The Kings Spy By Andrew Swanston

When this book first appeared on my door step I was excited. Historically it ventures in to a time period that I find fascinating, the English Civil War, and the blurb indicated that the book would reveal some truly engaging insight into code breaking, certainly an intriguing prospect.

The books protagonist is Thomas Hill, a book seller and mathematician, whose understanding of the complexities of code breaking transports him from the sleepy town of Romsey to the centre of the Kings war wearied court at Oxford, which also happens to be the alma mater of our hero.

The plot follows Thomas through his struggles with breaking a particularly difficult code known as the Vigenere Cypher while friends are gruesomely murdered, monks reveal impressive combat skills, love is found and lost and one of the bloodiest battles of the civil war is fought.

All in all the work would have been extremely impressive in scope and pleasantly different, as it approaches this period of history not from the perspective of the round heads, as is so often the case, but rather from that of the cavaliers.

However, the fatal flaw of this work is, sadly, its author’s inability to cope with the story which he has set out to tell. Indeed one almost feels that in another writers hands this book would be a triumph, while instead we are led through what should be brutal and captivating moments in a way that frankly bored me.

The perfect example of this can be found in the Battle of Newbury. Our protagonist sits in a tent during the majority of the combat, carefully decoding poorly constructed codes from various ends of the battle. When he does venture out into the open to take a look at what is happening the description is one of lines of men whose ranks and movements are outlined as though they are perfectly positioning themselves to create an easily understood template of the movements of the fight.

Simply put, there is nothing visceral in the description of the battle and the chaos of such a fight is entirely overlooked. The actions of the men involved seem remote as we are instead given a rundown of the strange positioning of the round heads atop the hillsides and the tactical advantages that this provides them with. There is simply no fear and nothing apparently significant occurs. The battle lasts barely a page in its entirety yet the author continually refers back to it as the most horrific and bloody event of the entire work. We are expected to believe that Thomas Hill was greatly affected by a battle with which he was barely involved and when witnessing the same could only sum up words such as ‘terrible’ to describe it.

This format continues throughout the rest of the work. Events that are supposed to be galling, tragic, terrifying or even amusing fall flat. Perhaps the issue lies with the authors attempt to include so much in such a small space, (a mere 352 pages to cover such a span of events), or perhaps Thomas Hill is a character with which the author, despite creating him, could not use as an appropriate conduit for the emotions with which he is apparently faced.

It seems to me, however, that Andrew Swanston struggles with descriptive prose and the creation of real or complex emotions. Hill’s love interest, his friendships and his fear or horror all appear forced as though Swanston knew what protagonists at this point in the story should be experiencing but was unable to find the words to create anything that one could define as human feeling.

Overall then if you are interested in reading a book about a robotic man making his laborious way through historical events while you learn a little bit about code breaking during the civil war, then this is the book for you. If you prefer your characters to express emotion and descriptions of battles and conspiracies to leap from the page then give it a miss.

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