Back in 2019, Cecily Blench won the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize, Best Unpublished Manuscript Award (now the New Voices award) with her debut novel, The Long Journey Home (Zaffre, 2021). Her second novel, Secrets of Malta, is publishing today, 29th February. 

Malta, 1943. The war in the air above Malta is over, but the battle for Europe is about to begin.

Margarita, a young singer in a Valletta nightclub, has seen her former lover Henry Dunn only once since breaking off their affair. His wife Vera, an enigmatic archaeologist, arrives at the club to tell her that Henry has disappeared, presumed dead. While investigating, Margarita stumbles upon the hunt for a notorious and dangerous spy: Nero.

As an unlikely bond develops between the two women, an urgent quest to unmask Nero starts – before he can enact a deadly plan that may threaten the course of the war.

Our Prize Manager, Charlotte Maddox, caught up with Cecily to discuss her new book.

CM: Cecily, happy publication day! Can you tell us about how the idea for Secrets of Malta came to you? What drew you to the genre of adventure fiction, and how do you think it allows for exploration of themes beyond mere escapism?

CB: Hi Charlotte, thank you! I’ve always been interested in espionage and related genres and I was keen to write about spies as there is so much potential for dramatic plotlines, interesting locations and multifaceted characters. Adventure fiction is so broad and has infinite possibilities; you can take your characters anywhere and do anything with them. It also provides the scope to tackle quite serious subjects including war, loss and betrayal, particularly when set against a backdrop of real events.

CM: The story is set in 1943, a pivotal moment in history. Do you have a special interest in WWII? How did you approach researching and portraying this historical context? 

CB: It’s such a fascinating period. My first novel, The Long Journey Home, was partly based on my grandparents’ experiences in Burma and India during the Second World War, and clearly I’m still drawn to that timeframe. In Europe, 1943 was a turning point as it was the year that the Allies began to push back the enemy, beginning with the reinvasion of Italy. I read everything I could find about that stage of the war, as I felt it was important to at least ground the story in reality, even if the events of the book are largely figments of my imagination!

CM: Malta itself becomes a character in your story. How did you approach depicting the island's atmosphere and landscape to immerse readers in the setting? Did you travel to Malta when writing the book? 

CB: I had been to Malta a few years before the idea for the book took root, and once I’d started writing I returned several times to research and soak the place up. I read a lot about it in novels and non-fiction, and when writing I tried to describe it as vividly as possible. There are certain things that to me seem very distinctly Maltese about the landscape – the winding stone walls, rows of prickly pear trees, the glorious blue of the water and the rocky coves that surround the island, the elegant architecture of Valletta. Several of my characters have arrived in Malta from elsewhere so their first impressions are intended to introduce the reader to the island.

CM: We’re excited to read the book. Can you tell us a bit more about Margarita and Vera? (How does their relationship evolve throughout the story? How did their characters come to you?)

CB: Vera is an English archaeologist, supremely clever and almost fearless – I imagine her as a sort of mature Lara Croft! Margarita is much younger, a Maltese nightclub singer who previously had an affair (inadvertently) with a married man; Vera is his wife. They should hate each other but somehow they form a slightly odd alliance. They are both brave in their own way and determined to do the right thing, although both have different ideas of what the right thing is. Vera was the character who came first when I was writing, and in some ways Margarita is her mirror, a kind of foil to Vera’s actions and beliefs, naïve and hopeful whereas Vera has been forced by life to become strong and cynical.

CM: What about Nero, your mysterious antagonist? What qualities did you imbue in him, and what (or who) inspired his character?

CB: I’ve always liked the idea of creating an iconic spy, a mysterious figure who leads the intelligence services on a merry dance. There are plenty of excellent examples in fiction including The Day of the Jackal. There were also numerous real-life double agents during the Second World War, such as Juan Pujol García, with murky allegiances and complex motives, who offered their services to the Allies or the Nazis (and often to both!). I wanted Nero to be an ambiguous character, capable of great loyalty but also of great betrayal.

CM: Adventure often involves risks and unexpected challenges. What was the most thrilling aspect of writing the espionage elements in your book?

CB: Those who worked as spies during the war were often extraordinarily brave, and reading about their actions can be very humbling. As writers we are so lucky to be able to explore these subjects from the safety of our desks and to travel easily from one place to another. During the course of my writing I visited Malta, Sicily and Egypt to explore some of the settings, and it was remarkable to be able to stand on the very spot that my characters stand. In Malta I was granted permission to see around Verdala Palace, which is usually closed to visitors, and in Valletta I visited the Lascaris War Rooms, the underground HQ where numerous Allied operations were based. I felt very grateful to have the opportunity to explore these places and that there were people with the courage and initiative to do what had to be done at such a perilous time in history.

CM: What do you hope readers take away from Secrets of Malta?

CB: My main aim is to create an enjoyable story that has a few surprises – both in terms of twists in the plot but also in terms of the characters and their motivations; things are never completely black and white. I also hope that my descriptions of Malta (as well as Sicily and Cairo) are sufficiently intriguing and encourage people to visit.

CM: Reflecting on your journey as an author, what advice would you offer to aspiring writers who are just starting their own journey? Do you have any rules/tips for fantastic adventure writing?

CB: I feel very fortunate to have got my ‘break’ via the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize, and I would definitely encourage people to enter competitions; it’s a way to get your work out there as well as to potentially connect with agents and publishers. Most of the journey to publication is out of your hands, frustratingly – all you can do is write as much and as well as you can, and keep looking out for opportunities when they arise. Every goal achieved (getting an agent, being published) just leads to new goals, so it’s important to enjoy the moments as they happen! For me I think the key ingredient to adventure writing is sense of place, although of course an exciting plot and interesting characters are pretty vital too. If you find the places and characters fascinating, and write to explore them, readers will feel the same way.

CM: Thank you so much for your time, Cecily. It’s been a real pleasure to catch up with you. 

CB: Thank you, Charlotte! You too. And best of luck to those entering this year’s awards.

You can purchase your copy of Secrets of Malta, here: 

Follow Cecily: 

Twitter/X: @cecilyblench

Instagram: @cecilyroseblench