The Queen’s Men (An Agents of the Crown Novel, 2)

Written by Oliver Clements
Review by Larry Zuckerman

One night in 1577, as Elizabeth I’s royal train proceeds through a forest, masked gunmen empty their arquebuses at her carriage and flee to safety. Miraculously, the queen survives, but the brazen assassination attempt exposes the threat to her security and that of the kingdom. It’s no secret that English Catholics, in league with Spanish and Flemish agents, would welcome Elizabeth’s death and the advent of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the English throne.

Enter John Dee, alchemist, philosopher, spy, and royal favorite. The jacket flippantly refers to him as the first agent for MI6, so call him an anti-Bond: poor, badly dressed, less than suave or rakish, his greatest vice being books, he divides his efforts between saving the kingdom and finding the philosopher’s stone. With the help of lady-in-waiting Jane Frommond, more capable in a tight spot than many men, he provides necessary intelligence, or tries to. Every page brings a fresh obstacle.

Dee has a royal commission to re-create Greek fire, a weapon known to the Byzantines but lost to history since. Fearing the Spanish fleet, Elizabeth’s advisors want Greek fire as the means to achieve naval parity. However, to obtain the necessary naphtha, the government must treat with the Turks, who now rule from Constantinople, and the diplomacy becomes both rather too easy and overly complicated. Throw in a subplot about a beautiful look-alike to Elizabeth, and this tale becomes as implausible as an offer to purchase Tower Bridge.

Nevertheless, The Queen’s Men is good fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. With the intricacy of a Rube Goldberg watch, the narrative only intermittently embraces historical accuracy or reality. Yet you keep reading, because you want to know how the thing manages to keep ticking away.