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A Treachery of Spies – Manda Scott

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I find it easy, when reviewing Manda Scott’s books, to run out of superlatives. I have never yet been disappointed in any of her body of work and if you are a fan of historical fiction and have not yet encountered her books, then don’t waste time here. Go buy one and get reading.

Three years ago, I read her book Into the Fire with raw, new interest, for she had turned from the milieu of ancient Rome and created a tale in a dual timeline that linked the campaigns of Jeanne d’Arc with a modern police procedural thriller. Into the Fire was my book of the year and I remember badgering her, asking when she was planning on a second book, and simultaneously wondering how on earth she could achieve such a thing.

Then, as something of a side-shot here, last year I read Kate Quinn’s vaunted and most excellent Alice Network, which was similarly my book of the year last year. That novel is a dual timeline work too, set in Post-war France and during the First World War and delving into the world of women spies.

So along comes A Treachery of Spies. And, for me, though it’s only August, it seems clear this is going to be my book of this year. While the novel can be read as a standalone and is not reliant upon the reader having finished Into The Fire, it certainly adds something to have done so, for it explains in depth the motivations and history of the main modern character, Ines Picaud, and a few of her supporting cast. This is not a sequel to that book but more of a second tale, independent and glorious in its own right.

Treachery involves once more a police investigation in modern Orleans, this time into a mysterious death – the body of an old woman found in a car park with a very specific grouping of gunshots and post-mortem mutilation. And while the first book simultaneously led us around France in the retinue of the Maid of Orleans, this one delves into French resistance activity during the height of the Second World War. This, then, is the best of books for me, for it feels a little like what would happen if those two favourite books of mine had met.

The story is one of suspicion, betrayal, murder and espionage on a truly epic scale, telling the tale of spies trained by the British and dropped into France to aid the resistance, of their handlers, the intricacies of coded communications and the-so-called Jedburgh operatives sent over around the time of the invasion of Normandy to aid the resistance in their work. It is also the tale of Picaut’s investigation into an increasingly dangerous series of attacks that has a complex and hidden connection to the survivors of that world of wartime horror. One central theme that helps define the plot is that of revenge, combined with a strong sense of brother- and sisterhood. The heroes of wartime France form bonds that will last ’til death, no matter what the future holds, and similarly some actions leave a call for revenge that echoes through the years.

For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t delve into plot specifics any further. What I will do is say that I cannot conceive of how Scott began to piece together this complex and twisting tale, and that when I read a novel with any kind of mystery element I constantly attempt to solve the puzzles as I go. Sometimes I unwrap the plot early. Sometimes I manage parts of it. With this book, I remained uncertain to the very end, and even the one thing I did anticipate I constantly found myself doubting. That is a good sign for a thriller in my opinion.

Scott continues her excellent portrayal of the world of modern French policing, but here she also shows a great understanding of the world of wartime espionage and of occupied France. The world she builds for the reader is flawless in its realism and vibrant and terrifying throughout. But despite a strong plot, beautiful prose and a vivid environment, for me it is her characters that stand out. From the beginning it seems we are focused on one historical character for point of view, but as the tale unfolds we are treated to more than one insight, and each character she builds for the reader is real and true.

And as the narrative moves to a close, we are introduced to a concept that is both chilling and horribly current and relevant. In this, I can only salute Scott. A Treachery of Spies is, then, a masterpiece, which is what I’ve come to expect from the author. The two problems she creates are: setting herself such a high bar to leap with her next book, and making me wait now before I get to read it.

Bravo. Treachery is out tomorrow. Pre-order it now or go out and buy it tomorrow.

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Written by SJAT

August 8, 2018 at 8:21 am

Marston Moor

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History is replete with ‘turning-point’ battles. Alesia saw the effective end of Gaul against Caesar. Senlac Hill saw the beginning of Norman England. Borodino changed the fortunes of Napoleon. Marathon halted the Persian invasion of Greece. And as often as not, they are almost accidents. Gettysburg occurred when two armies happened to bump into each other, more or less. Marston Moor is one of those battles. Basically, I’m not going to tell you why. If you don’t know the details of the battle of Marston Moor, then you are at an advantage reading the book, so please do keep yourself in the dark. Because I do know the history and the result. And yet as I read, I found myself on the edge of my seat, hoping to see things that I knew couldn’t possibly happen in historical fiction. This, I would say, is one mark of a good writer with an absorbing series – you become so invested in the characters that you want to see things turn out in ways you know they cannot.

