What is it about pirates that so enthralls us? In other criminals the murder, mayhem and misogyny would be regarded as repulsive. But pirates are increasingly romanticised in fiction - from The Pirates of Penzance to Jack Sparrow, they are no longer the terrifying villains of old but now are viewed as swashbuckling heroes.
William Harley, Clarenceux King of Arms, the herald at the centre of James Forrester's excellent series, confronts this question of pirates himself. Clarenceux (as he is known), now in his second Elizabethan conspiracy-thriller The Roots Of Betrayal, is thrust into the pirate life when he finds himself in the company of the wonderfully named Raw Carew, a privateer prowling the English channel in search of "Catholic treasure".
Clarenceux too is seeking the same treasure, although he understands that it is not gold, but a document whose content is so explosive it threatens not just Elizabeth's legitimacy on the throne but also the lives of those who have it in their possession and even those who see it.
As their twin quests collide, so do their very different world views. Clarenceux is essentially an academic, a researcher who travels the land documenting the heraldic claims of the landed gentry. He has had adventure forced on him by his protection of, and subsequent loss of, said document. (For back story, see Sacred Treason). Carew, by contrast, is the bastard son of a nobleman who fled a life of poverty in Calais - where he had been abandoned to his fate with his prostitute mother - for a life of crime on the high seas. Carew is a charismatic man of action, governed only by his desire to make a living for himself in his chosen profession and his Robin Hoodesque credo of looking after the poor and oppressed.
Despite witnessing Carew's violence, philandering and piracy - and indeed being its victim - Clarenceux, a religious man, cannot help but be drawn to the man, and ultimately they end up allies of sorts, drawn together by a mutual quest for survival.
The relationship between the two men and their adventures is the heart of an enjoyable novel that moves along at a good enough pace, with action and intrigue balanced by Forrester's natural inclination towards detail - political, social, historical. (In real life, Forrester is historian Ian Mortimer).
Both men have also been betrayed. Carew has been betrayed by his father; but Clarenceux is not entirely sure by whom he has been betrayed. The document, much sought after both by crown loyalists and rebellious Catholics alike has been stolen from him, placing his life in danger. The Queen's attack dog Francis Walsingham - still smarting at being out-manoeuvered by Clarenceux in the original quest for the document - seeks to pin treason on Clarenceux, who is left without a soul to trust until he runs painfully into Carew.
If on occasion Forrester gets bogged down in period detail, he can be forgiven because ultimately the vivid Tudor canvass he paints enriches a lively story. And if the plot is perhaps just a little too reminscent of Sacred Treason, it doesn't matter too much as Carew arrives to give it a steroidal shot in the arm.
This is a fine historical novel, full of intrigue and drama and I look forward to the promised third part of the trilogy, The Final Sacrament, when it is published next year.