The Courier's Tale by Peter Walker Bloomsbury HK$156 Michael Throckmorton seemed to lead a charmed life, and he needed all those charms to survive. He was a courier in the 16th century, a postman who travelled back and forth on the dangerous roads between London and Italy, carrying letters between a furious Henry VIII and Henry's cousin, Reginald Pole. Why furious? Well, if you're a history buff you'll already know the answer. Pole, like Throckmorton, was a historical character trying to survive amid the brutal machinations Henry unleashed in his quest for a male heir. For those who are not history buffs, the Catholic Pole opposed Henry's anti-Catholic persecutions - and his plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon - and that sort of thing regularly got people beheaded or burned alive in England. Henry kept trying to lure Pole home for just such a destiny, and Throckmorton spends much of the book carrying the king's demands south and Pole's audacious replies north. Luckily for the reader of The Courier's Tale, Peter Walker has given Throckmorton an ear and an eye for interesting historical detail and for the larger-than-life characters in the elite social circles surrounding Henry and Pole. Pole is a student of dazzling intelligence and charm, who moves in the top Italian echelons of scholars, artists, philosophers and theologians. Walker, a New Zealand journalist living in England, brings onstage characters including a tempestuous Michelangelo, the loathsome Thomas Cromwell and Queen Mary, who lives up to her nickname 'Bloody'. Pole is a complicated character who dies conflicted, as the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, after supporting the same vicious persecution of 'heretics' under Mary that he had condemned under the Protestant Henry VIII. Walker calls The Courier's Tale a 'documentary novel', since all the documents cited - letters, treatises or tailor's bills - still exist. He keeps his touch dry amid the bloodlettings: his Italian shepherds, he writes, 'never rid themselves of the habit of sliding a dagger between one another's ribs'. The novel is far from a thriller or emotional roller-coaster ride; it moves along perhaps at the pace of Throckmorton's horse, with plenty of time for asides and character sketches amid one of history's more tempestuous tableaus.