Traitor in the Ice by K.J. Maitland

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Review by Julie Barham

This book is a powerful, sometimes brutal historical novel set in the  winter of 1607, when life seemed frozen by a cold that exploded trees and robbed people of life if they were caught outside without shelter and many layers of warm clothes. It is the second in a series which began with The Drowned City (reviewed here), in which the elusive Daniel Pursglove searched the flooded city of Bristol for an infamous traitor, but this novel stands alone as Daniel is sent to infiltrate a Catholic household.  Being a devout Catholic in the reign of staunchly Protestant King James I (James VI of Scotland) is dangerous, being a Catholic priest is seen a positively traitorous, and Battle Abbey is home not only to the devout Lady Montague but allegedly offers sanctuary to priests who are being ruthlessly hunted. The relatively recent Gunpowder Plot has also raised the stakes for many suspected of involvement at any level. Daniel knows that treachery is all around, but so is unexplained death and deceit – as the question about this book is asked “How do you unmask a killer when nobody is who they seem?”

Maitland’s writing is simply amazing. In a world of secret hiding places for priests in every room, creaking floorboards that can betray the curious and desperate and a fear of discovery that pervades everyday, Daniel must operate as a spy who is playing the part of a catholic sympathiser pretending to be a lowly servant for his own and everyone else’s safety. In a world of whispers and suspicion, a great freeze comes which not only makes life difficult; it is also a deadly force for anyone caught outside without proper preparation. A Drowned City felt dangerous enough for Daniel, but in this novel insidious cold not only hampers the most basic of movements, but also preserves the dead with their many secrets. This book is so well written that I felt the cold, could visualise everything held in suspension in ice, experience the tension of wondering what would happen next in a world where nothing was trustworthy. This is powerful writing which contrasts a courtly world of Kings, courtiers and conspiracies with the basics of a frozen Abbey building and grounds in the grip of an unexpected freeze. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent book.

It opens with a death, a Prologue of a man travelling, in which “The bitter cold had savaged every field and forest, byre and barn. The wolf’s bite they called it, for the beast had sunk its sharp teeth into the heart of the land”. This marks only the beginning of a freeze that will transform a household already poised on the instant to hide the objects and symbols of  proscribed religious practice, but where the people also face the very real possibility of torture and death on suspicion of a unknown betrayer. It is into this world that Daniel is sent,with only his quick wits and secret skills to aid him, to investigate how one sent to expose the true nature of the abbey was made to disappear before he could report back to London.

Daniel is chosen for his mysterious and colourful past, his upbringing in a catholic household, and his ability to conceal his real mission. He becomes embroiled in the affairs of the Abbey on his journey, and his discovery of a man trapped in woodland gives him a reason to enter the household as a servant charged with the daily routine of looking after mysterious guests who are seeking more than simple hospitality. Encountering the strong minded Lady Montague he gathers the nature of her control of the establishment, and can only guess at the true nature of her ward, Katheryne. As his search for the notorious Spero Pettingar continues, can he avoid the daily danger of living on the edge?

This is an incredible book which features real historical characters in a fierce and successful narrative. I recommend this novel to all who enjoy historical fiction, and want a vivid read which brings alive a time and a place in real depth and with true understanding.

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Julie blogs at Northern Reader.

K J Maitland, Traitor in the Ice (Headline Review, 2022). 978-1472275455, 419pp., hardback.

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1 comment

  1. I loved this one as well. The historical backdrop and detail, also the great frost are excellently done

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