The Conjuror’s Apprentice

Written by G.J. Williams

Review written by Judith Sullivan

Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.

The Conjuror’s Apprentice
Red Door
RRP: £9.99
Released: October 06, 2022

London in 1555 wasn’t so different to the contemporary Big Smoke. Royal machinations – check. Rampant contagious illness – check. Poverty in the extreme splayed out one street away from head-spinning luxury – check. The bodies of several young men tossed glibly into the Thames with bits of yellow wool on their persons – thankfully, not so much.


This maiden voyage of the Margaretta Morgan-John Dee double act feels very modern indeed and in a good way. Not anachronistic but universal. Dee, a real character, is one of those polymaths the Renaissance so famously spawned. Mathematician, theologian, doctor, conjuror, Dee was skilled in most arts except that of communicating with other human beings. Hence his forging of a double act with the twenty-something Margaretta Morgan, who has the capacity to read people’s thoughts even when no words come from their mouths.


In an era of widespread terror and palace intrigue, this dynamic duo are confronted with the horrific discoveries of the bodies of several young men fished out of a slimy Thames with signature loops of yellow wool on their mangled bodies. Dee is on a quest for redemption (let’s say his clunky manners have not gone down well in the better homes of Elizabethan London). Margaretta is a good soul incensed by the grisly crimes, keen to pick up professional tips from the fallen but great  Dee.


It is a whirlwind of a plot with poor old Margaretta rushing between two posh households (the Cecils and the Constables) to alternately make her crust and help out the beleaguered Dee. Along the way she encounters a Chaucerian assembly of characters. My personal favourites were the housemaid Lottie, an achingly real teenager thrust into work and life at a time when little girls should be studying trig and learning about boys. Margaretta’s and Lottie’s boss, Goodwife Barker, a grumpier version of Downton’s Mrs. Hughes, is also a gas – relatable and tender under the bossy exterior.


The plot has Margaretta spending more time downstairs than up. And Williams is at her strongest when describing the filth, stench and virtuously absent hygiene of London at the time. To help Dee nail the killer, Margaretta does plenty of hither-ing and yon-ing. Along the way, she meets with the well-to-do but also with the down and out, the destitute and ladies of the night.


With each outing, seemingly a new body is found floating in the river. As the net closes in on the serial killer, the continuous shadow of Queen “Bloody” Mary, obviously a few grains short of a glass of ale, looms large over the small and the great of London society. Any mention that the queen’s pregnancy (now in its 11th month) might actually be all in the regent’s head is passable of swift and merciless chopping off of the head.


The palace intrigue swirls through Apprentice like the stench of rotting fish and adds urgency and anxiety to the story. No prizes for guessing the Dee-Morgan duo eventually identify the yellow-wool killer. There is a neat ending and the book marks the beginning to a planned five-part series that provides accessible history lessons alongside a rollicking tale with just the right pinches of sex and humour.


I will say one thing. I owned a yellow jumper before I started on this book. It is now on a sale rack in  the North Finchley Mind charity shop.


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