The Tyrant’s Shadow
ANTONIA Senior’s third novel is set during the Interregnum, the 11 years between the execution of King Charles I, and the restoration of his son, Charles II to the throne. With various factions struggling to gain power, it is left to Oliver Cromwell to impose a measure of order. With the horrors of the English civil wars behind them, it was a time to remake society along more God-fearing lines.
Patience Johnson is thrilled by the possibilities for change and when she meets charismatic preacher Sidrach Simmonds, she feels it is her destiny to marry him and assist his vocation. Patience is a naïve character, annoyingly so at times, but she is a young woman of her time, and Senior has been careful not to impose modern ideas of women’s lives on her female characters. Sidrach Simmonds is a Fifth Monarchist, a sect which believed that Christ’s return was imminent, and he must prepare the way for the Lord. His public charm is contrasted with his private cruelty, and it is Patience who suffers most.
Patience’s widowed brother, Will, is a lawyer in the employ of Oliver Cromwell. Will’s observations of Cromwell form a far more nuanced view of the man than is often the case. As Cromwell tries to negotiate with the various squabbling cliques, Senior subtly shows him being presented with many of the same problems that led to the downfall of Charles I. Cromwell lives a humble life but slowly the trappings of power seduce and when he becomes Lord Protector, king in all but name, Will is confused and wonders if he was wrong to hold Cromwell in such high regard.
Sam Challoner, brother to Will’s late wife, is a royalist, and follows first Prince Rupert and then Charles II into exile in Europe. He tires of the aimless life at the shadow court and decides to return to England. When he turns up at Will’s door, penniless, Will finds his loyalties divided. Patience is struck by Sam’s cheerful disposition even as he finds himself in such penury. The contrast between her husband’s way of life and Sam’s means that Patience’s loyalties are also divided.
At times Senior’s characterisations verge on cliché. Sidrach Simmonds is an archetypal baddie, devious and cruel under his charming façade. Sam Challoner is a typical Cavalier, merrily enjoying life and having a far more relaxed view of religion than the Puritans. Patience, the heart of the novel, is innocent and wildly idealistic. Her brother Will is the least developed character, grieving for his wife, but he is an important observer of the political upheavals of the time.
Senior’s title is ambiguous and could refer to several men; the executed king, Cromwell, or Sidrach Simmonds. As a picture of a family trying to survive in unsettling times the tale lacks emotional depth. However, as a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times, it never fails to engage.
Want You Gone
Little, Brown £18.99
ONE of the defining characteristics of Chris Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane novels is the development of his protagonist. While other crime luminaries rest comfortably in stasis, Parlabane, like a great white shark, keeps moving. This makes him one of the more fascinating characters in crime fiction, stumbling into one bad situation after another, but finding a way through thanks to his own particular sense of morality.
In this tale, Parlabane is called on to repay a favour and is plunged into the cyber world of hackers. He is in London to attend an interview with Broadwave, an achingly hip online news outlet. His disreputable past is proving a sticking point but the young editor is a fan and Parlabane soon finds himself in gainful employment. He is living in the flat of a friend who is abroad and his life is settling down. When the Royal Scottish Great Northern bank is hacked, Parlabane decides to get in touch with ace hacker, Buzzkill, who has both helped and hindered him in the past. He is hoping Buzzkill will give him inside information, so that he can start his Broadwave career with an exclusive story.
Meanwhile, Sam Morpeth is living in a Kafkaesque nightmare. Her mother is in prison, and Sam has to look after her younger sister, Lilly, who has Down’s syndrome. Giving up her dream of going to university, Sam leaves school and takes a job in a sandwich shop. In order to work full-time, she tries to access benefits to pay for an after-school club for Lilly. However, she must already be working full-time in order to qualify, the benefits officer with a face “like a recently slammed door” tells her. Brookmyre is no stranger to including social comment in his novels and here he takes aim at the benefits system. He piles misery upon misery on 19-year-old Sam, pushing her to the extreme. Sam’s online life keeps her sane but when a stranger calling himself Zodiac, threatens to expose every facet of her life, she is blackmailed into committing crime. Turning to Parlabane for help, she in turn threatens to expose his more illegal actions to ensure his cooperation. Together they devise the crime, all the while looking for a way to outwit Zodiac. Sam has to think of Lilly’s welfare while Parlabane is trying to keep his new job.
Brookmyre’s black humour is evident throughout the novel. Parlabane comes across a receptionist, “wearing roughly as much foundation as Joan of Arc would need for an open-casket funeral”. When he attends a Broadwave party, “everything is so on-trend that the leftovers are likely binned in a few hours for being out of fashion”.
The online duel between Sam and Zodiac could make for very dull reading. However, Brookmyre injects plenty of jeopardy to ratchet up the tension. Sam explains her plan to Parlabane who knows a little about computers but is lost when she starts planting Trojan Horses and finding back doors. He is more at home when he has to charm vital information from unwitting employees. Although a lot of the action takes place in cyber space, it doesn’t stop Parlabane from breaking and entering premises and almost freezing to death while stealing a prototype from a sub-zero lab. Much of the time he and Sam seem to be one step ahead of the police but one step behind the mysterious Zodiac.
This is an older, somewhat wiser Parlabane, who is trying to get his life on an even keel. He develops an unexpectedly paternal relationship with Sam, which means he takes the kind of risks he had promised himself were in the past. It is curious to see him in this role. Disarmed by Sam’s courage and determination to look after Lilly, he seems bewildered by his feelings.
Brookmyre’s plot is full of surprising twists and turns that make it pleasingly difficult to guess the ending, while Parlabane’s evolution forms the emotional heart of the novel. It is an engrossing read, combining appealing characters with a contemporary scenario drawn from the murkier corners of modern life.