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The Expanse Re-read – Book 6: Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey

It’s a true but saddening cliché that all good things must come to an end and it’s with a mixture of feelings that I look forward to the publication a month from now of Leviathon Falls, the final (sobs) part of what has become my favourite science fiction series, The Expanse. It’s been some time since the publication of the last novel (the eighth), Tiamat’s Wrath, in fact I’m rather shocked to discover it’s more than two and a half years. You don’t need me to tell you how much the world has changed since then but I do know that I am very ready to discover what is to happen to Holden and his crew, not to mention that pesky protomolecule.

I am delighted and honoured to take part in Orbit Books’ celebration of this landmark series, while we await Leviathan Falls. A re-read has been taking place by some of my most excellent fellow book bloggers (do take a look at the poster below) and I am so pleased to be taking up the mantle for Book 6 – Babylon’s Ashes.

The Expanse is, obviously, a series and so it’s not one you’d want to read out of order. If you’ve been following the re-read then you’re reached Babylon’s Ashes and so I’m very happy to encourage you to read it, while trying hard not to spoil anything for those who haven’t. I’m not mentioning the TV series here as I’ve not watched it. I just can’t. I adore these books and the crew of the Rocinante lives in my head as I know them and I don’t want that messed with, however good the series might be.

For starters, here’s the official blurb:

The sixth book in the NYT bestselling Expanse series, Babylon’s Ashes has the galaxy in full revolution, and it’s up to the crew of the Rocinante to make a desperate mission to the gate network and thin hope of victory. A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood. The Free Navy – a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships – has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.

James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinante for a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network. But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun.

Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. CoreyAnd here’s my review:

Babylon’s Ashes is the sixth in the series and, while you could enjoy it as a standalone book, I really advise against it. Each of the books is very different but each complements the others and broadens even further this brilliantly imagined future world and solar system. As a whole, they form the story of Captain Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. Whatever goes on around the crew, however extraordinary it might be, the heart of the series lives aboard the Rocinante. It is an utter delight to follow their adventures as they do their utmost to save humanity from itself – and from something else. Do read the books in order. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

The war in the solar system continues with Earth, the mother world of mankind, now all but destroyed by the militant forces of the Free Navy, an organisation that claims to act on behalf of the Belters, the inhabitants and miners of the industrial outer planets and the asteroid belt. Many humans have sought escape on the planets beyond the strange gate complex but these new fragile colonies rely on supply ships from the solar system for survival – these ships have become the target for Marco Inaros, the leader of the Free Navy. Mars and Earth have formed an uneasy alliance in the effort to fight back and who better to lead their enterprise than the infamous Captain Jim Holden, regarded as hero by many and traitor by others? The battle lines are drawn aound the Medina Station at the entrance to the gate network, a place so alien it may never be understood, never be tamed.

As anyone who’s read the Expanse series knows, these are no ordinary military SF novels. Each of these books is strongly character-driven and Babylon’s Ashes is no different. Jim Holden is a wonderful figure who has evolved over the course of the novels as the responsibilities have weighed ever heavier on his shoulders. He always has a smile for his crew. He inspires them. But they know him well and can see the cares that lie below. There’s something so touching about the way that he gathers video and audio clips of people living ordinary lives to try and prove to a solar system at war that every one within it is a human being. It’s great to see some of our much-loved characters again, including my favourites Bobbie and Avasarala. And there’s another figure from the past, too – Captain Michio Pa, whom we first met in Abaddon’s Gate. And she is fantastic.

The novels might depict dark and frightening events but ultimately the message is one of hope, compassion and humanity. And this is achieved by making us care so deeply for the crews of the ships that we travel aboard. The crews of the Rocinante and the Connaught view themselves as families – the Connaught crew actually is a family with members forming one marriage. There are other dysfunctional examples of family aboard the principal Free Navy vessel for contrast but the overriding message is that a harmonious family, however unconventional its composition, can prop up society. But what a battering it’s going to take.

As usual in the Expanse series the chapters flit between the different characters, allowing us to move around the conflict and see what life has become on planets, on ships, on space stations, and in the presence of the awe-inspiring gates. The action sequences are deadly and thoroughly exciting but the thrill of Babylon’s Ashes extends beyond the combat because of the intensity of the crisis facing this poor solar system. This is a series with big vision!

Each of the books is different but in them all we can’t forget the protomolecule and the threatening alien shadow. Anything is possible in the future for Holden, his ship and crew, and the people of Earth, the inner planets, the Belt and the colonies so far away. This is a spectacular series.

