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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

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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.

Other reviews
Dark Omens
The Fateful Day
The Ides of June

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

Her Last Secret by Barbara Copperthwaite

Bookoutre | 2017 (13 October) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Her Last Secret by Barbara CopperthwaiteIt is Christmas Day and gunshots have been reported, heard from 15 Burgh Road in Blackheath, London. When police arrive, they find blood and devastation. The house is lived in by Benjamin and Dominique Thomas (a couple in their 40s) and their two children, teenager Ruby and little girl Amber, known to the world as Mouse. They seemed to be the perfect family, very well off, smart and content. But the police find a diary inside the house and the threads that held the Thomas family together fall apart.

Her Last Secret presents a countdown to Christmas Day, covering the eight days that precede the shocking events. The short chapters move between each member of the Thomas family, but also including those around them – colleagues, friends, lovers. And as we reach the end of each day, little interludes bring us back to the bloody horror of Christmas Day as the police move further and further into the silent house.

I thought when I began Her Last Secret that it would be more of a police procedural, an investigation into the lives of the Thomas family, the unravelling of the clues. Instead, this is a psychological novel that focuses on the family members themselves, one by one, presenting the disintegration of what appeared to all as a tight unit. We’re given a succession of calamities, broken dreams, innocence corrupted and pure misery. It builds and builds through the novel until we can be in no doubt that the fuse is lit and nothing can extinguish it.

I loved the premise of the novel but I had several issues with the story and with its telling. This is the tale of a tragedy but its tone throughout feels light and bouncy, almost innocent, even during the shouting matches. These are unhappy characters (to put it mildly) but there’s no real sense of rage or emotion. There is also too much going on for me. The woes pile upon woes and after a short while I rather stopped enjoying hearing about them and the tension was lost, as was any interest I had in the characters. There are few surprises and those there are fell rather flat as by that stage I was expecting them. My main issue, though, is the ending. It disappointed me, which is a particular shame because it was in anticipation of a good ending that I stuck with it. Obviously, I can’t explain why I didn’t like the ending but suffice to say that I felt a little cheated.

The psychological thriller shelves are overcrowded places and, having read a huge bunch of them, I demand something clever and special from those of them I read these days. When they’re good they can be very good indeed. Her Last Secret was a fast read, with an intriguing structure, and it did hook me in with its excellent premise and beginning but, unfortunately, it turned out rather differently. However, I did finish it! Which is more than I can say about some psycho novels.

‘Rampant hedonism in the Restoration’ – Guest post by Angus Donald, author of Blood’s Game

Blood's Game by Angus DonaldLast week, Zaffre published Blood’s Game by Angus Donald. Angus is one of the finest writers of historical fiction that you can read. I loved every book of his Robin Hood series and was so sorry to see it end last year (you must read it if you haven’t already!). But Angus Donald is back and this time he takes us to another favourite period of mine – the Restoration period of the 1660s and 1670s and the extraordinary court of Charles II.

I am so thrilled to post here a guest post from Angus in which he discusses ‘Rampant hedonism in the Restoration: the politics of pleasure’. I studied this period as part of my degree (Rochester is a favourite poet of mine and I love his depiction – and that of Charles II – in Blood’s Game) and so I’m particularly grateful to Angus for taking the time to write such an in-depth, considered and fun article about such a fascinating subject as the court of King Charles II!

Before the post, here’s a little of what Blood’s Game is about.

London, Winter 1670.

Holcroft Blood has entered the employ of the Duke of Buckingham, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom after the king. It is here that his education really begins. With a gift for numbers and decoding ciphers, Holcroft soon proves invaluable to the Duke, but when he’s pushed into a betrayal he risks everything for revenge.

His father, Colonel Thomas Blood, has fallen on hard times. A man used to fighting, he lives by his wits and survives by whatever means necessary. When he’s asked to commit treason by stealing the crown jewels, he puts himself and his family in a dangerous situation – one that may end at the gallows.

As the machinations of powerful men plot to secure the country’s future, both father and son must learn what it is to survive in a more dangerous battlefield than war – the court of King Charles II.

Rampant hedonism in the Restoration: the politics of pleasure
By Angus Donald

At Edinburgh University in the late 1980s, I founded a club called the Hedonism Society or HedSoc. We met in pubs, drank a lot and . . . that was pretty much it. For obvious reasons, I don’t remember much about what we talked about. But I’ve always had an interest in pleasure, mine, of course, but also the pleasures of others. And I think it was partly this interest that drew me to write Blood’s Game, a novel set in the Restoration period, which concerns the daring attempt by Colonel Blood to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. While that is the main plot strand, the novel also explores the court of Charles II, the Merry Monarch, and his outrageous, libidinous, scandalous and frequently drunken friends and followers.

Pleasure was political in those debauched days. If you allowed yourself to be seen to be having fun you were making a statement about yourself, your loyalties, your politics and your religion. You were also saying most emphatically and publicly that you were not a Puritan, not a supporter of the old Cromwellian order, and that you approved of the new monarchy, and the second King Charles, wholeheartedly.

Like most things in life, context is crucial to understanding this age.

