Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Nucleus by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2018 (25 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nucleus by Rory ClementsIt is the summer of 1939 and, although nobody leaves home without their gas mask, England is carrying on as normal. A more immediate threat comes from the IRA which has begun a bombing terror campaign. But events in Europe cannot be ignored indefinitely and world powers – especially America, Germany and Britain – are well aware that in the war that is to come the atom bomb, if such a thing can be created, will be critical for victory. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in England has been a centre for scientific discovery and innovation and it is close to a breakthrough. America knows this and so too does Germany. When one of its scientists is murdered and another one disappears, Tom Wilde (a Cambridge professor but an American citizen) becomes caught up in the investigations.

Tom has been instructed by the American government to spy on the inhabitants of a local grand house, Hawksmere Old Hall, including a scientist (and an old friend of Tom’s) Geoff Lancing and Geoff’s sister Clarissa, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and famous film actresses. Meanwhile Tom’s love Lydia has gone into the lion’s den itself – Berlin. A German Jewish scientist and his family has been smuggled out of Germany but a child has been stolen, presumably for blackmail to make the scientist return. Lydia is determined to find him. But this is a conspiracy that stretches across continents and oceans and both Lydia and Tom are soon out of their depth. As Europe hurtles ever closer to war, the stakes couldn’t be higher, the danger to Tom and Lydia more certain.

Nucleus follows on from Corpus, the first novel to feature Tom Wilde. Before this, author Rory Clements was better known for his Elizabethan spy series but Corpus and now Nucleus demonstrate that he is a master of the spy novel whatever the period in which it’s set. Pleasingly, Tom Wilde is a professor of history, especially of the Elizabethan spymaster Walsingham and I love the way in which these two periods of history 350 years apart are shown to share similarities. Tom has his own spymaster to deal with as well as serious issues of who he can trust – it’s difficult to see the truth when you can only glimpse a small part of the bigger picture.

The plotting is superb and deliciously intricate. You do need to keep your wits about you and keep alert and the rewards are enormous. I was thoroughly immersed in the plot and caught up in the tension. The scenes in Germany are especially intense and I found them terrifying. There is one moment in this novel when I actually gasped and had to put the book down. I even flicked through a few pages to find resolution, I couldn’t deal with what I’d ‘heard’.

I love the portrayal of England during 1939. The Old House is a symbol of decadence and the old way of living, one that will shortly be made irrelevant. Lydia is arguably the most appealing and interesting of all of the characters in the novel. It’s good to read a spy novel in which women play an equal role, although if you’re after glamour you’ll certainly find it in Clarissa.

Rory Clements has created two fine characters with Tom and Lydia and he deploys them with cleverness and skill. There’s an air of intellectualism about these novels – as there would be with a professor for the central character – but there are no ivory towers here. The world is waking up to a second world war and Tom will have to get his hands dirty. I loved Corpus. Published in January 2017, it opened up the year’s reading in fine fashion and Nucleus has done exactly the same in 2018. With no doubt at all, this is one of the best historical and spy series being written today. I can’t wait for more.

Other review
Corpus
Holy Spy

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Traitor by David Hingley

Allison & Busby | 2018 (18 January) | 382p | Review copy | Buy the book

Traitor by David HingleyIt is May 1665 and Mercia Blackwood, with her child Daniel and manservant Nicholas, is at last returning home to England and London after her adventures in America. Surely now she has done enough to win back the favour of Charles II, the King who executed her father for treason, and all that he has promised. But after weeks at sea, her reception home could hardly be worse. It seems that he will demand more from her.

England is at war with the Dutch. The King, and his mistress Lady Castlemaine, believe that there is a spy at court, spilling secrets to the enemy, stolen straight from the King’s War Council. It is believed that the spy is named Virgo and she is thought to be one of the women in closest association with members of the Council. Who better to hunt the spy out than Mercia? She is, after all, herself adored by one of the Council, Sir William Calde. Mercia’s investigations will take her into the heart of the glorious yet debauched royal court. She will also witness the lives of those who serve the powerful, as servants and, sometimes, as little more than pets.

