November 20, 2004

Gloriana's Torch, Patricia Finney

Wonderful spy novel; set in the sixteenth century, so literally cloak-and-dagger, and dashing in it. It's fairly grim, since it revolves around intrigues against Queen Elizabeth; war, civil war, religious schism, disease and the slave trade all come into it. It isn't as grim as, say, Patricia Highsmith. Some of Finney's characters do not betray those they love, and a few more do but don't enjoy it.

This is the third in a series, which I recommend you read in order; I liked the first but missed the second. The scale of events has grown through the three novels, so this one is in many parts an adventure novel. The writing is less pretty than I remember in the first, maybe because events move at such a thundering pace.

Along with intrigue and adventure, and credible character development, there is a big swath of mysticism and alternate history which makes perfect sense for the book; Finney explains in her afterword that she was wondering what the strategy behind the invasion of the Spanish Armada was, and she came up with one that would have worked, had her characters not foiled it. Half of them dream all through the novel of what will happen if they don't stop the Armada; horrible things, the least of them the destruction of London Bridge.

Some of her characters are Africans forced north by the slave trade. One intended to come North to free the other and also learn the making of gunpowder to put her nation on a better footing against the whites; but instead they are both drawn into this stranger's war and lost to their own nation. I was put off by the appearance of mystical, sympathetic black characters set up to die the touching but convenient deaths of sidekicks, but even in the Anglocentrism of the novel, I think Finney makes it clear that the other victory might have prevented more misery and injustice. Finney also apologizes for not knowing enough about West Africa in the sixteenth century. I think the final result is less using the Other for convenience as trying to imagine a past that was, now irremediably, distant and doomed.

ISBN: 0312312857

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