The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez

By Ann Swinfen.

After being set a few mathematical problems by her [sic] tutor, the 16-year-old Christoval Alvarez is offered work doing cryptanalysis for Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster. She not only deciphers messages between Mary Queen of Scots and her supporters, but also gets sent off to infiltrate the household of a Catholic family used as a staging post for messages; to tour the south coast to see where all the Catholic priests are being landed; and to deliver messages to and from Sir Anthony Babington. And while Kit’s doing that, she’s also working as a doctor, and she plays the lute with considerable skill. The climax of the story is the thwarting of the Babington Conspiracy.

The book is a bit like Ender’s Game, I think. Just as Ender Wiggin appears to be Orson Scott Card writing himself into the story as a boy genius, I wonder whether Christoval Alvarez is actually Ann Swinfen writing herself into the novel as an adolescent genius who is constantly being praised for her work even when she bungles things a bit. Although literature requires the suspension of disbelief, Alvarez ultimately comes across as a character from fan-fic around whom the action revolves even though she’s little more than an extra.

No explanation is given as to why Alvarez is pretending to be a boy, and at no time is she ever in any real danger of the truth being exposed. Robert Poley penetrates her disguise early on, but no one else appears to notice, and he largely vanishes from the tale. It’s also unclear quite why he’d expose her to Walsingham, but she firmly believes he’s a vile traitor because, in truth, the story requires it without really establishing that the man is anything more than a shady character operating in a shady world.

The language is punctuated innumerable times by “…, for…” when Swinfen, in the modern style, should be using “because”; but the former is merely the misapplication of Greek γάρ or Latin enim to English, and far from adding elegance to the style, it sounds dated and ridiculous. Every instance is preceded by a comma, which then pops up once or twice where it shouldn’t. I’m surprised the author never used “whilst”, but the reader is – thankfully – spared that. Another peculiarity of the language is a lack of contractions in dialogue. They’re not absent, but there are far fewer of them than there ought to be.

The style is somewhat clunky early in the book where Swinfen tends to get encyclopaedic along the lines of extended sci-fi explanations when some piece of jargon has been introduced (e.g. Captain Kirk: Power up the forward phasers. Dr. McCoy: Phasers? Mr. Spock: Particle-based weapons). There are sections where the exposition could be pruned back to nothing without any great loss.

The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez is really an exercise in wish fulfilment, which might appeal to readers who are minor non-entities, but would love to be the centre of attention, with all the best ideas. Alvarez needs something to make her human beyond being nervous but otherwise perfect. At no point does she ever need to struggle, unlike Matthew Shardlake or Giordano Bruno, and being anxious about Robert Poley, who never actually threatens her, is no substitute for being in actual danger. It might’ve been a bit more fun if she’d started as a girl disguised as a boy (to work for Walsingham), who was always reverting back to being a girl (as a disguise) and being praised for how authentic she looks by people who don’t know she’s actually a girl.

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The Red Velvet Turn Shoe

By Cassandra Clark.

When Hildegard is dispatched to fetch the Cross of Constantine from somewhere in Italy, she knows the journey will be dangerous, and before you can say “Perkin Warbeck”, a clerk in Lord Roger de Hutton’s employ has been murdered and stuffed in a bail of wool, with everyone assuming that it was the gay minstrel with the lute in the dorter. Hildegard is not so sure and manages to get Pierrekyn Haverel to safety in Florence before he is eventually detained there. Her own mission is a success, but when she gets back to Eng­land, there’s still the matter of Haverel’s trial, with the odds heavily stacked against him until Hildegard produces evidence demonstrating his innocence.

Like the first volume, Clark opts for a break near the end followed by a long tail. While the trip to Italy is covered in some detail, the return journey is glossed over so that the narrative can focus on Haverel’s trial. Alongside this story is the matter of Hubert de Courcy, the studly abbot of Meaux, and his religious ex­tre­m­ism. The coda is better done on this occasion because it’s not preceded by a highly dramatic climax after which the rest falls a bit flat.

The background to the whole story remains the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which still plays a key part in what happens. The factions are divided between the boy-king, Richard II, and his uncle, John of Gaunt, and the suppression of the truth about what happened at Smithfield.

Clark keeps things moving along, although for the sake of the story, Hildegard is often in the right place at the right time, and is constantly permitted a certain amount of latitude that no nun would probably have been allowed at the time. There’s tragedy for the nun as well as triumph.