Traitor is the third novel by David Hingley to feature Mercia Blackwood. At the time of writing this, I have read Birthright, the first, but have yet to read Puritan, the second of the series which moved Mercia from London to America on another mission for the King. The fact that I have yet to read Puritan did nothing to harm my enjoyment of Traitor but it certainly made me want to go back and read it. The fact that I didn’t at the time was because the story had moved from London and King Charles – who is such an appealing element of these books – to the New World. But now I’d like to find out what went on. In this third book we are squarely back in London.

The portrayal of Charles II’s court is full of colour. It also reeks with sin. So soon after the Civil War, with England at war once more, there’s a strong sense of the fragility and vulnerability of Charles II’s reign, especially as his children, though many in number, are all illegitimate. There’s hardly a man at court without a mistress, as well as a wife. It leads to complications. And having to unravel it all is Mercia.

I like Mercia. She’s independent and courageous, doing all she can to get what she needs in what is most definitely a man’s world. Women at court are expected to be mere adornments although one suspects that the women are more influential than their men might suppose. But the emphasis is on Mercia’s mission and drive rather than on her character and so she isn’t especially three-dimensional. But, as I say, I do like her.

I particularly enjoyed the elements of the story that took me out of the oversweet court and into the stench of London’s poorest streets and also onto the ships preparing for battle against the Dutch. The fact that this novel is set in 1665 made me expect the Great Plague and, although it does make a cameo appearance, this is very much about the war with the Dutch. I know very little about this, or about the ships that fought it, and so I found this really interesting. There’s another ogre that raises its head in Traitor and this is slavery. These sections were, for me, the best of the book.

I think it’s quite likely that Charles II isn’t quite done with Mercia Blackwood yet and so I’m intrigued to see what will happen to her next, should David Hingley continue her story. This is one of my very favourite periods in British history to read about so I certainly hope he does.

Other review
Birthright

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the Blog Tour. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

Traitor blog tour banner

Imperial Vengeance by Ian Ross

Head of Zeus | Ebook: 1 December 2016; Hb: 11 January 2018 | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Imperial Vengeance by Ian RossImperial Vengeance is the fifth novel in Ian Ross’s Twilight of Empire series. We have followed Aurelius Castus through many years of service to Constantine, as a centurion in Britain and now as something far grander. While you can read Imperial Vengeance as a stand alone novel, this review assumes that you’ve read the other books in the series and have kept up with the political machinations of Constantine and his wife Fausta.

It is AD 323 and the Roman empire is divided. While Constantine controls Rome itself and the west, Licinius is ruler of Egypt and the East. But Constantine wants it all. Helping Constantine to win his glory is his son Crispus, who rules Gaul as Caesar and has won significant victories over the Germanic tribes across the Rhine. Constantine now calls on Crispus to join him in his expedition to the East, to challenge Licinius in battle on sea and land, and to take from him that jewel of the eastern empire – Byzantium. And how could Constantine fail? Now fully committed to Christianity, Constantine marches with Christ at his side.

Aurelius Castus is Crispus’s supreme military commander. This lofty rank means that he must leave his family once more to do all he can to keep his young master alive and safe. Castus is no longer a young man, he wears the scars of battle, but once more he must lead from the front. But Crispus is not making life easy for him – as Constantine nears his twentieth year of rule, Crispus looks to the example of Diocletian who abdicated his throne for his son on such an occasion. Castus couldn’t be more aware of the potential danger of Crispus’s ambition and the terrible decision that he himself would have to take if son turned against father.

