Mantle | 2019 (24 January) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1781 and an unidentified man is discovered hanging upon a hook at Deptford Dock, tortured and branded with a slaver’s mark. Captain Harry Corden, a war hero now embarking on a political career, suspects that he knows who the man is. His close friend, the abolitionist Tad Archer, has disappeared having just revealed that he was about to announce something that would end British slavery for good. But there are many who would do anything to stop that happening – the rich who’ve made their fortunes from the cruel trade and the crews and merchants of docks such as Deptford who think they could not manage without it. And, in their minds, why should they? Surely the slaves are less evolved, in need of religious salvation, something that would be provided for them as they lay in packed lines in the stinking depths of hundreds of vessels sailing the oceans.
As Harry investigates, he becomes as immersed as Tad ever was in the dark side of Deptford’s brutal business. It’s not long before he too is receiving threatening notes, soon more murders follow, almost everyone that he meets has more than one side to them, as some secrets emerge while others remain truly concealed. Harry has good cause to dread that this appalling trade in human life may well be the death of him.
Blood & Sugar is, without doubt, one of the very best books I read in 2018 and is most certainly one to watch in 2019. The fact that it is a debut novel makes it all the more astonishing. It is a sophisticated tale, written with such confidence by an author who has clearly immersed herself in a period that she understands very well indeed. And she brings it to life, especially that little bit of 18th-century England that is Deptford, to the east of London, where slavery is everyone’s business.
Deptford lies at the heart of Blood & Sugar and it’s so well depicted that you can almost smell its stench. One half of the town is gentrified, living off the profits of the poorer half who labour in ships, in docks, in inns and brothels, in warehouses. Everything has a value, whether it’s information, a bed to sleep in, a whore, a spice, a ship, a wife, a slave. It’s all interconnected and woe betide anyone who stirs the pot. I loved the descriptions of Deptford, of the journeys to and fro from London, of life in the inns.
The characters we encounter are every bit as fascinating as the place in which they live. Freed slaves live among their previous owners, while there are others in Deptford who will never be free. They are exotic objects. Is it even possible to murder a slave? Their masters act without fear of prosecution. Miss Cinnamon is someone we grow to care for deeply as her story comes to represent the trade that enslaved her. There are so many stories here as Harry blunders his way around the town. I loved Harry. He’s so difficult not to like. His character brings with it the background of the American War of Independence and that adds another intriguing element to the novel’s setting. The narrative is in Harry’s own words and so he’s careful what he reveals to us about himself and others. But he trusts us more as his story progresses. I hung on to every word.
No punches are pulled here when it comes to the slave trade. The cruelty and inhumanity is laid bare and some sections, with which the author has taken so much care, are upsetting to read but they are also powerfully informative. Harry is playing a dangerous game, as are some of the other people we meet, but it’s clearly one that’s worth it. There is a heavy cost but Harry knows it must be paid.
Blood & Sugar is a compelling novel. The murder mystery is such a good one. The book is action-packed and as page turning as you could wish for. This is such a hard novel to put down! The characters are richly varied and deeply interesting, including a complex, driven main character who I felt such an attachment to. It is wonderfully written. It is also a stark, honest, devastating depiction of slavery in Britain – this isn’t a book to forget in a hurry. With Blood & Sugar Laura Shepherd-Robinson has laid down the gauntlet – she is most definitely an author to watch.