Another Tuesday, another review of a book by Deborah Swift.
One of the things that really impresses me about Swift’s writing is her ability to move, apparently effortlessly, between different historical settings. Last week I was reviewing her 17th century Italian renaissance novel, The Fortune Keeper, and this week we are in World War II. Life in London during the Blitz is wonderfully evocative, with trips to a Lyons Corner House where you eat Shepherd’s Pies that are mainly potato and beetroot is everywhere. Normal life continues between air raid warnings. It’s spot on.
I can hardly mention the plot. It starts with Nancy being betrayed by her fiancé practically on the eve of their wedding. She flees her quiet life in Scotland to move to London where she gets a job in the offices where her brother works. When she applies, she has no idea that she will be a decoder with the Special Operations Executive – part of the lifeline supporting field agents in occupied Europe.
She soon finds herself falling for a young man who has arrived to shake up the way the SOE codes its messages. So far, so clichéd (and the opening pages with the cad in Scotland did leave me worrying that the book might all be a bit of a cliché). But suddenly the plot kicks into gear with twists and turns that continue throughout the book. Infuriatingly, as a reviewer, I can’t say anything about any of them because any clue as to what is coming will spoil the story. (The title is a spoiler in itself, which annoyed me. I bet that was the publisher’s choice and not the author’s.)
What I can say is that the romantic betrayal that the story starts with is just the first of many betrayals we are going to discover. This is a story about loyalty and betrayal: betrayal because of cowardice or betrayal because you have to sacrifice your friends for your country. It reminds us that not that long ago London was full of people with secrets, determined that no one should ever learn what they were doing for their country – or for the enemy.
Swift writes about the experience of agents in the field and how they can (or more often can’t) survive in a world where German troops are everywhere and where nobody can be trusted. There are scenes of considerable violence. I complained in a review of another Deborah Swift book that she couldn’t write a fight scene, but the fight scenes here are terrific – and she is not afraid to depict the horror of killing with bare hands or whatever tools are available. One agent kills someone by hitting them with a spade and the reality of that killing and how it feels to murder someone so up close and personal is chillingly spelled out.
Whatever you do, don’t get attached to anyone. The body count is high and the human costs of Occupation are graphically captured. Usually you can reassure yourself that it will all come well at the end, but I kept turning the pages worrying about who would die next.
The book ends without the irritating cliff hanger that too many authors put at the end of the first book in what is clearly going to be a series. (OK, someone survives. But I’m not telling you who.) The fact that there will be a Book Two leaves the end of The Silk Code mildly anticlimactic. There is still a war. There will be more deaths. But briefly, until the next book starts, we are allowed an interlude of something almost like peace.
This is a brilliant book, one of Swift’s best. I can’t wait for the next one.
The Silk Code will be published on 17 May and is available to pre-order now at the ridiculously low price of £1.99: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Silk-Code-sweeping-heart-breaking-historical-ebook/dp/B0BY95RMCJ
Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras
While you’re waiting for The Silk Code to publish, why not pass the time with Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras? It’s set almost a century and a half earlier but Britain is again at war and spies and counter-spies are still vital to the country’s military success. The story of the Lines of Torres Vedras (like the activities of the Special Operations Executive) is true but Burke’s adventures (like Nancy’s) are fictional. Both books, though, feature espionage and counter-espionage, political back-stabbing, and occasional bloody violence. You may well enjoy them both.