Victoria and Albert: A Royal Love Affair by Daisy Goodwin and Sara Sheridan

HarperCollins | 2017 (21 September) | 303p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Victoria and Albert by Daisy Goodwin and Sara SheridanLast Sunday the second series of the ITV historical drama Victoria finished and I was left bereft. So when I saw the handsome companion volume in the shops yesterday I snapped it up and it’s fair to say that I’ve spent much of last night and today completely immersed in it. Not just because it brought back all those lovely feelings you get when watching a drama series that you love but also because it made me do my homework. I know a little bit about Queen Victoria but Victoria and Albert presented me with so much that I wanted to learn more about. And so I did get distracted. In the best of ways. Looking up original photos, old paintings, contemporary accounts, Victorian recipes, exhibition catalogues, dress illustrations, political tracts and so much more. Victoria and Albert: A Royal Love Affair felt like a beautiful, glamorous gateway.

Daisy Goodwin, of course, is the author behind the screenplay of the TV series and in the book she gets the chance to explain exactly where she veered from historical fact. The series does this quite a bit and so I appreciated the chance to see the events of the series and its people put in their true context and order. The book doesn’t delve too deeply. It isn’t that kind of book. It’s more of a general guide to the people and themes of the series, presented in short, beautifully-presented and fully-illustrated sections, accompanied by quotes from contemporary sources, such as Victoria and Albert’s letters and journals, and snippets from the TV series.

So we’re given short sections on such things as travel, the churching ceremony after childbirth, corsets, sex, Ira Aldridge (the African-American actor), inventions, Ada Lovelace, the Corn Laws, the Irish Famine, pets, royal nicknames, and so much more, as well as sections on each of the key figures who feature in the drama. There are also regular panels which go behind the scenes of the series, looking at makeup, costume, food, child actors and so on. All lavishly accompanied by illustrations – photos from the series as well as contemporary photographs, paintings and newspaper pages. There is so much to look at!

The book focuses on 1840-1846, the years covered by series 2 of Victoria. It does merely touch on some of its themes – you can hardly adequately cover such topics as the Irish Famine in a page – but it certainly does enough to spark further interest and investigation. There were some subjects I would have liked the book to tackle more, particularly the royal children and the household servants. I would have loved to have known more about the butler, for instance.

If you enjoyed the Victoria series, then I think you might well like this stunning hardback. It doesn’t replace detailed studies of Victoria’s early reign but it most definitely illuminates some of the period’s themes for the more general reader. I’ve now ordered the other companion volume, The Victoria Letters by Helen Rappaport, and will be looking at biographies. I’m hooked. This book has also re-awoken in me an interest in historical non-fiction which I thought I’d put to bed some time ago. It turns out I was wrong. Thank heavens.

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The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

Century | 2017 (24 August) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Word is Murder by Anthony HorowitzOne morning Diana Cowper walks into a funeral parlour in London to make preparations for her own funeral, right down to the make of coffin and the service hymns. She’s a widow and her son is a famous actor far away in Hollywood so such organisation seems sensible. But that night Diana is dead, murdered in her own home. A coincidence? Ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne, who has been called in by his previous boss to investigate, is certain that there’s nothing coincidental about it. He needs a helping hand (and some cash) to prove it and so, rather like Holmes needs his Watson and Poirot needs his Hastings, Hawthorne calls on his old contact, crime writer Anthony Horowitz, to aid his enquiries while, at the same time, recording it all for a true crime book on Hawthorne. The title, of course, shall be Hawthorne’s choice.

And so we embark on a classic whodunnit, narrated by Anthony Horowitz. Red herrings abound, as do the cast members of this mystery, but overshadowing events is the memory of a terrible day in Diana’s past. But, as Hawthorne and Horowitz investigate, a can of worms is stirred up and it’s all Hawthorne can do to contain it. Horowitz has his own ideas and he’s not too keen on being dragged around like some hapless assistant in a Victorian or early 20th-century crime novel. He has his own ideas. Unfortunately, Horowitz is far better at writing fiction than he is at investigating murder.

Of course, Anthony Horowitz isn’t just our narrator, he’s also our novelist, and so The Word is Murder takes us into some very strange territory indeed. The line between fiction and reality is muddied entirely and making it even more murky are the continuous asides in which Horowitz discusses actual moments in his life and career, notably his screenwriting for the TV series Foyles War, his Alex Rider novels and his efforts to pen the second Tintin movie for Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. And then there’s the mention of actual editors and publishers, the real difficulty of fitting this crime book into his schedule, and his frustration at being at the beck and call of the enigmatic Hawthorne.

