Review: TRAITOR IN THE ICE by KJ Maitland, published by Headline Review

ISBN: 978 147 227 5479

There are times when you pick up a book and just know you’re in the hands of a brilliant story-teller. 

Karen Maitland is an old friend, but don’t let that get in the way of things. She has been a writer of superb stories for some years, first of all with her brilliant medieval thriller (it’s hard to know how else to describe it), THE COMPANY OF LIARS, in which she mingled suspicion, superstition, and a degree of horror to weave a thoroughly compelling story. Since then she has brought out a series of books, each of them inventive, full of characters that leap off the page, and plots that … well, that make the reader shiver. 

I was on a panel with her once, and answering questions at the end of the gig, she was asked why she didn’t write a series. Her answer was deliciously frank: “I tend to kill off all my characters, so you see it would be difficult.”

However, she has suddenly had a conversion. After trying to persuade her for some fifteen years that she really ought to think about writing a crime series, she has finally succumbed. 

TRAITOR IN THE ICE is the second in her series starring the ill-fated Daniel Pursglove – the first being THE DROWNED CITY, which I wrote about last year. 

Pursglove is her investigator. He has been a felon, has used many names, and now he is at the mercy of Charles FitzAlan, spymaster to King James 1. If Pursglove does not help FitzAlan, he will be returned to gaol, where he can expect a brief incarceration. 

This is all set in the winter of 1607, a dreadful time with appalling cold. The kingdom is in a state of fear, with the population dreading a Catholic attack. It’s only a short while after the Gunpowder Plot, and it’s suspected that one of the prime movers behind that scheme was a notorious traitor, Spero Pettingar. FitzAlan suspects that the man might be hiding in Sussex, in Battle Abbey, protected by the Catholic household of Lady Magdalen Montague. Already one spy sent to watch the house, Benet, has been discovered dead. 

He is to be only the first person murdered.

But it’s not just the killings. Maitland brings to life all the most primitive superstitions and fears of a population on the brink of disaster. This is a time when people could easily die of the cold, when the Thames froze over, when a walk from your door could lead to your succumbing to the weather. It was a terrifying time for the peasants who endured it.

Yet if you lived in the “big house”, you may have to work your fingers to the bone, but it was likely that you would survive. There were fires, there was food, and while the house might be run by a despot, at least life was easier. Unless you were Catholic and trying to keep the world out, protecting priests of the banned religion.

And if you were a spy, like Purseglove, every day was fraught with danger.

This is one of those books that grabs your attention from the first. It grips, and sucks you in, willingly or not. Maitland has managed a marvellous array of characters, and shepherded them to her will. She her cast of characters to life as vividly as a film. She has an amazing talent for details and glimpses of how people used to live; not just the rich and famous, but the poorest too. 

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. A storming, fabulous masterpiece from a writer at the very top of her game!

Highly recommended – a brilliant read!

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