Wish You Weren’t Here by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch

Farrago | 2021 (14 October) | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book

Wish You Weren't Here by Gabby Hutchinson CrouchGhost hunters have never been so busy. The cases are building up for the Rook family but this job should be a quickie. They’ve headed for Coldbay Island, a small island off the coast of Lincolnshire, where they have been hired by the local vicar Grace Barry to rid her church of an angry spirit that likes nothing more than to smash the place up. But Brenda and her son Darryl see such things as they cross the bridge onto the island – ghosts are everywhere they look, sad and lost spirits, far too many for Brenda’s sister Charity to pop out of this realm. The island appears to be deserted of the living and it soon becomes clear that this will be no quick case. Indeed, the Rooks are soon rather concerned that they’re all that stands between the world and the apocalypse.

When I picked up Wish You Weren’t Here, the first in a new series, I had little idea what to expect. I hadn’t read a novel by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch before and I have a bit of a hit and miss relationship with novels of the supernatural. But what a treat I had in store for me. This is an absolute belter of a book! It’s about 300 pages, so all too short and leaves me wanting book 2, but every page counts.

I loved everything about this book. The author introduces us to the Rook family with great skill – Brenda and her husband Richard, their grown children Darryl and Charity, and Darryl’s husband Janusz who looks after the books. Each of these wonderful people feels so real. They have flaws – some a bit more significant (and downright absolutely terrifying) than others. They also have skills. Oddly, perhaps Janusz, the only ‘normal’ one among them, is the most extraordinary because he holds them all together, protecting and loving them, and he is the subject of what I found to be the most terrifying scene of the book.

The setting on this creepy, cold island is fantastic. And that made me accept everything that happens. It’s both realistic and fantastical, thanks to its separation from the mainland of northeast England via that frightening bridge. It’s no wonder the ghosts are depressed.

The writing is fabulous. It’s dark but it is also very funny (the dialogue had me cracking up time after time!). Tragedy lies at the heart of much of its humour. I also found it genuinely frightening and disturbing, despite the Ghostbusters feel of some of it. There is also a sadness surrounding the ghosts as we’re given glimpses of their living past. Wish You Weren’t Here might be short but it contains such a lot.

Wish You Weren’t Here is funny, dark and full of great characters and cameos, whether living, dead or undead. The setting on a creepy island off Lincolnshire seems entirely fitting for a potential apocalypse. This is fabulous writing and it’s quite incredible how much depth, how many full relationships, the author packs into such a short novel. I cannot wait for book 2. This is quite easily one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year and is perfect for a spooky October read!

The Heron’s Cry by Ann Cleeves

Macmillan | 2021 (2 September) | 400p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It’s a hot summer’s night when DS Jen Rafferty attends a party thrown by her magistrate friend Cynthia. She is approached by Nigel Yeo, a doctor whose role is now to monitor NHS trusts in this part of north Devon. He needs official advice from a police officer but, drunk, Jen is in no state to offer it and so he leaves. The next day Yeo is discovered murdered at Westacombe, the home of a rural community of artists, a shard of glass from a vase made by his daughter Eve in his neck. While Jen struggles with the guilt of not having helped Yeo when he needed it, her boss DI Matthew Venn must unravel the lies that tie this community together and seek out the killer in its midst. But one of the suspects is a close friend of Matthew’s husband Jonathan. This unusual case is about to get very personal, for Matthew and for Jen.

The Heron’s Cry is the second novel in Ann Cleeves’ new series, Two Rivers, which began in fine style with The Long Call. Matthew Venn immediately became one of my favourite literary detectives (along with the author’s other famous creation, Vera). Matthew is a fantastic character. He’s quiet, well-dressed, reserved and infinitely kind and well-loved, not just by his husband but also by his friends and colleagues (except for his boss, of course, who hates everyone except DC Ross May), and it’s good to see them all again in The Heron’s Cry.

Once more, the emphasis is on the people who drive the story onwards, making it an immersive and gentle read. It’s lovely to meet such characters as Lucy again while it’s also good to get to know others better, such as Jen and Jonathan, and especially Matthew. The author takes her time to guide us through the personalities and conflicts of the community of artists, and their relationship with their powerful, wealthy patron Frank Ley.

The locations by the coast in north Devon are wonderful! It’s a hot summer, the beaches are beautiful and full of holiday makers, contrasting with the unhappiness of the artists and the menace of the killer, as well as the stories of despair that Matthew and his team uncover.

