The wonderful cover of Steven Veerapen’s Of Blood Descended invites the reader to enter a rich world of murder and mystery in 16th century England. The contents within do not disappoint.
Of Blood Descended carries Veerapen’s hallmark of exemplary historical research to immerse you in the period. But the Tudor age is a much-travelled land and it takes a special guide to make the reader feel they’ve ventured that bit further, walked deeper into the corridors of power and smelt the fear of failure at the heart of an unforgiving world.
Veerapen has this skill and, crucially, a love for rooting out and applying the myriad of fine details which make this thriller compelling and enjoyable. And he does so with a deft hand – almost pointillist. A thousand adroit references build an absorbing picture of London in the summer of 1522, and the visit of the Imperial Emperor Charles V to the court of King Henry VIII.
Charles’ visit is more of a grand tour, an opportunity for the King to radiate magnificence, to be brought to its glorious culmination with a royal masque. But, as ever, politics lies behind the pomp. The masque is intended both to celebrate and cement Henry’s oft-held claim to be descended from King Arthur and is a gift from Cardinal Wolsey, to please the King. But, alas, no sooner have preparations begun than things go awry as, one by one, key players in the masque’s creation are murdered in dramatic fashion. It appears someone does not want Henry’s name to be linked with the glories of Camelot.
Cue our hero Anthony, son of the king’s late ‘black trumpet’ John Blanke. Anthony had formerly spied for the Cardinal and had just been recalled to his service for a very different reason, his dark skin. In Wolsey’s eyes, who better to play the Black Knight in his masque? Blanke is present when the first murder is discovered and then entrusted with its investigation by Wolsey, who needs a man who can keep a secret.
Veerapen uses the first person to brilliant effect, as we share Anthony’s perilous pursuit of the mysterious killer, from Hampton Court to the back streets of London. His determination to succeed is finely balanced with a weary acceptance of both the dangers he faces and his small importance in Wolsey’s world. He also has a nice line in self-deprecation. Laugh-out-loud moments are not common in historical thrillers but there are several in Veerapen’s very human exposition of Blanke’s character, as the chaos continues and the bodies pile up. But a comedy, it is not.
The book is populated by other convincing characters, in particular Cardinal Wolsey, in Blanke’s mind a fair man who nevertheless could end his life in a moment. Blanke’s mix of fear, respect and at times affection for Wolsey pulses throughout the story and, again, is skillfully handled by the author. There is much mileage still in this relationship and further episodes beckon, particularly with Anne Boleyn waiting in the wings.
But, for now, we can be more than content with Of Blood Descended, a sparkling historical thriller, beautifully crafted and delivered with verve.
Michael Ward is the author The Rags of Time, the first of the Thomas Tallant series of adventures, based in London in the 17th century.