Beware the Lizard Lurking is the second book in Vivienne Brereton’s House of the Red Duke series which follows the fortunes of the House of Howard and the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, the elderly Thomas Howard.
While Phoenix Rising, the first book, ranged over the years between 1497 and 1520, Beware the Lizard Lurking follows a strict chronology between January and July 1513. It begins where Phoenix Rising left off, with a marriage in Cornwall, and ends with Henry VIII’s invasion of France. The cast of characters are similar, from the historical actors of the period including Henry VIII, James IV of Scotland and his wife Margaret Tudor, Thomas Wolsey, Anne and Mary Bullen/Boleyn, and Thomas Howard himself as well as the fictional characters—Cecily Tredavoe and her cousin Tristan d’Ardres, Nicolas de la Barre the ward of Tristan’s father, and the bane of Tristan’s life, eight-year-old neighbour, Valentine d’Fleury.
Thomas Howard sits at the centre, connecting all the actors in some way, at times looking back on an eventful life without too much regret despite the turns of Dame Fortune’s wheel. At 70, he is still the driving force within his family, with a strong sense of his family’s importance and position within the kingdom, a man for whom power is everything. Brereton’s characterization shows a man with a softer side who can feel sympathy for the plight of others but is still willing to use these same people as pawns and who will let nothing get in the way of the advancement of his family. We also see other characters in the novel in ways not often shown. Thomas Wolsey, in 1513 on the brink of attaining highest office, is portrayed as a man capable of great tenderness to his mistress and surprising compassion to his old adversary, Thomas Howard, shaken by grief at the death of his best loved son. The young Henry VIII is almost boyish in his enthusiasms whether it is for games on the frozen ice or for a war he wants as much to prove himself as for any other reason. Less savoury aspects of his character are glimpsed, aspects that would come to the fore later in his life—his willingness to play his advisers off against each other for his own amusement and to put them in their place, his petulance when he doesn’t get his own way.
And while we know what the future will hold for the historical characters, the futures of the fictional characters are unknown. These characters provide sometimes surprising links between the historical characters and also allow a closer view of the difficulties of the age—the problems when marriages are arranged for reasons other than the well being of the parties involved, when young people are forced onto life paths not of their choosing or even liking, and how decisions made in the past reach out and affect the future decades ahead. Cecily Tredavoe, who despite having loving parents and not being as highly placed young women like Anne Bullen and Elizabeth Stafford, is as much a pawn in the plans of important men. Tristan d’Ardres’ future in the Church has been planned out for him not withstanding his lack of enthusiasm and clear unsuitability. Nicolas de la Barre, despite the prospect of a military career, faces an unwanted arranged marriage. Tristan’s relationship with Nicolas, their rivalry both for Guy d’Ardres’ approval and for the eligible women in their lives, also touches on the intricacies of life in the large households of the times and possibly, even, the question of nature and upbringing.
The cast of characters is large but each person is well rounded and distinct. While Beware the Lizard Lurking can be read as a standalone novel, to get the best from the series and to watch the the growth of the characters, the books should be read in order. The story is told with multiple viewpoints, both of the historical and the fictional characters, mainly in the third person. The first person point of view is limited to Thomas Howard , Cecily Tredavoe and Tristan d’Ardres.
There are beautiful descriptions in Beware the Lizard Lurking from Thomas More chasing dropped manuscript pages in the snow to a candlelit chapel or sled races on the frozen Thames. The prose is fluid and unobtrusive with enough contemporary terms, understandable in their context, to make the reader aware of the period.
While the novel only covers seven months in 1513, there is a firm narrative drive with moments of action and tension and a definite atmosphere of unease by the end with the approach of war. Yet it is better described as an immersion in the age rather than a race to the final page. When finished, The House of the Red Duke will be a series for those who want to live and breathe the early 16th century. It is a vast undertaking and the story is by no means finished. I suspect there will be a number of volumes more before we know the ultimate fates of Cecily, Tristan, Nicolas and the bratty Valentine.