A Plague of Serpents by K.J. Maitland: packed with real history, treachery and espionage – book review –

A Plague of Serpents by K J Maitland: book reviewA Plague of Serpents by K J Maitland: book review
A Plague of Serpents by K J Maitland: book review
Three years on from the treasonous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, King James I is still the target of unrepentant Catholics who are ready to defy the laws and power of the Protestant State and kill for their forbidden beliefs.

And as the monarch’s enemies prepare to strike again, the king’s most mysterious intelligencer, Daniel Pursglove – a man with a past and an uncertain future – is tasked with infiltrating the plotters, or face incarceration in notorious Newgate Gaol and, ultimately, a traitor’s death.

Karen Maitland, much-loved author of a string of spooky medieval mysteries but writing here as K.J. Maitland, returns with her intriguing Crown spy Daniel Pursglove in the fourth and final book of a thrilling historical series set in the early years of King James’ reign.

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Steeped in the power play of a volatile period of English history – when the paranoid king was still living in the shadow of the daring attempt to blow up Westminster – this exciting, authentic and superbly researched series has brought together page-turning mysteries and a fascinating exploration of the dark heart of Jacobean court politics.

Taking the lead in these suspense-packed and addictive stories is the enigmatic Daniel, a man whose Catholic upbringing has left him constantly under suspicion but whose skills in espionage and political manoeuvring have rendered him useful to the Crown and which have so far saved him from the hangman’s noose.

In our final outing with Daniel, we find him still walking a perilous tightrope when he is tasked by royal command with one final mission... he must infiltrate the Serpents, a secret group of Catholics plotting to kill the king, or risk his own execution.

But other conspirators are circling, men who would readily murder the king and who are ready to blackmail Daniel for their own dark ends. It leaves Daniel desperately trying to identify the king’s arch enemy – the missing Gunpowder Plot traitor Spero Pettingar – and playing off the various counter-conspirators.

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His search takes him to the menace and squalor of London’s shadowy corners and when he tracks down the Serpents’ den, even there nothing is quite as it seems. And when Daniel spies a familiar face among their number, the game takes a dangerous turn.

As the dreaded plague starts to stalk the city again – bringing with it the muffled rumble of ‘the soul cart of the Angel of Death’ searching the streets for new victims – the tensions reach breaking point. Can Daniel escape the web of treason in which he finds himself ensnared, or has his luck finally run out?

Spine-tingling suspense abounds again in this thrilling and breathtakingly authentic final chapter for elusive intelligencer Daniel Pursglove and his murky Jacobean world in which ripples from the failed Gunpowder Plot still flow from London, and where superstition is rife, Catholics scheme and plot, and religious persecution is a constant threat.

And it’s against this political maelstrom – in which a paranoid king and his guard dog Sir Robert Cecil employ eyes and spies on every street to root out schemers and traitors – that Daniel must scour the filthiest corners of the capital to dig out the plotters who could be either his salvation... or his death sentence.

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It’s a riveting final throw of the dice for Daniel... and Maitland, with her gift for bringing this past world to vivid life with her richly detailed scene-setting and masterful storytelling, enables readers to almost smell, taste and feel the danger as our flawed and mysterious hero pursues his personal life-and-death quest.

With multiple plot threads drawn together in a gripping and satisfying dénouement, and packed with real history, treachery, espionage, a superbly created cast of good and bad characters, and an entertaining glossary of 16th century words and phrases, A Plague of Serpents is a dark and dazzling finale to a brilliant series.

(Headline Review, hardback, £22)

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