Any book that opens with a conversation between Katherine Parr and King Henry VIII on his deathbed has to be worth another look. “The King’s Deception” is. The author, Steve Berry, has made a good living and entertained countless readers by tinkering with history and making plausible cases that things happened the way he says.
He takes some liberties with Britain’s House of Tudor, specifically with its final monarch, known to the world as Queen Elizabeth I - Good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen, etc. In fact, Berry builds his plot in “The King’s Deception” on the premise that the queen was, well, a man in drag for his – or her – entire reign. Elizabeth ruled from 1558 to 1603. It doesn’t hurt berry’s case that the person we know as Queen Elizabeth I wasn’t particularly attractive, didn’t let her doctors – or anyone else - examine her, wore clothing that concealed her femininity, ordered that no autopsy be conducted, loaded up on the make-up and wigs, and after a time, insisted that in portraits, her face was to be painted as if she were young.
As for who stood in for Elizabeth, that would have been the son of Henry FitzRoy, who was one of Henry VIII’s dozen or so illegitimate children. FitzRoy died before Henry did. Whether he fathered a son isn’t known, but in the author’s imagination, he did. Conveniently, FitzRoy’s boy was slender, fair-skinned, redheaded and about Elizabeth’s age. As for Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter with Anne Boleyn, she also predeceased Henry, who died in 1547.
It makes for fascinating reading, all the more so because of the role Robert Cecil’s writings play in the story. Robert Cecil was Elizabeth’s secretary of state for the last years of her reign. He gained that position largely because his father, William Cecil, filled that position for the most of her years in power.
Yes, Berry takes liberties with Robert Cecil’s diary, excerpts of which are among the book’s highlights.
In terms of contemporary intrigue, there’s plenty. The book’s title also is the name of a fictitious CIA operation in 2009 to determine whether Elizabeth really had been a man and had ruled fraudulently. If so, the information was to be used as leverage to force the Brits to prevent Scotland from freeing Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who had been convicted of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988.
Yes, it’s little far-fetched, but so is “Star Wars.” And it works.
The protagonist is Cotton Malone, who ought to be familiar to Steve Berry readers. Malone is a flawed hero, is divorced from a good woman and has a bright but naïve son. Malone is involved because he’s been manipulated by the bad guy in the story, Blake Antrim, who happens to be the lead agent in the plot to uncover the truth about Queen Elizabeth I. Antrim is despicable through and through, in fact, too much so.
In addition to Malone, Antrim finds himself pitted against British intelligence and the Daedalus Society, another of the author’s creations.
In addition to an imaginative tale, Berry takes the reader on walking - or sometimes running - tours of some of the London area’s most important sights.
Among these are the Tower of London, Hampton Court, Windsor Castle and the Inns of Court, sites for which he demonstrates appropriate appreciation.
And for readers who need to brush up on Tudor England, the author does an earnest job of separating fact from fiction in notes after the story’s end. They, too, make good reading.