Friday, October 23, 2015

Deep Secrets

In February, I interviewed Ann Swinfen for New Books in Historical Fiction and blogged about it, as I usually do, a few days later. In the interview, we discussed her lovely The Testament of Mariam and, in passing, her latest novel This Rough Ocean. Her five-part (to date) series The Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez got barely a mention, although even then I intended to read it. The series is, after all, set in the sixteenth century.

Well, life went on, and as so often happens, Christoval took a back seat to other interviews and GoodReads challenges and my own Swan Princess, now nearing the end of draft 2. It was early this month before I picked up The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez as part of a full set, in part because I discovered that Christoval, known to friends and family as Kit, will be heading to Muscovy soon. When I learned Kit’s real secret, with its parallels to my Nasan, I couldn’t resist. And since I wanted to be prepared, I decided, as they say, to begin at the beginning. Within twenty pages, I was in love with the series. So this is one of my rare Hidden Gems posts. Definitely, seek out these books without delay.

The series begins in 1586. Elizabeth I has been on the throne for almost thirty years, and from the point of view of the schoolchildren we once were, life should be good. No more religious wars under Gloriana, right? No worries among the Protestants that the Catholics will come back in force and burn everyone, no fear among the Catholics that they will be accused of treason en masse and sent to the stake, no conspiracies to get Elizabeth off the throne in favor of a king or just a different ruler more to some ambitious subject’s liking?

Well, not quite. In fact, in what would be sure to cast dismay into the souls of kids everywhere if they knew, Elizabeth’s hold on the scepter remained shaky through much, if not most, of her reign. The Spanish wanted England, the French wanted England, the Scots wanted England, and there were factions within the country willing and eager to back anyone but the queen. Most of the factions had some religious motivation, given the culture of the day, but religion was often a justification and cover for naked power plays, then as now. Specifically in 1586 the Spaniards—whose king believed he had a right to the English throne by virtue of his marriage to Mary Tudor and who were in general feeling their oats because of their victories in the New World and, more recently, over Portugal—were planning to bring their Inquisition across the English Channel by any means available. (In Christoval 2, The Enterprise of England, they hit on the idea of a mighty armada.) Meanwhile, the French were placing their hopes on Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had under house arrest but was reluctant to execute due to the precedent it would set.

In this fraught atmosphere, sixteen-year-old Kit Alvarez, a refugee from Portugal and the only surviving child of a once-wealthy Jewish family that converted to Christianity to avoid the Inquisitorial flames, wants nothing more than to become a scholar and physician like his father. For reasons that are revealed early on, formal university training is out of bounds for Kit, but an apprenticeship at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London offers a worthy alternative—until Kit’s skill at math comes to the attention of Sir Francis Walsingham. Queen Elizabeth’s chief spy master needs a skilled code breaker fluent in Spanish and French to crack the ciphered messages his agents are intercepting between the court in Paris and Mary Queen of Scots’ luxurious prison. He selects Kit for the job, and since his sphere of influence extends to the hospital, Kit has little choice but to accept. With raw memories of Catholic forces invading Portugal, Kit soon embraces the new mission while trying to juggle commitments to father, hospital, and state. But the last thing he really wants in life is another set of secrets to protect.

Kit is a charming and fascinating character, beautifully developed, the story full of interesting twists, and the writing (as in The Testament of Mariam) lively and original. As I do for the books whose authors I interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, here I’ll quote the first paragraph to whet your appetite. See how quickly the sense of a personality, a time, a place, and a problem are established. A Hidden Gem indeed!

“I was washing alembics when he came. Often, in the months and years that followed, I wondered how things might have turned out, had I been away from home. My father had been summoned to one of his private patients and I had pleaded to go with him to the great man’s house, for I had never even stepped over the threshold of the mansion in the Strand, but the winter had been severe, we were short of many remedies, and I must stay at home and wash the alembics so that we might spend the evening distilling. I did not like being alone in the house, with the dark afternoon heavy in the sky outside, and chill draughts plucking at the back of my neck like the unforgiving fingers of the dead. The old timbers of the house swayed and creaked and moaned in the wind.”

And congratulations to fellow Five Directions Press author Courtney J. Hall, whose debut novel, Some Rise by Sin, is now a Book Muse Recommended Read!

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