The Conversos by V.E.H. Masters

This is the second book in a series. There are a few references to what happened in the first, but this one works well by itself.

Bethia is escaping danger in Scotland to start a new life with her new husband, Mainard, who is Dutch and lives with his parents in cosmopolitan Antwerp, an important commercial hub. Her brother Will is a galley slave along with John Knox. These are the twin storylines of this book set in the religious turmoil of the 16th century. This timeframe allows for the development of suspense and the looming prospect of disaster

A new life means a new family, a new city and new challenges. Bethia is able to communicate only with Mainard and his two sisters because they all speak French, which leaves her feeling isolated. Her husband does little to help her integrate into her new family as he is often busy helping his father in business. There is an atmosphere of something not revealed. She becomes pregnant but miscarries, which drives her into depression. When she recovers, she decides she needs something to do. Mainard’s sister works as a bookseller. Today, we would think of this as a benign trade, but in Antwerp, it is a risky business.

Will’s challenge is easily defined. He wants his freedom. He does escape once, only to be caught and chained again. One of his ship-mates is John Knox who becomes an important influence. What is most interesting about Will’s story is the description of life as a galley slave, which the author relates in authentic but excruciating detail. Did you ever wonder how they manage their bodily functions? How they sleep?

I found Bethia to be a bit rash, ignoring warnings from those who knew better and getting herself into dangerous situations. She is also very curious – not really a bad thing – but Mainard is secretive. These two traits tend to bump up against each other.

A few niggles. When Bethia meets her older sister-in-law, she quickly determines that she does not like her. Later they become very friendly, but that initial animosity is never fully explained. Also, Will’s escape was one of the more exciting parts of the book, but it didn’t move the plot forward at all. Will ended right back where he started from. There were no repercussions even, which I find hard to believe.

It is a well-written book with the ‘reveals’ nicely paced and brings the two storylines together at the conclusion. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned something new.

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VEH Masters was born and grew up on a farm just outside of St. Andrews in Scotland. She’s been fascinated by the siege of St Andrews Castle ever since her history teacher took the class on a visit, which included going down the siege tunnel dug out of rock and peering into the bottle dungeon where Cardinal Beaton’s body is said to have been kept, pickled in salt, for over a year.

When she learned that the group who took the castle and held it for over 14 months, resisting the many attempts to re-take it, called themselves the Castilians, she knew even then it was the perfect title for the story.

The sequel, The Conversos, which picks up to the hour where The Castilians left off, continues the dramatic adventures of Bethia and Will. To find out more please go to her website https://vehmasters.com/ and she would be honoured if you signed up for the newsletter.

The Reversible Mask by Loretta Goldberg

Set in various parts of Europe in the 16th century

Sir Edward Latham, middle-grade courtier is torn between his adherence to his faith (Catholic) and his loyalty to Queen Elizabeth (Protestant). His answer to this dilemma is to accept his cousin, Lord Darnley’s invitation to go to Scotland and serve his wife Mary, Queen of Scots (Catholic). After the murder of her husband, Mary sends him to the Duc de Guise in France to raise funds for her. Latham becomes a liaison between Guise and the Spanish Ambassador and eventually ends up in Spanish service as a spy. This career takes him to other countries, the most interesting of which is a glimpse into the Divine Porte, where he takes a Turkish lover (Islamic) and learns that different faiths can live in harmony.

The best of the supporting characters are his Turkish lover and his sidekick/agent in Lisbon, both of whom are interesting and unique. The author does a credible job of capturing the two queens, Elizabeth and Mary, in cameos. As for Latham himself, he is a fully-fleshed character, (the author allows him to tremble in fear) but I just couldn’t warm to him. I’m not sure why, perhaps only because of his way of over-analysing things – even his love affairs – which is natural enough in a spy, I suppose.

Throughout the book, Latham struggles with his divided loyalties. After a number of spying assignments, he decides to return to England and offer his services as a double agent and hope that in the near future, Catholics will be granted the right to worship openly.

There is a great deal to like in this book. The author’s knowledge of war, weapons and deployment is sufficient to lend authenticity. I particularly enjoyed reading about ‘Hellburners’. I suspected they were a fiction of the author, but a Google search informed me that they were real and used as the author described. It’s not all derring-do. It’s a story well-told and the dialogue, which can be confusing at times, has a particular ‘zing’ to it.

Recommended for those who like stories of war and the religious turmoil of the 16th century.

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