Category Archives: Review

Brothers in Blood by Simon Scarrow

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 384
Year: 2014 (9 October)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Brothers in Blood by Simon ScarrowReview
In the mid 1st century AD, Roman rule in Britannia has one last hurdle to overcome – Caratacus, King of the Catuvellauni and leader of the resistance. Prefect Cato and his one time commander and now subordinate Centurion Macro are thrown back into the fray. Their mission is to capture Caratacus, bring glory to the emperor Claudius and resolution to the British problem. But there is far more to it than that. Claudius’ government is controlled by two men, Narcissus and Pallas, spy masters who are at war. Pallas has despatched an agent to Britannia to halt Claudius’s conquest of the islands and, while they’re about it, to kill Cato and Macro. In response, Narcissus sends his own agent, none less than his son, to warn the two soldiers and help them drive Caratacus and his men into the ground.

Last year I read The Blood Crows, the twelfth in Simon Scarrow’s Cato and Macro series but my first. I loved it and so I have been counting the days to its follow up, Brothers in Blood, especially as I knew that it too would be set during this most fascinating of events, the conquest of Britannia. Cato and Macro have history in the islands, all of which I’m not familiar with as I’ve not followed the series from the beginning but my lack of knowledge didn’t matter. Scarrow drops hints and clues to what has gone before. If you’ve read The Blood Crows, though, then Brothers in Blood makes for an excellent successor following directly on its heels and taking Cato and Macro further into Britannia on the heels of Caratacus.

There are two strands to Brothers in Blood. One puts us on military campaign along with Cato, Macro, their general Ostorious and tribune Otho, a man whose match is more than met by his wife Poppaea, who is determined to accompany her husband into the field no matter what the cost. The other reminds the familiar reader of the deep friendship and trust between Cato and Macro – Cato the young officer, newly wed, who has genuine strategic skill and cunning to match his courage and Macro who is a force of nature in the battlefield, already the killer of one of Caratacus’s brothers and now intent on more. Both Cato and Macro are battle scarred and under no illusion about the men who might lead them, though fully confident in their own soldiers, including the now famous blood crows. These are two men who always want to lead from the front, they never tire, they never give in. They might banter and bicker but they are a united front. Cato has been placed as leader of the army’s baggage train, an insult, but this isn’t going to get in the way of a good fight.

For much of the novel the adventure follows the army in Britannia on the trail of Caratacus – a mission that goes better than planned but everything goes to pot when Caratacus manages to pull a miraculous victory out of defeat, and heads off to the land of the Brigantes to stir up trouble in the lands of Rome’s ally Queen Cartimandua. From this point on, Brothers in Blood comes alive and culminates in an exhilarating and thoroughly entertaining hill fort battle. This to me really brought the period alive, the conflict between Celt and Roman, and I was completely gripped.

There is much to enjoy here – the battles, the banter and the subterfuge. I particularly enjoyed the moments when Roman met Celt in the great halls of these Britannia tribes. But I didn’t find Brothers in Blood as satisfying as its predecessor The Blood Crows – I found its mystery unconvincing and unsubstantiated and much of the book jogs along at an undemanding pace. All in all not many challenges are made on the author or reader. But the final third compensates for this to a large degree, also hinting at future troubles in the making, and, as a result, my interest is kept alive for the fourteenth in the series.

Other review
The Blood Crows

Plague Land by S.D. Sykes

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 352
Year: 2014 (25 September)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Plague Land by S.D. SykesReview
When the Black Death had finally eaten its full in 1350, the communities that had survived were left in turmoil, the strings holding society together on the verge of snapping. Oswald de Lacy had been destined for a monastic life, having been sent to the monastery at a tender age, but after his father and two elder brothers were despatched in short measure by the plague, Oswald was recalled by his mother and sister and he assumed, while not yet twenty, the title of lord of Somerhill Manor. The Kent village of Somerhill is a shadow of its former self, many of its occupants, all valuable workers on the Somerhill farm, are dead and several of the survivors have succumbed to superstition and fear. When the body of a young girl is found, her throat torn, the villagers believe the local priest Cornwall when he tells them that she was murdered by no mortal hand but by devil’s beasts, humans with the heads of dogs.

