Monday, 19 August 2013

Code and Conduct: THE KING'S SPY by Andrew Swanston

A very decent debut novel from author Andrew Swanston.
Set against the backdrop of the English Civil War, around the time of the Battle of Newbury. The main character Thomas Hill, a bookseller from a small rural town, is commandeered to assist Charles I with codes and ciphers, encrypting and decrypting. He must leave the secure home that he shares with his beloved sister and nieces in Romsey, and relocate temporarily to Oxford.
The book twists and turns and has you guessing. The 'who is bad/who is good' that a reader of historical mystery has come to expect is there in spades.
The historical description, as far as the environment and the times go, is good. Not too much, just enough to help you see through the looking glass into the character's world.

I did have some issues with the detail in which the author has gone to to demonstrate how codes are written and broken in the 17th century and I felt it fractured the flow and ambiance of the book early on. From the very first page the story was delightful, the characters charming, and then it changes tack and turns into a lesson on early coding and nothing else is really going on in the story. A lot of going for walks and more code breaking sessions. Letter by letter, cipher by cipher, number by number. A similar issue happens at the gambling table, when the characters are playing Hazard. Much too much detail, that breaks the spell and jolts you out of the story.

This is mostly in the first 120 pages and if you can make it through that and still maintain interest then you will discover the info dumps come down to a dull roar. If the reader is not interested or they had enough in the early stages of the book, then it is easier to scan over these sections as they come to make up paragraphs instead of the whole pages from earlier scenes.

The King's Exile by Andrew Swanston
It was this detail and a couple other minor problems (that would be spoilers to mention) that nearly made me give the book 3 stars, but then I realised that a book which can make me read virtually non stop until finished surely deserves 4 stars, despite the rather dull coding and 'Hazard' info dumps, so let's call it a 3 1/2 star book for now.
All up, as mentioned in the beginning of this review, a very decent first outing for Mr Swanston. I will definitely be reading the next one: The King's Exile which is due for release in some countries in September 2013.

- MM

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