With a narrative that grips the reader like a detective story, Antonia Fraser brings the characters and events of the Gunpowder Plot to life. Dramatically recreating the conditions and motives that surrounded the fateful night of November 5, 1605, she unravels the tangled web of religion and politics that spawned the plot.
©1996 Antonia Fraser (P)2003 W F Howes Ltd
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"detailed but never dull"
Antonia Fraser writes with a superb command of the period, and adds richness and texture with detail that never distracts. In short, she draws the many threads of this complex story together beautifully, with empathy and freshness.
"Good, thorough but a little ponderous"
I listen to a lot of history books on Audible and was expecting to really enjoy this account of the Gunpowder Plot. Antonia Fraser is a well respected writer and is known for enjoyable, approachable books so why didn't this one do it for me?
There is no disputing the thoroughness of the account nor the quality of the writing which is always approachable and brought to life very well by Patricia Gallimore (whose delivery reminded me a lot of Anna Massey's narration of This Sceptred Isle - a very high endorsement). In principle everything was there for a thoroughly enjoyable listen and it certainly wasn't bad. But that's all it was, "not bad".
I think there were two things that stopped me engaging with the book fully. The pace of the story and the lack of a coherent theme.
Firstly the pacing. I think the subject, the gunpowder treason, simply doesn't have enough facets to it to justify a populist book of this length. I am sure there is near endless academic analysis and discussion that can be justified by the minutiae but in trying to fill the book out it feels like Fraser is retreading the same ground or dawdling on minor elements. She provides a lot of useful and interesting context on catholic persecution of the time but this never feels properly linked into the core story.
This point about not really pulling the wider story of Catholicism in late Tudor and early Stuart England together with the plot itself plays into my second criticism as well. Given the length of the book I would expect an exploration of wider themes or the expounding of theories and equivalents. Although Fraser touches on the ideas of terrorism and engenders much sympathy for the wider catholic population it is never clear what conclusions she is trying to draw. Maybe this is deliberate but I found it frustrating.
Overall then, this is a passable listen with an excellent narrator
"An excellent telling of the gunpowder treason."
It can be a bit difficult keeping track of all the actors in this narrative, which is often the case in histories such as these. It will probably require a second listen to get the fullest out of it.
Otherwise, the general plot is well told and it conveys the sense of the times well. You are impressed by what is both an ancient and yet frighteningly modern police state. It's actually surprisingly relevant to today's problems with religious extremism and terrorism.
"Too much irrelevant details"
Would have been better with an abridged version, struggled to stay interested by the end.
"Breaths life into a familiar story"
Antonia Fraser tells the story of the gunpowder plot through a gripping character based piece of narrative history. The main characters; King James, Robin Catesby and Guy Fawkes (who, it turns out was a relatively junior member of the plot) are brought to life through insightful testimonies from friends, enemies and even their torturers. Fraser starts with James' accession to the throne and the hopes that this inspired in English catholics that they might regain some freedom of worship. James allows them to think they might get it but he was adept at letting people believe that he was on their side because he'd had to become a superb high stakes politician as he grew up amongst the ultra-violent Scottish nobility. When it became clear that things weren't going to get much better the catholic community in England were riven by a split between those who favoured militant resistence and others who believed that patience and discretion would eventually win freedom of expression.
Through diligent research Fraser is able to paint highly compelling pictures of a wide cast characters. She fleshes them out as real people and excites sympathy without letting them off the hook for the awful things they either did or planned to do. The gunpoweder plotters themselves come across as a charismatic and courageous group who had been brought up as a persecuted minority. But they were still terrorists who regarded innocent casualties as a price worth paying. James may be an evil smelling woman hating lier but he got that way because of his terrible childhood. She also shows us a number of catholic families so we get a sense of how difficult the state made their lives, how they worried about their sons becoming terrorists and the hight cost they paid when the plot came to light even when they had no involvement in it.
"Perhaps a little too much detail"
Antonia Fraser is a first class, unbiassed historian and I did enjoy this book very much. However, I may have enjoyed an abridged version more, as the detail is very intricate and sometimes a bit tedious, it really depends on how much detail you like in your histories. I believe most of her books also have abridged versions and I think i will try one of those next time.
"Another solid history from Antonia Fraser"
As always, Fraser managed to deal with an incendiary piece of history in a fair and balanced way. I've definitely filled a big gap in my knowledge of UK history, which is good.
Also, I'm going to have to see what else has been done by the narrator, because I was easily listening to it on 2x speed without it sounding strange.
"I never knew that"
Haven't tried the print version so I cannot comment
What an intriguing insight into the diverse background to the plot
It was the wide picture I enjoyed
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