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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.