The King’s Deception by Steve Berry (Ballantine Books; 432 pages; $27).
Cotton Malone returns in Steve Berry’s newest novel The King’s Deception and the stakes have never been higher. I am a huge Malone fan, and I must say that Berry’s eighth installment in the Malone series is his best and his most controversial yet. The King’s Deception made my heart pound, my pulse race, and my eyes go wide. I predict all Malone fans will have similar reactions.
The King’s Deception is actually a flashback. Malone relives an experience he had two years previously in a conversation with his ex-wife, Pam.
Not only does Berry focus on Malone, his main character, but he also provides us perspectives from a wide-range of narrators, adeptly and easily juggling a large cast. The insight we gain from these multiple viewpoints enhances the tale and makes us aware of many things that Malone himself is heedless of.
It all begins when Malone and his son Gary travel to Europe. Recent revelations have stunned the father-son duo and they need quality time together to talk. In other words, their luggage is not the only baggage they carry with them on their trip.
Malone has also agreed to do a favor for his former boss at the Justice Department, Stephanie Nelle. Accompanying Malone and Gary is Ian, a fugitive teen from England.
If you expect a smooth ride, then you’ve never read one of Berry’s Cotton Malone novels. Nothing is ever as Malone expects it to be. A simple favor leads to a showdown that evolves into an international incident. At the heart of which is the terrorist convicted of bombing Pan Am Flight 103, who the Scottish government has agreed to release for humanitarian purposes: the bomber is dying of cancer. Malone finds himself in the middle of a politically-charged environment, an area in which he usually shines and this is no exception.
It’s a formula that continues to work for Berry, who modeled his protagonist partly on himself when he first created his personality for The Templar Legacy. Berry says he and Malone share a lot of attributes: “The love of rare books. He doesn’t like enclosed spaces, I don’t either. He doesn’t drink alcohol. He has finicky eating habits, so do I. I, of course, don’t jump out of planes and shoot guns at bad guys, so I live that through him.” Berry is just as talented at creating his antagonists, such as CIA operative Blake Antrim, who shares a rather unexpected connection with Gary.
If the above were not enough, Berry goes one step further, introducing a mind-boggling but intriguing historical mystery involving Queen Elizabeth I. The King’s Deception claims that Elizabeth was really a man in disguise. And not just any man, but the son of King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son. The real Elizabeth, according to Berry’s fascinating tale, died as a child and an imposter was put in her place. The truth was kept a secret, especially from the king.
Bunk, you say? Well, the story is tantalizing but not wholly implausible. Berry thinks the myth is “both possible and fascinating.” “The most wonderful fiction,” he explains, “always has a ring of truth to it. Here, everything centers around the Bisley Boy legend. Three years ago, Elizabeth [his wife] and I were north of London doing some publicity work for my British publisher when our guide told me about a local legend. In the village of Bisley, for many centuries on a [certain] day, the locals would dress a young boy in female Elizabethan costume and parade him through the streets. How odd. I then discovered that Bram Stoker [author of Dracula], in the early part of the 20thcentury, also heard the tale and wrote about it in a book called Famous Imposters, which I read. I then began to read about Elizabeth I and learned of many odd things associated with her.” A story idea was thus born.
If this conspiracy theory were true, the implications would be vast. Berry plays devil’s advocate here: “What does it matter if this thing happened in history? How is that still relevant today? So what if Queen Elizabeth I was an imposter?” “Actually it would matter a great deal,” Berry elucidates. “Great Britain itself would dramatically change, and not without violence. This possible ‘so what’ was such a threat that my British publisher asked me to tone things down a bit so we don’t provide folks with any ideas.” Conspiracy theory or not, Berry offers readers something to ponder and even investigate for themselves.
With fast-paced action, fully realized and complex characters, and a brilliant mystery at its heart, The King’s Deception is an explosive and pulsing historical thrill ride—one I wanted to get on all over again.