Book Review: The Black Friar (Damian Seeker 2), by S.G. MacLean

Publisher:  Quercus

Publication Date:    6th October 2016

The Seeker - My Review

Tthe-black-friar-coverhe Black Friar is an impressively tailored historical crime with a tremendous cast, whose contempt and naiveties are exposed with stunning brilliance.

No one can hide from The Seeker and it’s his duty to target anyone who appears on the Cromwell traitor radar. No matter how small the blip, it is documented and stored as evidence to be used against you and Captain Damian Seeker is one of Cromwell’s most effective agents. He bows his tall frame not out of respect to those around him but to prevent striking his head off the beams in properties he’s commissioned to search. Uncomfortable exchanges are no deterrent and he doesn’t walk away until he’s entirely satisfied with the answers they give.

Occasionally he stops by these places to innocently partake in a pie and ale. Yes, even the imposing Seeker has to eat and yet he draws the same looks from the patrons regardless of the reason for his visit – and that look is fear. He never commands silence as a hush falls upon a room as he enters, acknowledgement that he has stepped over their threshold and may inspect their conversations for treacherous slurs.

It’s now January, 1655. Two months have passed since we first met Damian Seeker (Book One) where there was much civil unrest to contend with. The country remains divided with Royalists rallying support for exiled Charles II and Cromwell’s agents rallying their forces to prevent it. The usual gentleman Seeker receives his instructions from has taken to his sickbed and temporary deputies in the form of opportunistic half-wits are trying Seeker’s patience. As they bustle through the corridors that connect the hive of intelligence at Westminster, we learn that the motives of those at the very epicentre of Cromwell’s cause cannot always be trusted.

And nor can the civilians, as public opinion sours by the day; the rich, the poor, pamphleteers stirring trouble through the written word, religious zealots, and agents so deep undercover they risk losing sight of themselves all have a part to play in this phenomenal tome.

A corpse presents further complications, as it was bricked up at Black Friars where Dominican monks have not been present for over a hundred and twenty years posing a quandary for many, including Damien Seeker. The tell-tale signs make it quite clear that the person was alive when they were entombed.

The corpse’s identity is the catalyst for the discovery of deeds that are as unpardonable as the plots stewing against the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth himself; the vulnerable are being targeted and even the emotionally resilient Seeker doesn’t like it. Despite their differences of opinion Lady Anne Winter makes a plea to the Captain to help locate her house maid who has vanished. During the course of his investigation into the murder of the ‘Black Friar’ he learns of more disappearances and cannot ignore their significance, or Lady Anne’s complicity in more pressing matters.

Through the labours of cypher cracking, cryptic clues and Seeker’s keen eye for spotting a discreet facial twitch to reveal the slightest lie, the mystery of The Black Friar and the missing children is slowly teased out. During that time, the Captain shows that a cold heart can thaw for the right cause, as beneath his armour and tenacity is a decency and humanity rarely witnessed or practiced by most.

From the anxiety that flickers in people’s eyes to the odours wafting out of a squalid cell, I admire the controlled reactions of the most recognised man in the city and the most misunderstood. I’m now eagerly awaiting the formidable Damian Seeker’s next assignment, which I believe will be his most challenging to date.

Rating:  4.5/5

Note: While this could potentially be read as a standalone, I would suggest starting with The Seeker as this explores the Captain’s relationships with certain members of the cast already established in Book One.

(I received a copy of this title from the publisher and Olivia Mead with my thanks, and this is my unbiased review.)

The Seeker - Book Summary

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

Rebellion in the city, and a Royalist spy in his own ranks – Damian Seeker, Captain of Oliver Cromwell’s guard, must eradicate both in this action-packed historical thriller for fans of CJ Sansom, Rory Clements and The Three Musketeers.

‘MacLean skilfully weaves together the disparate threads of her plot to create a gripping tale of crime and sedition in an unsettled city’ Sunday Times

London, 1655, and Cromwell’s regime is under threat from all sides. Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, is all too aware of the danger facing Cromwell. Parliament resents his control of the Army while the Army resents his absolute power.

In the east end of London, a group of religious fanatics plots rebellion. In the midst of all this, a stonemason uncovers a perfectly preserved body dressed in the robes of a Dominican friar, bricked up in a wall in the crumbling Black Friars.

Ill-informed rumours and speculation abound, but Seeker instantly recognises the dead man. What he must discover is why he met such a hideous end, and what his connection was to the children who have started to disappear from around the city. Unravelling these mysteries is challenging enough, and made still harder by the activities of dissenters at home, Royalist plotters abroad and individuals who are not what they seem…

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The Seeker - Author Profile

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

Shona (S.G.) MacLean was born in Inverness and brought up in the Scottish Highlands. She obtained an MA and PH.D. in History from Aberdeen University. She began to write fiction while bringing up her four children (and Labrador) on the Banffshire coast. She has now returned to live in the Highlands, where her husband is a head teacher. ‘The Redemption of Alexander Seaton’ was short-listed for both the Saltire first book award and the CWA Historical Dagger; ‘The Seeker’ was winner of the 2015 Historical Dagger.

On dealing with plot problems, characters who’ve gone awol and issues of setting, Shona says, “My search for a solution tends to involve the dog and a pair of wellies. Most things can be solved by a stomp through the woods or along the banks of the Conon river. The dog is much more conducive to this kind of thing than the children, although I have realised that a close reading of my books reveals the true hero of most of them to be a canine (see esp. Alexander Seaton #3, Crucible, and The Seeker and its sequel The Black Friar (out October 2016), passim). Those dogs are, by seventeenth-century necessity, ‘hounds’, but I like to believe that in each of them beats the heart of a Labrador.”

