History informs the present: Anthony Price’s Audley series

There are four good places to start reading Anthony Price’s Audley series. They are with the first written volume, The Labyrinth Makers (1970) a thriller about British intelligence and the KGB struggling over the lost gold of Troy. Or you could start with the first chronologically, The Hour of the Donkey (1980), which is a war story about the events  leading up to Dunkirk. Or you could start with Soldier No More (1981), which is about a double-agent sent on a recruitment mission in 1956, and the Late Roman Empire. Or you could start with Other Paths to Glory (1974) which is another recruitment mission and the Great War. There are nineteen books in the series, but none of the others strikes me as a good way in. I started with Soldier No More when I was in university, when one of my tutors mentioned that it was a thriller featuring Galla Placida.

These books are not science fiction or fantasy, except for Tomorrow’s Ghost (1979), which is arguably fantasy. It’s from the point of view of a female agent who at least believes that the folk tale she has told will lead to somebody’s death—and it does, too. Fantasy. Which makes the whole series fantasy, in a way.

They all feature or at least mention David Audley and some kind of intelligence work, they happen in the same conceptual universe, they are told from an incredible range of points of view, and they almost all feature some historical mystery in addition to the contemporary one. They have an over-arching plot arc that was cut short by the Cold War ending unexpectedly before he was done with it, so the series isn’t finished and probably never will be. They are the books from outside of SF that I re-read most often.

If ever there was an example of not reading for plot, this is it. They have complicated fascinating plots that I know by heart. I could tell you every twist of every book. I’ve re-read them so much that the ones I initially liked least have become the ones I like best, because they’re less familiar. What I read them for now is the brilliant, wonderful, complex characters. Nobody does characters like Price. They are interesting people I like to spend time with. I know that reading any Price I’ll get sucked in to the world and I’ll keep turning the pages. I don’t get reading fatigue the way some people do, but if I ever really don’t feel like reading any of my sensible options, I know I can pick up any Price and be absorbed. Sometimes I read them in chronological order, sometimes in publication order. Sometimes I pick up a random one. Sometimes I charge through the whole series, other times I’m in the middle of a slow re-read that might take a year, interspersed with other things.

But you don’t want to know why I’m re-reading them for the ninety-ninth time; you want to know why you want to read them for the first time. They’re not SF, and they’re mostly not in print. Why should you seek them out?

Well, they’re good. And they’re interesting and they are great character studies. But the reason most SF readers will like them is the way they’re informed by history. It’s not just that there’s a historical puzzle in most of the books, though there is. It’s that the way that history reflects both ways from everything is very science fictional. You have to accept that British intelligence are mostly good guys, and the Russians have a complex and ruthless plan that has nothing to do with what happened after the real 1989. That’s the frame in which the stories happen. But within that frame you have two interlocking mysteries, a set of continuing characters and relationships, often seen from a new angle, and you have a solid knowledge of history—ancient, recent and everything in between.

They’re books I grab copies of to give people, and they’ve been very successful gifts. Most people who like good books like them. (Their other ideal target is writers who want to know how to make characterisation and point of view work.)

The books cover the period 1940-1989, and time goes on, people get older, are promoted, retire, fall in love, and actual political developments happen. I wish they had a proper end, but I’ve given up waiting for Mr Price to write one, and have made one up in my head. They’re all self-contained, but some of them read better in the context of having read others first—but actually I read all the ones pre-1985 at random as I found them in 1985, and the others as they were published, and it didn’t do me any harm, or if it did I straightened it all out re-reading.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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