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The King’s Spy, by Andrew Swanston

review published on October 28, 2013. Reviewed by Petra Bryce

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Thomas Hill is an unassuming bookseller in the Hampshire town of Romsey at the start of the English Civil War. With his background of an Oxford education in mathematics and natural philosophy, he is called upon by his old friend and tutor, Abraham Fletcher, to come to Oxford to replace the king’s murdered cryptographer and thus help the Royalist cause. One day the guards manage to intercept a secret and heavily encrypted message to the Parliamentarians, and it falls to Thomas to solve the puzzle. Using all his skills and intuition, and suffering personal losses in the process, he manages to decode the message and expose a traitor in their midst.

This is the first volume in a trilogy featuring the unlikely hero Thomas Hill. The first 100 pages or so are a little slow, while introducing the characters and setting the scene in quiet, peaceful Romsey before the soldiers descend, and Oxford, a town unrecognisable from Thomas’s student days now that the king has made it his headquarters. Thomas is a very likeable man who abhors violence and refuses to take sides in the war but feels it is his duty to help his old friend Abraham and hopes that, by serving the king, he may bring an early end to the war. We see the poverty of the inhabitants and the squalor of the Oxford streets through his eyes, and experience the senseless slaughter of the Battle of Newbury. We feel his frustration as he repeatedly grapples with the encrypted message and fails, until he finds the inspiration he needs in a rather unexpected place. I still think that he was extremely lucky to correctly guess the solution to the second encrypted message, and the villain predictably succumbs to the temptation to inform his incapacitated victim how clever and superior to him he has been, but those are minor quibbles. I really enjoyed the lessons on cryptography that come as part of the course of reading this novel, and I would encourage anyone not familiar with Simon Singh’s Code Book to read up on simple substitution ciphers, Caesar shifts, frequency analysis, nomenclators and the Vigenère cipher to appreciate the subject matter more fully.

I look forward to reading the next volume in the Thomas Hill trilogy, even though I’m not sure whether the author might have anything new to add as this first volume could very well stand on its own.

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