Review: Fortune’s Hand by R.N. Morris (2020)

Fortune’s Hand by R.N. Morris

Blurb

Adventurer, soldier, courtier, poet, prisoner – outsider.

Drawn by ambition to Elizabeth’s court, Walter Raleigh soon becomes the queen’s favourite. But his meteoric rise attracts the enmity of powerful rivals.

Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s spy master, proves a dangerous enemy.

While the Earl of Oxford is an equally dangerous friend.

Even Elizabeth’s favour is an uncertain gift. It can be withdrawn on a whim as easily as it is granted and earns him as much trouble as it does profit.

Seeking gold for his queen and glory for himself, Raleigh launches a series of ever more reckless adventures.

The ultimate prize he dreams of is the fabled city of Eldorado in the New World. He is possessed by the dream.

After Elizabeth’s death, Raleigh fails to find favour with the new king and is imprisoned in the Tower.

To restore his reputation, he embarks on his most desperate venture yet.

By now an old and broken man, he risks everything to discover the city of his dreams.

Recommended for fans of Hilary Mantel, Joseph O’Connor and CJ Sansom.

Review

First of all, huge thanks to the author for sending me a copy of Fortune’s Hand in exchange for an honest review. I am sorry it has taken me so long to get around to reading it, especially as when I finally did, it blew me away! I think maybe the cover and tagline out me off subconsciously, as it might seem like this is a slightly dry historical tome, but it really is anything but. It also has quite small print, so if you struggle reading smaller fonts, you’d be better off getting the ebook. Right, that’s the superficial gripes dealt with, sorry. In terms of content, Fortune’s Hand was a revelation. This book is daring, different, and a real treat.

The prose is so powerful: muscular, meaty, surging – it reminded me not only of Mantel but of Emily Bullock, whose brilliant historical novel Inside the Beautiful Inside I read last year, and, like Bullock’s book, it also put me in mind of William Golding’s Rites of Passage trilogy. It is important to state that I don’t mean Morris’ prose imitates or approximates these writers – I mean it is just as strong and unique – a take-no-prisoners style (ironically, as Raleigh does his fair share of prisoner-taking) that marches to its own inexorable rhythm. What I loved most was the way the novel marries a contemporary, experimental narrative style with perfectly pitched old-fashioned language. Like Mantel, Morris inhabits his protagonist fully and utterly convincingly, so that character of Raleigh completely takes over the book. It is masterful.

Raleigh himself is depicted as complex, often unlikeable, but strangely admirable for his ability to play the game at court and, as he says of another courtier, to always land on his feet (until he doesn’t). The opening chapter gives a flavour of the kind of telescopic vision Walter possesses in the novel, sending his eyes out over the ocean and under the sea, questing and seeking out knowledge and discoveries in a beautifully poetic way. His all-seeing point of view works so gorgeously with his role as explorer, and the balance of these really quite intellectually and philosophically complex ideas of omniscience with the raw, brutal action scenes in the book is perfectly done.

All the way through Fortune’s Hand, the sublime walks hand in hand with the ridiculous, or rather, the beauty of much of the prose is shot through with coarse humour (much of which made me chuckle out loud). The swearing is some of the best I have come across – Morris takes his cue from Shakespeare and reminds us just how colourfully and crudely the Elizabethans could curse. If you object to the ‘c’ word, this is not the book for you. There is horrific violence, shocking brutality, a whole host of heinous behaviours that rip the velvet curtain from ‘genteel’ courtly ideals, and it is brilliant. Each chapter is short, almost vignette-like, and at times Morris plays with form in inventive ways that add yet another layer to this complex novel. It isn’t always easy to orientate yourself as a reader in the narrative, but I really enjoyed puzzling out where we’d got up to in Raleigh’s story.

I read this book much more quickly than I thought I would, unable to put it down. Special mention must go to the depiction of Gloriana herself: Elizabeth I is here painted as you’ve never seen her before, and it is indeed glorious. The grotesque crumbling of her face behind the white mask, the way ‘Water’ reassesses the expression in her eyes as he gets to know her better – the connection between Raleigh and Elizabeth is one of the absolute highlights of this book.

For me, the most exciting thing about historical fiction is how surprisingly contemporary and innovative it can be. Fortune’s Hand is not an easy read, both in terms of structure and subject matter, but my god it is exciting. I was left buzzing, feeling as if I had been introduced to a blazing writing talent, an author who dares to tread where others would not. It is an extraordinary work of fiction, and I’ll never be able to think of Walter Raleigh in the same way again.

Fortune’s Hand by R.N. Morris is published by Sharpe Books and is available to purchase here.

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