The King’s Spy is the debut novel from Andrew Swanston. Set during the English Civil War, we follow the fortunes of Thomas Hill, humble bookseller from a sleepy part of England. With the war raging around him Thomas’s knowledge of codes and ciphers will see him wrenched from his peaceful existence straight into the murky heart of Charles I court.
Summoned to Oxford, Thomas sees at first hand the damage the war is inflicting on the country and it’s people and how unpopular the King and his army are with the people of Oxford. When Thomas arrives in Oxford he discovers his predecessor has been brutally murdered and he can trust no one as he is entrusted with encoding the King’s messages and trying to decode the enemies.
When an important message is intercepted, Thomas must bring to bear all of his knowledge and skills as he attempts to break the unbreakable Vigenere code used by Parliament. As he attempts to break the unbreakable code, the King’s enemies will stop at nothing to prevent him from succeeding.
Forced to witness the bloody battle of Edgehill, Thomas is disgusted by the human cost of the war but caught in a maelstrom of war and politics he knows he cannot return to his old life until he has broken the cipher. As well as pressure from the King, Thomas has to deal with the ever desperate measures of a hidden enemy who is determined to stop him.
Thomas has to survive attempts on his life and the brutal murder of a close colleague but if he can break the code he will be able to unmask the traitor and earn the gratitude of the King.
This seems to be the year for books on the English Civil War, from the Brilliant Giles Kristian we had The Bleeding Land and from the excellent Michael Arnold we had Hunter’s Rage. This book fits nicely between these books. The Bleeding Land covers the families torn apart by the war, Hunters Rage is a more straightforward military action book and this book covers more of the politics and espionage side, Something for everyone I think!
This is a mystery/whodunnit book in the vein of SJ Samson and SJ Parris and I enjoyed the fact that while Thomas searches for the traitor and is trying to break the code, the war is never far off. In particular I liked the description of the battle of Edgehill as Thomas watched it from a position of safety but as the noise and smoke increased the confusion, so Thomas’s fear went up as he wondered if enemy troops were about to appear and butcher them all. Swanston has also captured the fear and loathing the troops inspired in the local populace as they searched for supplies and plunder.
One very interesting part of the story is the attempted decoding of the Vigenere Cipher. The author explains the cipher and how Thomas goes about breaking it in a clear and easy manner. The numbers and the maths do not bog down the story at all, even if you do have to really concentrate on them!
This was a very interesting debut book and I have to say I really enjoyed it. A great story is backed up by an intelligent cast of characters and the star of the show is the Vigenere Cipher, even if I’m no closer to understanding it!
I’m certainly looking forward to Book 2 in the Thomas Hill Trilogy.