Gloriana's Torch by Patricia Finney

Slaves and secrets in the age of the Armada
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The Independent Culture

Thrillers need jeopardy, if the story is to matter. We have to care: in particular, we have to care in historical thrillers, where we know how everything came out. We have to feel certainty unravel and the anxiety of past times come back.

Patricia Finney's three thrillers about Elizabethan intelligence men - Gloriana's Torch is a sequel to Firedrake's Eye and Unicorn's Blood - pull few punches about the dirty necessities of the realm's safety. One of her heroes, David Beckett, never wanted anything to do with the world of secrets and ended up with a maimed sword-hand and occasional fits. The other, Simon, has long pretended to be dead as part of an elaborate scam. They live in a half-world of fanatics and sadists, just to mention their allies, but never doubt the urgency of what they do.

In this novel, that urgency becomes manifest in the shape of Philip of Spain's Grand Armada. Simon, captured merely for being a Jew, is a galley slave in one of the great Spanish galleasses. David is haunted by a possible future in which he is one of the major players in England's defence against a Spanish landing - blowing up London Bridge, and helping to smash the Tercio of Lombardy in the Battle of Oxford. Their successful protection of Queen Elizabeth's life and reputation reaches its culmination in their defence of her realm.

In Gloriana's Torch, Finney pays more attention to women. With Simon in chains, his wife, Rebecca, becomes an agent, infiltrating the Armada as a translator. Her former servant - an African warrior woman and mystic, Merula - does some of the heavy lifting for David, while pursuing her own agendas: retrieving an enslaved son, and perhaps stealing the secret of gunpowder.

Finney is fascinated by how things work. Much of her plot is based on the assumption that Philip's plans for the Armada included some ploy that would give it a chance of success. Her novel depends on details: the making of gunpowder, and what happens when a cannon gets loose. And the books' language is a triumph. Finney finds a workable compromise between anachronistic slanginess and a verbose rhodomontade that would probably more accurately represent much of Elizabethan speech. We never forget that these people are not us, but equally they are what we might have been. They are not aliens but ancestors.

Finney cares for all her characters. She is good at villains with complex motives - an inquisitor with secrets in his background, or a slave overseer who genuinely likes the men he bullies into being catamites. Each book has an omniscient narrator - here, sometimes the author herself and sometimes the visionary Merula, a character with whose good sense about religion she is a little too in love. Hippy-dippy mysticism is as present in Finney's work as details about the hardening of rowers' hands. Luckily, it expresses itself in glowing pastel decoration, as attractive as it is sometimes irritating. Finney's unpreparedness to compromise with her prose is yet another of her passionate intensities.