It’s all very odd. But what makes this novel – because it most definitely is a work of fiction – is the character of Hawthorne. I loved Hawthorne! And it’s Hawthorne who hooked me from the first page and kept me gripped. He’s a fantastic character. Enormously irritating and secretive and yet, one suspects, immensely gifted and maybe even caring. He’s such a charismatic personality. He’s backed up by an excellent story. As mentioned, The Word is Murder is a classic whodunnit. The clues are there. They are worked out with great intelligence and deduction and the relationship between Hawthorne and Horowitz purposefully reminds us of some of the relationships of golden crime fiction.

I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t like The Word is Murder. I’m not generally a fan of such a self-consciously clever conceit. It’s clear from the outset that if Horowitz, a famous novelist, is narrating a book with the benefit of hindsight then we shouldn’t be too unclear on its outcome. He does reflect on this issue late into the book. But, to my surprise, I found myself absorbed in the story and its easy, entertaining and witty style from the very first chapter. Anthony Horowitz writes so well, with some very humorous touches, and I loved how the book used some of the ideas and methods of Holmes and Poirot, especially Holmes.

The conceit of The Word is Murder may not have worked in less able hands but Anthony Horowitz certainly pulls it off. I loved the red herrings and the surprises, the deadly situations and the suspense. Assured by the quality of the writing, I settled down to enjoy the game. A clever touch is that the events of the novel are set in the early 2010s and we learn that the delay in publishing is due to Horowitz’s commitment to work on other books first. These little touches are ingenious. The story is clever but so too is its telling. My little grey cells enjoyed it enormously.

Cradle by James Jackson

Zaffre | 2017 (2 November) | c.350p | Review copy | Buy the book

Cradle by James JacksonIt is 1608 and England’s first colony in the Americas is dying a little more every day. Jamestown in Virginia might be named after James I but the king has no interest in it thriving – quite the contrary. Both James and Philip, the King of Spain, view Jamestown as a threat to their hard-won peace. It’s in the interests of both that it should fail and they each have agents willing to travel all of those miles to ensure its calamitous failure. But King James’s son Henry has other plans. He is determined that Jamestown should survive, that the power of England and the influence of Protestantism should spread and prosper to the New World. What Henry needs is a man on the ground to ensure Jamestown’s continued existence – he sends Christian Hardy, a spy so lethal and dangerous that not even King James and his spymaster Robert Cecil, Hardy’s employer, can bare him to live another day.

We were first introduced to Christian Hardy in Treason, a novel that told the tale of the Gunpowder Plot and the efforts of Hardy to prevent it and of Realm, the monstrous and demonic Spanish spy, to bring it about. Both Hardy and Realm return in Cradle, their enmity as livid as ever, and they carry their blood feud to Jamestown and the Americas.

But while Hardy and Realm continue their fight, Jamestown is faced by other threats – most especially the local warring tribes of native Americans. But there is also disease and famine to face, as well as loneliness and despair. It’s all very grim indeed and, at times, it is very bloody and gruesome.

The story of Cradle has a habit of jumping forward, giving it a rather disjointed feel (for instance, a man is languishing in prison and in the next chapter he’s been restored to his liberty). This is supported by its constant movement between the settlement and the surrounding native American villages. I found the style hard to settle down into but my main issue with the novel is with its incessant violence and conflict. I realise that this is the purpose of the novel but we jump from one conflict to another, one death to another, while characters are given little time to develop. Which is a pity because I think, given the chance, I would rather like Christian Hardy.

There’s something too despicable about Realm, though, and this horror is backed up by the gruesome cruelty of the tribes. In some chapters we’re given a positive image of the local people, particularly through their women, but this is counteracted by the portrayal of predominantly cruel behaviour. I didn’t enjoy this. Some of them are turned into caricature baddies. Not that the men in Jamestown are much better. It’s all a bit unpleasant. Which is a shame, because the setting of the novel is wonderfully described. I love the frontier feel of the novel, the dangerous isolation of the settlement and the vulnerability of its inhabitants. There is almost a siege-feel to much of the novel, which can be very exciting to read.

It’s possible that I have issues with Cradle because its focus is more on violence and conflict than on character and history. It didn’t feel sufficiently set in its time for me. However, it’s certainly exciting and tense and so, if you like an action-packed historical thriller then this might well be for you.