I should mention that this is a good example where the author’s foreword should most definitely be at the back of the book. I found it spoilery. Resist the urge to read it!

While it is a little slow in places, perhaps frustratingly so at times, The Heron’s Cry is a very enjoyable read, filled with wonderful characters, and it tells a story that has depth, heart and menace. I can’t wait for the return of Matthew, Jen and Jonathan.

Other review
The Long Call

The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul

Avon | 2021 (30 September) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Collector's Daughter by Gll PaulEvelyn’s long life has been extraordinary. The daughter of the Earl of Carnarvon, she grew up at Highclere Castle, but, just like her father, Lady Evelyn Herbert had no interest in high society. Her dream was to travel and be an archaeologist, a dream that came true when Howard Carter found the tomb of Tutankhamun while working for Lord Carnarvon. Evelyn was the first person to crawl inside the tomb. It was the defining moment of her life, the greatest moment. But it was followed by a series of tragedies that would shape the rest of Evelyn’s life, despite her long and happy marriage to Brograve Beauchamp. And now, over fifty years later, Egyptian academic Ana Mansour is determined to discover what really happened all those years ago in the tomb and what it is exactly that Evelyn has determined to forget.

I am a huge fan of Gill Paul’s novels. I adore them. She manages to focus on women at the heart of events that are irresistible to me and now, with The Collector’s Daughter, she’s done it again. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 is so utterly fascinating, glamorous, dangerous – I could not wait to read it! Eve Beauchamp is a wonderful character, in the scenes where she’s young and in those chapters where she’s old and ill. This is the story of her life and the people she filled it with, both living and dead, and they are all so vividly portrayed along with the world in which they lived.

There is a darkness to the novel. We are aware of the curse and Eve was closer to it than most and the character of Ana Masour haunts the pages. She haunts Eve. It’s as if she’s there every way Evelyn turns. The past is not escapable. It doesn’t die. It just decays like Tutankhamun in his desert tomb. The atmosphere is constant and heavy. You can feel the heat of Egypt, the mustiness of the tomb, the light of Highclere Castle, the love in Evelyn’s heart.

The Collector’s Daughter is completely engrossing. As always, Gill Paul combines absolutely fascinating historic events with the most interesting and fully realised people, adding an air of mystery, a hint of something menacing, a curse, as well as the joy of living.

Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband

Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband’

The Lost Daughter
The Second Marriage

The Chateau by Catherine Cooper

HarperCollins | 2021 (2 September) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Chateau by Catherine CooperAura and Nick have uprooted their young family – boys called Bay and Sorrel – and moved from London to a dilapidated chateau in France. There is an unbelievable amount of work to do on it but a project such as this is just what Aura needs to take her mind off why they left England in such a rush. Best not to think about that. Luckily, chateau buying is all the rage with Brits and so the local ex-pat community soon takes the new couple under their wing, offering practical help as well as glamorous parties. It helps that the project is being observed by a TV documentary film crew. They even manage to get an au pair for no more cost than food and board. It seems too good to be true. And of course it is. The alarm bells are starting to go off even before one of their neighbours is found murdered.

Hot on the heels of The Chalet comes The Chateau. I love the recipe of these novels – a remote location, a small community of strangers, a murderer in their midst, a bunch of lies. I thoroughly enjoyed The Chalet and so I was looking forward to this and it did not disappoint. What a bunch of people…. It’s difficult to know who is the most despicable. Aura is our narrator for much of the book and it’s clear that what she doesn’t say is more important than what she does. The reader is left to fill in the gaps as slowly the truth emerges about what they left behind in London. You’ve got to wonder about anyone who would name their sons Bay and Sorrel, though.

The chateau itself is a fantastic location for a psychological thriller. It’s an abomination. Aura might view it as this beautiful ruin crying out for repair but it’s clearly horrible, dangerous, creepy and malignant. It fits the mood of the novel perfectly and reflects the characters of most of the people in it, including the ghastly ex-pats. Even the film crew are shifty.

I’m not going to give anything away but what I will say is that the way in which this story plays out is thoroughly satisfying. Catherine Cooper is such a good writer, she sets the scene so well. It’s creepy but it’s also fun and a little bonkers! I can’t wait to find out where she’ll take us to next!

