Into the Fire | Manda Scott | 2015, Pb 2016 | Bantam Press | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is February 2014 and Orléans in France is plagued by fire. Islamist extremists take the credit and blame for the arson attacks but not a trace of the organisation can be found. The fourth inferno is different. For the first time, the flames contain a body – Dr Iain Holloway, a man identified by a memory card lodged in his throat. Holloway was a surgeon, primarily interested in the forensic analysis of mass war graves and the history of the Hundred Years War, and a man, rightly it would seem, in fear for his life. Police Capitaine Inés Picaut is put in charge of the case at a time when Orléans is further heated by elections. The city is caught in the increasingly tight grip of the Family, an organisation that Picaut knows only too well having married into it. Her separated husband Luc is running for Mayor. He needs his wife to stand by him at a time when Inés wants nothing more than to uncover the identity of those who would burn her city down. But sometimes deals must be made.
Almost six hundred years previously, in 1429, the English have besieged Orléans, trapping the French within its walls. But France has a new angel fighting for its cause – Joan of Arc. Used to losing to the English, the French can now taste victory and for that they must thank the Maid. The English, though, have her in their sights. The Duke of Bedford’s soldier-spy Tomas Rustbeard is after Joan, determined to learn her true nature, to work his way into her confidence, to destroy her. For two years, Tomas moves between the forces of England and France, making a business of secrets, but two years is a long time to spend within the influence of the Maid. The Spy and the Maid watch each other. She teaches Tomas far more about himself than he can ever learn from her about the Maid. As the threat of fire increases, he learns its cost. It will be extraordinarily high. History will change.
At this point, I should point out that there is nothing I could say about Into the Fire that could possibly do justice to it. When I heard that Manda Scott was turning her attention to Joan of Arc I was intrigued and very pleased. Joan is one of those historical figures that I want to think much more about. I know the bare bones of her involvement in the Hundred Years War and I’ve visited some of the sites associated with her name but there is so much more to the Maid of Orléans than dates and battles. Few authors could do this enigmatic figure justice as Manda Scott can. I can’t think of any other writer who gets into the heart of his or her characters in such a way.
Into the Fire combines two thoroughly satisfying and fascinating investigations, one in the mid 15th century and the other in the present day, moving deceptively easily between the two. The use of present tense is brilliantly deployed, making the past as immediate as the present, the characters equally alive and relevant. The stories are wonderful, the characters are believable and real, the relationships between them complex and surprising. The thriller element of the novel ensures that we have twists and shocks while its historical side transports us into a past world that we can taste and smell around us. The fact that much of the story, past and present, takes place in one city, Orléans, also serves to bring the two worlds of the story together while stressing the modern significance of Joan of Arc and the enigma that continues to surround this woman soldier, now a saint.
Fiction and history merge well – Inés Picaut is an interesting woman to spend time with and she herself is viewed by her afflicted city as some kind of saviour. As the novel progresses, the similarities increase further. At the novel’s heart, though, is the extraordinary young woman – the Maid, Joan of Arc – who emerges alive here out of the myth as I hoped she would, the noise of the battle contrasting with the quiet fervour of her determination, the devotion of her friendships, the loyalty of her men, the treachery of her lord, the brutal legality or otherwise of her interrogators, all set against the fire of the flames. Fire fuels both elements of this novel as the title suggests. It threatens both women, both worlds.
Into the Fire is without doubt the finest novel I have read so far this year. The writing is astonishing – beautiful and poetic. Its characters are complex and true, its heroism and evil are breathtaking. Every page of this magnificent book is a pleasure. I’ve sung Manda Scott’s praises for a fair few years – her Rome series is outstanding and I adore it – but with Into the Fire Manda has outdone herself. It is glorious!