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The King’s Codebreaker

Andrew Douglas

Average Review Rating Average Rating 8/10 (1 Review)
Book Details

Publisher : Matador

Published : 2010

Copyright : Andrew Douglas 2010

ISBN-10 : PB 1-84876-401-4
ISBN-13 : PB 978-1-84876-401-9

Publisher's Write-Up

In the summer of 1643, while bloody war rages across England, scholarly Thomas Hill receives an unexpected summons from the King, and travels reluctantly from his home in Romsey to the royal court at Oxford, leaving his widowed sister and her daughters to fend for themselves. Having learnt that his predecessor was murdered, he takes over as the King's cryptographer.

There is evidence of a traitor at court, and when a message is intercepted, encrypted with the unbreakable Vigenere square, Thomas thinks it will reveal his identity. His suspicions are confirmed when his old tutor and lover are viciously murdered, he is run down in the street, his room is ransacked, and he is thrown, on a false charge, into the notorious Oxford Castle gaol, where he contracts gaol fever. To reveal the identity of the traitor, and save himself, Thomas must break the unbreakable cipher. That will not, however, be an easy task.

The King's Codebreaker is the first in a trilogy of Thomas Hill stories. The second, Blessed Rain, is completed, and the third, Quicksilver, is underway.

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Reader Reviews

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Review by Chrissi (311010) Rating (8/10)

Review by Chrissi
Rating 8/10
Andrew Douglas has set his novel in the English Civil War, an age of which I am not really that familiar, so this was always going to be quite intriguing. I understood prior to reading this that the armies of that war were not particularly well behaved, from a visit to Lincoln Cathedral, I knew that the Brasses from inside the Cathedral were stolen by Parliamentary troops and that they kept men and horses inside the building.

This story centres on Thomas Hill, living with his widowed sister and her children and earning a living as a writer and bookseller in Romsey. Thomas had studied at Oxford and so, when his tutor recommends to the King a replacement for his Codebreaker, he remembers his student and a man is despatched to ask Thomas to come to work for the King. Thomas travels to the Royal Court at Oxford and is engaged, starting with deciphering letters from men loyal to the King, whose letters and reports cannot be read as their code words were known only to the previous, and now deceased Codemaster.

Thomas is then given an intercepted letter, and with no information on how to decipher it, he sets about performing each known method in an attempt to break the code. This action is explained in the narrative and leads Thomas to believe that he is looking at a Vigenère Square, known to people using codes and considered unbreakable at that point for over 70 years. The insertion of the codebreaking methods is not obtrusive to the flow of the story; you almost share his frustration in not being able to get it to yield the secrets.

At the time that Thomas makes this realisation, he finds himself accused of the murder of his tutor and thrown in gaol. He is rescued by his friends and hidden in an Abbey, where he finds that the man he suspected of treachery and murder has been hunting furiously for him. He resumes his work on the letter, now of the utmost importance as it may reveal the names of the traitors and provide a means for him to prove his innocence.

I understand that there are two more Thomas books on the way, and having set the background, it would be interesting to see how he develops as a character. I appreciate that the first of a trilogy has so much scene setting and reader engagement to do, and then the second two are when the author and readers can really start to enjoy themselves. I look forward to meeting with Thomas again.

It seems somewhat apt that I should be reviewing a fictional book on codebreaking when I also have written this month about my fascination for codes and puzzles. I enjoyed the dissection process that Thomas uses to break the code, a feat that is attributed to either Friedrich Kasiski in 1863 or Charles Babbage in 1854.
Chrissi (31st October 2010)

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