The Bear Pit by S.G. MacLean

Quercus | 2019 (11 July) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bear Pit by SG MacLean

It is 1656, the war is long over and Oliver Cromwell’s grip on England is tight. But despite Cromwell’s new title of ‘Highness’ and even though he now lives in palaces emptied of their royal owners, his government is all too aware that their Commonwealth could crumble if anything should happen to their Lord Protector. And Charles II’s court in exile knows it. Captain Damian Seeker is back in London on a mission to protect Cromwell from assassins. And he knows that three of them at least are now in London.

But Seeker is preoccupied. He’s holding together his own network of untrustworthy spies, led by his former royalist prisoner Sir Thomas Faithly, when he and Faithly discover the remains of a man, torn apart by a bear. Cromwell has banned bear baiting and had all of the bears killed. One has clearly got away. Faithly tracks the bear, while Seeker goes after the dead man’s identity. It leads him on a perilous journey across London, from its grand houses to its Southwark stews and Lambeth marshes. At its heart lies a man who will stop at nothing to restore the monarchy.

The Bear Pit is the fourth novel in S.G. MacLean’s series featuring that most enigmatic, troubled and flawed of men, Damian Seeker. He is both hero and anti-hero. He is ruled by his code of honour but at times it is prejudiced, while his scarred face and body reminds us of his violent past, in war and in times of peace. He is a killer but he is also now a father and the two fight within him. He serves Cromwell faithfully and is prepared to die for him but we are all too aware that Cromwell may well not deserve this loyalty. We can approve, like Seeker, of some of Cromwell’s new laws, such as those banning bear baiting, and Seeker welcomes the new codes of morality and modesty, but we know, as he must too, that people don’t change. They just go underground. And it’s down there that Seeker must descend.

The plotting is fantastic. It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale of spies and murder, full of surprises and twists as people shift their position in these uncertain times. There’s a host of fascinating characters, some innocent, many not, and they live in a brilliantly described London, with its prisons, dark lanes, inns and bear pits. I love the little details – the descriptions of buildings and clothing, the moments we spend with famous historical figures. And there are people here we care for even though our own loyalties are tested by both sides. This isn’t black and white and demonstrates how divided and damaged England was by those years of royal neglect, war and then the Commonwealth.

The 1650s were such a fascinating and critical period in British history and the Seeker novels bring these years to life with such drama and colour. There’s violence and gore (how could there not be with a bear on the loose?!), there’s passion and tenderness. And there are so many lies. Although this is the fourth novel, The Bear Pit stands alone very well but I do recommend you read them all. Damian Seeker is one of my very favourite figures in historical fiction and historical crime. He lights up the page and demands our attention even when he follows a darker path.

Other reviews
The Seeker
The Black Friar
Destroying Angel

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Who Killed Ruby? by Camilla Way

HarperCollins | 2019 (27 June) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Who Killed Ruby? by Camilla WayIt’s been thirty-two years since Viv’s sister Ruby was killed. Viv was just eight years-old but she was the main witness, responsible for putting away Ruby’s killer. He served thirty years. And now the anniversary has come round again and Viv, her daughter Cleo and her mother Stella give each other what comfort they can. For Viv, who found the body, it’s particularly difficult as the nightmares return more terrifying than ever.

But life has rebuilt itself. Viv has her beautiful clever daughter, a successful cafe and good friends. There is even a chance of romance on the horizon. And then it all goes wrong. This anniversary brings with it new dangers, new fear, and Viv must fight harder than ever for her family. To do that she must remember what happened all those years ago when her beautiful, much-loved sister was killed along with her unborn child.

Having just finished a long, powerful and consuming novel (Wanderers by Chuck Wendig – review to come soon), I was in the mood for a fast, entertaining and twisty thriller. I made a good choice when I picked up Who Killed Ruby? by Camilla Way because it fit the bill perfectly.

This is a short, intense and completely engrossing psychological thriller, which begins with a shock and that intensity doesn’t slip even while Camilla Way skilfully and tenderly builds up the characters of Viv and her daughter Cleo. I really enjoyed the way in which the author takes her time to bring Viv to life and it’s always fascinating as Viv tries to deal with the past while moving her life forward in the present. This includes memories of what happened all those years ago. But it’s fragmentary because this is a place to which Viv does not want to go. Until she has to.