Time has moved on for Castus, now that we’ve reached the fifth novel in the Twilight of Empire series. His children are growing, his stepdaughters marrying, his son eager to follow in his steps, but once more Castus must leave them behind as he strides into the Civil War of the AD 320s. This might be a relatively overlooked period by Roman historical fiction but it more than merits this series of novels. Constantine and his mother Helena are remembered with rather a saintly glow, indeed both were canonised, but Ian Ross paints them warts and all and they are fascinating! I particularly enjoyed the way in which Ian Ross deals with the aged and domineering Helena – she is fearsome indeed – while Constantine, with his jutting jaw, is as capricious and cruel as you’d expect from an emperor who puts nothing, absolutely nothing, above his ambition. By contrast, Crispus is a delight, so charming and handsome, militarily gifted and brave, a young god indeed. And with Fausta thrown into the mix, this is an extraordinary family and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading about them in this series. In Imperial Vengeance, Constantine outdoes himself.

Castus has a loyal circle of servants and warriors around him and we’ve followed them all through the novels. While I don’t think that Castus has the colour of his imperial masters, he is perfectly placed to guide us through the conflicts and battles of the day. He is older, as are the men who follow him, and each of them has to make a choice about who they serve. Constantine’s Christian zeal is not easy for these old soldiers to understand. It’s going to be a difficult journey.

At the heart of Imperial Vengeance is its battles and here we find them on land and at sea. This is utterly thrilling (especially the sea battles), packed with historical and military details. I’m no expert on warfare during this period but it all certainly feels real and authentic, while the gore, although there is some, is secondary.

My favourite element of Imperial Vengeance, though, is its depiction of the imperial family. All of these figures are absolutely fascinating, while the dynamic between them is both enthralling and lethal. Ian Ross has secured Constantine a firm place in Roman military historical fiction. He makes me want to learn more about him (I was looking things up as I read along) and that is just what I want from a novel that takes me back into the past.

Other reviews
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire 1)
Swords Around the Throne (Twilight of Empire 2)
Battle for Rome (Twilight of Empire 3) (with interview)
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire 4)

Beautiful Star and Other Stories by Andrew Swanston

The Dome Press | 2018 (11 January) | 253p | Review copy | Buy the book

Beautiful Star by Andrew SwanstonEach of these seven stories has at its heart a real historical character, bringing to life a historical event that affected the lives of everyone who remembered it. Real people, as well as fictional characters, inhabit these tales of extraordinary circumstances and the result is moving and powerful. The collection is also most elegantly written, as you’d expect from Andrew Swanston, and at times the emotion is almost understated as people have to deal with what has happened. No drama is made of it. Life must continue.

The seven stories are mostly drawn from the 17th-19th centuries with the notable exception of ‘The Flying Monk’, which competes for the title of my favourite of the collection. Set in the early years of the 11th century we meet the young monk Eilmer who is determined to prove that a human can fly, once he is able to build his wings. Everyone who meets Eilmer and watches his experiments is inspired by him.

Two other stories take us to sea. In ‘Beautiful Star’, the longest story in the anthology, we find ourselves on the coast of Scotland in 1875. A community is stricken by a devastating storm that catches its fishing fleet at sea. But, as with the other stories, Andrew Swanston doesn’t just show us the impact of the main event, he leads up to it by building up the layers of ordinary but remarkable lives. As a result, their destiny is felt to be even more real and devastating. I carry in my head the image of the wives and daughters carrying their husbands and brothers on their backs to the boats. Superstition forbade men from getting their feet wet ahead of their voyage.

In ‘HMS Association’ we meet Daniel Jones, a man pressed into the navy in 1708 and who must endure war against France as they besiege the town of Toulon. This story might be short but it’s certainly sweet. I would have liked much, much more of this.

Other stories also carry us to war, including ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’ which goes back to the battle of Waterloo and tells the tale from the perspective of both English and French sides. ‘The Castle’ goes back to an earlier war, the English Civil War, and presents the astonishing story of Lady Mary Bankes, a mother of twelve children, who led the Royalist defence of Corfe Castle in 1645 after the death of her husband. This is incredible and makes me want to revisit Corfe as soon as possible.

In ‘The Tree’ we have another story from the period of the English Civil War, or just after it, as the victorious Parliamentarian forces hunt for the vanquished King Charles II across the land in 1651 following his defeat in Wales. Charles famously hid in an oak tree and that’s the story we’re presented with here and I loved it. This is another of those short but sweet tales.

