The Last Roundhead, by Jemahl Evans, was one of the best historical novels I’ve read in a long time. The voice of the main character and narrator, Blandford Candy, was as authentic as it is possible to get in a work written in the 21st century. Better, he existed in a world of such effortlessly convincing period detail and historical incident that reading sometimes felt more like visiting the 17th century. Better still, the story was a rollicking, gripping tale that captivated from beginning to end. It’s saying something, therefore, that in the sequel, This Deceitful Light, Jemahl Evans has bettered the first book in every way.
The Last Roundhead was the tale of a young man thrown headlong into the confusion and violence of the English Civil War. This Deceitful Light follows Blandford Candy as he tries to find his place in the unstable world of the Parliamentary war effort. Once again the civil war narrative is framed by with the recollections of the elderly Blandford looking back from the secure but alien London of the 18th century. The embittered anguish of a man who has outlived his own time is perfectly realised. The younger Blandford encapsulates the same awkward mix of naiveté and cynicism that we saw in him in the first book, but ever more tempered by experience. What Candy loses in youthful optimism, he more than makes up for in acerbic wit.
The narrative centres around a conspiracy at the heart of the war that Candy must uncover, while dodging bullets, swords and the occasional jealous husband. The result is part picaresque, part war story and part murder mystery. Once again, the way the fiction world blends with historical facts and, even more impressively, people, is seamless. With a certain inevitability, Oliver Cromwell begins to figure in the narrative and the nuanced, complex portrayal of the legendary figure stands out even among the similarly finely drawn figures such as ‘Black Tom’ Fairfax And Samuel Butler.
This Deceitful Light is perhaps a slightly more serious book than The Last Roundhead, but it is not without considerable humour, usually black, and some gems of contemporary quotations that both complement the narrative and show how close it is in tone and outlook to the period portrayed. The best of these is by Sir John Suckling – I won’t spoil the book by repeating it here. It is a more world-weary and complex hero who negotiates a more complex and uncertain world. The tendency of various parties to turn their coats first one way and then another spills out with dire consequences for Blandford. Furthermore, the cracks are already visible in the parliamentarian side, with various factions starting to manoeuvre against each other and grudges and rivalries being nursed – it will be fascinating to see how the next book deals with this when the dominoes start to fall, and how the most memorable character of recent historical fiction finds his way through it.