It's the winter of 1554 and Mary Tudor has ascended to the throne, in no small part thanks to the efforts of Brendan Prescott, who in Book 1 of the series destroyed the Duke of Northumberland and foiled his plans to steal the crown. Queen Mary, rumored to be negotiating a marriage with Catholic Prince Philip of Spain, summons her Protestant sister Elizabeth to court and forbids her to leave. Elizabeth's protector William Cecil suspects that the Imperial ambassador, in whom Mary has placed unwavering trust, seeks Elizabeth's death in order to secure the succession for Mary and Philip's children. The spymaster also fears that Elizabeth has been drawn, willingly or not, into a plot with another claimant to the throne. Cecil challenges Brendan to return to court under his old alias and stop the ambassador. Ever loyal to Elizabeth, Brendan accepts the mission. The job ahead of him will not only test his skills as a spy, his fragile sense of self, and his personal loyalties, but his love for the woman he leaves behind.
THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY is C.W. Gortner at his best: an intriguing, well-paced plot; a lush setting replete with historically accurate details; convincing characters who continually reveal new facets of themselves. CONSPIRACY takes a lesser-known moment in Tudor history--the very first years of Queen Mary's reign--and elaborates the political situation in a clear and understandable manner so that the reader never feels lost or confused by the characters' emerging loyalties and objectives. Even better, Gortner intertwines Brendan's personal story with that of the larger situation in such a way that the suspense of each builds and feeds off the other.
Both Brendan and Queen Mary are on quests to define themselves. Brendan, having discovered part of the secret of his birth in the first book, learns even more in this one. The burden of his identity weighs upon him, especially when it becomes evident that he could use the knowledge to influence the greater course of events. Although loyal to Elizabeth, he feels a certain bond to Mary, and hopes to reconcile the two sisters. Mary, newly on the throne, is still finding her way. Despite her ties to her sister, she has come under the relentless influence of the Imperial ambassador, who feeds her hopes of restoring the Catholic faith to England. As she weighs a marriage with Spanish Prince Philip, Mary must decide whether her family loyalty, her Catholic faith, or her devotion to England will tip the scale. The looming question of Elizabeth's fate throws Mary and Brendan together and forces them to confront and decide their own destinies.
Gortner admitted to me how much fun he had writing this book, and his enjoyment is evident on every page. At total ease with Brendan's voice, Gortner writes his tale with an engaging naturalness. Loyal and true, brave and at times refreshingly foolhardy, Brendan Prescott captured my heart in this satisfying sequel. I had as much fun reading Brendan as Gortner did writing him, and I look forward to the next installment of THE SPYMASTER CHRONICLES.
**********C.W. Gornter holds an MFA in Writing, with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies. Raised in Spain and half Spanish by birth, he currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He welcomes readers and is always available for reader group chats. Please visit him at his website for more information.
I reviewed Book I, THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY, in 2011.