This highly stylized tale of espionage in volatile 17th century London after Cromwell’s death and the Restoration of the Monarchy unfolds through the adventures of its co-protagonists Beatrice Short and Oliver Prior, both of whom have been coerced into unpleasant and increasingly dangerous employment in a London bakery while acting as agents of the Crown. Both of them consider it an unlikely setting for a hotbed of conspiracy until a shrouded body appears on scene.
Beatrice Short: Beatrice is unusually literate for a young woman of the working class, no doubt because her deceased parents were teachers. She is driven by an intense desire to join the theater and is willing to risk her reputation and personal safety to achieve that goal. Because she lacks the funds for dancing and singing lessons, she accepts temporary employment in the fine house of Mr. Josephson, who is an undersecretary to a high ranking minister. Her innate curiosity immediately gets her into trouble when the householder Josephson catches her rummaging through the papers on his desk. Threatening her with retribution for her trespassory conduct, Josephson recruits her to spy on bakery owners Mr. and Mrs. Fields, who Josephson suspects are enemies of the Crown.
Oliver Prior: Beatrice is not the only person Josephson has embedded in the bakery. He has sent professional agent Oliver Prior to spy upon the establishment. Prior feels demeaned by an assignment that he deems to be beneath him. The only interesting aspect of his task is his attraction to the new chambermaid who calls herself Alice Farm the alias Beatrice has assumed. Neither knows that the other is a Josephson plant.
The Plot: Once Oliver and Beatrice are both ensconced in the bakery, the plot evolves with all of the trappings of a gripping 17th century spy story --a freshly dug hole in the garden of the adjoining residence, a forbidden room that contains an empty coffin, a body wrapped in a shroud, and a goodly dose of sexual impropriety on the part of both Mister and Mistress Fields. The first third of the book casts the net, but the true hook comes when the two spies discover just whose body is placed in the coffin.
The rising action stalls for a bit while the author builds Oliver's back-story and it takes a while to restore the momentum. However, the skill with which the author recreates the atmosphere of early Restoration London will keep most readers engaged.
Characters both major and minor are well crafted and distinguishable from one another, a formidable task in a game with many players. The author skillfully exploits the fatal flaws of her principals-- The dialog and speech patterns artfully transport the reader to 17th Century London shortly after Cromwell’s death. Social, religious, moral and political issues are woven into the story. The dark atmosphere of the London portrayed in the book rings true of the times. With one exception, the culprits are a bit too comedic to arouse the reader’s ire, which at first dulls the dramatic edge but ultimately gives authenticity to a setting in which wounds of the Civil War still fester, where there are no clear definitions of right and wrong, and in which both heros and villains are portrayed as common folks conscripted by circumstances into a contest in which they often find themselves to be ill equipped for the roles they play but who are nevertheless locked into the game. Oliver's rematch with his childhood bogle is a trifle disingenuous, but it personalizes the conflict and provides the reader with at least one villain who is irredeemably evil and easy to hate. Action scenes between Oliver and his nemesis are vivid and tense. Hint of a budding romance between Oliver and Beatrice brightens what would otherwise be a rather dark tale and yields a novel that is both clever and entertaining.
Katherine Pym’s book is a compelling excursion into Restoration London and a rewarding experience for those who enjoy well-researched historical fiction. .While I found the title somewhat illusive, readers will be drawn to the book by its provocative cover. I would not call Of Carrion Feathers a page-turner, which I consider a highly overused term. For me, the better word would be hypnotic. As an avid reader, it is rare for me to revisit a book in my mind’s eye days after I have finished it, yet the visual imagery found in Of Carrion Feathers remains vivid in my memory. . This is one I may reorder in a hardcopy –an item to be savored.
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