As lord of the manor Oswald feels obliged to investigate the girl’s murder, not least to stamp out the dangerous beliefs being spread by the illiterate and ignorant priest. Oswald considers himself a man of science, having been trained in the monastery’s medical practices, learning from Brother Peter who had left the monastery by his side. When he locks away Joan, the village whore, Oswald is confident that he has solved the case and dispersed the mystery, explaining it away as nothing but a domestic fight. But a second girl has disappeared and it becomes increasingly likely that there are other forces at play here, perhaps not supernatural, but dark and foul nonetheless.

Plague Land is an extraordinary debut novel – confident and clever, bringing the reader so close to the history it evokes. It’s difficult to imagine a bleaker period in English social history than the mid 14th century. Its onslaught of plague (and grief), famine and war would have affected all levels of society but for the peasantry it would have been devastating. It’s so horrendous that it’s difficult to imagine how people would have felt at the time, how they would have coped and how they endured. But S.D. Sykes manages to make it real. Somerhill is a small village but before the Black Death it had been prosperous. With a depleted workforce and an inexperienced lord at the helm, the future does not look good, especially when neighbouring lords have the money to tempt peasants to work their fields instead. But Sykes also shows us in a very effective manner the workings of medieval feudalism – the homeless, peasants, monks, minor lords and earls all play a part here and we see all types of labour, from pigfarming to healing to the dispensation of justice. And it’s not just men, either. Sykes makes the role of women clear, as victims, as mothers, as workers and as wives, and, with the exception of Oswald, women are among the strongest of all the characters.

The events of the novel are narrated by Oswald himself and he is a most entertaining young man to spend time with. Despite the terrible circumstances that have made him lord, Oswald retains a sense of humour and a sincere desire to do well, for others and for himself. He tries to fit in philosophical reading, he wants to be enlightened and so he is personally affronted by the superstitious nonsense of the priest Cornwall. By contrast, he feels a great deal of warmth and affection for Brother Peter, despite Peter’s love of the ale barrel, but Peter’s religion is a very different kind to that of Cornwall. The affection between Oswald and Peter, his long suffering but genuine care for his mother and sister and the warmth that he feels for some of the villages as he gets to know them (even those who have been murdered), stands in stark contrast to the horror of the times and the extreme brutality of the murders. It’s surprising, perhaps, how many times this novel made me laugh. The dialogue is superb.

Aside from Oswald, to whom I grew very attached, there are some great characters in Plague Land and chief among them are Oswald’s really rather odd mother and sister, either of whom would be enough to drive anyone mad while, at the same time, thoroughly entertaining the reader. Some of Oswald’s responses to them are priceless. But I was always aware, as is Oswald, that they deserve our sympathy, as does the woman Joan.

The mystery at the heart of Plague Land is fabulous. I worked out some of it but certainly not all of it and it kept me on tenterhooks to the last page. I really wanted to know. In fact, I found everything about Plague Land unputdownable as it immersed me so fully in the mid 14th century, carried along as I was by these excellent characters as well as by S.D. Sykes’ wonderful writing. There is a lot going on in this book, all of it fully engaging – S.D. Sykes is to be congratulated. One of my top books of 2014 without doubt.

