Review for 'To Untie a Sealed Knot' ... "a fitting end to a powerful trilogy" says Frank Ruhrmund.
Book Review Frank Ruhrmund in The Cornishman, Thursday August 17th, 2017: “By Neptune’s black beard an’ take my cods for whale-bait!” as the skipper of the good ship Dolphin, Pasco Jago, whose wife Goody Jago was said to have once sank three enemy ships just by spitting at them, would say, but S J Haxton has kept her word. On completion of the second book in her Pendennis trilogy she said that the third and final one would be with us in 2017, and here it is. Within its cover she tells of what the future holds for the three women, Grace Godwynne, Hester Phipps and Mary Carew, featured in book one and two, Exposed to All Villainies and A Cord of Three Strands. While it helps to have read them, it is not essential as To Untie a Sealed Knot is a stand-alone novel which, together with the useful notes and references its author provides, can be enjoyed for its own sake. A lecturer and historical education consultant for English Heritage, a specialist in 16th and 17th century Cornwall, who was based at Pendennis Castle for several years, it was the voices of the “unknown, unnamed wo3mn and children” who survived the siege of Pendennis Castle in 1646 that spoke to her from the castle’s granite walls that inspired SJ Haxton to pick up the pen, or quill, to tell something of their stories and of the troubled times in which they lived and died. The last Royalist stronghold to surrender to the Parliamentarians during the first English Civil War, the end of its five months-long siege was but one event in a war which not only saw families, friends and neighbours on opposite sides, but also saw a split in the unity of Cornwall’s leading families, those who wielded power in the county: the Bassets of Tehidy and the Grenvilles, Vyvyans, and St Aubyns being “For God and the King”, and the Boscawens, Sir Alexander Carew and Lord Robartes being for the Parliamentarians. A period of considerable unrest to say the least, when it was difficult to say for certain who was a friend or enemy, when the loss of life in the various battles and skirmishes was horrendous and revenge was often swift and merciless, with considerable skill SJ Haxton captures all the uncertainty of the age, while also drawing a powerful portrait of what life and possible death must have been like for all those who had accepted either the King’s or Cromwell’s shilling and actually went to war. The next best thing to being there, a seamless blend of fact and fiction, although it all happened a long time ago, she makes one aware of everything that was tough at the time, from how hard it must have been even for those lucky enough to survive the fighting, post-traumatic stress disorder was light years away, to the transport problems of the day, how long it took by boat, horseback or on foot to get from one place to another, not to mention how remote and isolated Cornwall was from the rest of the country. The Sealed Knot in question, of course, was the secret Royalist association that co-ordinated underground activities in the country in preparation for a general uprising and restoration of the monarchy. Largely ineffective due to the treachery of Sir Richard Willis who fed information about its activities to Colonel John Thurloe, Cromwell’s spy master, that eventually saw the execution for treason in Exeter in 1655 of Colonel John Penruddock, one of its prominent members, it provides the perfect background for SJ Haxton’s tale, which in many ways, is an intriguing detective story. One told by a Bideford-born Lieutenant, later Captain, Daniel Edwards, a likeable leading character despite having changed his uniform from that of the King’s to the army of Parliament, and who in his defence says, “I’m a professional soldier, I fight where I’m told,” like life itself, it’s not so simple or straightforward as that. Caught, as it were, “betwixt a hammer and an anvil”, one of the three women he had once seen amongst the “thousand luckless souls, the rag-taggle Royalists who marched out of a Cornish fortress on the Fal”, Hester Phipps happens to be the love of his life, and it is his search for her and his undercover quest for one who might or might not be a murderer, that form the core of To Untie a Sealed Knot. Whether Daniel succeeds or not in his quest, or whether anyone manages to untie the Sealed Knot eventually, I dare not spoil by saying but leave to the reader to discover. Suffice to say that from deceits to depositions, loves to loyalties, Cavaliers to Roundheads, from its cover by Claire Chamberlain to its last few words, a testimonial to one of the real rather than the fictional persons of the story, Colonel Lewis Tremayne, who “never had the reputation of a cruell (sic) ill-natured Insolent or Tyrannical person in Command or Conversation”, To Untie a Sealed Knot by SJ Haxton, with cover design by local artist, published by Boswell Book Publishing at £7.99, and available form independent local bookshops or from the author is a rattling good read. With the siege of Pendennis ended and on the afternoon of August 17, 1646, its starving occupants came out “with colours flying, trumpets sounding, drums beating, matches lighted at both end and bullets in their mouths”, plus the unnamed women and children who had survived, not forgetting those who, sadly, had not, it was later described as a “fitting close to the Civil war in Cornwall”. Now SJ Haxton’s To Untie a Sealed Knot could hardly be a more fitting end to her remarkable and powerful trilogy.