[book review] Patricia Finney: Firedrake’s Eye

firedrake's eyeI came to this novel via Finney’s nom-de-plume, PF Chisholm, and her entertaining Sir John Carey novel, A Famine of Horses.

Appropriately enough, Firedrake’s Eye is an entirely different beast …

Firstly, we have a new partnership to get to know – actually a triumvirate.  David Becket is rough and ready, flawed but humane, a master sword-for-hire who finds himself entangled with Simon Ames, the latter an inquisitor in Sir Francis Walsingham’s stable, a gentle Jew employed to defeat Catholic plots against the Protestant Queen.  Which leaves our third main character …

And this is where the story gets interesting, and also more difficult.  The novel is told from the first-person point-of-view of a seemingly omniscient idiot-savant.  Tom O’ Bedlam, escapee from the lunatic asylum who sees angels and devils, vies with Ralph, courtier brought low, for control of the narrative as well as the skull they both inhabit.  It took me quite a few pages to get a feel for the narrator and stop feeling frustrated at his occasional ambiguity.  I can imagine some readers being put off by this, but patience does pay dividends with this book.  Once I ‘got’ Tom, the novel moved along at accelerating pace as it took in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I: yes, another one, but this version was freshened by the narrative voice.

Becket and Ames are interesting, well-drawn characters, and they have definite character arcs in the novel, with various moral dilemmas that they have to confront and which shape them.  That said, characterisation seems to be one of Finney’s strengths, as the supporting cast is skilfully fleshed-out.  Our villain was satisfyingly villainous, and I was also pleased not to have to deal with some of the usual tropes, such as ‘the whore with a heart of gold’ …

bear baiting gone wrong.jpg
Sometimes, the bear wins …

The descriptions of Elizabethan life are obviously well-researched, immersive and suitably grim.  We take in bear-baiting, the organised criminal underworld, the Tower, Accession Day celebrations, and of course the river.

A couple of relatively minor points.  There is a glossary, but in my Kindle copy it was unannounced; I only found it after I’d finished the novel.  There was also a section about 75% in that was poorly edited, with a number of spelling errors.  Finally, it is difficult to say this clearly without a spoiler, but part of the book’s ending was very unsatisfying in its construction (my students could take an educated guess, based on how the novel is written, and one of my oft-repeated pet peeves).

Otherwise, if you invest the time early on you’ll find this an above-average Elizabethan caper.  It’s one of three featuring Becket and Ames to date, and I’ll definitely check out the other two.

Visit me at Goodreads for more reviews.

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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