Traitor in the Ice by K.J. Maitland – Treason, betrayal and adventure in a frozen estate

Traitor in the Ice by K.J. Maitland

In the  winter of 1607, when life seemed frozen by a cold that exploded trees and robbed people of life if they were caught outside without shelter and many layers of warm clothes, a man searches for the truth in a community in this sometimes brutal, always powerful novel. It is the second in a series which began with “The Drowned City”, in which the elusive Daniel Pursglove searched the flooded city of Bristol for an infamous traitor, but this novel stands alone as Daniel is sent to infiltrate a Catholic household.  Being a devout Catholic in the reign of staunchly Protestant King James I (James VI of Scotland) is dangerous, being a Catholic priest is seen a positively traitorous, and Battle Abbey is home not only to the devout Lady Montague but allegedly offers sanctuary to priests who are being ruthlessly hunted. The relatively recent Gunpowder Plot has also raised the stakes for many suspected of involvement at any level. Daniel knows that treachery is all around, but so is unexplained death and deceit – as the question about this book is asked “How do you unmask a killer when nobody is who they seem?”

The writing in this book is simply amazing. In a world of secret hiding places for priests in every room, creaking floorboards that can betray the curious and desperate and a fear of discovery that pervades everyday, Daniel must operate as a spy who is playing the part of a catholic sympathiser pretending to be a lowly servant for his own and everyone else’s safety. In a world of whispers and suspicion, a great freeze comes which not only makes life difficult, it is also a deadly force for anyone caught outside without proper preparation. A Drowned city felt dangerous enough for Daniel, in this novel insidious cold not only hampers the most basic of movement, but also preserves the dead with their many secrets. This book is so well written that I felt the cold, could visualise everything held in suspension in ice, experience the tension of wondering what would happen next in a world where nothing was trustworthy. This is powerful writing which contrasts a courtly world of Kings, courtiers and conspiracies with the basics of a frozen Abbey building and grounds in the grip of an unexpected freeze. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent book. 

The book opens with a death, a Prologue of a man travelling in which “The bitter cold had savaged every field and forest, byre and barn. The wolf’s bite they called it, for the beast had sunk its sharp teeth into the heart of the land”. This marks only the beginning of a freeze that will transform a household already poised on the instant to hide the objects and symbols of  proscribed religious practice, but where the people also face the very real possibility of torture and death on suspicion of a unknown betrayer. It is into this world that Daniel is sent,with only his quick wits and secret skills to aid him, to investigate how one sent to expose the true nature of the abbey was made to disappear before he could report back to London. 

Daniel is chosen for his mysterious and colourful past, his upbringing in a catholic household, and his ability to conceal his real mission. He becomes embroiled in the affairs of the Abbey on his journey, and his discovery of a man trapped in woodland gives him a reason to enter the household as a servant charged with the daily routine of looking after mysterious guests who are seeking more than simple hospitality. Encountering the strong minded Lady Montague he gathers the nature of her control of the establishment, and can only guess at the true nature of her ward, Katheryne. As his search for the notorious Spero Pettingar continues, can he avoid the daily danger of living on the edge?

This is an incredible book which features real historical characters in a fierce and successful narrative. I recommend this novel to all who enjoy historical fiction, and want a vivid read which brings alive a time and a place in real depth and with true understanding. 

The Drowned City by K.J. Maitland – The after effects of the Gunpowder Plot rage through England.

The Drowned City by K.J.Maitland

In a time of social and religious upheaval, when a new royal house has come to rule England as well as Scotland, in the wake of a plot which threatened to destroy the government as well as the king, no one can be trusted. Bristol suffers a terrible event one year exactly after men are executed for their alleged part in the Gunpowder Plot; a huge, tsunami- like wave washes into the city and drowns hundreds of people. This novel is a tense historical thriller featuring a man who goes by the name of Daniel Pursglove, a magician, a man with a past. Acting under threats from the highest level, he feels obliged to investigate if another Catholic plot is brewing, and specifically if a certain Catholic leader is working in the ruined city of Bristol. The atmosphere of a town which is beyond ruined, with little food, full of unclaimed bodies and destroyed lives is incredibly well described in this novel. In a place almost unbelievable in its destruction, threat to the vulnerable and terror, Daniel finds himself with a nearly impossible task. As facts emerge about his past life he has to react as danger seems to threaten from every side. Incidents from the court of James I and the actions of Cecil, his chief adviser in some respects appear throughout the novel, not narrated by Daniel, but with a theme of the king’s unusual behaviour. In a time of suspicion over religion and the beliefs of every person in the kingdom, Daniel and others must watch their every step, as guilty or innocent there is the threat of betrayal and a painful ending. 

This is an intense novel of second guessing over situations of life threatening importance, where death and destruction are daily occurrences. In setting, plot and characters, this is a mature and skilfully written book with immense impact. I found it to be a compelling read with much to recommend it as a work of historical fiction and suspense. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel.  

A Prologue describes the lull that is observed in Bristol, as a busy day continues as normal. Within seconds of a man remarking on the withdrawal of the water from the port, a towering wave thunders through the city and beyond, into the countryside, picking up and drowning or brutally injuring untold numbers in its wake. Animals, workshops,homes, houses and supplies are all destroyed. As the bodys of the dead and recently living are mutilated and torn away by the sea, no one knows who will be left. Daniel is then described as being in a prison, arrested on vague charges, hoping to survive in a place of suffering. Dramatically given the option of freedom if he will go to Bristol  and try to discover the whereabouts of a potential Catholic leader, he soon finds himself in a still functioning inn on a mission with few clues and significant danger. As a ruined city tries to survive in the face of loss, a desperate and lawless people are suspicious of shadows and strangers, especially when Daniel asks questions of those who are trying to snatch a living by any means. 

Maitland is a writer so confident of her material that she handles several convoluted themes of religion, power and threat with a dark edge, including graphic descriptions of the torments of torture on slight suspicions. The near total destruction of Bristol is also unsparingly described, as well as the after effects of food shortages and the growth of crime as people try to survive. The character of Daniel emerges brilliantly from his own account of his progress and challenges, his theories about what may be going on as everything seems dark and uncertain. I believe that this is the first novel in a series; I will be keen to discover what happens next for the resourceful Daniel.