Book Review: The Poison Machine by Robert J. Lloyd

In a thrilling sequel to Robert J. Lloyd's The Bloodless Boy — a New York Times Best New Historical Novel of 2021 — early scientists Harry Hunt and Robert Hooke of the Royal Society stumble on a plot to kill the Queen of England. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

What an extraordinarily absorbing historical mystery, filled with just as much swashbuckling derring-do as it is intellectual conundrums! Robert J. Lloyd draws from real figures and events of the 17th-century to frame his exciting tale of a young scientist seeking out the truth under the most perilous of circumstances.

In 1679 London, Harry Hunt faces humiliation after a disastrous showing in front of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. Thinking his goal of becoming a Royal Society Curator now well outside his grasp, he spurns the comforting words of his mentor, renowned scientist and professor Robert Hooke, and decides, despite both their misgivings, to accept a position as Investigator with the Board of Ordnance instead.

Harry has worked with the Board of Ordnance before, and does not truly relish becoming embroiled in their machinations again. But the pay is good, and with his professional prospects otherwise looking so dim – at least in his eyes – he decides to accept the offer sent to him by Sir Jonas Moore, the Board’s Surveyor-General. A body has been found in the Fens of Norfolkshire, and Sir Jonas wants Harry’s observant eye turned to the scene. Accompanied by some unexpected friends, Harry travels north, not realizing that this will only be the first stop on a perilous quest that will take him to the heights and depths of both English and French society.

One of his companions is Grace Hooke, Robert’s highly intelligent niece, who has dressed herself in men’s clothing and run off to assist him. Unfortunately, her contributions are not as appreciated as they might be, particularly by the gentlemen they’re attempting to help. At the end of a dispiriting day, she and Harry get into an argument, as she says with sarcasm:

“For I am not hurt, even slightly, by Sir Jonas keeping me away from your dead man. Why should I be? Every day, I am dismissed and condescended to because of the limitation placed upon my sex. I am well accustomed to it, so whyever should I be hurt?”

 

“Because you’re dressed as a man, you expect to be treated as one. But you’re a girl.”

 

She threw down the rabbit’s bone. “Because you dress as a man, you expect to be treated as one. But you are a boy.”

Despite their squabbling, their team soon surmises that the body belongs to a favorite attached to the court of Queen Henrietta Maria, late consort of the previous King Charles I. Unfortunately, the discovery of the corpse means that someone has been impersonating the dead man for decades now, and has even worked with the Board of Ordnance as an investigator himself. Harry’s pursuit of the man calling himself Captain Jeffrey Hudson leads him not only back to London but across the English Channel to France, where false imprisonment and potentially worse await him.

But even in the direst of circumstances, Harry has friends. Some of these ensure that he is released from chains to at least get some fresh air and exercise, though under supervision, on the roof of the Bastille. This leads to one of the most harrowing and exciting passages of the novel, of which this next excerpt is but a taste:

Harry’s normal way of breathing had returned, the colour come back to his cheeks. He nodded at the geôlier, grateful to him. The surveillant snorted derisively, and gestured to hurry Harry along, at the same moment as from behind them the sun momentarily dimmed. So quickly did it happen, that none of the three men saw quite what had happened, until it was too late. Something leapt, with a curious fluttering sound, from the same doorway they had emerged onto the roof from.

Filled with adventure and peril, this dense page-turner weaves a convincing yarn of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies as the scientifically-minded Harry must sort out the truth from lies, uncovering as he does so a plot to kill the current Queen and the Catholic members of her court. Will Harry be able to gain his liberty from France’s most fearsome prison and stop the assassins, in time and in the face of great personal sacrifice?

Mr. Lloyd’s ability to bring the mores of the times to life, as well as to make the 17th century feel both exceedingly relatable to and intriguing for the modern reader, more than makes up for any slight liberties taken with the historical record in the telling of this tale. I haven’t read such a thrilling historical mystery in a while now, and greatly look forward to enjoying more of this engaging series.

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