April Taylor’s Court of Conspiracy is the first in her series, The Tudor Enigma. This fascinating alternative history fantasy is crime novel set in a Tudor England where Henry VIII’s son by Ann Boleyn, Henry IX, is on the throne. Much of the action takes place in and around Hampton Court Palace. It’s clear that the location is very well known by the author, who makes the place live with her subtle descriptive passages intertwined in the action.
Her hero, Luke Ballard, is an apothecary; a combination of doctor and chemist in times when such separate professions didn’t exist. He’s also an elemancer; a person able to harness elemental powers for good. The opposite number of such a magic practitioner is the sunderer, who uses the same powers for evil. So, we have all the intrigue, prejudice, ignorance and jealous fear of an age when religious allegiance ruled, mingled with magical powers for good and evil. It makes for a powerful and intriguing mix.
April Taylor has a facility for selecting just the right tone and syntax to reflect the times she’s depicting, using unusual language in context so that it’s easily understood. The dialogue is of its time, but no barrier to comprehension, so the story flows easily and without pause. The reader is submerged in this imagined world, which feels historically authentic.
It’s a story that examines good and evil, but in the context of the underlying threat of religious conflict between established Catholicism and the newly founded protestant dogma. This is a world where torture is routine and justice is a concept based more on power than right. The King’s word is God’s word and you’d better make sure you don’t get on the wrong side of those with in authority.
In this atmosphere of fear and mistrust, where political intrigue is a daily reality, Luke is engaged by the Queen to discover who is plotting to kill the King. This is a task steeped in danger, fraught with difficulty, and hindered by the need to keep on the right side of authority: a wrong move can easily get a person into the Tower and put to the test of iron and flame.
All of April Taylor’s characters are real people who come alive on the page. These are players with flaws to counterbalance their gifts, heroes and heroines who make mistakes. Proper human beings the reader can so easily empathise with. And the villains are deliciously evil, their motivations fully developed.
The mystery of the threat to the throne is revealed slowly through the actions, skills, mistakes and deductions of Luke and his various helpers. The author skilfully displays the underlying mistaken prejudices against women of the times, showing her heroines through the eyes of the distrusting young Ballard with his preconceptions borne of religious, political and personal bias.
The denouement is a real page-turner, as the action gains pace with the discoveries piling up evidence and increasing the danger to all concerned. The resultant ending is at once both satisfying and enigmatic, leaving the reader wanting more from this series, hungry to know what is in store for the reluctant hero and his helpers of both genders.
This is a book that will be enjoyed by readers who appreciate fantasy, historical mystery, romance and crime novels. You’ll find all of these elements in this tale that manages to successfully blend the genres. I thoroughly recommend it and look forward to the next in the series.