Another wonderful historical novel from Fiona Buckley…
Shadow of Spain is the twentieth in Fiona Buckley’s wonderful Ursula Blanchard series, which is (full disclosure) one of my favorite mystery series. So I was very happy to receive an advance copy of this soon-to-be-published title to review. And Shadow is a great addition to the series.
As the book opens, England is nervously preparing for a potential invasion by the Spanish Armada. Spain’s King Philip II is determined to “return England to the true faith”, and also stop English interference with Spain’s activities in the Netherlands and in the New World. Queen Elizabeth I and her courtiers have engaged their network of spies to find out more about Philip’s plans for the Armada, and at the same time are also trying to persuade Philip’s nephew, the Duke of Parma, who is in charge in the Netherlands, not to support the invasion. At first, there’s not much role for Ursula in all of this high-level statecraft. But when one of Elizabeth’s spies gets murdered not far from one of Ursula’s properties, and then her ward, Mildred, elopes to Parma’s court with another of Elizabeth’s spies, she gets involved.
When we think about the Armada these days, we do it knowing that the invasion was unsuccessful and the fleet was largely destroyed, due both to the efforts of the English Navy and the Channel’s treacherous weather. So I especially enjoyed Buckley’s take on what life was like in England during the run-up to the invasion, before anyone knew how it would turn out, and people were terrified that any day Spanish soldiers might turn up at their doors. But it’s not only the big picture of Elizabethan history that makes Shadow (and the whole series) such an engaging book. It’s the descriptions of the small things too. Somehow Buckley makes even the ordinary seem fascinating as Ursula juggles being a parent to her young son, managing her various properties, running her horse breeding business, and doing a bit of spying for the Queen. And of course, there are also some heart-stopping moments as Ursula follows Mildred to the Spanish Netherlands and back.
All-in-all, Shadow of Spain is a wonderful historical novel, served with a side of murder. Perhaps its only flaw is that if you are looking for a traditional mystery, where the murder is the main focus of the plot, and the protagonist follows clues to figure out the culprit, this isn’t really that. But if you are looking for a page-turner of a tale, where the murder does also eventually get solved, go buy this book! And finally, my thanks go to Canongate Books/Severn House and to NetGalley for the advance review copy.