Blood's Game by Angus Donald - book review
With a feather in his cap for the much-loved Outlaw Chronicles starring a gangster-style Robin Hood, Angus Donald fast forwards several centuries for an exhilarating new adventure series set at the duplicitous court of King Charles II.
This brilliant, all-action historical romp focuses on an intriguing, real-life character called Holcroft Blood who may well have been a distant cousin of the author, and whose father, Colonel Thomas Blood, gained notoriety as the man who tried to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London.
The third son of the scheming colonel, Holcroft became a distinguished military engineer rising to the rank of Brigadier-General and commanded the Duke of Marlborough’s artillery at the famous Battle of Blenheim.
In this rambunctious new series – written with the author’s captivating brand of ‘historical jiggery-pokery’ – Holcroft, who is known to have been shy and awkward but a whizz with numbers, is portrayed as a young man whose mild Asperger’s syndrome gives him an appealing lack of social awareness, providing an added edge of dark humour and entertaining unpredictability.
It’s the winter of 1670 and Holcroft Blood lives with his chaotic family in an overcrowded cottage in London’s Shoreditch.
He has always found it difficult to make friends and though he is teased and bullied mercilessly, his mother knows that Holcroft’s mind ‘turned in a different way to the common run of humanity.’
Holcroft rarely sees his father Colonel Thomas Blood but now he’s back and the hard-drinking rogue has a scheme that includes finding Holcroft a place as page to George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom after the king.
And it is here that his education really begins. With a gift for numbers and decoding ciphers, Holcroft soon proves invaluable to the duke but when he is pushed into a betrayal, he risks everything for revenge.
His father, meanwhile, is getting by through whatever means necessary and when he is asked to commit treason by stealing the Crown Jewels, he puts himself and his family in a dangerous situation, one that may well end at the gallows.
As the machinations of powerful men plot to secure the country’s future, both father and son must learn what it is to survive in a more dangerous battlefield than war… the court of King Charles II.
From bullied street boy and human bargaining chip to court page, confidential clerk and expert at decoding cyphers, Holcroft is both a lead player and an acutely observant witness to the dangerous politicking at the heart of the royal court.
Along the way, Donald fills his thrilling adventure with fascinating real nuggets of history and a colourful cast of characters, including the nascent Duke of Marlborough John Churchill, the playwright, spy and feminist icon Aphra Behn, and the merry monarch’s famous string of squabbling mistresses.
But it is the king himself who often steals the show… larger than life, forever trying to raise money to alleviate his state of ‘near-beggary’ and finance both his extravagancies and his love of women, the bewigged Charles springs from the page in a flurry of fine silks and yapping spaniels.
Written with wit, joy and charm, there’s danger, skulduggery and drama aplenty to enjoy in this first outing for what promises to be another rip-roaring Angus Donald historical odyssey.
(Zaffre, paperback, £7.99)