Zaffre | 2017 (5 October) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1670 and the Blood family is still reeling from the aftereffects of the Restoration of the monarchy 10 years before. Colonel Blood unfortunately fought for the Parliamentarians and, as a result, his Irish estates were given to the Duke of Ormande while Blood and his family were consigned to eking out a living in a cottage in Shoreditch, London. Blood is not a man to let such a thing go unavenged and his drive to destroy Ormande is his consuming passion. This means that Blood sees his family little, and supports them even less.
Blood’s young son Holcroft has few options. With no pleasure to be had at home he welcomes the opportunity to become a page of the Duke of Buckingham, Ormande’s great enemy. Holcroft might be little more than a bargaining chip in his father’s games but Holcroft accidentally discovers something he excels at – decoding ciphers. Promoted to confidential clerk, Holcroft finds himself in a position to observe the court of Charles II. And what a place it is. Ruled by sin and greed, here is a place for a young man to succeed, regardless of his past. His father the Colonel, however, has plans of his own and they could get them all killed.
Blood’s Game is the first in a new series by Angus Donald, whose Robin Hood and Alan Dale books have held me enthralled for years. With that series now complete, I’ve been waiting for what would come next. And it takes us to an entirely different period of history – the 17th century of the Restoration. But, as before, the line between wickedness and goodness is blurred and finding a path between the two is no easy thing to do. As with the Robin Hood books we here follow a character who could have been left to exist happily in the sidelines – in that case it was Alan Dale and here it is Colonel Blood’s young son Holcroft.
Holcroft is a fascinating character and not at all typical. As the afterword tells us, Holcroft has Asperger’s syndrome and this makes him stand out from those around him, including those he really should be trying to impress in order to get on in life. His attention to detail, his incredible recall and his inability to jest or to lie gets him into all kinds of trouble while also giving him opportunities to shine in the service of the thoroughly unappealing Duke of Buckingham. Unfortunately for Holcroft, he finds himself in a court ruled by sin, fierce rivalries and corruption. Watching Holcroft cope with that while also learning to play its game is a big part of the novel’s enjoyment.
The title is intentionally misleading. Colonel Blood’s plotting and his most infamous sting – his famous and historically true stealing of the crown jewels – do play an important role in the book but the games that give the novel its added edge and intrigue are those played out by Holcroft Blood.
Blood’s Game is a thoroughly entertaining historical romp, packed full of some brilliantly colourful characters. And chief among them is Charles II himself – I loved Charles in this novel! This is a man intent on enjoying himself but his run ins with his famous mistress Barbara Villiers are scene stealers. Wigged scoundrels abound in this novel – the Earl of Rochester doesn’t come out of this very well – but I particularly liked its women – Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwyn and also the playwright Aphra Behn. The fact that these extraordinary men and women existed in real life make it all the more wonderful to read about them here. No quarter is given. We get them warts and all. Especially with warts.
The only downside of the novel for me is Colonel Blood. I really disliked him and did not like spending the time with him, or the whole crown jewels escapade. But I do understand that this was an important part of setting up Holcroft for Blood’s Game and future books to come in the series. I hope we’ve seen the last of him. I could also have done without some of the swearing but I know that this is a thing of mine, that I’m particularly squeamish with certain words.
Angus Donald is a favourite novelist of mine (you only have to look at my list of reviews below!). I love the way that he fills history with colour, character and adventure. He writes so well and he creates people I want to read about and spend time with. Following the Alan Dale books was never going to be easy – how could it be? They’re spectacularly good – but I think he’s done a fine job with Blood’s Game, which has all the signs of developing into a future favourite series. Holcroft Blood is such a strong character and his future is an exciting one and I can’t wait to follow it as he takes us away from the court of Charles II and onto the battlefield.