Tom Williams is an English Author, Inline skater, and Tango dancer who splits his time between London and Wales. His Majesty’s Confidential Agent is his 3rd book of fiction (the previous ones were The White Rajah and Cawnpore), and his first one published by Accent Press.
In keeping with his earlier oeuvre this is, again, fictionalised history; but in a break from the previous two books which told of historic events through the eyes of the fictional John Williamson we now have an actual historical character as the protagonist. The character in question is one James Burke, an English spy during the Napoleonic wars (18th/19th century for those less educated in History/too lazy to google); and who seems to be at the heart of Tom William’s new series 'The Burke Papers'.
The book begins with James Burke, born in Ireland, serving as a Lieutenant in the French army because he cannot afford the commission for the English one. He is in Haiti, fighting an uprising of slaves, led by the near-mythical Boukman (or Bookman). Through a twist of fate, driven by political upheavals in far-away Europe, he eventually ends up as an officer in the English army, and subsequently as a spy, due to his facility with languages.
In this new role he is sent to Argentina - at that time in Spanish possession (England being at war with Spain), and source of much of Spain’s silver. His main task is to follow up on the rumours of Argentinian freedom fighters, and to aid them. Obviously not to create a free Argentinian country, but to destabilise Spanish rule (and thus income), and potentially prepare for a English take-over. But he did not expect to fall in love with the wife of his (English) host, who is also the lover of a Spanish Admiral. Or with the country and its people…
James Burke is a real historical persona; and so are most of the other characters in the story; and the major events which take place are all in the history books. Still, as Williams points out, Burke must have been a very good spy, as we know very little detail about him and his doings. Of course this gives a writer of historical fiction quite some scope to play with - something which Tom Williams does to great effect here.
The characters are vivid, and (in the main) believable as human beings, and the story draws you in and takes you along instead of simply giving the feeling that it only colours in the gaps between known historical events, as so often is the case.
At the front of the book we get a very helpful Dramatis personae, indicating who in the story is/was a real figure from history (and who they are/were), and who is purely a fictional character. We also get an Author’s note, mainly reiterating that James Burke was real, was an English spy, and has nothing to do with the famous (fictional) spy he shares his initials with. After the story we get a coda explaining where the main characters went on to (or not, in some cases) after the period the story covers, and we get a Historical Note, outlining William’s approach to historical truth (inasmuch as such a thing exists) and some of the freedoms he took, and why.
The story itself is told in the 3rd person, with varying levels of details. Whilst some parts are reported life, in full detail, and with lengthy exchanges and blow-by-blow descriptions of the action there are other parts which feel only sketched in, reported, without much character engagement - evidently areas the author thought were not of central interest to the story told, but needed to be there to take the reader from one part of the story to the next. I didn’t find this problematic or distracting from the story, but the difference in storytelling and pacing was substantial enough to make this very noticable.
We get some contemporary barbs thrown in (unified Europe without obstacles to trade, Falklands, etc) which were fun to spot; and I have to confess that I do not understand the subtitle (In the land of silver, he dreams of gold) - yes, Argentina is the land of silver (think about it), but no idea about the gold reference. But that might only be me who's slow, of course - it's a minor niggle, as is the (not the first time in a Tom Williams book) slightly hard-to-believe facility with languages by the main protagonist. Or maybe it's just me who's linguistically challenged...
What really struck me was how much smoother the storytelling feels in comparison to the earlier books - either this was edited differently (and much more thorougly), or this is experience and growing skill on parts of the author showing itself (or a bit of both, of course). Either way - this is an very readable and enjoyable tale of historic derring-do, and much recommended. You can (and should) get it in electronic or paper copy, from all the usual outlets.
Postscript - this meanwhile appears to have been re-published under the variant title of "Burke in the Land of Silver", with "His Majesty's Confidential Agent" as the new series title. The vagaries of publishing and book promotion, I suspect...
More Tom Williams
Title: His Majesty’s Confidential Agent
Title: In the Land of Silver He Dreams of Gold
Series: James Burke Papers
Series Number: 1
Author: Tom Williams
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher: Accent Press
Publisher URL: http://www.accentpress.co.uk
Publication Date: May 2014
Review Date: 140730
Topic: Secret Agent
Topic: Historical Fiction