In 1660, at the age of thirty, after a long and penniless exile, Charles regained the thrones of the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. He had had a pretty miserable time abroad but the people that he was now ruling had just come out of a dark and terrible period in our history. The bloody civil wars, in which a larger proportion of the population died that in any conflict before or since, were followed by the austere Puritan rule of the Commonwealth and the dictatorship of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. During this cold interregnum period, most sports were banned, drunkenness and even swearing was punished with a fine, non-religious expressions of Christmas were stopped, many drinking establishments were closed, as were all the theatres. Women who were caught working on Sundays were put in the stocks and shamed, bright clothes were banned and sober dress was the order of the day. Make-up was scrubbed off girls’ faces by soldiers who caught them wearing it, right there and then. It is instructive to recognise that armed men stopping and humiliating women in the streets in the name of religious purity does not only happen in other parts of the world. We had our own approximation of the Taliban once.

So, when Charles returned to the throne, he wanted to show his subjects that it was now perfectly all right for people to enjoy themselves. Drinking was OK, sex was OK, fun was back in fashion. Hip hip hooray! The theatres were reopened, and there was a resurgence of bawdy, satirical plays. Public drunkenness, particularly among the aristocracy, became almost a badge of rank – and an expression of loyalty to the King. Pranks and japes abounded – a pair of well-born young men, friends of the King and members of the notorious Merry Gang, scandalised London by appearing on a balcony, completely inebriated, and pretending to sodomise each other. Poets and playwrights could openly criticise the King, his court, his morals and his mistresses. And did so enthusiastically. The chronically alcoholic poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, leader of the Merry Gang, wrote of the King: “Restless he rolls from whore to whore/ A merry monarch, scandalous and poor”.

Because Charles took his sexual pleasures seriously. He had many lovers as a young bachelor, including his nanny Mrs Wyndham, who took his virginity when he was fifteen. And after he married Catherine of Braganza, in 1662, he had at least seven mistresses, and possible as many as thirteen, who bore him a dozen children.

The role of mistress was semi-official – a whore or courtesan, or woman with whom the King had a casual encounter, would not be counted among their number – and a man who kept one was obliged to pay for her food, drink, accommodation and servants, as well as making her generous presents from time to time, perhaps when he paid her a visit. Many of the mistresses and their illegitimate children, those whose paternity the King acknowledged, received earldoms and dukedoms from the monarch and many British aristocrats today trace their ancestry back to Charles II.

The Puritans of the previous age would have turned in their graves had they known about this public and permitted acknowledgement of the extra-marital lusts of men. Because society looked to the King for guidance on how to behave, the fact that he had so many mistresses, so openly acknowledged, sent a clear message to everyone.

Adultery, forbidden by God, punished by Puritans, was now normalised.

Two of the the most famous of Charles’s mistresses – the formidable beauty Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, and the famous actress Nell Gywn – make appearances in Blood’s Game. In the period when the book is set, Barbara was about thirty and was being replaced in the royal affections by the feisty and outrageous Nell, who was ten years younger. Gwyn was an actress, and before that an “orange-seller” in the theatres, a profession which some historians take as a euphemism for prostitute. Perhaps because of her lowly origins and dubious trade, she was never ennobled by her royal lover, although her two children were.

Barbara, on the other hand, came from the aristocratic Villiers family. She gave Charles five children and, as a long-time and fecund mistress, she wielded more power at court than childless Catherine. In fact, she was known as the Uncrowned Queen and she used her position ruthlessly to enrich herself and her friends. She persuaded the King to grant her lavish titles and lands and properties – she was given Nonsuch Palace, built by Henry VIII, and the title Baroness Nonsuch, and promptly dismantled the palace and sold off the building materials to pay her gambling debts.

Gambling was another sinful pleasure, long denied, which the gentlemen and ladies of the Restoration court now engaged in with enthusiasm – sometimes to their financial ruin. Indeed, in Blood’s Game, the climax of the book is an epic game of Whist, which was just coming into fashion at the time.

Women as well as men adopted the hedonistic credo of the era. Barbara Villiers was an enthusiastic, if not entirely successful gambler. At one point she was obliged to “borrow” tens of thousands of pounds from the Privy Purse to settle her debts, but when this was discovered by officials, such was her sway over the King that the debt was immediately written off by her indulgent royal lover.

When Charles’s interest in her began to wane, she was not above finding other gentlemen friends to pleasure her. She became the lover of Jack Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, when he was a handsome and penniless young officer at court. She bore Churchill a daughter and tried, unsuccessfully, to claim she was the King’s.

Charles was not exactly delighted that his long-time lover, a woman he had given so much to, had taken a younger man to her bed – Barbara had also given Churchill a gift of £5,000, money she had received from the King, which infuriated Charles – but he was perfectly gentlemanly about the situation. He was, after all, beginning his own new relationship with Nell Gwyn at the time. There is a (probably apocryphal) tale, which I have included in Blood’s Game, that a servant was paid £100 by the Duke of Buckingham to inform His Grace when Churchill and Villiers would next be enjoying a tryst. The mischief-making Duke then persuaded the King to visit Barbara at the same time. The story goes that when the King arrived at her apartments unexpectedly, the naked Churchill had to hide in a cupboard, and was swiftly discovered there by the cuckolded Merry Monarch.

Apparently, the King saw the funny side, and forgave his young rival. He said: “You are a rascal, sir, but I forgive you because you do it to get your [daily] bread.”

A stinging insult – he basically called Churchill a man-whore – followed by forgiveness. And all the while keeping his sense of humour. That’s a class act.

It is little stories like this and many, many others, that made writing Blood’s Game such a sinful pleasure. I can only hope that you find reading it as hedonistic.

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