There appear to be fewer typos in this book than the first volume in the series, but there remain, as other reviewers have noted, some mawkish Americanisms which sound so wrong in context. In a similar vein, the American title is The Velvet Turn Shoe. I’d assume this is because American readers might think this is some Cold War romp about a gay Russian detective. Perhaps because the action is mostly set in France and Italy, the word “Saxon” gets flung around less often along with vague pronouncements about dialects.

And so on to Volume 3. Will Escrick Fitzjohn return to menace Hildegard once again? We’ll have to wait and see.

Hangman Blind

By Cassandra Clark

Sister Hildegard is a wealthy widow who wants to set up a small religious establishment of her own, and hoping to find somewhere suitable, she toddles off to see her old mate, Lord Roger de Hutton. But this being Yorkshire, there’s trouble at t’ mill when she stumbles across a murder victim, Lord Roger is poisoned, Ada the hot maid is murdered, Sir William kills one of the servants, and there are more shenanigans than there are days in the month. But don’t worry. Hildegard is on the case and manages to solve all the mysteries in the end. Eventually.

Clark has a bit of a mania for medieval jargon for which a glossary needs to have been supplied. But in spite of her familiarity with poulaines, chaperons and double latchets, she seems to be obliviously unaware that no one has spoken Anglo-Saxon in nearly 300 years, although I can’t comment on whether there was still a distinct chasm between the English-speaking peasantry and the French-speaking nobs in the 1380s. As far as I’m aware, that distinction was dying to dead during the reign of Richard II.

The Kindle edition has more than a few typos which should’ve been ironed out, but some of these may be the medieval jargon I mentioned above, which is why a glossary would come in handy.

The story itself progresses from left to right and down the page, punctuated by various incidents and revelations, but with about a sixth of the book left, there is a climactic contest between Hildegard and Escrick Fitzjohn as she and Brother Thomas fight to rescue one of the serving girls and her baby from him. After that, the story then begins to drag. William, Roger’s brother-in-law, has taken control of Hutton Castle and is holding Roger’s young wife, Melisen, hostage. But this episode fizzles out to be followed up by a duel between William and his brother-in-law, Ralph (actually, the cat wins that one), and an attempt by Ralph’s wife Avice to murder Melisen. And if all this wasn’t enough, a small army turns up outside and there’s a joust with a mysterious knight. By that stage, though, I was just turning pages trying to spot the next point at which something was worth paying attention to.

In spite of the book ending like a slow, wounded snake dragging its tale [sic!] along, I think I’ll give the second volume a go.

The Case of the Curious Corpse

by Howard of Warwick.

Instead of reading the second book in the series about Brother Hermitage, the king’s reluctant investigator, I thought I would skip to the latest instalment in the series to see whether things have markedly improved.

In this tale, one of King William’s hostages, a Saracen called Umair, has been killed by an unknown assailant. The king is keen to make it known that he’s not responsible and sends for Brother Hermitage and his sidekicks, who quickly discover that the Saracen had allegedly been conducting reconnaissance missions for William, but was, in fact, quite chummy with the various factions opposed to the Normans from Hereward the Wake to the misspelt Aedgar Aetheling (Eadgar Æþeling). There’s no evidence that the king killed Umair or had him killed, and there’s no evidence to suggest that the Saxons, Vikings or Welsh had anything to do with it either. Who could it be? Brother Hermitage eventually works it out.

The book doesn’t get off to a good start. Some Normans have been sent to fetch Hermitage, but everyone thinks they’ve arrived for a battle, and this goes on for pages and pages and pages. This is followed by a chat with William and his right-hand man, Le Pedvin, but no one can tell whether the Normans are dining or fighting, and appear to be doing both in another prolonged scene. The word “prolonged” tends to describe a lot of this.

The problem is very much the character of Hermitage, who manages to solve the mystery in spite of being a clueless halfwit. His response to any situation is often a weak, pathetic, “Erm”, and he lacks the necessary traits to be decent antihero. Wat possibly has more going for him, and perhaps should’ve been the main character all along. Cwen, who is a new addition to the team somewhere between the first book and this one, seems to be there to ask pointed questions and make pointed remarks about what fate she’d like to see befall the Normans, but apart from that, she seems to have no purpose I can discern. I was expecting (from her name) that she’d be a prostitute, constantly embarrassing Hermitage by praising God in a loud and erotic fashion.

Having read the bookends of the Brother Hermitage series, I’ve developed no interest in reading the intervening novels in the series. I think this is the sort of thing that might’ve appealed to be when I was about 13 or 14, but I can’t help but feel that even I could do a little better than this myself.