Other review
The Chalet

For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing

Michael Joseph | 2021 (19 August) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

For Your Own Good by Samantha DowningTeddy Crutcher has been teaching English at Belmont Academy for a long time and, at last, he has won Teacher of the Year. At last. Nobody deserves it more, at least in Teddy’s eyes. He always wants the best for his students, especially those who treat him with respect and have influential parents on the School’s Board. He also likes to teach a different kind of lesson to those who deserve it, especially gifted student Zach and the popular teacher Sonia. To his chagrin, Sonia is about to be given a party to celebrate her tenth anniversary at the Academy. But when a member of the School’s Board, a pupil’s mother, is poisoned at the party, it’s not just Teddy who is shocked into action. This is a school where it seems everyone has a secret and nobody is safe.

Samantha Downing is an absolute genius at witty and wicked psychological thrillers. She did it with My Lovely Wife and she’s done it again with For Your Own Good. Usually, I need to like someone in a novel, at least a little bit, to engage with it but this novel shows that, as long as a book is written as well as this one, that’s really not the case. Pretty much everyone at Belmont Academy, including the over-reaching parents, is despicable! Sonia might be ‘nice’ but she’s living some sort of dream in her head that doesn’t seem to fit with reality. We might feel sorry for one or two of the students but not for long. And Teddy is utterly appalling.

The reader spends time in the heads of several people, although it’s Teddy who sets the mood. The more he reveals of himself the more you can hardly believe what you’re hearing. And then we move into the perspective of other students and teachers and you realise that you’re in some sort of nightmare territory and it’s all brilliantly wicked! As the story goes on, nothing seems impossible. There seems nothing these people won’t do. But do they actually do them? That’s the thing. We spend time in people’s minds – how much of what they think is true?

The plot is fabulous and it kept me reading compulsively.  The more the novel went on, the more intrigued I became. By the end, it was absolutely compelling and engrossing, so much so that I read it in one day. I can’t remember the last time I read a book in one day. This delicious book demanded it.

Other review
My Lovely Wife

An Island at War by Deborah Carr

One More Chapter | 2021 (16 September) | 383p | Review copy | Buy the book

An Island at War by Deborah CarrIt is June 1940 and the people of Jersey are under no illusion – the British government has announced that the island has been demilitarised, effectively leaving Jersey open to conquest. Rosie Le Maistre is one of the lucky ones. The little girl is sent away on one of the last evacuation ships, heading to her Aunt Muriel in London. Estelle, her much older sister, is left behind to work on the farm with her father and grandmother. It’s not long before the German army arrives in force, a catastrophe for the men in Estelle’s life, her father and boyfriend. Life on the island changes entirely, everything from a conversion to German currency and time to the arrival of slaves who will turn Jersey into a fortress island. But it’s not just the island that’s occupied. Soon Estelle and her grandmother have a German office, Hans Bauer, billeted on their farm. Life becomes a struggle for survival.

I’ve always been fascinated by the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War and have read several novels on the subject over the years. I was therefore drawn to An Island at War. There is definitely something of The Guernsey Literary Pie Society about An Island At War, albeit on a different island, and that’s no bad thing. This is another very human story, focusing on the impact of war and occupation on the lives of otherwise ordinary people who happened to live in the only part of Britain that was occupied.

Most of the novel tells Estelle’s story on Jersey but there are a few extracts from Rosie’s journal, written in London. I found these tantalising and would have liked much more of Rosie’s life during the Blitz. It’s clear that tumultuous things are happening to her but it’s all in the shadows and all too brief.

I liked Estelle very much and enjoyed reading about her relationships with her grand mother, their friends and with the Germans on the island. It’s mostly black and white but there is some interesting grey as Estelle and Hans struggle to reach a compromise. But it is very difficult to have sympathy for Hans when the horror of the German occupation and what is happening on the continent to Jews and people from the east is such a big part of the book. In a way, there is a conflict between the fascinating historical detail of the novel and its emotional element. The author lives on Jersey and knows its history well and that adds so much to the book. I’m not quite sure that other parts of it – Estelle’s relationships, Rosie’s experiences in London – live up to that. My main issue with the novel, though, is its ending, which is far too abrupt and unsatisfactory.

