Quercus | 2020 (9 July) | 410p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1658 and Cromwell’s England is no longer what it was. Cromwell himself, who lives in palaces as a king in all but name, is rumoured to be dangerously ill while his regime tortures and brutally executes minor royalists for little more than unwise gossip. People are leaving the country, sick at how events have played out. But, while disenchanted Puritans head to the Americas, royalists head eastwards to Bruges where the exiled King Charles II plots with his impoverished court to reclaim his throne. And that is where we find Damian Seeker, a secret agent of Cromwell’s spymaster John Thurloe. Seeker, undercover as a carpenter, has a spy among Charles’s circle and the royalists are determined to identify who it is. Seeker hears word that a woman is being sent to sniff them out. Seeker knows that his identity would also be revealed and his fate would be sealed. But in a city full of English refugees, with both a convent and a brothel a focus for new arrivals, where is this woman to be found? The race is on to be the first to discover her identity.
The enigmatic Damian Seeker is one of my favourite figures in historical fiction and I always look forward to these books. Sadly, The House of Lamentations, the fifth in the series, is the last. This novel brings together the men and women, spies and double agents of the previous books and so, while it is a self-contained story in many ways, I would definitely recommend that you read these five books in order. The fourth novel, The Bear Pit, especially influences events here.
Knowing that The House of Lamentations is the last in the series, I went into the novel with some trepidation. The enigmatic Damian Seeker is one of my favourite figures in historical fiction and I always look forward to these books. I will miss Seeker very much. But history tells us that Cromwell’s Commonwealth didn’t last and that 1658 was a turning point in its demise. This was a dangerous time, of tension, uncertainty and cruelty. All of this is brilliantly captured by S.G. MacLean. The opening chapter leaves us in no doubt as to the brutality and unhappiness of Cromwell’s London and England in 1658. It’s a shocking opening and it feels like a relief when we’re then taken to Bruges and the shabby court of the king in exile.
Bruges is a change of scene for these novels and I really enjoyed discovering the city as it would have been in the mid-17th century. Bruges is in the control of Spain, Jesuit priests walk its streets. The city’s institutions are brought to such vivid life here – its convent, its brothel and its prison, all of which influence events. Then there is the house containing four of Charles’s supporters, not all of whom are as they seem. One of them is someone we got to know well in The Bear Pit. The reader knows this can’t end well. But there are new people to meet here, too, including the extraordinary and resiliently mysterious Sister Janet, an Englishwoman who became a nun in Bruges over fifty years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the chapters spent in her company. Nobody knows what she’s up to. The Seeker may have met his match. I’ve always liked Lady Anne in these books. There is conflict and chemistry in her relationship with Seeker and, once more, this is one of the highlights of The House of Lamentations.
There is much more to this novel than its tale of spies and plots. There is another story running through it of a young woman with a terribly scarred face. Seeker is driven to find her and learn her story, even though he knows this puts his mission in jeopardy. We, too, are desperate to know. The curious link between the convent and the brothel is also explored so brilliantly as we learn about the choices many women were forced to make. There is an undercurrent to this novel. This is a man’s world in so many ways but the novel draws on all life, male and female, and, with the exception of the tremendous Seeker, my favourite characters are its women.
The House of Lamentations is a fine finale to a superb series set during one of the most fascinating, exciting and dangerous periods in English history. I was fully immersed in its story and its setting, which is brought to life due to all of the historical detail, whether it describes town streets, buildings, clothes, furnishings or people. This is an excellent historical mystery, spy thriller and adventure which is, as always with this series, beautifully told. If you haven’t read these books then now, with the series complete, is the perfect time to do so. You will not be disappointed. I look forward to going wherever this wonderful author next takes us.