The Ashes of London kicked off my love affair with this series, and it’s been going strong ever since. I thought book three, The King’s Evil, was the pinnacle – until I read this one, after which I could only doff my hat to Andrew Taylor for topping his previous installment once again. For those of you who haven’t come across them before, the books are set in Restoration London and feature the exploits of civil servant James Marwood, who finds himself drawn reluctantly into the machinations of Whitehall and the King’s court. Over the course of the series he develops an enigmatic relationship with Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide, whose family history forms an ever-present cloud over her prospects and security. On the surface they are acquaintances who every now and then are useful to one another, yet we can see quite clearly there’s something more to their relationship than that: something unspoken and not entirely understood by either of them. They are not lovers, not even friends necessarily, but there’s no denying they each instinctively need what the other provides.
The Last Protector of the title is the name given to Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, who has been in exile on the continent since the monarchy returned to power and has made no attempt to cause trouble for Charles II’s regime – until now. Intimately connected with the conspiracy theories, rumour and unrest filtering through London is the flamboyant but dangerous Duke of Buckingham, whose dandyish attire and theatrical manner belies his power and ruthlessness. With the King, Buckingham and the mysterious figure of the Protector forming three sides of a devious and manipulative triangle, James Marwood faces double dealing and betrayal on all sides as he tries to unmask the instigators of the political violence spreading through the capital.
This is a period of history I love and find absolutely fascinating, so there’s an immediate appeal to be found in the setting alone. However, sound historical research doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with enjoyable historical fiction – and this is where Andrew Taylor gets it so right. The recreation of mid seventeenth-century London feels authentic without being a vehicle for gratuitous fact-dropping, and the author manages to give his readers an understanding of the political climate of the time without using dialogue as clumsy exposition. Most important of all, the characters feel as relatable as if they were alive today, and having followed Marwood through four books now, I feel as attached to him as I did to Shardlake in C J Sansom’s magnificent series. The political setting means there are inevitably swathes of male characters, but the author seems to go out of his way to redress the balance by involving some terrific women in the story, taking care to draw them in as much detail as his male lead. There’s a surprising amount of historical fiction out there that’s pretty lazy with its female cast (the bawdy innkeeper’s wife! the homely peasant! the generic Tudor princess!), often relegating them to the role of sexual victim or plot accessory, but what this series gets right is the way in which it treats women as individuals whilst acknowledging the reality of their lives in a society that was more overtly patriarchal than the one we live in today.
The Last Protector is a compulsive page-turner, an intriguing thriller, an escape into the past and also a touching story of the cruel chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots. I have my fingers crossed for many more books to come – it’s clear that James Marwood’s story is very far from over.