Although I preferred the first half and there were moments when I had to suspend my powers of disbelief, I didn’t mind doing that. Who Killed Ruby? is a catchy, fun and involving thriller that really did keep me guessing to the end. That doesn’t happen very often. I cared for the characters, which is something I do like in a psychological thriller and isn’t always the case. I really enjoyed Watching Edie and Who Killed Ruby? is every bit as good if not even better. I gobbled it up! Excellent!

Other review
Watching Edie

The Bone Fire by S.D. Sykes

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (25 July) | 308p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bone Fire by SD SykesIt is 1361 and plague has returned to England and it’s just as devastating as it was a decade before. The difference is that this time people know what to expect and they are terrified. Oswald de Lacy, Lord of Sommershill in Kent, flees with his wife, child and mother to the safety of a remote castle on an island surrounded by marshes, owned by his friend Godfrey who is about to seal off his fortress against the approaching onslaught of disease. But when the portcullis is shut, the small group sealed within are uneasy in each other’s company and it isn’t long before one of them is murdered. Oswald can either leave and risk the plague, already working its way through the villages beyond the walls, or stay inside and try and protect his family by catching the killer among them. Everyone is a suspect and the death toll is rising.

The Bone Fire is the fourth novel in the Somershill Manor series by S.D. Sykes and, as with the others, it is an excellent novel. The book works well as a stand alone historical mystery but I do think that the reader would benefit from knowing what Oswald has been through since the events of the first novel Plague Land. Set in 1350, that novel portrayed the dramatic impact that plague had on Oswald in 1350 and since then he has had much to endure, culminating in the previous novel City of Masks, in which Oswald travelled to Venice where events once more changed his life. It’s that life that Oswald must now protect in Castle Eden.

I love the setting of The Bone Fire within this crowded medieval castle, filled with servants, a jester, lords, ladies and children, a priest, even a clock maker. These are interesting times. Medieval feudalism is very slowly giving way to a more modern era of science and humanism. The castle’s owner Godfrey bridges both worlds. I enjoyed the descriptions of the castle itself as well as the scenes of daily life within its walls. When characters do venture outside then it’s as if they’re entering a world of horror, with the stench in the air of the festering remains of the plague dead.

The characters are a great bunch, from Oswald and his argumentative and really rather unpleasant mother (we’re spared the sister this time round), to the strange clockmaker and his even stranger nephew.

Above all else, The Bone Fire tells an excellent story very well indeed. Poor Oswald carries the weight of the world on his shoulders as he tries to protect his family against the plague, but there is just as much to fear from his fellow man. I love murder mysteries set in a confined, isolated location, with just a select number of suspects. S.D. Sykes adapts this to the 14th century so well, with the added horror and tension of the Black Death lurking beyond the castle walls. The Bone Fire is a hugely entertaining novel which could well be my favourite book of the series so far.

Other reviews
Plague Land
The Butcher Bird
City of Masks

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

Trapeze | 2019 (25 July 2019) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Escape Room by Megan GoldinSam, Jules and Sylvie have been gathered together by their Team leader Vincent for a late night meeting at Stanhope, one of the most high profile and elite merchant banks in New York City. Even Vincent doesn’t know what it’s about as they get into the lift. But the lift stops dead and the lights go off. A TV Monitor tells them that they have entered an Escape Room. They have an hour to solve some clues in order to escape. If not, they will be dead. Some of the four have taken part in Escape Rooms before. They’re well-known team building exercises. They just have to work together. But for these four, who do not get along and are each hugely ambitious, competitive and ruthless, this will not be easy. Each of them has somewhere else they want to be. And conditions in the lift are cramped, dark and hot. And then they answer one of the first clues – the answer is Sara Hall, a colleague ‘now gone but not forgotten’. This changes everything. They soon realise that they are fighting for their lives.

The premise of The Escape Room is so fantastic and appealing that I read it as soon as I could and devoured it in just one day. I wanted a fun, escapist thriller to read over the holiday weekend and I made the perfect choice with this. It is so exciting! And the four in the lift are just so despicable. Instead of rooting for them to survive, you can’t help wishing they would get their just desserts. We learn more and more about them as the novel goes on and what we learn is not pretty. And it’s made all the more fascinating because some of these characters, such as Sam, would say that he is one of the good guys and believe it.