Other review
Treason

Austral by Paul McAuley

Gollancz | 2017 (19 October) | 276p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Austral by Paul McAuleyAustral is a husky, a genetically-edited person, moulded to fit to life in the extreme environment of the Antarctic – bigger, faster, stronger than others who view her and those like her with hostility and fear. Austral is also the child of ecopoets, the engineers who have reworked land, plants and animals to survive. The planet has warmed and the northern islands and coasts of Antarctica have been transformed by forests and cities. The focus of the world has shifted southwards.

There are few jobs for huskies like Austral. She is a guard in a prison, far from settlement, who spends her days leading teams of prisoners outside to build and construct. But at this edge of the world, the distinction between prisoner and guard is blurred, most particularly between Austral and her prison’s most dangerous criminal Keever. But the arrival of an influential politician and his daughter throws the prison into turmoil, offering opportunities, dangers and the chance of escape.

Austral is a beautifully written novel, which portrays in stark and stunning terms the new frontier of Antarctica. It’s warming up but not fast enough for Austral. Much of the novel is a pursuit across this country and it couldn’t be more harsh. The adventure that Austral undergoes is so well evoked. It feels dangerous. It’s full of traps, barriers and extreme cold. The story is told by Austral as if she were dictating it and this gives us the humanity of someone who is regarded as less than human. It also internalises her conflict.

Throughout the novel we’re presented with interludes, passages which give us something of Austral’s past – and therefore revealing more about the magical concept of the ecopoets – and also another fairytale strand. I could have done without the latter – it was too much of a distraction. But I did enjoy the look into the past.

Austral tells a disturbing story – it’s grim, cold and at times very sad. There were bits that I found upsetting. But it is warmed by the characters of Austral and also Kamilah, another memorable personality. And they contrast with the brutes. But, for me, the strength of the novel isn’t in the characters or even in the story – I couldn’t help preserving some detachment from both – but in the astonishing worldbuilding. I loved the mix of Antarctica as it always has been and as it is being made, complete with mammoths.

On a minor point, I read a great many science fiction series and trilogies. It made such a change – and a pleasant one, too – to read a novel that is complete in itself. Even if this is a world to which Paul McAuley returns in the future, Austral is whole. And what a gorgeous cover!

Other review
Something Coming Through

America City by Chris Beckett

Corvus | 2017 (2 November) | 357p | Review copy | Buy the book

America City by Chris BeckettOne hundred years or so from now, the world is suffering the effects of climate change and insular politics. After years of observing crises in other countries, to whom their borders are closed, it’s now the turn of America to suffer. The East coast is bombarded by devastating superstorms while the South and Southwest have been reduced to dustbowls. A mass migration north by so-called dusties and barreduras is underway and the north is hardly opening its arms in welcome. There is no bigger subject for debate in American politics and one man is grabbing the headlines – Senator Steve Slaymaker. The other parties scramble but Slaymaker’s grandiose schemes for resettlement provide the perfect ammunition for his campaign for the White House. And by his side is PR supremo Holly, a woman with principles. How far is she prepared to go to compromise them?

America City presents a realistic and really rather horrifying portrait of the near future – one that can be envisioned very easily from the state of things we face today. We’re told that America has endured several wars over the decades since the Tyranny. It doesn’t take too much imagination to know what that was all about. But, although the focus is on America, we’re given glimpses of elsewhere and they’re just as terrifying. The coast of Britain we learn is guarded by cannon. America is relatively prosperous and isolationist. Its neighbours tremble.

This is science fiction, despite its message, and it is full of very enjoyable futuristic technology – for instance, cars that drive themselves, dirigibles (drigs), and an elaborate ‘internet’ that is transmitted through one’s crystal (perfect for political pollsters). But there have also been big social changes. America has a new class system and its ruling classes are the elite delicados and nobody embodies this more than Holly and her writer-husband, Rick. Delicados are privileged. They don’t have to make the sacrifices that they preach and they can afford to be tolerant and generous. The poor and the homeless can’t. Senator Slaymaker has the valuable ability to straddle these classes. But how much of it is manufactured by Holly?

America City is a beautifully-written novel, as you’d expect from Chris Beckett, the author of that most eloquent and gorgeous novel Dark Eden. Its language is creative, visual and still light. As demonstrated so cleverly in Dark Eden and its successors, Beckett is a master of language and this is put to good use again here. Language and what people say, as opposed to what they mean, is a strong theme in America City. It’s almost a game. But not for the homeless and the landless.

The novel squeezes its focus for much of the time to a small group of people, representing each of the classes that Slaymaker and Holly must aim to persuade. We move between them. But the heart of the novel lies with Holly and Richard and their small group of friends. It’s as if Holly’s internal debate has been externalised. The extraordinary and charismatic figure of Slaymaker shadows over them all.