An Island at War is an enjoyable light read, which shines with the author’s knowledge about her island and its history. I learned a great deal about the little details of life under occupation. I had no idea about much of it, and that is what I’ll take away from the novel.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

Viking | 2021 (16 September) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard OsmanWhen ex-spy Elizabeth receives a letter from a man she knows to be dead, it becomes clear that this is not going to be a normal week for the residents of the Coopers Chase retirement community. A man with whom Elizabeth has a long past needs her help – and that of the Thursday Murder Club. He’s now realised that perhaps it wasn’t a good idea after all to steal those diamonds worth many millions of dollars from the NYC Mob. It’s hard to imagine a bigger target on his back. It’s not long before the septuagenarian Thursday Murder Club and their police friends have a ruthless murderer to hunt. You could almost feel sorry for the killer…

Richard Osman’s debut novel The Thursday Murder Club was one of my top reads of 2020. I absolutely loved it, with its delicious mix of wit, cosiness and wickedness, all brought together with the most fantastic prose. Any fears that the author couldn’t do it again were instantly dispelled when I read the very first page of The Man Who Died Twice. It is absolutely fantastic!

I’m giving nothing more away about what’s going on in this fine novel but I do want to say a bit about why I love it so much. I love all of the characters but Joyce, whose journal entries are scattered throughout the book, is my favourite. A former nurse, she’s lived for others and is now having the time of her own life helping Elizabeth to dig out bad guys. The disparity between how she appears and what she reveals in the journal is just wonderful, but, while it’s funny, it’s also extremely poignant in some ways. And that poignancy is present with others, too, especially Ibrahim, the psychiatrist. The humanity of the writing is incredible. All of the characters are given their little moments for us to connect with on really quite a deep level, even DCI Chris Hudson. I was so moved by him in The Man Who Died Twice. So, actually, when I say that I love Joyce the most, maybe I’m wrong, maybe I adore them all equally.

The baddies are brilliant! The insight we’re given into the mindset of one of the villains is fantastic – evil trying not to be evil while knowing that he really is very evil but still wanting to be polite. Absolutely wonderful.

The plot is magnificent and works on so many levels. Enough said about that.

Richard Osman has done it again. Rarely have I felt so warmly attached to characters and, in these books, there’s not just one or two characters to love but several. A fabulous plot, beautifully witty and kind, clever, poignant and tragic at times, even shocking, and so completely fun to read. Please can we have more!!

Other review
The Thursday Murder Club

The Good Death by S.D. Sykes

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 (5 August) | 304p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It is 1370 and time has passed at the manor of Somershill in Kent. But the past has never been so urgent for its lord, Oswald de Lacy. Oswald’s mother, a formidable woman, is dying and in her possession is a letter that raises ghosts from that terrible time of 1349 when the Black Death crossed the land, killing so many in its path, including Oswald’s father and brothers. Oswald’s mother needs to understand what happened all those years before in order to make peace with her son before it is too late. And so Oswald sits by her bedside and recalls the time when young women disappeared from the village and he, a young novice monk, tried to find out why, when every day the world grew smaller as communities shrank into themselves, or fled, as the plague crept relentlessly nearer.

The Oswald de Lacy series is wonderful. It’s beautifully written and it moves around the years, and around Europe (Oswald has spent time in Venice), but its focus is always the plague years and always this Kentish haven. Almost ten years have gone by since The Bone Fire but this fifth novel, The Good Death, calls a halt and instead goes back into the past. We spend brief interludes in the ‘present’ of 1370 but the majority of the time is spent in the days leading up to the arrival of the Black Death when Oswald found himself with reasons to investigate the disappearance, and presumed murders, of several girls from the village. At the time, Oswald was a novice monk on the cusp of manhood, never expecting to inherit. Everything was about to change.

The story, as usual in these fabulous novels, is excellent and the further it progresses the more involved the reader becomes. It has a gentle pace but during the second half I found myself utterly engrossed and read all of that half in one sitting. The mood and atmosphere build and build as the plague creeps ever nearer. The village feels like a refuge but for how long? And where are the young women? The answers lie in the woods around the village and, in that lawless place, anything is possible. It is sinister and menacing in equal measure while Oswald, the innocent, falls into the thick of it.

The Good Death is beautifully written and immersed in its time, surely one of the most terrible periods in English history. Of course, this was written, and read, in a time of pandemic and that certainly adds to its mood and perhaps makes it easier for us to relate to these frightened communities. You don’t need to have read the other novels to enjoy this one, although you might have a greater appreciation of Oswald’s mother and sister if you have done. The focus is most definitely on the past, although that is rather pleasing as it means we have fresh light thrown on the earlier novels in the series. It’s clever, without a doubt.

