The Drowned City by K.J. Maitland

Review by Julie Barham

A world turned upside down is the subject of this vivid historical novel set in an English city: politically a new royal house is in power, in reality as water washes away all the landmarks of a prosperous port. The city of Bristol suffers a terrible event one year exactly after men are executed for their alleged part in the Gunpowder Plot; a huge, tsunami-like wave washes into the city and drowns hundreds of people. This novel is a tense historical thriller featuring a man who goes by the name of Daniel Pursglove, a magician, a man with a past. Acting under threats from the highest level, he feels obliged to investigate whether another Catholic plot is brewing, and specifically if a certain Catholic leader is working in the ruined city of Bristol. The atmosphere of a town which is beyond ruined, with little food, full of unclaimed bodies and destroyed lives, is incredibly well described in this novel. In a place almost unbelievable in its destruction, threats to the vulnerable and terror, Daniel finds himself with a nearly impossible task. As facts emerge about his past life he has to react as danger seems to threaten from every side. Incidents from the court of James I and the actions of Cecil, his chief adviser in some respects, appear throughout the novel, not narrated by Daniel, but with a theme of the king’s unusual behaviour. In a time of suspicion over religion and the beliefs of every person in the kingdom, Daniel and others must watch their every step, as guilty or innocent there is the threat of betrayal and a painful ending. 

This is an intense novel of second guessing over situations of life threatening importance, where death and destruction are daily occurrences. In setting, plot and characters, this is a mature and skilfully written book with immense impact. I found it to be a compelling read with much to recommend it as a work of historical fiction and suspense. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel.  

A Prologue describes the lull that is observed in Bristol, as a busy day continues as normal. Within seconds of a man remarking on the withdrawal of the water from the port, a towering wave thunders through the city and beyond, into the countryside, picking up and drowning or brutally injuring untold numbers in its wake. Animals, workshops,homes, houses and supplies are all destroyed. As the bodys of the dead and recently living are mutilated and torn away by the sea, no one knows who will be left. Daniel is then described as being in a prison, arrested on vague charges, hoping to survive in a place of suffering. Dramatically given the option of freedom if he will go to Bristol  and try to discover the whereabouts of a potential Catholic leader, he soon finds himself in a still functioning inn on a mission with few clues and significant danger. As a ruined city tries to survive in the face of loss, a desperate and lawless people are suspicious of shadows and strangers, especially when Daniel asks questions of those who are trying to snatch a living by any means. 

Maitland is a writer so confident of her material that she handles several convoluted themes of religion, power and threat with a dark edge, including graphic descriptions of the torments of torture on slight suspicions. The near total destruction of Bristol is also unsparingly described, as well as the after effects of food shortages and the growth of crime as people try to survive. The character of Daniel emerges brilliantly from his own account of his progress and challenges, his theories about what may be going on as everything seems dark and uncertain. I believe that this is the first novel in a series; I will be keen to discover what happens next for the resourceful Daniel.  

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Julie blogs at Northern Reader.

K J Maitland, The Drowned City (Headline Review, 2021). 978-1472235985, 448pp., paperback.

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