The Drowned City is the first in a new series, and under a new name, by historical mystery writer Karen Maitland.
A year to the day after the Gunpowder Plot, a towering wave in the Bristol Channel wreaked havoc across Bristol, Somerset and Devon, destroying homes and taking lives. The aftermath of the tragedy, however, presents an opportunity for some.
Daniel Pursglove, conjurer, itinerant, suspected Catholic, is suddenly freed from prison by one of King James I’s agents. Bristol is believed to be a hotbed of Catholics and his background and skills make him ideally placed to go undercover among them.
Pursglove’s task is to seek out the conspirator who is still at large, known by the pseudonym of Spero Pettingar. He travels to Bristol, where he encounters accusations of witchcraft, mob violence, the reappearance of figures from his past, and murder.
The Drowned City an atmospheric book, steeped in the period and the strange, otherworldly landscape of Bristol after the flood. Bodies are still being washed up, people are unable to know whether to grieve, unsure if their loved ones are drowned or have somehow escaped. Then there is the religious tension leading to conflict and cruelty between people who were once neighbours, and an over-reliance on the interpretation of symbols and omens.
Pursglove is a pleasingly enigmatic character, with his unusual background (which unfolds as the story develops), his ability to use his conjuring skills to further his investigation and an outsider status which allows him to look at all with a dispassionate but knowledgeable eye.
Pursglove’s point of view is alternated with scenes at court and with spymaster Cecil (now Salisbury) and his agents. This gives the wider context to the investigation on the ground: the tension between James I’s Scottish courtiers and the English nobles, the king’s own fascination with the supernatural, and the religious divisions which counterpoint the political and social divisions in the country.
There were a few elements that gave me pause. Pursglove’s investigation unfolds very slowly, so much so that I had to return to the blurb to remind me why he was in Bristol. This is in part because Maitland has a very wordy style, with substantial paragraphs of description. Although it’s well done, personally I prefer a few telling images to a near-photographic rendering of every scene, and I did skim a bit.
I also wondered why, after Pursglove’s backstory was slowly revealed by hints and inferences, there was suddenly a big chunk of exposition a quarter of the way into the book. It would have made more sense to either do that early on or trust the reader to piece it together.
These are quibbles, though. The Drowned City is a very rich and engaging read, and the strange landscape and atmosphere of Bristol in the wake of disaster is vividly evoked. The parallels with the pandemic are obvious, and Maitland has perfectly created that sense of a world that is both completely upended and yet oddly the same.
While the murder plot is resolved, Pursglove’s larger quest continues, and the political forces that will control his destiny continue to conspire and change. The Drowned City is an intriguing start to a promising new series.
I received a copy of The Drowned City from the publisher via Netgalley.
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