Category Archives: 17th century

The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2021 (29 April) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Royal Secret by Andrew TaylorIt is 1670 and the squalid and decaying court of Charles II is rife with intrigue as the unsteady Stuart crown is threatened by forces in the Netherlands and France. When Abbot, one of the agents working for the Secretary of State Lord Arlington, is found dead, his colleague James Marwood is sent to retrieve confidential papers from his home. It is clear that some are missing, not that this is an easy house to search – it is stinking with rats, poisoned and dying in agony. The trail leads Marwood to the house of Mr Fanshawe where Abbot’s wife and her child, secretive and frightened, now live, alongside the talk of the town, a lion.

Meanwhile, architect Cat Haskins has been hired to design a grand poultry house for the King’s sister in France, a project of great interest to the Dutchman Van Riebeck. Cat finds herself caught in the centre of a disturbing business, one that straddles the English Channel. Marwood can only watch on in alarm before he, too, steps into the fray.

The Royal Secret is the fifth novel to feature James Marwood and the woman who is frequently on his mind, Cat Haskins (once Lovett). You don’t need to have read the others but I would really encourage you to do so as these are among the best historical novels you could possibly read. Their depiction of Charles II’s court during the Great Fire and in the succeeding years is superb. This book does mark a new beginning of sorts because Cat is now independent again. She is working for herself as an architect and is viewed as a curiosity by the people who employ her to design elaborate houses for chickens – it’s all the rage and all rather strange. That’s even before you consider the logistics of owning a pet lion and placing him in your stables.

The plot of The Royal Secret is pleasingly complex and immerses both Marwood and Cat in a situation that endangers them both, while also threatening the security of the realm and a King who is constantly under attack by foreign powers and spies closer to hand. It all gets rather personal when Cat finds herself mixing with the wrong people and all Marwood can do is watch on anxiously. It’s a great story, brilliantly told by Andrew Taylor, and I recommend you dive in. You’ll soon catch up if you haven’t read any of the other books.

It’s the portrayal of Charles II’s court and government that I found the most riveting. It’s a hotbed of personal ambition and envy, sin and disease, corruption and a rather odd idealism surrounding the nature of the crown after years of all too recent civil war and Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Charles does make occasional charismatic appearances in this novel and in the others and they are always highlights. I absolutely love the way in which he is depicted. The men who work for him and conduct his business are far less appealing and Marwood is in the unfortunate position of being caught in the middle of most of them.

There is extra glamour in The Royal Secret thanks to some extremely enjoyable scenes set in France where Cat must wait on the pleasure of Madame, Charles II’s sister. Equally fun to read are the chapters set aboard ships. It’s hard to be refined and noble when in the grip of seasickness. Complementing these personal stories is the intrigue as secret messages move between countries and agents. There’s also a menace at work and he makes for an interesting villain.

The King’s Secret is clever, historically rich and detailed, and extremely engrossing. I can’t rave about it enough as this fabulous series gets even better. It tells a great story – compelling, tragic and thoroughly intriguing and, of course, it is deliciously steeped in the atmosphere of this secretive, diseased, decaying court of Charles II. The King’s Secret is quite possibly the best of the series, which is saying something.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court

The King’s Evil
The Last Protector

The Drowned City by K.J. Maitland

Headline | 2021 (1 April) | 448p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

The Drowned City by KH MaitlandIt is 1606 and Bristol has been devastated by a catastrophic tidal wave. Many are dead, lost, orphaned or homeless. It’s a year after the Gunpowder Plot and James I and his adviser Robert Cecil are overcome with paranoia and fear. While Cecil worries about plotters, James is concerned about witches. Daniel Pursglove, who has special talents, is despatched to Bristol with two missions – to find the escaped Catholic conspirator Spero Pettingar, who is believed to be in Bristol, and to find out whether the terrible flood was an act of God or the work of witches.

Daniel finds a city wrecked by the flood, its citizens tested to their limit, susceptible to rumours of witchcraft, desperate to find somebody to blame. It’s not long before there are lynchings, Jesuit plots, and then Daniel discovers there is a murderer at work.

Karen Maitland writes beautifully about the people of the past and their lives and beliefs, especially in the medieval countryside. Now, writing under a slightly different name, she turns her attention to the early 17th century and a time that was more modern and knowable in some ways but was still alive with suspicion, fuelled to a large degree by the witch-hating James I. The starting point is compelling – the true story of the wave that destroyed much of Bristol – and here she puts it in a context of religious turmoil, persecution, conspiracy and suspicion.

The result is a richly evocative and atmospheric novel, gorgeously written, with attention given to the details of daily life as well as the devastation of the flood. This is a population that has been traumatised and we feel that keenly. We meet men, women and children in dire straits, including a young boy who must survive as best as he can, homeless and still hoping that he can find his family, that they won’t be lost to the sea. He is one of the survivors and they can be ruthless.

Daniel is an outsider who wanders through the city’s streets, suspected by many and a witness to some terrible things. There are some devastating scenes in The Drowned City as people find witches in ordinary places and treat them brutally. Daniel is there to uncover secrets, without knowing what those secrets are. He is caught in the middle of something that he can hardly understand but it constantly reminds him of a past he is trying to forget.

The Drowned City is beautifully written, with an emphasis on atmosphere, on Bristol and its people during this period of turmoil and persecution rather than on the plot, which meanders considerably. I did find this a little frustrating on occasion but it is certainly engrossing and involving. I loved the scenes featuring King James – especially the memorable scene when he visits the Tower of London to see his lion. This is fabulous! I’ve read a fair few novels featuring James over the years and this James is excellent (and fortunately long dead)!

