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The Emperor’s Gold by Robert Wilton

The Emperor's Gold by Robert WiltonCorvus Books (an imprint of Atlantic Books) are starting to become a bit of a happy hunting ground for me in finding emerging talent in the crime and historical fiction genres to review. I was therefore more than a little fascinated by the sound of a debut novel called The Emperor’s Gold by Robert Wilton; this was not only because of my rapidly growing interest in well written historical fiction, but also due in no small part to Mr. Wilton’s packed c.v.

I won’t go into more detail here as I’m hoping to save that for a featured author post in the near future (#edit – which you can now read here), but suffice to say degrees in history from Oxford and London Universities and a career in the Ministry of Defence certainly appeared to give him all the right credentials.

Read on for a full review…

-- The Emperor's Gold by Robert Wilton a Review by Des Greene --

If you were to judge this book by its cover, you might be forgiven for thinking that The Emperor’s Gold was some sort of swashbuckling tale of derring-do on the high seas, whereas the cover imagery really only tells us how the main character Tom Roscarrock is delivered into the story when his ship founders off the coast of Cornwall. I suppose the cover could also be seen as a metaphor for the turbulent political times in which the novel is set, and it is much more this element of the proceedings that forms the main focus of the narrative.

In the early eighteen hundreds, Britain is in the grip of a crisis; poverty and rising food prices are causing unrest in the general population, the army is disorganised and lacking in discipline, and most serious of all, Napoleon’s imperial forces are massing just across The Channel awaiting any chance to invade Britain.

All that is standing in the way of Napoleon’s invasion are the well trained and efficient ships of the British Navy, and even they are struggling to maintain the prolonged blockade of French ports over time. One false move, one error of judgement or trick of the weather and Napoleon’s forces could break free and cross the narrow strait.

It is in the midst of this setting that Tom Roscarrock is recruited into the ranks of The Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey, a shadowy arm of The Admiralty that pre-dates the more well known MI-5 and MI-6 services. Is it possible that this ragged and irregular collection of vagabonds can undermine Napoleon’s plans and thwart invasion?

The strength of the novel is based on this tangled web of spying, treachery and deceit. Roscarrock soon realises that nobody is to be trusted, and he must live by his wits. Whispered meetings in darkened back rooms of inns lead to murders and many false trails; nothing appears to make sense, and the novel keeps you guessing right to the end. The overall feel and mood of the book is one that I can imagine giving much pleasure on a long winter evening in front of the fire, a glass of good malt whisky at hand. It is that sort of adventure, thoughtful, complex and politically intriguing, rather than all out action.

There were actually only a couple of areas I disliked slightly. In the first couple of chapters of the novel, any action scenes were related in an odd, almost stream-of-consciousness style, that could fork off at a tangent, or distractingly insert some other thought mid-sentence. I can only assume that this was something the author experimented with, because certainly for me it did not work, and thankfully was soon dropped. My only other issue was the documents and letters of The Comptrollerate, which add insight throughout the novel; most are reproduced in a variety of cursive scripts, some of which will lead to much cursing from those with less than perfect eyesight.

Leaving the above two minor gripes aside, The Emperor’s Gold is an excellent read which steadily builds in tension and delivers excitement and revelation right up to the final page. I think we are currently being treated to a rich vein of quality historical fiction with the success of books such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and more mainstream offerings such as C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. I would certainly be delighted to read more of the twilight world of Tom Roscarrock, perhaps he could even become a challenger to the popularity of Matthew Shardlake if Robert Wilton has more like this in his locker.

Already read The Emperor’s Gold? What did you think of it? Please post a comment below, Novel Suggestions is always keen to hear your opinions.

Novel Suggestions only provides fiction book reviews of books that we personally recommend. We don’t spend our valuable time writing reviews of books which we feel would be a waste of your valuable time!


  1. Mike Coleman says:

    Cover and cursives! Spot on!
    Although Wilton says he likes Agatha Christie type denouements, I don’t think it works here.
    Very poetic justice for the Admiral to be caught by the tide, but the longwinded explanation / exposition of what really went on to Roscarrock just does not ring true. The tale should finally
    be understandable of itself to the reader. ( Or maybe I’m too thick to grasp it!)

    1. Des says:

      Hi Mike, thanks for your comment. I’ve had to go and dig out my copy to decide whether or not I agree with you re the denouement. In the end I’m undecided. In some ways, it allows a greater sense of mystery and suspense to be maintained throughout the book, but in another sense I do agree with you. The book is fairly complex in plot and in the number of characters you have to keep track of, so tying up so many loose ends right at the finishing line does leave you scratching your head a little that you definitely understood it all properly.

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