Signs and Portents, Traitors, Recusants, and Other Dangerous Men

In the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, the court of James I suspects treachery everywhere. Who better to dispose of traitors than a disposable man?


This is my first exposure to Karen Maitland. I certainly don’t know why I haven’t encountered her before; she’s obviously been writing for some time, with more than a dozen books to her credit.  The Drowned City  is the first book in a new series, with a very interesting protagonist.

Daniel Pursglove (or at least, this is the name by which we will know him, for now) ‘had come howling into this world in the poorest cottage in the village, but […] had been raised in the wealthiest house in the shire.’ Undoubtedly, one day we will learn why. But as this story begins, he resides in Newgate Prison; until someone in high authority comes to fetch him out. Someone who is ‘a close confident  of the King’.

Daniel is to be sent to Bristol to search for a traitor. Bristol is currently a dangerous town, because not long before, on the thirtieth day of January, a great flood swept in from the sea and drowned the city, with much destruction and loss of life. The thirtieth day of January is significant.  It is the anniversary of the day when the Gunpowder Conspirators were drawn and quartered.

In a society that looks for signs and portents everywhere, this seems to signify something.  James’s ministers are concerned that one of the men thought to be behind the Gunpowder Plot has escaped justice, and they want him apprehended before he can take ship to Spain.  For this, they have liberated Daniel Pursglove. But if he doesn’t deliver the traitor, he can expect to return to Newgate, and may face the quartering block himself.

Bristol is indeed a dangerous place, full of dangerous men. Described in haunting detail, Bristol is a dangerous antagonist itself. But Daniel is also a dangerous man, with a range of unusual tricks up his sleeve(s).

And then there are the murders…

This is a book that I didn’t want to put down. It’s a satisfying 418 pages, plus additional content, but I read it in a day and a half. Daniel is a compelling protagonist, and the people he encounters during his search are engaging, although perhaps not in ways you’d want to become too closely acquainted with. I confess that when I did put the book down for the night, the complex threads of treachery, recusancy, government intrigue, and unnatural  elements kept playing in my head… I wanted to uncover the who and the why. And  I was not convinced that Daniel was going to be successful.

This book was released last year, and the next book in the series, Traitor in the Ice, is now available. I ordered the Kindle edition through Amazon, and I’m going to have to be disciplined with myself not to start it right away.

The book is beautifully crafted, and the writing brings the early years of the seventeenth century to vivid life. The author uses one device that I found a little odd: she introduces her protagonist in the third person, and concludes the book in the third person, but Daniel recounts his experiences in Bristol in the first person. If this is meant to reveal to us something about  Daniel’s character that he would be unlikely to reveal to us himself, I missed it. But it didn’t compromise the experience for me in the least.


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