In ‘A Witch and A Bitch’ we have something a little different. It presents the story of Jane Wenham who was famously tried for witchcraft in 1712. Known as the Witch of Walkern, the troubles of her life are here laid bare, as well as the maliciousness of her accusers, and the kindness of her granddaughter. It’s a moving story and tells us much about attitudes to witchcraft among ordinary men and women, as well as courts and officials, at a time that recoiled from the witch trials of the 17th century.

I loved this collection. It is elegant and full of heart. If I had to have a least favourite it would be ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’ but that is simply because it draws on a historical period that does little for me, so the fault is mine entirely. But I adored the other six stories and took something from each of them. They also inspired me to find out more about the events that they portray. I haven’t been a big reader of short stories in the past but I do read and appreciate them much more now. And it’s all because of collections like these.

Other reviews and features

The King’s Return

Guest post by Andrew Swanton: Spies and spying in the Civil War

Incendium

Rome’s Sacred Flame by Robert Fabbri (Vespasian VIII)

Corvus | 2018 (4 January) | 347p | Review copy | Buy the book

Rome's Sacred Flame by Robert FabbriIt is AD 63. Nero is emperor and there is no one who doesn’t fear him – except for the plebeians in the streets that is, who love their indulgent, flamboyant ruler, a man of the people and not of the Senate. But anyone with money or influence is under threat, including the family of Vespasian and his brother Sabinus. You would have thought that Vespasian as governor of Africa would be safe so far from Rome, but not a chance. Vespasian has been ordered deep into the desert to a frontier city kingdom where a tyrant holds hundreds of captured Roman citizens as slaves. It is Vespasian’s task to escort these poor souls back to Roman lands across miles of empty desert. It is a formidable and extreme task.

But Rome is no safer. People compete for Nero’s favour while beholding the emperor’s behaviour at its worst. There are plots and plotters but can anybody really hope to stop the monster? It’s clear, though, that for now things can only get worse.

Rome’s Sacred Flame is the eighth novel in Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian series, which is one of my favourite series of any genre. We have followed Vespasian through the years from childhood – when he was the subject of a great prophecy that continues to shine on him – through the reigns of several emperors, including his one-time friend Caligula, until now when the madness of Rome’s Julio-Claudian line of emperors reaches its heights – or depths. The fact that we know Vespasian’s destiny, while he himself does not, does nothing to detract from the tension and drama of these novels. The time spent waiting for his rise to power is both fascinating and lethal.

Robert Fabbri doesn’t beat around the bush – these emperors were vile men, the perpetrators of horrific crimes, and we’re spared none of it. I’m still getting over Fabbri’s portrayal of Tiberius, but with Nero we behold the devil. Some of this is quite shocking to read, at least for me, particularly the humiliation of the wives and daughters of Rome’s senators, and the terrible deed of crucifixion. I must admit that I found some of this hard to read.

But the grim content is offset by a glorious portrait of Rome during the 1st century AD. Its streets, forum, public buildings and houses are brought to life. And there is a brilliant account of one of the most famous events of this century, hinted at by the title and cover. It’s compelling stuff. Likewise, the chapters set in Africa are extremely dramatic. You can almost feel the heat and the thirst of those who must cross the vast desert.

This period of history is made for novels and Robert Fabbri does such a fine job of blending fact with fiction, reinterpreting some of the key events of the period as well as the personalities of the day, from emperors and consuls to Christian leaders and vigilante troops. Vespasian has changed enormously over the years – decades at the heart of Rome will do that to a man – and he’s not always likeable. In fact, he often isn’t. He’s committed some terrible acts over the years and there’s a powerful and horrifying sense here that now he’s having to pay for it. Rome’s Eternal Flame is, I think, the most emotional of the series, and the most shocking. A couple of scenes had me in tears (once on the bus), while others did repulse me. It’s certainly not a book I ever wanted to put down. I can’t wait for the next one as we approach the fulfilment of the prophecy. There are most definitely, though, more hurdles for Vespasian to overcome.

