This is the third in a series of novels featuring Mercia Blakewood, a 17th century Englishwoman recruited by Charles II to carry out secret missions on his behalf. If you think that sounds far-fetched, it is worth noting that while Mercia is a fictional character, the King really did employ female spies, among them the playwright and novelist Aphra Behn. I haven’t read Mercia’s earlier adventures, but Traitor sounded so intriguing that I jumped at the chance to read it despite my usual preference for starting a series at the beginning.
The novel opens in 1665 and even without having read the previous novels, I quickly picked up all the background information I needed to be able to understand and follow the story. I discovered that Mercia’s father has been branded a traitor and executed following the English Civil War. His manor house has ended up in the possession of Mercia’s uncle, Sir Francis, but Mercia has not given up hope of regaining it, hence her desire to win the King’s favour.
At the beginning of the novel she has arrived back in England from America where she had been sent on a quest for the King and became caught up in the capture of New Amsterdam, now renamed New York. She has barely set foot on the shore when she receives a summons from Charles’ mistress, Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine, who explains her next task to her. The country is now at war with the Dutch and it seems that someone close to the War Council is passing on secrets to the enemy. Mercia’s task is to identify the spy – a woman using the code name Virgo – but her investigations could endanger her own life as well as her young son’s.
I love books set in the seventeenth century but while I’ve read quite a lot about subjects such as the Civil War, the restoration of Charles II, the plague and the Great Fire of London, the specific setting for this novel – the Second Anglo-Dutch War – is something I’ve come across less often. Although the focus is on Mercia’s personal mission and her efforts to uncover the spy, the war provides an interesting backdrop for the story.
Mercia is a strong heroine and despite not having read the first two books in which she appears, I felt that I knew her well by the end of the novel. Other characters who stood out for me were Nicholas Wildmoor, the servant who has accompanied Mercia to and from America, and One-Eye, a sinister old woman who runs a ring of smugglers. There are also five suspects who could each be Virgo and although some of these characters are less developed than others, they are representative of different opinions and different positions in society. Helen Cartwright, for example, is delighted with the black boy, Tacitus, whom she receives as a gift and uses as a sort of fashion accessory, whereas Lavinia Whent has seen the results of slavery first hand in Barbados and has returned with more progressive ideas. Mercia herself is modern enough in her views to make her easy for a modern reader to like and identify with, but not so much that she feels entirely out of place in the seventeenth century either.
The mystery element of the novel worked well. I didn’t guess who Virgo was, although I did have my suspicions as to who else might be involved and wanted to scream at Mercia not to trust anybody! Along the way there’s plenty of suspense as both Mercia and Nicholas get themselves into some difficult and dangerous situations.
This was the first book I finished in 2018 but I have held back my review until now so I could take part in the Traitor blog tour. Other stops on the tour are shown in the image below. As I’ve said, I prefer to read a series in the correct order, but I enjoyed this book so much I think I’ll have to go back and read Birthright and Puritan now!
Thanks to Allison & Busby for providing a copy of Traitor for review.