I love Oswald. He feels real to me, as do his family and friends. I marvel at the way in which the author evokes this feudal age. It’s so well drawn and full of lots of historical details about life, society, law, medicine, work, obedience in a mid 14th-century manor, in which workers are compared to mute insects, and monastery. Oswald bridges society and in some ways is very alone and on its margins. There is a strong sense that he must let the past go and here we find out why.

The Good Death is a fabulous historical crime mystery and I didn’t guess it at all! The historical setting is great, as is its location in woody Kent. The story is so good but this book goes bigger than that, finding a way in to explore a time in our history when death became more horrifying than ever and when feudalism itself came under attack from an unexpected foe, plague.

Other reviews
Plague Land
The Butcher Bird
City of Masks

The Bone Fire

A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick

Sphere | 2021 (9 September) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth ChadwickIt is 1238 and Joanna of Swanscombe serves as a lady in waiting to Eleanor of Provence, Henry III’s Queen.  Joanna’s future is uncertain despite her illustrious heritage – she is granddaughter to William Marshal – but many stand between Joanna and any chance of inheriting her family’s land and titles. But all of that changes and suddenly Joanna discovers herself to be one of England’s wealthiest heiresses. She has become a prize and the King decides to award her to his own half-brother, William de Valence. Now a grand lady in her own right, Joanna’s relationship with the Queen changes as the nobles of England, led by Simon de Montfort, turn against Henry’s half-brothers. Civil war grips the land and Joanna and William must use all of their skill to avoid the destruction of everything they hold dear.

Elizabeth Chadwick has long been a favourite novelist of mine and the novels of hers that I love the most are those that focus on William Marshal and his extraordinary family, as well as on the women who are less well known to history but nevertheless played a significant role in public life in the 12th and 13th centuries. A Marriage of Lions gives us just such a story, and it is every bit as wonderful as the author’s last novel The Irish Princess, which I adored. Joanna is a fabulous character and, as we follow her from childhood to middle age, we experience so much of life at the court of Henry III, domestic and political, a place divided by land- and power-hungry lords, these conflicts intensified by strategic marriages. There can be no peace for Joanna once she’s wealthy – others want that that wealth – and once she’s married above her station.

It’s a fantastic story and it immerses the reader in so many ways. The domestic details of a privileged life in the early 13th century are particularly interesting, with Joanna moving between palaces, castles and manors, turning fortified walls into a home, even travelling between England and the Continent. It is grand until we’re brought into the birthing chambers of Joanna and the women she knows. It is then that these women are faced with a life and death situation. The brutal reality is that women faced death throughout their child bearing years and Joanna, the Queen and other women in the novel give birth many times. Death is a companion and a shadow. Rank is irrelevant to it. There are moments in this novel of such sadness.

Then there’s the political and martial side to Henry III’s court. The son of King John, Henry is a weak ruler and often a weak man. The novel takes place over a fair few years and we watch Henry and his wife change in character. Joanna feels it keenly. It’s actually tragic to watch Henry’s decline and the Queen’s increasing hostility. The title of the book, A Marriage of Lions, is so well-chosen and apt. There are many lions and lionesses in this novel, not least of whom is Simon de Montfort, who is well drawn here as an appalling bully. Henry is trapped between big personalities, including that of his brother William de Valence, Joanna’s husband. I loved William. He is a man of action and a man who frequently makes errors of judgement but he is always likeable. His marriage with Joanna is arranged but it is strong. It’s such a pleasure to read about Joanna and William’s life together and the way in which they face their trials.

Elizabeth Chadwick illuminates this period of medieval history like no other author I can recall. The men, women and children of her novels are so believable and genuine. Their motivations and aspirations are so well understood. I’ll be visiting Goodrich Castle in Wales shortly and, when I do, I’ll think of Joanna walking in its grounds. She lived there so many hundreds of years ago but, thanks to Elizabeth Chadwick, I can feel a connection. Likewise, when I’m next in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, just down the road from me, I’ll stand where the royal palace of Woodstock once stood and imagine Henry III and his court feasting, laughing and fighting in its great hall.

A Marriage of Lions tells an utterly engrossing and captivating story, giving Joanna and William the limelight they deserve, bringing them out of the shadow of the monstrous and astonishing Simon de Montfort. I was particularly fascinated by the depiction of Henry III’s marriage but Joanna and William take centre stage and shine in this fabulous, immersive novel.

Other reviews
The Greatest Knight
The Scarlet Lion
The Time of Singing
Lady of the English
The Summer Queen
The Winter Crown
The Autumn Throne
Templar Silks

The Irish Princess