Chapters depicting what takes place in the lift alternate with those which tell the story of Sara Hall, a young woman who excelled academically but has fallen on difficult times, desperate to make that break. She receives it, unexpectedly and wonderfully, from Stanhope and now she has a glorious future ahead. The chapters describing company life at Stanhope are brilliant. This is another world entirely. It’s intoxicating. It’s cliquey. It’s mesmerising.

I love thrillers that take place within a confined space and you can’t get a space much more confined than a lift. This is the stuff of nightmares and the panic, tension and misery of it are captured perfectly. This side of the novel is utterly gripping but so too is the story of Sara Hall. I just could not put this book down. There are slightly preposterous elements of it, I think that the ending is slightly rushed (but otherwise satisfying), but on the whole I think that The Escape Room is a huge success and I couldn’t gobble it up quickly enough. Without doubt this is one of my top reads of the year so far.

A Prisoner of Privilege by Rosemary Rowe

Severn House | 2019 (31 May) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Person of Privilege by Rosemary RoweIt is AD 194 and the Roman Empire is in turmoil following the murder of the Emperor Pertinax by his own Praetorian Guard. The new Emperor, Septimus Severus, sees threats on every side and one of those threats is the Governor of Britannia, Clodius Albinus. Sides are being drawn and the effects are felt as far away as Glevum (modern Gloucester) in Britannia. Pavement maker Libertus has risen high, thanks to the patronage of Marcus, a powerful man in Britannia and the friend of Pertinax. Libertus, a citizen who was once a slave, is now sitting on the town council.

Libertus now has influence of his own. But he must still do whatever Marcus instructs and one day Marcus informs Libertus that a cousin of his is being sent to Britannia as the Emperor’s own messenger. Everyone knows he’s a spy, sent to uncover dissenters and followers of Clodius. Marcus knows that his rank will not be able to save him from the spy’s awkward questions. And so the murder of a local moneylender, another influential man in Glevum, couldn’t have come at a worst time. It’s up to Libertus to solve it before he, too, falls victim to the spy. But then another murder upsets everything.

I’ve been reading Rosemary Rowe’s Libertus novels for more years than I care to recall. I’ve not missed one of them and I always look forward to them. They’re comforting and entertaining but they’re also packed with historical detail and research, backed up by informative introductions in which the author sets the time and place. A Person of Privilege is the eighteenth Libertus mystery. They all stand alone very well but I’ve loved getting to know Libertus and his household of family and young slaves over the years, as well as demanding patrician Marcus and the men and women of a beautifully realised prosperous Roman town.

Libertus’s life has been full of incident and drama and it’s given him insight into the lows and highs of Roman society. He was once a slave and slavery is a repeated theme through the series. Libertus is a father figure to his young slaves. He cares deeply for them. In this novel, slaves, recently sold, play an important role. Libertus never lets us forget that they’re human beings, in contrast to the attitudes of his patron, Marcus. Libertus’s family plays such an important role in his life, and therefore in the novels.

I really enjoyed the depiction here of local Roman government with all of its little rituals and expectations, such as the command that Libertus and councillors like him must always wear a toga, with its thin purple strip, when outdoors. Not that he does, of course, because at heart Libertus is still a pavement maker, a craftsman of mosaics. We also learn about the customs, rituals and practicalities of death. It’s all deeply fascinating and informative.

The Prisoner of Privilege, while not my favourite of the series (it has a lot of competition), was a delight to read. I love the world of Roman Britain it takes me to. It’s comforting and cosy but it’s also clever and superbly researched. Marcus is always leading Libertus into trouble and I’ve loved being there with him every step of the way as he puzzles, or blunders, his way out of it. I always look forward to these books. Long may they continue!

