Page Turners

License to Quill: History, Espionage, and Silliness



A while back I talked about an incredibly fun novel by Cracked writer Jacopo della Quercia called The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket-Watch Conspiracy. It was a hilarious, shockingly well-researched, and action-packed story that had President Taft jet-setting around the world to stop an absurd James Bond-esque plot involving JP Morgan and King Leopold II from detonating a crude atomic bomb. I absolutely adored the novel, and the way that it was able to combine some incredibly accurate historical incidents with a delightfully absurd sense of humor. So, of course, as soon as I was done with the novel I was excited to check out his follow-up, a similar sounding novel called License to Quill. But, my Kindle is currently a spoil of riches, and I just ended up getting too distracted to get to the book before now. And, I’m kind of disappointed that I didn’t read it earlier, because this novel would have fit perfectly in with the Bondathon I did in July. I noticed that the Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket-Watch Conspiracy felt like a James Bond story, but it turned out that I hadn’t seen anything yet. Because when I was looking at the premise of License to Quill it seemed like it was about William Shakespeare saving England from the Gunpowder Plot as if he was James Bond, but I didn’t realize that this novel was literally a James Bond plot.

License to Quill takes place during the reign of King James, in a world where the British Crown has a penchant for hiring actors and playwrites to be spies, since they’re adept at being other people. Christopher Marlowe was one of the most successful of these spies, but at the beginning of the novel he fakes his death and earns a retirement in Venice, while his protege William Shakespeare takes over. The Bard then goes on to have a decent career, protecting England in exchange for getting all of his plays past the various censors of the time. He briefly tries to retire, until he’s brought back into action by a spymaster known as Walsingham, who simply goes by W. He gets Shakespeare back into the game, has Sir Frances Bacon set him up with a litany of gadgets including a trained horse named Aston, and sends him out to begin investigating a group of Catholic terrorists who are planning on overthrowing James and installing a Catholic regime in England. Because Shakespeare’s mother was Catholic they figure he can infiltrate the group, and this proves to be accurate. They desperately need new members, they even have a specific task for him. They want him to write a play about Scotland that’s both anti-James and pro-witches. It seems like a weird request, but it does spur him on to write Macbeth.

Shakespeare begins investigating these terrorists, whose numbers include Guy Fawkes, and their plan to explode a massive amount of gun-powder under Parliament. But they also have  another ace up their sleeve. They’re in league with a group of Celtic warriors who claim to have magical powers, and who commit some sacrifices in order to bring down James’ regime. And, while all of this is going on Christopher Marlowe is hiding out in Venice, enjoying a life of leisure and doing occasional work for a criminal he calls Drago. Slowly but surely Marlowe also becomes aware of this plot, especially when it involves the Medici taking over the Papacy and throwing Italy into chaos. When a group of female assassins, from the same group of Celtic warriors, kill several hidden English agents and the Medici Pope though, he realizes things are falling apart, and heads back to England. Because things aren’t going well with Shakespeare. These apparent sorcerers are really throwing him and his handlers through a loop, and no one seems to know what to do about them. But, he keeps on investigating, and eventually is able to take down Fawkes and the other conspirators, getting them captured and executed. But it doesn’t end there. Because these conspirators weren’t the brains behind this operation. The Celtic sorcerers, who are actually just chemists and fledgling meteorologists, and they’re coming to invade London. But the combined forces of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the whole Ordnance Office are able to save the day and keep London safe.

This novel was an absolute delight. It was incredibly similar to The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket-Watch Conspiracy, in that it told an exciting spy story full of actual historical figures, and a shocking amount of actual footnotes and backed up historical events for the less-ridiculous aspects of the novel. But, while I certainly appreciate the historical fiction of the novel, what I really came away with after reading this book was how very much this story was a James Bond tale. We had a spy, working for the Ordnance Office, working for a spymaster who goes by a single initial, whose secretary is named Penny, who has a scientist who creates fantastical weapons including a vehicle called Aston, all to fight a group of mysterious villains who have a massive plot to destroy England. I knew that this story was going to be “what if William Shakespeare was a Double-Oh agent,” but I had no idea that this was going to be this similar to Bond stories. And it was a sheer delight. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Shakespeare, and I’m sure I missed quite a bit of references to Shakespeare and his works, but as an enormous Bond fan I certainly caught all of those references. So, if you’re a fan of Bond, Shakespeare, or historical fiction, I highly recommend checking this novel out.


License to Quill was written by Jacopo della Quercia and published by St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015.

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