Bantam Press | 2017 (23 February) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1572 and Elizabethan England is threatened as never before. Mary Queen of Scots might be locked away in Sheffield Castle but she remains the focus for Catholic plotters, their fire fuelled by the Pope’s support and by bloody violence done to Protestant Huguenots in Paris and across France. Spanish and French ships are poised to invade, to steal the crown from the heretic queen. Assassins hide in London’s crowded streets. As the summer heat intensifies and the fear of plague stirs, London, England and Elizabeth herself look ready to ignite and explode. And there is competition to be the one to win the eternal glory of lighting that fuse.
Dr Christopher Radcliff is a lawyer in the service of Elizabeth’s longterm favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Leicester more than anyone wants to protect Elizabeth, and Radcliff, a man with agents hidden across the city, is just the person to help him. There are rumours of a new plot, codenamed ‘Incendium’, and its roots are believed to lie in Paris. But people in London are already starting to disappear and be killed, Radcliff’s own agents among them. It’s soon clear that this is no ordinary plot, its conspirators cunning and powerful, their ambition limitless. And they are one step ahead of Radcliff, at least.
Incendium is the first in a new historical series by A.D. Swanston, the author of the marvellous Thomas Hill trilogy set during the Civil War and Restoration (review of The King’s Return). Incendium is every bit as good if not better. The early 1570s were a fascinating time in English history – the persecutions and executions of Bloody Mary were still within recent memory while the overt threat of the Armada was still some time off. While Elizabeth wished to be tolerant of her subjects’ private religious beliefs, in contrast to her sister Mary, this moderation was now severely tested. She only had to look across the channel to the horrors committed in France in 1572 – events which are portrayed here – to know that she and her kingdom were in real personal danger. Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham is away in Paris so Leicester tries to do what he can but he is out of his depth and it shows.
Radcliff is a wonderful character, resourceful and intelligent and he needs to be. He’s also no fool and is well aware that Leicester could get him killed. He’s also been changed by what he’s seen overseas. It haunts him. But Radcliff is aided by some hugely likeable individuals, such as his mistress Katherine Allington, and Ell, a whore who spies for Radcliff but can also make him laugh. Then there’s Rose, Radcliff’s elderly housekeeper, who does what she can to keep her master fed and watered, even when her own roof is rained down in a storm. And there are many more who come and go through these pages.
This is a novel full of character and life and I loved its portrait of Elizabethan London, in the heat and later in the snow. We’re taken into all sorts of places, ranging from palaces to prisons, and all are vividly painted.
Incendium faces head on the ugliness of Elizabethan spying and counter-spying – it could result in brutal murder on one side and the atrocious horror of legal torture and execution on the other. Neither Radcliff and Leicester care for torture but Leicester is unhappily aware that, while he could not carry it out himself, he must ask others to do it for him. Elizabeth’s protection is all that matters. Swanston also doesn’t shy away from the Catholic slaughter of the Huguenots in Paris. I’ve always been fascinated by these appalling events and Incendium is built around them.
Incendium perfectly combines history and fiction, historical figures and those that aren’t, and together they paint such a colourful and compelling picture of Elizabethan London at a crucial time for its Queen and her servants. As a historical thriller it worked perfectly. I loved every page. I can’t wait to meet Christopher Radcliff again.