America City presents such an engrossing portrait of America’s potential future environmental challenges and political debate. There is an element of preaching going on here and, as one of the converted, there was a risk of it going on too much but this is largely prevented by the novel’s clever mix of quiet personal drama and national catastrophe. It’s all so real and so possible. I did find it a little depressing. I can’t imagine how I wouldn’t. But I also found it extremely difficult to put it down and I was hooked by the quality of its language. Above all else, this is a terrifying depiction of a future that may be inevitable if we carry on as we are. It’s not overly dramatic and that’s what makes it all the more frightening – it happens piece by piece until the disasters become another part of life while many of the world’s animal and plant species disappear one by one.

America City certainly made me think – and worry – but it also reminded me what a superb writer Chris Beckett is and how imaginative is his use of language, how vivid his vision.

Other reviews
Dark Eden
Mother of Eden
Daughter of Eden

The Price of Freedom by Rosemary Rowe

Severn House | 2017 (31 October) | c.300p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Price of Freedom by Rosemary RoweMarcus Aurelius Septimus is one of the most powerful men in all of Roman Britannia and when he tells Libertus – pavement-maker, freedman, Roman citizen and Celtic noble – that he wants him to stand for civic office in the town of Glevum (Gloucester), Libertus has little choice but to do what his patron tells him. But Libertus’s ascendancy is jeopardised by the untimely death of Flauccus, the official responsible for raising Gloucester’s taxes. Flauccus has been found hanging, the tax money vanished, gambled away according to Flauccus’s suicide note. But Marcus isn’t too sure that the death is as straightforward as it seems, especially as if follows hot on the heels of a calamitous fire that killed several of Flauccus’ civic colleagues. Libertus is good at solving mysteries and so he is despatched by Marcus to investigate – he can also attend a wedding on Marcus’s behalf while he’s at it.

And so Libertus sets off an adventure that will take him along the uncomfortable roads of southwestern Britannia where any step could see him fall foul of bandits, bears or wolves – to the small town of Uudum and beyond, via flea-infested inns, barracks of cross soldiers and, unfortunately, other murder scenes, one of which is guarded by unruly goats. Carefully wrapped away in his toga, though, Liberts has his pass from Marcus, instructing others to treat him as they would the emperor himself. Not everyone does…

The Price of Freedom is the seventeenth Libertus series by Rosemary Rowe. I’ve read every one of these books over the last twenty years and my admiration and love for them has only increased over the years. In fact, I have no hesitation in declaring The Price of Freedom my favourite of them all and I read most of it in one glorious sitting.

Rosemary Rowe excels in recreating the lives of (mostly) ordinary Romans and the towns, villages, roundhouses, slave quarters, villas in which they lived. Libertus is a fantastic character. He’s middle-aged, happily married (at last), with an adopted son, living in his roundhouse close to Glevum where he has a shop for his successful mosaic business. Born a Celtic chieftain, he was captured and sold into slavery when young but now he is a respected citizen and, although he has no choice but to do the bidding of his patron, the powerful Marcus, at some level and to some degree, Marcus is Libertus’s friend. Libertus bridges the Roman and Celtic worlds perfectly and he’s a canny observer of people. He’s our eyes, ears and narrator and he describes perfectly the events that befall him and the mysteries that he solves, often at some considerable personal cost. Libertus can never forget that he was once sold in a slave auction. That’s not something to which he would ever wish to return.

Slavery is a big theme of The Price of Freedom, as the title suggests, and I love the way in which it’s handled. It’s done lightly and, as a result, the horror of it strikes home. Slaves are discarded and sold on a whim, new ones are bought and ‘broken in’ and even (for some land slaves) their hair is sold as a crop each year. Rosemary Rowe also looks at the life a young woman, effectively sold into marriage by her father, and then there is a young soldier, living so far from home, at the extreme edge of an empire that is in almost every way cold to him. The fact that Libertus can care so deeply for such people (he wraps the soldier in his arms when he is distraught) is a sign of his deep empathy and sympathy. I like him immensely. That he’s not your typical hero-type makes him all the more interesting.

The story in The Price of Freedom is brilliant! The plot is very carefully put together and complements perfectly the instructive element of Rosemary Rowe’s fiction. When we enter the small enclosed town of Uudum it really tallied with my concept of small Roman towns from my years of excavating them (also in Gloucestershire, where this novel is set). It all feels so real. The little details feel right, in the towns and also in the descriptions of travel. But all the glorious details never hinder the mystery which is such a good one.

