Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.
Here is the jacket blurb of The Spy of Venice by Benet Brandreth to show why I was interested in reading this historical novel:
CJ Samson meets Shakespeare in Love - a historical thriller with a swashbuckling twist and a hero like you've never seen him before. When he's caught out by one ill-advised seduction too many, young William Shakespeare flees Stratford to seek his fortune. Cast adrift in London, Will falls in with a band of players - but greater men have their eye on this talented young wordsmith.
England's very survival hangs in the balance, and Will finds himself dispatched to Venice on a crucial embassy. Dazzled by the city's masques - and its beauties - Will little realises the peril in which he finds himself. Catholic assassins would stop at nothing to end his mission on the point of their sharpened knives, and lurking in the shadows is a killer as clever as he is cruel.
As a new convert to the historical thrillers of C.J. Samson, I thought I would enjoy this one. The premise is promising. Unfortunately, the story takes a long time to get going, and even though at 448 pages it isn’t overly long, it reads much longer.
Roughly the first half of the book is taken up setting the stage for the adventure. It establishes young Will Shakespeare as a thoroughly unlikeable character, a man far too full of himself, whose idea of a clever prank to forestall the vengeance of a powerful townsman he has insulted is to seduce that man’s pretty young daughter. Since the girl doesn’t mind, I suppose we are supposed to cheer his lark. But it brings down more trouble on his doting parents and long-suffering wife and children and he’s banished to London. He’s a bit miffed to learn that his family is able to get along happily without him. He joins forces with a troupe of players, making some new enemies along the way, none of whom will actually be important to the plot. This set-up plods along, but I continued reading with the hope that the pace would pick up when Shakespeare and his crew finally connected with the main thread of the story.
There are other forces at play. Already at odds with the Pope, England fears she will soon be at war with Catholic Spain. She needs an ally and turns her face to Venice, a powerful city whose only allegiance is to whoever serves her interests. The Queen’s spymaster is setting out to offer an alliance to Venice. For some reason, he feels the need for an additional spy, someone who is clever but not too clever, so he searches around for a player and chooses Will.
Finally, the story moves on to Venice. It’s a fairly dull trip, necessarily punctuated by the spymaster’s lecturing to Will about current politics, until their company is accosted by that of the villain, an agent of the Pope.
Once the meat of the story begins, the pace picks up, but the complicated plotting of the various people involved is laid out in such detail that there isn’t much mystery or suspense. Things just have to wind their way to the violent conclusion. Since we know William Shakespeare has gone on to better things (and will incorporate names and situations from his Venice adventure into his later plays), there isn’t even much concern how things will end for him. The goals of the main characters are fairly straightforward and credible, but some of the situations are not particularly plausible.
Overall, the story at half the length would have been an enjoyable romp but I was out of patience before the spy ever made it to Venice so I don’t think I was able to appreciate the unfolding of the tale.