Other reviews
Vespasian I: Tribune of Rome
Vespasian II: Rome’s Executioner
Vespasian III: False God of Rome
Vespasian IV: Rome’s Fallen Eagle
Vespasian V: Masters of Rome
Vespasian VI: Rome’s Lost Son
Vespasian VII: The Furies of Rome

Arminius: The Limits of Empire

2018 historical fiction – looking ahead (January to May)

One of the best things about seeing out an old year is embracing all the book goodies of the new. While I have yet to conquer completely my 2017 book mountain and fully intend to return to it (as well as to older books), it’s fun to see what’s in store. My 2018 book mountain is already high enough to gather snow and I’ve got a few of its titles under my belt. But, before I post my first review of a 2018 book, here is the first of two posts to feature just some of the books that I’m personally looking forward to over the next few months. This post focuses on the historical fiction (published between January and the end of May 2018) that has caught my eye. It is a very strong list indeed.

Historical Fiction

Nucleus by Rory ClementsNucleus by Rory Clements (January; Zaffre)
I have read this and I can confirm that it is every bit as clever and brilliant as Corpus! ‘June 1939. England is partying like there is no tomorrow, gas masks at the ready. In Cambridge the May Balls are played out with a frantic intensity – but the good times won’t last… In Europe, the Nazis have invaded Czechoslovakia, and in Germany he persecution of the Jews is now so widespread that desperate Jewish parents send their children to safety in Britain aboard the Kindertransport. Closer to home, the IRA’s S-Plan bombing campaign has resulted in more than 100 terrorist outrages around England. But perhaps the most far-reaching event of all goes largely unreported: in Germany, Otto Hahn has produced the first man-made fission and an atomic device is now a very real possibility. The Nazis set up the Uranverein group of physicists: its task is to build a superbomb. The German High Command is aware that British and US scientists are working on similar line. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory is where the atom was split in 1932. Might the Cambridge men now win the race for a nuclear bomb? Hitler’s generals need to be sure they know all the Cavendish’s secrets. Only then will it be safe for Germany to wage war. When one of the Cavendish’s finest brains is murdered, Professor Tom Wilde is once more drawn into an intrigue from which there seems no escape. In a conspiracy that stretches from Cambridge to Berlin and from Washington DC to the west coast of Ireland, he faces deadly forces that threaten the fate of the world.’

Imperial Vengeance by Ian Ross (January; Head of Zeus)
I have also read this and it’s arguably the best of the series. ‘Aurelius Castus is one of the leading military commanders of an empire riven by civil war. As the emperor Constantine grows ever more ruthless in his pursuit of power, Castus fears that the world he knows is slipping away. On the eve of the war’s final campaign, Castus discovers that the emperor’s son Crispus aims to depose his father and restore the old ways of Rome. Castus must choose between honour and survival, and face a final confrontation with the most powerful man in the Roman world, the ruler he has sworn loyally to serve: the emperor Constantine himself.’

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (January; Harvill Secker)
‘One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost. Where will their ambitions lead? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess? In this spellbinding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.’

Traitor by David Hingley (January; Allison & Busby)
Another title that I’ve read and enjoyed with a review to follow shortly. ‘February 1665. With winter passing, Mercia Blakewood is at last headed back to England from America, hoping to leave behind the shadow that death and heartache have cast. She expects a welcome from the King considering her earlier, mostly successful, mission at his behalf, but the reception is not exactly warm. Mercia faces more manipulation and must accept a clandestine and uncomfortable role at the heart of the royal court posing as a mistress to find a spy and traitor.’

Beautiful Star and Other Stories by Andrew Swanston (January, Dome Press)
My current read! I particularly enjoyed the story of an 11th-century flying monk. ‘History is brought alive by the people it affects, rather than those who created it. In Beautiful Star we meet Eilmer, a monk in 1010 with Icarus-like dreams; Charles I, hiding in 1651, and befriended by a small boy; the trial of Jane Wenham, witch of Walkern, seen through the eyes of her grand-daughter. This is a moving and affecting journey through time, bringing a new perspective to the defence of Corfe Castle, the battle of Waterloo, the siege of Toulon and, in the title story, the devastating dangers of the life of the sea in 1875.’