The Royalist by S.J. Deas

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 320
Year: 2014 (25 September)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Royalist by S.J. DeasReview
William Falkland waits in Newgate for the guard to fetch him for the hangman’s noose. So many have already been taken, hopelessly leaving their farewell messages with Falkland. But when Falkland is finally collected from the muck and filth, a cloth sack thrown over his head, it’s not to the gallows he’s taken but to a carriage that drives him and his sickly-breathed guard to Westminster. And there Falkland comes face to face with Oliver Cromwell, a man charged by Parliament with putting an end to the war. It is the winter of 1645. The English Civil War has endured for over three years but now Cromwell believes he has the means at hand to drive the King to terms – his New Model Army, a paid, trained and disciplined army, the first of its kind. But all is not perfect. There have been suicides in the New Model Army winter camp. Cromwell needs a spy, someone who won’t be afraid. He believes William Falkland is his man, a Royalist but a man who has not been afraid to stand up to the King and has a knack for finding out the truth. So into the lion’s den, Falkland must go.

The Royalist is a deliciously atmospheric read and it immerses us, and Falkland, in the merciless chill of this cold and dark winter. Following a long and mutually suspicious journey, Falkland and his reluctant companion Warbeck arrive in the army camp, its soldiers dispirited and freezing, their commanders standing up to eat as their chairs are burnt for warmth. The army’s leader is Fairfax, appropriately known as Black Tom, but even he, despite the nickname, seems eager to discover the reasons for the spate of suicides of young soldiers, no more than boys, all found hanging from, or blown up under, a witching tree.

Falkland is our narrator but he’s not necessarily the most reliable of witnesses or, at least, he doesn’t see fit to tell us too much about that past that brought him to the attention of Cromwell. But, through Falkland and through his discoveries, we are given the harshest of glimpses into the hard lives of these soldiers as well as the lives of the poor villagers who have been displaced, dehumanised and even killed by this mass of men. One woman, the innkeeper Kate Cain, has been left behind. Falkland lodges with her – slowly and carefully they begin to dance around one another. Both, though, have so much to hide. As for Falkland, he has been deeply damaged by years of service to the King. Both sides are far from admirable.

The portrait of the army is compelling. Its ranks comprise young boys, often pressganged from Royalist captured forces. They are superstitious, frightened, releasing tension through violence and rough sports. This is an army at war with itself. S.J. Deas has no need in this novel to describe battles, skirmishes and marches – this wintering army, oppressively non-moving, trapped by snow and ice, contains more than enough drama and action to fill a whole series of books. It is a fine setting for an atmospheric, frosty historical mystery.

The Royalist is a short novel but it is a full one. In fact, my only issue with the novel is that it is partly a victim of its own success – its portrait of the army and of life in England during these terrible years is so evocative, and its narrator and other characters so fascinating, that the mystery itself seems secondary and not as intriguing as I would have hoped. Nevertheless, The Royalist is a fine novel, immersing us so deeply into the dark and dirty world of Cromwell’s Model Army during one particularly cold and chilling winter. This is the first in a series to feature William Falkland and I look forward enormously to the next.

Firefall by Peter Watts Part 1: Blindsight

Publisher: Head of Zeus
Pages: 761 (inc. 51 pages of notes and references; Blindsight: 362 pages)
Year: 2014 (25 September)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Firefall by Peter WattsFirefall presents, in one rather splendid and substantial volume, two science fiction novels by Peter Watts – Blindsight (first published in 2006) and Echopraxia (published just this year in the US). As I’m new to both, I thought I’d treat each novel separately, although both are related, and so here is the review of Blindsight. The review of Echopraxia will follow next month (I’m on holiday backpacking round southern Spain next week and it’s playing havoc with my reading schedule…).

Review
Late into the 21st century, Earth is showered by tens of thousands of bright fireflies, a shower of shooting stars, except there is nothing natural about these objects, their grid pattern suggesting that they are performing a comprehensive survey of the planet. But for what purpose? The objects burn to ash in the atmosphere and then Earth must endure years of uneasy silence. Nothing happens. A first contact that leads to nowhere. But years later, grabbing the initiative, Earth launches Theseus to investigate the source of the objects in the distant Kuiper Belt. And there they find Rorschach, an extraordinary alien vessel, hidden from view but ready to be found and attempting to communicate. But whatever lies on this alien vessel cannot be any stranger than the crew aboard Theseus. The years of fear and uncertainty have wrought a change in the development and evolution of humanity. There is horror here but it is debatable how much of it has been brought from Earth and how much lies in wait in this dark ship, full of alien shadows.

