The Drowned City by K J Maitland: A fascinating exploration of the dark heart of Jacobean court politics - book review -

A year on from the treasonous Gunpowder Plot, one of the perpetrators has still evaded justice and revenge is in the air.

Wednesday, 7th April 2021, 12:30 pm
The Drowned City by K J Maitland

There’s word that this last Catholic conspirator might be in Bristol but a new kind of threat has overtaken the city… a deadly tidal wave has swept down the channel, destroying homes and killing thousands. Can anyone be found in the chaos of such terrible devastation?

When Karen Maitland’s extensive research stumbled across a little-known, disastrous real-life event in the south-western corner of England during the last days of January 1606, it was the spark that ignited the flame of an exciting new thriller series from one of our best known and loved historical novelists.

Much admired for a string of spooky medieval mysteries, but writing here as K.J. Maitland, this seasoned author has fast-forwarded in fine style to the early Jacobean period in the company of intriguing spy Daniel Pursglove, a man with a past… and almost no future.

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Steeped in the power play of a volatile period of English history – when the paranoid King James I was only three years into his reign and still living in the shadow of the Gunpowder Plot – The Drowned City brings us both a thrilling mystery and a fascinating exploration of the dark heart of Jacobean court politics.

A year to the day that men were executed for conspiring to blow up Parliament, a towering wave devastates the Bristol Channel. In a country where superstition is rife, some proclaim it is God’s vengeance, a thing of ‘strange and terrible beauty that was not of this world’… but there are others who see it as a chance to take advantage.

A month later in London, a prisoner known only as ‘Gallows’ because of the scarlet ‘firemark’ around his throat, lies in the foul straw of notorious Newgate prison waiting to die. But an unexpected visitor, Charles FitzAlan, a close adviser to King James I, has a job in mind for this skilled man and it will free him from rotting in the ‘hell pit’ of Newgate… if he succeeds.

The prisoner – who hasn’t a single living relative, or a friend who would dare to associate with him – is given the undercover name Daniel Pursglove and dispatched to Bristol, a hotbed of Catholic spies and now the perfect place for Spero Pettingar, the lone conspirator who evaded arrest after the Gunpowder Plot, to gather allies in the drowned city’s ensuing chaos.

King James I – ever fearful of plots against his life – has hardened his stance against England’s restless, scheming Catholic recusants and it’s Daniel’s make-or-break job to track down Pettingar and investigate whether the ‘author’ of this catastrophic flood was nature or the Devil.

But Daniel soon finds himself at the heart of a dark and powerful Jesuit conspiracy… and in pursuit of a ruthless killer.

Suspicion, superstition and spine-tingling suspense abound in this atmospheric trip to a city laid waste by death, destruction and lawlessness… a nightmare place where hunger and cold afflict the survivors, and the carcases of both people and animals float in the swollen rivers of water or simply lie where the sea had dropped them like ‘playthings.’

But danger comes from human nature as well as the natural disaster… recusant Catholics have not given up their fight against the new Protestant king whose constant fears of a religious plot have made him perilously unstable and paranoid.

In her trademark style, Maitland brings a past world to vivid life with her richly detailed scene-setting and masterful storytelling, enabling readers to almost smell the fetid miasma, taste the tang of death in the air, and feel the bone-chilling damp of the apocalyptic streets of ‘drowned’ Bristol.

Over two thousand souls were lost in the 1606 tsunami which reached a height of 25 feet and covered swathes of Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and South Wales… and it’s into this maelstrom that our flawed and mysterious hero, Daniel Pursglove, sets out on his personal life-and-death mission.

Packed with real history, an intriguing glossary of 16th century words and phrases, plots, priests, puritans, peril and plot twists, The Drowned City is a pulsating opener to what promises to be an exciting new series.

(Headline Review, hardback, £16.99)