Other reviews
Dark Omens
The Fateful Day
The Ides of June
The Price of Freedom

Child’s Play by Angela Marsons

Bookouture | 2019 (11 July) | 397p Review copy | Buy the book

Child's Play by Angela MarsonsLate one summer evening, Belinda Evans is found horribly murdered, tied by barbed wire to a playground swing, an ‘X’ carved into the back of her neck. And soon there are more murders, each following the same pattern – childhood games, barbed wire, an ‘X’ on the back of the neck. DI Kim Stone is convinced that the answer lies in the identity of the victims, each of whom is linked in some way to prodigy children. The more that Stone gets to know the nearest and dearest of the victims, the more fascinated she becomes by this world of ambitious, pushy parents and their genius offspring. Meanwhile, one of Stone’s team, Penn, is spending time with his old force as his last major case finally gets to court. Penn is in for a shock.

Child’s Play is the eleventh DI Kim Stone novel and yet again it demonstrates that Angela Marsons is an utter genius! I do not know where she gets all of these twisty riveting tales come from but they seem endless and they are fantastic. As usual, you can read Child’s Play as a stand alone crime thriller and there’s a lot of pleasure to be had from that but I do recommend that you read more of the series to understand what the team has gone through. No wonder they’re tight.

Kim Stone is a fascinating character and not at all easy for most people to get along with. But we know what she’s endured in her past and we like her very much indeed. The last novel, Dead Memories, was very personal for Stone as her past came back to haunt her. I must admit that I was pleased that in Child’s Play Stone can put this pain behind her and we can focus on a new and thoroughly engrossing mystery. I’m particularly fond of Stone’s team, especially Stacey. There’s some added amusement in the novel due to the order from on high that Stone is not to overwork her team – they must finish at 5 like normal people. Unfortunately, these are not normal people at all. They live to work and to catch bad guys.

The plot is as brilliant as ever, utterly gripping, grimacingly gory and deliciously twisty. It also presents more characters for us, and Stone, to become interested in. Belinda Evan’s relationship with her sister is particularly intriguing and very carefully and effectively drawn by Angela Marsons. Penn is absent from the team in this novel and has his own case to engross him. This secondary storyline doesn’t add much to the novel but it does demonstrate yet again that Angela Marsons’ supply of twisty tales is never ending. It also keeps Penn in the novel, which is no bad thing at all.

It’s difficult to recall another crime fiction series that consistently excels as much as Angela Marsons’ Kim Stone series. This eleventh novel is, in my opinion, one of the best of the series. Kim Stone and her team hold our attention throughout as normal and I hung onto every single word. If you don’t know this series, I urge you not to let it pass you by.

Other reviews
Dead Souls
Dying Truth
Fatal Promise
Dead Memories

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

Orion | 2019 (9 July) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Chain by Adrian McKintyWhen Rachel sets off to go to a hospital appointment she feels that little in her life could be worse – her cancer is back. But then she gets the call. Her daughter Kylie has been kidnapped and the only way she will be returned safely is if Rachel pays the ransom and then kidnaps a child in turn. When the Chain has received the ransom for that child, only then will Kylie be returned. Raising the money is hard enough for Rachel, but the thought of kidnapping a little child is abhorrent, terrifying, but Rachel knows that whatever happens, if she wants to see her daughter alive again, she must not break the chain.

The premise of The Chain is so fantastic that it is irresistible. This novel is receiving a great deal of attention. I’ve found that books surrounded by hype rarely live up to it but The Chain is one of the few that most definitely does! This is such a thrilling read. It starts with a punch and the pace and tension don’t let up as Rachel, and her ex-husband Marty, set off on a tangled trail to recover their daughter and end this once and for all.

But first Rachel and Marty must live through the torment of kidnapping another child – planning it and then actually going through with it. There’s a clinical horror about the way in which Rachel must consider every angle. It’s mesmerising. The tense and edge-of-the-seat action is completed by the moral dilemma facing these people as well as the philosophical question of what it is that can make a good person do evil. It’s very hard indeed, though, not to pity Rachel.

The second half doesn’t quite live up to the first in my opinion, as it becomes a bit more techie and the truth about the Chain is slowly revealed, but nevertheless The Chain has been a real highlight of my reading year so far. Tense, exciting and thoroughly entertaining – and frightening. I love this sort of thriller and so now I’m more than ready for what Adrian McGinty will give us next! In the meantime, I can certainly recommend The Chain and the wait for it is now at an end.