Picador, 1998 (1992)
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Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
is a 1583 spy story set in Elizabethan England. It is remarkable in being told from the point of view of a lunatic, Tom of Bedlam. A plot is brewing against Elizabeth I of England, involving Papist sympathizers in England, with tendrils back to France and Spain. Tom dances around the edges of the action, descending into gibberish as he wrestles with his own torn loyalties. Tom's once beloved brother Adam, who committed him to the brutal asylum, is the main conspirator. Adam has involved and lied to Tom's younger sister Agnes, now late in pregnancy. Tom gives frequent hints of the conspiracy to the other main actors in the story and to the reader, but they are usually dismissed as only poor Tom's ramblings.
imon Ames is a small Jew, usually mistaken for a clerk. Skilled in the perception of patterns, he is in the employ of Elizabeth's famed spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. Simon's motivation is to protect the realm which is one of the last refuges of his people, in flight from persecution and the pyre in a continental Europe under the Inquisition's shadow. Early in the story, Simon's life is saved by David Becket, a skilled fighter who shares an unpleasant history with Tom's treasonous brother. Becket extricated Tom from the Bedlam asylum and has a soft spot for him. He is also extremely fond of his pet rat, one of the more interesting characters in the story.
he author does an amazing job of painting her backdrop of Elizabethan England, from its pervasive fleas and sewage to the belief in the healing powers of tobacco and bleeding, the birthing chair, cutpurses, the Tower and the rack. It all comes alive, though at times some of the sentence structures are ponderous. There are scuffles in the shadows, crossbow bolts in the darkness, and bodies slipping quietly into the Thames. It all culminates in a '
Dragon of Discord
' due to be loosed against the Queen on her Ascension Day, with a race against time and through Tom's insanity to make sense of the clues. If you like historical fiction, don't miss this one and its sequel
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