Rebels and Traitors, By Lindsey Davis

Epic proves a battle to get through
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The Independent Culture

Weighing in at 742 pages, Lindsey Davis's English Civil War epic is not – in any sense – a light read. How different from her jaunty detective stories about the marvellous Marcus Didius Falco, Roman Empire private eye.

Davis weaves three narratives together. Londoner Gideon Jukes and his family of grocers and printers support Parliament; Orlando Lovell and his wife Juliana are Royalists who start married life in Oxford. The female vagrant Kinchin Tew comes from the Midlands and has no loyalties whatsoever.

Following their fortunes between 1634 and 1657 isn't easy. A battallion of characters crowds the pages. Despite a chronological approach, confusingly Davis flips backwards, say, to cover events in the same period in the London camp as she has in Oxford. When the various trajectories cross, it can feel forced. We are already three quarters of the way through this whopper before Gideon meets his future true love, Juliana.

There's no doubt that the author knows her stuff on everything from the Levellers' manifesto, how a sword was forged to the whore Priss Fotheringham's speciality: the Half-Crown Chuck. Her research is meticulous and the book drowns in facts. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall showed how context and texture is everything in creating a gripping, resonant historical novel. Period details should feed the thrust of a story, not dominate it. Here, the Battle of Naseby, the Putney Debates, the Siege of Colchester are laboriously rendered accounts.

At times, it verges on the preachy. And Davis can't resist telling us what will happen to real-life walk-ons, relevant or not. ("The jury would find Lilburne not guilty..."). When the characters are allowed to interact on a domestic level, we see the book Rebels and Traitors could have been as it momentarily takes off before sinking under yet more historical baggage. Orlando Lovell provides a charismatic villain but never really gets to make his case. Kinchen Tew with her constant reinvention could hold her own in a Moll Flanders-style novel. Here, however, neither can shine.