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Traitor's Field by Robert Wilton

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Manda Scott
Posts: 81
Joined: July 2010
Location: Shropshire, UK

Traitor's Field by Robert Wilton

Post by Manda Scott » Sun February 24th, 2013, 2:13 pm

Once in a while in that great, fast, awesome, magical sweep of historical fiction, amidst the rollicking story lines, tear-wringing denouements, multi-dimensional characters and astounding locations, wreathed in a sense of place.... just once in one of these, comes a novel where the sheer beauty of the prose lifts it into a different dimension. WOLF HALL was one of these, and if I'm less enamoured of BRING UP THE BODIES, it's only because I hate that she has changed the style.
Rob Low's KINGDOM series likewise lifts off the page: the quality of the prose is sheer, jaw-dropping magic and the love scene in THE LION WAKES was easily the best I have ever read.
And then there's Robert Wilton, whose first book THE EMPEROR'S GOLD (now renamed TREASON'S TIDE) had me reading entire chapters aloud to my beloved.

I've just been sent the proof of the sequel, TRAITOR'S FIELD and read it with some trepidation. Partly it's the era: I've never really got to grips with the English Civil War; some Scottish folk memory brings such horror with it of the depradations of Cromwell and the general havoc wrought by Bonny Prince Charlie and it all just leaves me scrabbling for daylight and modernity. Partly, too, it's that second novels are notoriously difficult and I just didn't want to know that it wasn't as good.
Which was stupid really, because of course it is. And of course, now I'm not only enthralled with Cromwell and the New Model Army and the Levellers and Diggers and Royalists, I also feel I am beginning to get my head around the whole sorry mess. I even felt some pangs of fellow feeling with our hero on the Parliamentary side, for all that I can never do anything but loathe Cromwell and all he stood for.
And the language... the dense, wash of ideas... the awe-some, scary, high-risk-but-it-worked! structure that carries us in one great tide from Parliamentary side to Royalist side, to the grey mush of treachery and espionage in between where all civil wars are won or lost... all of these are in true Wilton style.

The premise is the same as the first novel: in this series, it is not the people we must follow, but the shadowy organisation known as the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey. In this, as in the last book, Robert, in his Whitehall days (he was PPS to 4 prime ministers before being seconded to Kosovo to help their transition to independence) has uncovered a trove of secret documents pertaining to the Comptrollerate, an organisation so hidden, so secret that even those working for it don't always know who is running it. It's remit, though, is to endure, to sustain the coherence of Britain (actually, I suspect, of England, but that's never quite made clear) whatever the nature of those currently in power. It is, in fact, what we all hope exists: something with the sanity to rise high above politics. In this novel, though, it is, itself, in danger of destruction and its survival becomes one of the core themes of the book.

So, to the narrative. The time scale bridges a handful of years either side of the execution of Charles I. We start at the disastrous (for the Royalists) battle of Preston where a shadowy figure - one Sir Mortimer Shay, known behind his back as The Ghost - is hunting for an old man. He finds him dead, and takes the letters from his breast and the ring from his finger and 'Thus passes the Comptrollerate General for Scrutiny and Survey.'
Shay is one of those men who survives the disasters that slaughter others, but he does so by being better informed, better armed, quicker of thought than those against him. With the greater part of the Royalist side in tatters, and their King on trial, he gathers his network of informers and supporters, and begins to make life difficult for Cromwell, while at the same time, trying all the while to find out what his predecessor was doing on a battlefield where he should never have been. He's intelligent, Shay; it shines through the prose.

Set against him, is John Thurloe, a young Clerk with a love of Greek grammar who believes his cause is just - until time and again, he finds his own side repeating the venality of its predecessors. He's bright though, perhaps brighter than Shay, and as he tracks his man from England to Scotland and back again, he slowly begins to understand the magnitude of the web that is woven against him, and perhaps he can begin to turn it to his own ends.
Caught between them, inevitably, is Rachel, who is beautiful, spirited and single in an era when women were supposed to be docile or married or both and it is Rachel, in the end, who brings the broken ends of the web together into one final stand off.
I finished it last night and wished I hadn't. This isn't one to read in one sitting, it's too big, too mind-exploding for that, but its characters will haunt you for days afterwards, and leave you aching for whatever comes next.

As a spy story, this is exceptional; clever, literate, thoughtful, life-enhancing. But read it first for the prose, and weep...

Bestselling author of
Boudica: Dreaming. INTO THE FIRE out in June 2015: Forget what you thought you knew, this changes everything.


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