At its heart, Blindsight is a deeply psychological novel, making efforts to explore and understand the human occupants of Theseus every bit as much as the inhabitants of Rorschach. The captain of Theseus is an artificial intelligence but it is bound body and mind to Sarasti who speaks and acts for the ship. But Sarasti is no mere mortal. He is a vampire, part of a species brought back to life as part of the redevelopment of humanity to cope with an unspecifie alien threat. But although we’re talking vampires, Sarasti is no typical vampire He is the epitome of menace and yet all aboard must serve him, like obedient chunks of meat. He is a horrifying presence aboard the ship but he is fascinating.

Otherwise amongst the crew, we have the Gang – one character split into four separate and co-operative identities, there is a reconstructed biologist – more technology than human, an enigmatic and traumatised warrior, and our main voice, Siri Keaton. Siri is a man with half a brain, the other half removed when a child to cure his extreme epilepsy. As a result, Siri is now the perfect observer. More zombie than human, Siri is unable to feel and yet, as he and we explore further into the expanding walls and tunnels of Rorschach, Siri is beginning to learn a lesson about himself.

Blindsight is much more than a First Contact novel. The alien vessel and the creatures aboard are deeply disturbing but throughout everything has the feel about it of a psychological experiment, rats trapped in a game, observing while being observed, altered humans trying to understand the aliens travelling beside them in the distant reaches of the solar system. Moving from communication to physical interaction and then violence and torture, it all feels like a clinical test, albeit one that has a habit of going wrong. And it’s all the more sinister for that. Heightening the effect is Siri. Throughout the novel, in a series of asides, our observer thinks back on his life and his relationships with his parents and his damaged marriage. Everything affects the present. And then there are the aliens…

I was fascinated and chilled by Blindsight in equal measure. This is a frightening, menacing novel, reminiscent of Aliens, Event Horizon and other tales of horror in space. Yet, because the novel feels so much like an experiment in danger of going wrong, it is difficult to draw close to the characters and Siri, by his very nature, manages to keep us at a distance. It’s fair to say that I wasn’t as engaged with Blindsight as much as I had hoped but, nevertheless, it has some moments and characters that made me catch my breath, not least the terrifying Sarasti and the times through the novel when a crew member captures a glimpse of something in the corner of his or her (or their) eye that just shouldn’t be there.

Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett

Publisher: Macmillan
Pages: 1003
Year: 2014 (16 September)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Edge of Eternity by Ken FollettEdge of Eternity concludes Ken Follett’s epic Century trilogy, which begins with Fall of Giants and continues with Winter of the World – I would most definitely advise that you read and savour the three novels in sequence.

After four years, three books and nearly 3,000 pages, Ken Follett’s engrossing and epic journey through the key events and social upheavals of the 20th century comes to a close with Edge of Eternity, an enormous novel that covers the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Follett takes us back into the lives of these American, Russian, German and English families, each interconnected, and it feels as if we’ve never been away. Having survived (or not), the First World War and revolution in Fall of Giants and the rise of the Nazis and World War Two in Winter of the World, it is now time for the sons and daughters and grandchildren to endure and overcome the Cold War, the struggle for racial equality, Vietnam, the social transformation of the 1960s and the oppression of the Iron Curtain. Beginning with the erection of the Berlin Wall in the dead of night in 1961, Edge of Eternity vividly depicts the devastating effect this physical and cultural barrier had on families while, in the US, black men and women risked their lives to bring equality to the free world.

