The Rebel Heart

Written by Martin Stephen
Review by Towse Harrison

This is the fourth outing for Stephen’s charismatic anti-hero Sir Henry Gresham. It is 1598, and Elizabeth I is getting old. Her health is failing, but she resolutely resists all attempts to name an heir. Indeed it is treasonous to even discuss the possibility of her death. Her dalliance with the young Earl of Essex makes her feel young and lovable but he, handsome, exciting, arrogant and egocentric, has ideas above his station. Gresham, drawn to Essex as a friend, retains the needs of the country as his prime motivation. Around them the vultures gather, France, Spain, Scotland – everyone has a hand in the most devious of plots.

As ever with Stephen, the plotline is complex and compelling. I would defy any reader without the keen training of the most Byzantine or Machiavellian court to work out where the storyline is going. Gresham, so authentic a fictional character that a reader may well spend time trawling through history to find him, winds his way through these plots. He risks his life, suffers the consequences of ill-advised actions, but retains throughout his own somewhat individualistic sense of honour.

I am very fond of this character and of all of those who live and work in ‘The House’ on the Strand. But I am also hugely in awe of his creator, who has not only given him such realism as a character but also painted a totally believable and authentic Elizabethan and Jacobean landscape for him to live in. The books are not in chronological sequence, so we are seeing different aspects, and raisons d’être from Gresham’s life unfold and are explained in each book. This also means that they can easily be read as standalones. But personally, I would highly recommend that you read them all in whatever order you can find them.