be predictable. But, despite the gloom and the inevitability of the Gunpowder Plot, Treason is a compelling read and extremely difficult to put down.