To avoid work altogether, she suggests getting a bike.

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Winner of the 2015 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger:

The Seeker (Book One)

The Seeker by S G Maclean - Kindle Cover

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Book Review: The Seeker (Damian Seeker 1) by S.G. MacLean

Publisher: Quercus

Publication date:  Paperback – 19th May 2016

The Seeker - My Review

The Seeker by S G Maclean - Kindle CoverPlotting, government censorship, covert surveillance – we’re wading deep into the territory of warily voicing your opinion against the current leadership skills of one Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, or face experiencing sheer terror at the hands of the law enforcement of the time, namely Cromwell’s agents and particularly one Damian Seeker, who shows little sympathy for others, as his only desire is to extract the truth.

These are desperately scary times. We’re talking 1654, where the locals gather in coffee shops to sample the proprietor’s wares and meet likeminded individuals to talk politics as freely as they dare, and hopefully not be arrested as a result. Putting the world to rights in a clandestine fashion the diehard Royalists continue to chip away at the Commonwealth, while Cromwell’s spies feed off fresh intelligence.

What’s abundantly clear is that we’re visiting a treacherous period in history. This not knowing who to trust business, not even your closest ally, is enough to drive anyone to insanity. People pray their name will not appear on a list that may fall into the infamous Seeker’s possession and be suspected of treason after someone pointed the finger in your direction. The Seeker’s reputation for sniffing out (and snuffing out) alleged traitors of Cromwell precedes him. If he’s not identified from his equally menacing horse, you’ll know he’s around as the atmosphere of a room alters drastically – when he asks you to start talking, you ask ‘yes, Mr Seeker, what would you like to know?’

Appropriately dressed in black, with a discreetly armoured hat (a wise choice given his line of work), his presence strikes fear into all civilians, as Seeker takes his orders very seriously. And yet there’s something about investigating the murder of one of Cromwell’s closest military figures that briefly hints toward another side to him and a past he’d rather forget.

How could someone have the audacity to slip passed the guards? Why would that person chance hanging about the still warm corpse just waiting to be arrested,  let alone a well-known lawyer renowned for having outspoken views? And why abandon years of hard work to commit murder right under Cromwell’s nose? Not only is it out of character for the accused, it’s neither subtle or cleverly plotted. Something smells off to The Seeker and he’s determined to discover why the main suspect fails to co-operate when he’s faced with impending torture, to be followed by a swift execution, if he’s lucky.

Strangely, as the days into the investigation of John Winter’s murder tick by we discover traitorous intent that will blur lines quicker than the wet ink can run on Seeker’s ever-growing list of suspects. Seriously, I was losing track of their loyalties and just about everyone made me twitchy.

As the air fills with coffee grounds, pipe smoke and suspicion, and the pounding hooves of Cromwell’s cronies threaten the peace rather than keep it, there are some wonderful character portrayals to help conjure up the trepidation of the period. John Winter’s widow is behaving consistently bizarrely, so are a few coffee drinkers conspiring over a cup or two. Kent’s Coffee Shop and its owner will fall under close scrutiny leaving a young woman in peril, while the accused’s sister fiercely maintains his innocence, her feisty nature catching The Seeker’s attention. He’s not used to being spoken to in such a forthright manner but he admires her daring, and his reaction under the circumstances is disturbingly endearing considering he’s such an intimidating loner.

The Seeker is an undeniable enigma. Intrigue radiates from him, just like the story itself. The paths are signposted, but the one leading to the truth is incredibly well disguised. All in all, it’s a terrific blend of history and mystery, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

Rating: 4/5

(Huge thanks to Olivia Mead of Quercus Publications for organising a paperback copy of this title for review.)

The Seeker - Book Summary

‘The Seeker is Winner of the 2015 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger’

London, 1654. Oliver Cromwell is at the height of his power and has declared himself Lord Protector. Yet he has many enemies, at home and abroad.

London is a teeming warren of spies and merchants, priests and soldiers, exiles and assassins. One of the web’s most fearsome spiders is Damian Seeker, agent of the Lord Protector. No one knows where Seeker comes from, who his family is, or even his real name. All that is known of him for certain is that he is utterly loyal to Cromwell, and that nothing can be long hidden from him.

In the city, coffee houses are springing up, fashionable places where men may meet to plot and gossip. Suddenly they are ringing with news of a murder. John Winter, hero of Cromwell’s all-powerful army, is dead, and the lawyer, Elias Ellingworth, found standing over the bleeding body, clutching a knife.

Yet despite the damning evidence, Seeker is not convinced of Ellingworth’s guilt. He will stop at nothing to bring the killer to justice: and Seeker knows better than any man where to search.

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The Seeker - Author Profile

S.G. MacLean was born in Inverness and brought up in the Scottish Highlands. She obtained an MA and PH.D. in History from Aberdeen University. She began to write fiction while bringing up her four children (and Labrador) on the Banffshire coast. She has now returned to live in the Highlands, where her husband is a head teacher. ‘The Redemption of Alexander Seaton’ was short-listed for both the Saltire first book award and the CWA Historical Dagger; ‘The Seeker’ was winner of the 2015 Historical Dagger.

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