I liked the book right up to the thrilling dénouement, and then I wasn't so sure. Like Shardlake, Harry Brett is an observer in a world gone mad. The principal action takes place in 1940, after Franco's coalition has won the civil war and is attempting to rebuild a flattened country. Ideologues have turned murderous. Factions have split into warring sub-factions. The established church is collaborating with evil. Honesty is not necessarily the best policy, for nothing is as it seems.
Somewhat too-frequent flashbacks give the backstory: class resentments, romance, a war injury. English characters--the three men, a female nurse, various embassy employees--are well developed; Spanish characters less so. Knowing next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War, I found myself consulting old history textbooks and Wikipedia to try to understand the references (this slowed down my reading, but I learned a lot). And once I was up to speed, I was drawn into the story's romance, intrigue, and terror.
Sansom, a professional historian, knows how to bring other times, other places alive. Historical and geographical detail illuminates but does not blind. As I read, I found the same thought going through my mind that haunted me as I read the Tudor books: Something like this could happen here. Bitter antagonism between ideological enemies; willingness to harm others for the sake of political beliefs; powerful deal-makers enriching themselves at the expense of the people they govern--is our fractious society preparing once again for similar horrors?
Near the end of the book, one of the main characters says something striking:
"The people, the ordinary people, it looks like they've lost but one day, one day people won't be manipulated and hounded by bosses and priests and soldiers any more; one day they will free themselves, live with freedom and dignity as people were meant to."This affirmation of hope jumped off the page, probably because I've just read a forthcoming book by Desmond and Mpho Tutu called Made for Goodness. Confidence like this--in the Tutus' case, bolstered by faith in God--kept Archbishop Tutu going during apartheid. But by book's end, Madrid's confidence seems to run out, replaced by cynicism. That is no reason to avoid the book, however. It's a good read, and very thought provoking. I'd like to know what thoughts it provokes in you.