A trilogy that covers a century moves through the generations but if, like me, you had fears that too long has passed to remember all the back histories of these familes, then you needn’t worry. We are aided by family trees and dramatis personae but mostly by the clues that litter the text. The previous two novels, especially Fall of Giants, are so memorable, it all comes flooding back. Now, though, we are largely concerned with the original characters’ grandchildren, those who grow to young adulthood in one of the liveliest decades of the century, the Sixties.

Key among them is George Jakes, a black lawyer who knows exactly what he wants to do with his life after he is attacked on one of the Civil Rights Movement’s Freedom buses in Alabama. Through George and his colleagues we enter the White House and Justice Department of the Kennedy brothers. In Russia, we have a set of twins, a brother and sister, one trying to salvage the Communism his grandfather fought for while the other seeks to subvert it, piece by piece. In the UK, two young siblings whose grandmother helped to change the social order of WW1 Britain make waves in their own way, though music and acting. Finally, in what is arguably the most powerful of the novel’s threads, we have the Berlin family that, having survived and fought the Nazis, is now split in two by a Wall and an ideology that has vengeance on its mind.

Edge of Eternity is an extraordinary novel, truly an epic and engrossing from its very beginning, its appeal intensified because we now know these families so well and Follett has placed them at the very heart of world affairs. I could not put the book down, despite the damage caused by carrying around a hardback with this many pages in it (this is a very heavy book!). But, despite this, reading Edge of Eternity was not all plain sailing. I had issues with it and at times it made me frustrated and cross. But before I get to that, here are some reasons why I am so glad I read it.

Ken Follett makes us a witness to events, whether it’s the assassination of a president, an escape over the Berlin Wall, or a visit to a rigidly hostile Siberia. The prose races along, we’re caught up in the adventure, and the pace is relentless. Whether the event is something on the magnitude of the Cuban missile crisis or something like a pop concert held against the Wall so that those on the unfree side can listen in, or Watergate or the rise of Solidarity in Poland or a raid in Vietnam or a much respected old lady taking her seat in the House of Lords, it’s impossible not to care and not to be swept along by history. The chapters flit between the key characters, accelerating the pace even further. Follett does a great job of reproducing the staging and dialogue of landmark moments in the century, mixing so well fictional characters with historic figures.

It’s difficult not to be moved by watching familiar events unfold. I shed tears on more than one occasion. But just as much poignancy comes from watching the fictional lives develop and run their course. I cared deeply for some of these characters, most especially those in Germany, while others, such as George in Washington DC, fascinated me. Throughout this long novel, it is always a pleasure to return to each of the characters. I had such a hunger to know how everything would turn out and, as it happened, I was content.

Now to the downside.

During my review of Winter of the World, I noted that I wasn’t happy with the way that the novel’s female characters were sexualised to what I thought was an excessive degree. I was disappointed to discover that in Edge of Eternity, this is taken to an more obsessive level. There are a number of women with key roles in the novel but their value is repeatedly degraded – there isn’t a male character in the novel who doesn’t look at women with a predatory eye. First and foremost, women are depicted as sexual objects. In the midst of the most traumatic or significant event, a male character will still take time to assess the breasts of the woman next to him. Women without children at 40 are looking for substitutes for their maternal love and mature powerful women in Washington government and intelligence strip off in a changing room together to compare their breasts while still discussing the illegal actions of the President in Beirut. When one of the women meets another who is heroically helping to change the shape of Polish politics, she takes a moment to reflect that if she were a lesbian she would fancy her. I lost count of the number of times a character came home only to surprise his or her partner in bed with someone else. There is not a single female figure in Edge of Eternity with emotional authenticity, which is quite unlike their depiction in Fall of Giants. In Winter of the Worlds this obsession with sex and women as sex objects was an irritation but in Edge of Eternity it presented a real hindrance to my appreciation of both its male and female characters and to my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Despite my frustration with Follett’s depiction of women, I was still glued to Edge of Eternity. In a way, the fact that it made me feel so strongly shows me how close to the story I have become. I had been worried that this final book could not live up to the drama of the previous novels’ World Wars but, aside from the rather tedious story strand of a 1960s’ Beatle-esque band, it delivered. I was fascinated by the insight given into the workings of the Politburo and the Oval Office and the struggles of families to survive in the American South, in Siberia and in East Berlin. Being able to remember so well some of the events, notably the fall of the Iron Curtain, certainly added to the novel’s emotional impact. Conflicts rise but in Edge of Eternity, there is a driving movement towards peace, justice and equality, giving its families, who have survived and done so much, cause to hope. When I finished it, I wanted to go straight back to the beginning and read the trilogy all over again.

