It is my stop on the blog tour for the The Saracen’s Mark by S.W. Perry, the third instalment of the Jackdaw Mysteries. Many thanks to Anne Cater and the publisher Corvus Books for allowing me to take part, and for sending me a free review copy. The cover is rather spectacular, and it made an immediate impression on me when I opened the box.
Published: 2nd April 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trigger warnings: Racism, depictions of violence
1593: five years on from the Armada and England is taking its first faltering steps towards a future as a global power. On an undercover mission to find out the fate of one of the queen’s informers, physician and reluctant spy, Nicholas Shelby, travels from the dark alleys of London to the dazzling Moor city of Marrakech.
Meanwhile in London, Shelby’s companion, Bianca Merton, must fight against the ravaging plague that is stalking the city. Can their budding relationship weather the threats of pestilence and conspiracy? And will Nicholas survive his mission and the unpredictability of Marrakesh to return home?
From a technical perspective, this an absolutely marvellous book. Written with the utmost detail and intelligence, the author displays a vicarious knowledge of the late sixteenth century to paint an extremely vivid picture, creating an intricate and carefully woven story in the process. I only wish then, that I had connected with it more.
This was very much an occasion where I could appreciate the sheer quality and literary merit of the writing, but the story generally failed to grip me. It may have been down in part to the slow paced nature of the storytelling, or a mystery that was full of complexity but short on intrigue. All the same, I feel regret at not being able to look back on this as a new favourite read.
This is the third book in a series, something that I unaware of when I asked to take part in the blog tour. Although it mostly works as a standalone, there are several references to events that happened in the previous instalments. Set in 1593, it follows the work of physician Nicholas Shelby as he uncovers criminal networks in South London alongside Bianca Merton, a local tavern mistress.
At the beginning, Nicholas, now undeniably in love with Bianca and almost willing to move on from the death of his wife and child three years earlier, is asked by Sir Robert Cecil to be a special envoy to Marrakech, where his predecessor Adolfo Sykes has mysteriously vanished. He initially refuses, but a combination of blackmail and the discovery of a brutal murder leads him to change his mind.
On his voyage to Morocco, Nicholas develops misgivings about the sea captain, Cathal Connell, and after arriving there are hints of a wider conspiracy linked to the murder that has taken place in London. Meanwhile, the plague is sweeping across London and Bianca is caught up in a dangerous investigation that threatens her status as a licensed apothecary.
The author has a fantastic grasp of the historical setting and its context. It is impressive how real figures and events are incorporated into the plot, while we see a clear depiction of the social classes that existed within London at the time. This was mirrored by the parts of the story that took place in Marrakech. But the thing that felt slightly lacking was atmosphere, as neither setting truly captivated me.
The same can be said about the mystery. Although it is complex and very well constructed, the slow pace and depth of the story meant it was not the kind of thing that had me furiously turning the pages to find out what was going to happen. There were moments of tension, but most of the plot is conveyed through meaningful and connotational dialogue.
Both of the main protagonists are likeable, and despite being new to this series I could certainly see how their relationship was slowly, deftly developed over time. They sometimes have to go to great lengths to ensure that justice is done, but they stand up for the right things and that makes it easy to root for them.
Nicholas is very principled and much more open-minded than many of his fellows, fighting hard for equality. As for Bianca, I really liked her. She is bold and compassionate, and her dialogue is excellent. Bianca is commonly referred to as ‘the witch who nobody dares hang’, and she uses that reputation shrewdly to get information from those in positions of power. As a woman in 1593, she is terribly underestimated.
The writing is flowery and at times extravagant. I admired the attention to detail and the eloquent composition of each sentence. There are a lot of similes too, most of them animal related. It was just the lack of pace which meant the book did not always hold my attention.
Overall, this is a book with an unerringly high quality of writing and a well conceived plot line that takes place in an immensely detailed historical setting. Yet even with so much to admire, I did not connect with it as much as I had hoped. Many readers will love it, and with good reason. Just not this one.
Previously a broadcaster and journalist, S.W. Perry retrained as an airline pilot before turning his hand to writing novels. The first book in this series, The Angel’s Mark, was a Walter Scott Prize Academy recommended read in 2019, and that was followed by The Serpent’s Mask.
Perry currently lives in Worcestershire with his wife.
From a literary point of view, I feel like this book deserves a higher rating, but based on my own reading experience it will reflect the mixed feelings I had.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐
*I was given a free copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Don’t forget to check out the other reviews from everyone else on the blog tour!