Revisiting characters from the critically acclaimed Treason’s Daughter, Antonia Senior has set her new novel, The Tyrant’s Shadow, some years later in the wake of the English Civil Wars. This series of brutal conflicts has left no family untouched by tragedy and division. The country is reeling, religious sects await the second coming and power is up for grabs. Young and devout, Patience Johnson is inspired by the charismatic preacher Sidrach Simmonds, believing it is her destiny to become his wife and spread the Lord’s word. Once wed though, she discovers that married life is not as she had expected.
Her brother Will is suffering profoundly from the loss of his own beloved wife Henrietta who was killed in the war. He takes a more philosophical view on religion and life than Patience, resorting to the bottle to assuage his sorrow. His work, as Oliver Cromwell’s lawyer, places him close to the seat of power and he understands better than most that England will fall to chaos without a figurehead to replace its executed king. Cromwell is surely the only man who can settle the turbulent country but he is reluctant and must be persuaded.
When Sam Challoner, Henrietta’s royalist brother, arrives in London fresh from campaigning at sea with Prince Rupert, Will and Patience’s world is turned upside down. They are propelled into an intrigue that brings great danger and forces them to question the fundamental beliefs they have lived by.
There are echoes of The Miniaturist in this picture of a seventeenth century marriage but Senior’s depiction is more complex and, in my mind, a much more substantial read. The particular setting of The Tyrant’s Shadow makes the stakes stratospherically high for Patience, making the novel as much a political thriller as a domestic drama and her inner turmoil, the pull between her faith and real-world forces beyond her control, make her eventual transformation deeply satisfying.
This is a sophisticated and philosophically nuanced portrayal of a period of history that is little explored in fiction. Senior’s characterisation is subtle and rounded and the world her protagonists inhabit is meticulously researched and richly described, occasionally in great detail. This, though, never detracts from the thrust of the narrative, which takes the reader on a gripping journey that twists and turns to the very final page. This is historical fiction at its very best.