Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: King's Fool #1
Published by Severn House on Publication date January 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
Introducing Will Somers, the king's jester but nobody's fool in this exuberant, intriguing and thoroughly entertaining mystery set in Tudor England – the first in a new series from the author of the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series.
1529, London. Jester Will Somers enjoys an enviable position at the court of Henry VIII. As the king's entertainer, chief gossip-monger, spy and loyal adviser, he knows all of the king's secrets – and almost everyone else's within the walls of Greenwich Palace.
But when Will discovers the body of Spanish count Don Gonzalo while walking his trusted sidekick Nosewise in the courtyard gardens, and a blackmail note arrives soon after demanding information about the king, is one of his own closely guarded secrets about to be exposed? Trouble is afoot at the palace. Are the king's enemies plotting a move against him? Will must draw on all his wit and ingenuity to get to the bottom of the treacherous and deadly goings-on at the court before further tragedy strikes . . .
Henry VIII was always a towering, larger-than-life figure, even before he became the obese caricature of himself that has become the popular image of him. Just as he loomed large over the life of his court and everyone in it, so too he dominates this historical mystery told from, not Henry’s point of view, but through the eyes of his fool, or court jester, William Somers.
Who was every bit as real a person – whether or not he resembles the character in this story – as the king he served.
If you remember the old doggerel, “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived” as a way of tracking Henry VIII’s six wives, this story takes place in 1529, in the midst of the long and ultimately futile negotiations between Henry and Pope Clement VII in regards to that first divorce, sometimes referred to as the King’s Great Matter.
Which it most certainly was.
So the court is in ferment, divided between the rapidly waning star of the old queen, Catherine of Aragon, and the woman who will be the next queen, Anne Boleyn. Tension is everywhere among the usual cutthroat jockeying for favor and position that was always an integral part of serving in the King’s court.
Will Somers, the king’s fool, has been among Henry’s closest companions since he had arrived in court several years before. Somers was the one person who could, by the very nature of his position, go anywhere, talk to anyone, walk in and out of the King’s apartments, and generally do as he pleased as long as he was always available when the King called for him.
Somers is perfectly placed to find himself in the role of amateur detective when that metaphorically cutthroat jockeying results in the actual cut throat of one of the Spanish ambassador’s attendants.
That the bisexual Somers had spent the previous night with the dead man only adds to his distress. Someone he genuinely cared for is dead, and a thorough investigation could discover Will’s own clandestine behavior. He wants justice – and he needs to protect himself.
In the midst of the King’s Great Matter, with the Spanish on one side and his King on the other, the crime could also have political implications. Somers will have to tread carefully, but still poke his, or his dog’s, nose into every nook and cranny to find the killer – even while that killer is stalking him and those he holds dear.
Escape Rating A-: Hybrid genres like historical mystery have to achieve a balance between the two genres being blended. In the case of historical mystery that means that the historical setting has to feel authentic and the mystery has to be puzzling and fit the conventions for solving the crime that has taken place.
Courting Dragons is one of those historical mysteries where the reader is dropped right into the historical period from the first page, and where the history that wraps around it is integral to the plot – even though it can’t change any of the known historical facts. (For anyone who remembers the movie or the play, Anne of the Thousand Days, Courting Dragons read a LOT like returning to that setting and characters.)
So one of the reasons that I loved Courting Dragons was because I saw that movie in 1969 – I was twelve – and fell in love with the entire Tudor Period, warts and all. Going back was a delight. Howsomever, I read a lot in the period after I saw the movie and was familiar with the historical background.
Courting Dragons read like that balance between the history and the mystery was weighted towards the history, to the point where unless you are either familiar with the period, or enjoy learning a surprising amount of detail about a period with which you are not well acquainted, you need to be aware that the historical setting and tensions of Courting Dragons dominate the mystery. As I said, I loved it but your reading mileage may vary.
It does take a while for the mystery to get itself going, because there is just so much to learn and explore about life at court and Will’s circumstances within it. Which are fascinating but may not be what you read mysteries for.
There was one bit of the story that niggled more than a bit. It doesn’t feel inaccurate, but it was jarring to a 21st century reader all the same. And that involves Will’s relationship with the king. On the one hand, Will is utterly financially dependent on his work. He has a relatively high place for someone of low birth, but it can be snatched away at any time – and so can his life. He is the one person who can tell the king “No” and not get killed for it. He can needle the king about matters, such as his divorce, that the king doesn’t want to hear contradicted in any way. But he has to be careful of how much and how far he goes all the time. Very much on the other hand, in the book it is clear that Will is the king’s man through and through, and actually loves him in a way that seems a lot like the way that Sam Gamgee looked up to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. Or the way that slavery proponents claimed that slaves felt about their slavemasters. It may be the way things actually were, but it still disconcerts.
So, if you like your historical mystery to dive deeply into the historical milieu in which it is set – or if you are just plain fascinated with the Tudors, Courting Dragons is a terrific mix of royal history and rotten murder. Will Somers, and his master Henry VIII, will be back in The Lioness Stumbles, hopefully this time next year!