Other review
Winter of the World

Seven Wonders by Ben Mezrich

Publisher: William Heinemann
Pages: 320
Year: 2014 (11 September)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Seven Wonders by Ben MezrichReview
In the last moments of his life, mathematical genius Jeremy Grady manages to hide a secret message for his twin brother, Jack, an anthropologist and adventurer. Jeremy had been working on research data sent from the field by Jack, a man obsessed by the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, who could have had no idea that it would prove his brother’s death warrant. Jeremy uncovered in the data clues that could change mankind’s entire view of human history, a map to the past. It is up to Jack to chase the clues, following the map around the globe, while working always to uncover the identity of the people who cut down his quiet and reclusive twin brother.

Seven Wonders, as the title suggests, presents a thriller ride around not just the Wonders of the Ancient World but also their seven modern counterparts, such as the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio. At each of the sites, a clue is hidden, left in the distant past, indicating that there is far more to the modern Wonders than meets the eye. But as Jack and his team of student helpers move backwards and forwards between the continents, they slowly start to unravel a riddle and conspiracy that could change the future of the world. Jack is joined early in his quest by a struggling academic and botanist Sloane Costa, who has just discovered traces of something rather odd below the stage of the Colosseum in Rome. But all the time they are watched and followed by someone with immense power and wealth who is just waiting for the right moment to strike.

It is difficult to imagine how any more action could have been squeezed into the pages of this relatively short thriller. There is no time for Jack, or the reader, to draw breath from beginning to end. Thousands of miles are covered with ancient and modern Wonders rushing past us as Jack and the others risk their lives and escape by a knife’s edge time after time after time. Jack is modelled upon an Indiana Jones figure (an action academic with a love of archaeology but little regard for preserving it), but even Indiana Jones would have worn himself out on this one.

The premise of the mystery is an intriguing one and I was quickly hooked by the excellent opening chapters, with the promising character of Jeremy Grady. However, by halfway through I had been exhausted by the pace and the number of ancient secrets revealed and I couldn’t wait for it all to be resolved, any which way. My patience was exasperated further by a couple of errors that I found hard to overlook, as well as the irrelevance of Jack’s assistants and the implausibility that a struggling academic such as Sloane could have persuaded her institution to fund all of these flights. Likewise, the messages coming out of the baddie seem confused – certainly their agents have trouble understanding what they are supposed to do. Despite this, though, the baddie did intrigue me and their chapters were my favourites. Jack and Sloane, on the other hand, are so busy in the novel that barely a moment is spent on letting us get to know them and neither felt believable.

I am a big fan and reader of mystery thrillers but I can suspend my sense of disbelief only so far and with Seven Wonders I had exceeded my limit very swiftly indeed. However, there are entertaining elements – it is very exciting in places – so if you’re after a beach or plane read this may do enough.

The Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick

Publisher: Sphere
Pages: 483
Year: 2014 (11 September)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Winter Queen by Elizabeth ChadwickReview
It is December 1154 and Eleanor of Aquitaine is crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey alongside her younger husband, the charismatic and ever restless King Henry II. Now Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy and Anjou, once Queen of France and always, in her own right, Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor is now in the realms of making history, becoming arguably the most famous and powerful woman of the Middle Ages. But the legend of Eleanor, the beautiful Duchess, muse of the troubadors, Crusader, Queen and mother to surely one of the most dysfunctional broods in royal history, is one well worth retelling and in no writer’s hands is she safer than in the care of Elizabeth Chadwick. The Winter Crown is the second in a trilogy which will, I have no doubt, become the definitive fictional account of this remarkable woman, who is brought to life on these pages as Alienor.