If you’ve never read a Libertus mystery then I certainly suggest you give them a go. They can be read in any order as each stands alone well but the first is The Germanicus Mosaic. They’re set towards the end of the 2nd century AD when the various crises affecting Rome still manage to reach this distant edge of empire. Libertus, though, reminds us of Britannia’s Celtic past and his commentary on Rome and its ways – while trying to emerge unscathed from one case after another – is a joy to read. If you want to immerse yourself in Roman Britain, then look no further.

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Dark Omens
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Forbidden Suns by D. Nolan Clark

Orbit | 2017 (19 October) | 593p | Review copy | Buy the book

Forbidden Suns by D Nolan ClarkForbidden Suns completes the Silence trilogy begun with Forsaken Skies and continuing on with Forgotten Worlds. You really don’t want to read Forbidden Suns – or this review – without having read the others. This review assumes you know what has gone on before.

Ashlay Bullam is prepared to follow Aleister Lanoe to the end of the universe in her determination to see this elderly war hero known as the Blue Devil – and her bitter enemy – dead. And when she orders her mad captain to follow Lanoe’s vessel through a wormhole she might as well have done just that. For as the wormhole disintegrates around them they find themselves many thousands of light years from home. But Lanoe has more on his mind that Bullam. He is on the hunt for the alien species that wants to destroy humanity, just as it has killed every other intelligent species it has encountered over the last hundreds of millions of years. There is nothing he won’t do to achieve his goal. There is nothing he won’t demand of his crew to make it happen.

Forbidden Suns follows on directly from Forgotten Worlds but this time the action takes place far from the Galaxy’s human colonies and far from the war between the Navy (fought for by Lanoe) and Centrocor (represented by Bullam). Not that this means that they can’t bring it with them. They are now deep inside the territory of the Blue-Blue-White and its immense alienness and danger menaces them in every direction. But Lanoe wants more than to stop these fearful creatures, he wants revenge and it couldn’t be more personal. With very little chance of ever making it home again, the Navy and Centrocor crews will have to work together to survive but the greatest danger they face may well come, not from the alien enemy, but from one of their own.

This is such a powerful trilogy. I’ve become heavily invested in its characters, most especially the wonderful Valk, an AI unlike any other, Ehta (the pilot afraid of flying) and Ginger, whose sacrifice is unequalled and truly terrifying. We have watched these people’s relationships evolve as they’ve faced the utmost danger head on, time after time. There are others who provoke more ambiguous feelings, notably Bullam and Maggs but even they have redeeming features (although I’m not sure I’d say the same for the wonderful creation of Captain Shulkin). In Forgotten Worlds we were introduced to the extraordinary Chorus aliens and, I’m pleased to say, they continue to play a role here. But at the heart of this novel is Lanoe and Valk as well as the brave pilots whose dogfights in this most hostile and remote expanse of space are both exhilaratingly thrilling and deadly.

Forgotten Worlds is a very hard act to follow. I loved this novel, most especially for its depiction of such strange aliens and worlds. It had the fantastic feel of a First Contact novel while also throwing us into the heart of a war that appears almost impossible to win. It contained so much of the wonder that I love with science fiction. Forbidden Suns is a different kettle of fish and that’s largely due to the transformation in Lanoe’s character. He hasn’t been the easiest man to like at the best of times but in this final novel any liking I did have was fully extinguished. This change in attitude is a major theme of the novel, as is the continued fascinating transformation of Valk, but that does mean that I was distanced from the book in a way that I haven’t experienced before with this trilogy.

There is much here that is grim, tragic and sad. There’s also bitterness, anger, desperation and madness. We see this time after time and what some characters must endure is unbearable. The substantial length of the novel makes the gloom difficult to cope with at times. But I have so much invested time in these characters and the author has brought me so deeply into their inner torment that I had to see it through. The author has room enough to delve deeply into these conflicts and create a universe in which so much is at stake. But for me it was a little too dark and claustrophobic, especially in comparison with the previous novels. I must also mention that I didn’t like the end at all.

So I am a little conflicted. I have loved this trilogy and Forbidden Suns went straight to the top of my reading pile as soon as it arrived. I really enjoy D. Nolan Clark’s writing and his ability to create three-dimensional characters and fully involved relationships between them, even when they are surrounded and consumed by military conflict. These are exciting books, Forbidden Suns is no different, with plenty of dogfights and daring raids. And the alien world is brilliantly frightening and immense. But it’s the characters that stay with you the most. So while I didn’t especially enjoy the directions in which they were led during this final novel, I still had to watch them every step of the way. I can only wonder now where D. Nolan Clark will take us to next.

Other reviews
Forsaken Skies
Forgotten Worlds