This is the fifth novel in Clements’ John Shakespeare series. For the uninitiated, John Shakespeare is Will Shakespeare’s fictional elder brother who works as an ‘intelligencer’ (i.e., spy) for the Elizabethan spymaster Francis Walsingham and his successors. The Heretics is set in the 1590s, so Walsingham is now dead and John works for Sir Robert Cecil.
As with the previous novels, the plot concerns a conspiracy against the state which John frustrates. This time it is a plot to assassinate the Queen, and the conspirators are a network of Catholics, including certain priests who brainwash vulnerable young women by ‘exorcising’ their demons and sending them on suicide missions. Exactly who are the heretics of the title is unclear for, as Clements is careful to point out, although the conspirators are religiously motivated, Catholicism itself was neither illegal nor heretical in Elizabethan England. But why cavil at a good story for the sake of its title?
John has become much more self-confident and ruthless than in the earlier novels, and there is less internal angst and less emphasis on the squalour of Elizabethan life. The conspiracy seems far-fetched, but perhaps no more so than many of the real life conspiracies of the time. A well-crafted story and an entertaining read.