The Summer Queen, the first of the novels, covers the early years of Alienor’s life in France, culminating in her marriage to Henry, the son of Empress Matilda. In that novel, there are just glimpses of the character Alienor is marrying but, in The Winter Crown, Henry emerges in all his outrageous glory. Never without a mistress, Henry already has an illegitimate son and one of his first acts in The Winter Crown is to introduce the child into Alienor’s household. She can be under no illusion – she has met her match.

The Winter Crown focuses on Alienor’s prime years, the years in which she gave Henry child after child, becoming almost the brood mare she least wanted to be, years in which she lost children and the years that killed the one-time great love between Henry and Alienor. During this time, Henry continues to fight his grudge match against Alienor’s ex-husband, Louis the King of France, a man who featured so strongly in The Summer Queen. Beating Louis is personal and the two men never stop hounding each other across and through the castles, towns and fields of France. The years of campaign add a thrill to The Winter Crown as Henry and Alienor spend most of their time progressing through their lands on both sides of the Channel. Elizabeth Chadwick brings these places to life, most especially during those times when Alienor is able to visit her own duchy in the golden south. Henry and Alienor also spend many months at a time apart – the cost of war.

Alienor has her own battles to fight and most of them, during these years at least, take place on the birthing stool. The danger of childbirth is always apparent as is the fragility of a young life and the losses that Alienor and Henry endure changes them. I wasn’t far in to The Winter Crown before it had me weeping. Elizabeth Chadwick is the most beautiful of writers, conveying so well the timelessness of centuries’ old emotions which can be made so raw all over again.

While Alienor is known to history as a great queen, it is debatable how much actual power she possessed and the extent to which she was controlled by Henry. It is very likely that she felt that she had a battle on her hands and that comes across here. The role of women in medieval society is made painfully clear here in the way that rich heiresses (some of whom were just children) are disposed of to the highest bidder. There are several powerful tales in The Winter Crown, including the strikingly memorable account of an abbess snatched from her convent and forced into a marriage bed with a man she hated for a full ten years of despair.

I’ve read a fair few fictional depictions of Henry II over the years and I must say that his portrait in The Winter Crown has the most authentic feel of them all. Refusing to wear a crown or the trappings of rank, this is a power engine of a man. There is little or no sentimentality in him. Everyone has their use and everyone has a price. His battles with Thomas Becket, a man that Henry made into what he became, forms much of the first half of the book. The remainder raises the curse that was to afflict Henry through the rest of his life – his sons.

Alienor’s role in the feud between her husband and their sons is a fascinating one and it adds a tension to The Winter Crown as we watch Alienor mould her favourite, Richard. The Young King Henry, his father’s eldest legitimate son and heir, is an extraordinary figure in his own right, a light burning too bright, touched by tragedy. With the child John in the wings, difficult from birth, there is a sense that everything is about to collapse around these royal parents at war.

Elizabeth Chadwick is such a fine writer. She brings history to life so vividly it is as if we are witnessing it ourselves and not simply reading it on the page. The prose, including the dialogue, has a lightness to it, nothing is forced, it feels natural and real. The events took place centuries ago but Elizabeth Chadwick makes travelling back through the years seem effortless. The Summer Queen is such a fine novel but I think The Winter Crown even exceeds it which is an enormous achievement and fills me with excitement and anticipation for the conclusion of this wonderful story in The Autumn Throne. Without doubt, The Winter Crown is my historical fiction novel of the year so far.

I must finally mention that the hardback is a thing of beauty.

Other reviews
The Greatest Knight & The Scarlet Lion
Lady of the English
The Summer Queen