Phew, this is going to be a tough review without throwing out spoilers. Suffice it to say that Marston Moor is a great, crucial and extremely bloodthirsty battle, so you know before you open the book that there’s going to be a great deal of mayhem and death – and heroism, of course, and treachery, and all the Mike Arnold factors. But essentially, with such a battle, be prepared for that.

I noticed what I perceived to be several shifts in the series in this book, and in Arnold’s writing of the series. Firstly, the focus in the series has always been on the main character – Stryker – for obvious reasons. In more recent books, Forrester has had his times in the limelight too. But until now the enemy have only been seen in glimpses that are pertinent to the flow of the story. In Marston Moor, we are introduced to the great enemy – the Parliamentarians – on a fairly personal level. We meet several of their commanders, both good and bad. We meet Cromwell – very well portrayed, by the way. Strangely likeable and dislikeable at the same time. And we meet one of my personal heroes of British history: Sir Thomas Fairfax. As a Yorkshireman, Black Tom is my chosen man from the civil war. As a staunch Royalist myself, I’ve always thrown my lot in with their camp in civil war stories. And yet Black Tom Fairfax, a parliamentarian, is one of those powerful characters. Anyway, enough ranting on that. Arnold, then, has begun to show us the face behind the enemy’s visor. And to show their human side.

And not all new characters in this book are real historical ones. Arnold continues his strong track record of bringing us vile and hateful villains and believable and sympathetic new heroes. For though this is largely a tale of that great battle, there is another story weaving throughout, involving treachery and espionage – a tale that harks back to earlier books and will doubtless reach ahead through the series.

There was, for me, a slight feeling of a change of direction with the series here, though it might be that that is simply the effect of the subject matter of the book. I guess we will have to wait (gaaagh!) for book 7 to confirm that. And though the direction might be shifting, I have to say that the quality and the pace are not. As usual, Marston Moor is delivered at breakneck speed and with colour and depth throughout.

For me, this book took on an extra valuable aspect, as I am very familiar with many of the locations, from Stryker’s activity across in Lancashire and Forry’s time in York, through all the places in between and right to Marston Moor itself, which I have walked before now. Even the small towns and small villages are close to both my home and my heart, so it was lovely to see their inclusion.

Once battle is joined, be prepared, I would say, for a certain amount of confusion. Though I knew the battle to a certain extent beforehand and was familiar  with many of the leaders and their units, I still found it hard in places to quite latch onto the detailed strategy, and instead threw myself into the action, heedless of the grand scheme above. And, to be honest, that might be a good thing. Too often in historical novels about giant battles I concentrate on the detail rather than the feel. And if you surrender to the feel of Arnold’s battle, what you are faced with is something akin to the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, or perhaps the mess that was A Bridge Too Far. Because battle is a chaotic and all-consuming thing and Arnold’s depiction carries you along with the action.

And this tale involving a great battle, be prepared for the death of at least someone you have followed throughout the series. It’s inevitable. A battle on this scale cannot be adequately told with all important protagonists escaping with their hides intact. That would be simply unrealistic. And not everyone can achieve everything you want them to. Thus at the end of Marston Moor, Arnold’s entire series balances on a knifepoint.

So there you have it. Great characters, new viewpoints, colour and action, pace and style, one of Britain’s most important and desperate battles told in all its horror and glory. How can you resist it. Arnold continues to ride high as one of the masters of the genre, comparable to the greats. In fact, I think the regular comparisons to Sharpe do him an injustice, for Stryker is a deeper character with greater scope than Sharpe. Perhaps we are approaching times when Stryker will be the one used for comparisons?

The book is out today. Go buy it, people… £9.99 on Amazon