Other reviews (writing as Karen Maitland)
The Vanishing Witch
The Raven’s Head

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

Simon & Schuster | 2021 (7 January) | 384p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

The Smallest Man by Frances QuinnIt is 1625 and Nat Davy isn’t like other boys. No matter how much he gets his brother to try and stretch his legs and arms he will not grow. Reality hits when Nat visits a circus and sees a tiny woman on display who tells him to run. But it’s too late. When the circus contacts Nat’s father and makes him an offer, Nat is given a year to grow a little bit older before he too will become an exhibit on display. But, before the dreaded day comes, history takes matters into its own hands. The Duke of Buckingham buys the boy as a gift for Charles I’s young bride, Queen Henrietta Maria, and, before he knows it, the terrified and very, very small boy is served up to the Queen in a pie.

Nat Davy is a fictional character based on the figure of Sir Jeffrey Hudson, the Queen’s Dwarf. He is beautifully portrayed and we see the world – at its most poor and then at its wealthiest – through his eyes. And he sees the court from a unique perspective, not least because he becomes the confidant of the young French girl who is now Queen but, at the beginning of her marriage, feels so alone and unloved. Nat and the Queen are caught in the power games of Charles I and his favourite the Duke of Buckingham and, as Nat becomes a man and stays so tiny, he is viewed as more of an oddity than ever. However, over the years, Nat gathers a group of friends around him and, as the novel continues, his size is overshadowed by his stature as a man of the court.

The novel covers the whole of Charles I’s reign and that means that it also covers the Civil War, one of my favourite periods of English history. What makes this particularly unusual is that we view the conflict from the sidelines, as the Queen tries to gather funds and men for the King’s cause. I love how we see the relationship between the King and Queen evolve as they slowly fall in love. We also see how war has impacted the English countryside as people are caught up in a war that they initially think is happening at a distance. Families and friends are divided or they come together, putting relationships above political arguments that don’t interest them. It’s fascinating.

I loved The Smallest Man. It’s beautifully written. There is a love story element that I thought went on a little too long, but I really enjoyed this unusual story. We view all sides of English life through the figure of Nat, who experiences the lows and highs of 17th-century life, including war and exile. He endures real poverty, fear and danger, as well as coping with the sadness of the young Queen. It is a wonderful story, engrossing and full of historical details. I listened to the audiobook, which is stunningly read by Alex Wingfield. His voice truly becomes that of Nat. Nat is a fabulous character, offering an original and vivid perspective on Charles I’s land, court, war and death.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Raven Books | 2020 (1 October) | 576p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the audiobook

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart TurtonIt is 1634 when the East India merchant ship Saardam sets sail from Batavia (Indonesia) to its home port of Amsterdam. In its dark and diseased depths it carries Sammy Pipps, a renowned and famous detective who is now a prisoner, being taken to his execution. He is accompanied by Lieutenant Arent Hayes, his bodyguard and close companion, who is determined to discover why Pipps is to die. And to do that he must play a careful game with the Governor-General of Batavia, the cruel and powerful Jan Haan, who is also aboard the Saardam, with his wife, daughter, and his mistress.

It is clear even before the ship sets sail that this will be a tormented voyage. A tongueless leper curses the Saardam from the docks, foretelling three terrible miracles. And when the ship sets sail, horrible sightings are seen, sinister whispers are heard and people begin to die. Arent fears that the ship will never reach its destination for how can it when the devil himself, Old Tom, is aboard? The only hope is Sammy Pipps.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a glorious, ingenious masterpiece – it is hard to imagine a debut novel that is more difficult to follow. But Stuart Turton has done a fine job with The Devil and the Dark Water. It is very different from its predecessor and so stands on its own terms very well. It is a more traditional novel of historical fiction, its tale is linear and it is steeped in its time of the first half of the 17th century. But it is still another clever novel. The action takes place almost entirely aboard the Saardam and on the high seas. This means heightened claustrophobia, sickness, danger but added to this is the element of something strange and supernatural haunting the ship, terrifying its crew and passengers, driving them to violence, to madness.

You can almost feel the spray of the sea on your face and the movement of the waves when you read this novel. You can strongly imagine the stench below decks, the misery of the unhappy passengers trapped below, the undercurrent of violence that menaces the women in particular, and the evil malignancy of the Governor-General. Stuart Turton is a fabulous writer and he uses his skills to great effect as we voyage across the high seas on a damned and cursed ship.

The Saardam is arguably the most central character of the novel but she has a rival in the extraordinary Arent. The author has mentioned in an interview (it follows the audiobook) that there are echoes of Holmes and Watson in the relationship between Pipps and Arent but what is interesting is that the relationship is turned on its head. Here we have the soldier, the helper, dominate, while the famous detective is forced into inaction. I’m not a fan of Sherlock Holmes (I know, I’m sorry about that) and so I’m pleased to say that the similarities didn’t influence my reading. Arent is a marvellous character and, as his past is slowly revealed to us, he fascinates more and more. His relationship with the Governor-General is truly intriguing.

My favourite character of the novel is, undoubtedly, Sara Wessel, the Governor-General’s beaten and badly-treated wife. She has heroic strength, loving and protecting her daughter Lia, determined to do what is right for those who need help even if it will result in another beating. Her courage and goodness are the light in this novel. As the Governor-General cowers and hides from the dark, Sara thrives.

Menace and foreboding shadow the voyage, and the novel, throughout. It’s a deliciously atmospheric tale. It’s dramatic and pacey, the crew is horrifying and compelling almost to a man, and it is all so beautifully described. I didn’t find it frightening but I did find it very disturbing. I listened to the audiobook, which was masterfully narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt, and I can thoroughly recommend it. Having said that, there are some gorgeous hardback special editions to be found! I settled for both.

Stuart Turton is most definitely an author to watch. I love the way in which he plays games with historical fiction. I can’t wait to see where and when he takes us next.

Other review
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle