'The Impress of Heaven,' and 'A Dragon in the Ashes,' both by Neal Roberts



Intrigued by the Shakespearean reference in the title, I came across the first book in this series, 'A Second Daniel,' some time ago. I enjoyed the well-written story set in Elizabethan England with a variety of characters, both real and fictitious, some of them members of the Jewish faith. By some miraculous turn of events, the second and third books also came into my possession recently. They continue to relate the adventures and actions of Neal Roberts' main protagonist, Noah Ames, a Jewish barrister doing his best to serve his patron, Queen Elizabeth the First, who showed him particular favour when he was a boy, and ensured that he was given the best education England could provide.

The situation of Jews in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was extremely precarious as they had not been officially allowed to settle in the country following their expulsion in the thirteenth century. Nevertheless, some Jews were able to enter and reside there, one of them being the queen's physician, Roderigo Lopez, who had converted to Christianity. After serving the queen for several years he was eventually executed on trumped-up charges, but his story runs through the first book in this series, and his name is mentioned in the succeeding two.

The author combines actual historic events and characters (e.g. the Earl of Essex, Lord Robert Cecil, Francis Bacon, and Walter Raleigh) with the fictitious characters of his own devising, embroiling them all in real events as well as incidents involving espionage, violence, drinking, sword fights, and action of every imaginable kind. In one book their objective is to regain a stolen map which could be of value to the queen's enemies, while in another it is to obtain copies of correspondence sent by the (actual) amabassador to France, Lord Walsingham, at the time of the massacre of the Protestant Huguenots by the Catholic mob in Paris and elsewhere in France. The author weaves the actual and fictitious events together so well that the reader is almost convinced that the various deeds of evil, intrigue, and derring-do really happened.

Neal Roberts is obviously well acquainted with the period about which he writes, and is even able to introduce the occasional reference to Shakespeare and one or another of his works, regarding which he is considered something of an expert. The third volume in the series (I won't call it a trilogy as there is a fourth book in the works) introduces additional Jewish characters, this time originating from Poland rather than the Iberian peninsula, embellishing this segment with a supernatural element. This rather jarred with me, I must admit, but I suppose if it was good enough for Shakespeare (in whose works ghosts, fairies and spirits abound) it must be good enough for Neal Roberts.

All in all, I can recommend these books to anyone who has an interest in Elizabethan England, the history of the Jews in Europe, and England in particular, and is not averse to a rattling good tale. My one criticism is the author's use of the present tense throughout. This may be appropriate for a screenplay, but in my view it does not enable the narrative to flow smoothly or help the reader to suspend disbelief.