Rome's Sacred Flame by Robert FabbriRome’s Sacred Flame by Robert Fabbri (January; Corvus)
I loved this. A fine addition to one of my favourite series. ‘Rome, AD 63. Vespasian has been made Governor of Africa. Nero, Rome’s increasingly unpredictable Emperor, orders him to journey with his most trusted men to a far-flung empire in Africa to free 200 Roman citizens who have been enslaved by a desert kingdom. Vespasian arrives at the city to negotiate their emancipation, hoping to return to Rome a hero and find himself back in favour with Nero. But when Vespasian reaches the city, he discovers a slave population on the edge of revolt. With no army to keep the population in check, it isn’t long before tensions spill over into bloody chaos. Vespasian must escape the city with all 200 Roman citizens and make their way across a barren desert, battling thirst and exhaustion, with a hoard of rebels at their backs. It’s a desperate race for survival, with twists and turns aplenty. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Nero’s extravagance goes unchecked. All of Rome’s elite fear for their lives as Nero’s closest allies run amok. Can anyone stop the Emperor before Rome devours itself? And if Nero is to be toppled, who will be the one to put his head in the lion’s mouth?’

Scourge of Wolves by David Gilman (February; Head of Zeus)
‘Winter, 1361. After two decades of conflict, Edward III has finally agreed a treaty with the captive French King, John II. In return for his freedom, John has ceded vast tracts of territory to the English. But for five long years mercenary bands and belligerent lords have fought over the carcass of his kingdom. They will not give up their hard-won spoils to honour a defeated king’s promises. If the English want their prize, they’ll have to fight for it… Thomas Blackstone will have to fight for it. As he battles to enforce Edward’s claim, Thomas Blackstone will see his name blackened, his men slaughtered, his family hunted. He will be betrayed and, once again, he’ll face the might of the French army on the field. But this time there will be no English army at his back. He’ll face the French alone.’

The Coffin Path by Katherine ClementsThe Coffin Path by Katherine Clements (February; Headline Review)
I read this thoroughly creepy tale just before Christmas – a review’s on the way. ‘Maybe you’ve heard tales about Scarcross Hall, the house on the old coffin path that winds from village to moor top. They say there’s something up here, something evil. Mercy Booth isn’t afraid. The moors and Scarcross are her home and lifeblood. But, beneath her certainty, small things are beginning to trouble her. Three ancient coins missing from her father’s study, the shadowy figure out by the gatepost, an unshakeable sense that someone is watching. When a stranger appears seeking work, Mercy reluctantly takes him in. As their stories entwine, this man will change everything. She just can’t see it yet.’

Pilgrim’s War by Michael Jecks (February; Simon & Schuster)
‘France 1096. Crowds gather in a square in Sens to hear the man known as the Hermit speak. He talks of a pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem, a pilgrimage filled with promises for Christian soldiers who march with him. In Jerusalem all sinners will be forgiven and the pious rewarded with great riches. Sybille’s husband is a reckless man and easily swayed by the Hermit’s words. Even knowing the jeopardy and risk of the road ahead Sybille has no choice but to follow her husband and join the march. Fulk, a young blacksmith, is hungry for adventure. The pilgrimage is exactly the excitement he’s craving. For his brother Odo the march is far more serious and sparks a dangerous fanaticism even Fulk doesn’t see coming. Jeanne and Guillemette have been treated badly by the men in their life but this is their chance for redemption and a bright future. But life on the road for two unattached women is perilous. On the path to Jerusalem right and wrong, love and hate, sins and virtues become blurred. Who will make it there alive? And will the sacrifice it takes to get there be worth the price they will pay?’

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin (February; Hodder & Stoughton)
The Wicked Cometh will take readers on a heart-racing journey through backstreets swathed with fog to richly curtained, brightly lit country houses; from the libraries and colleges of gentlemen, to sawdust-strewn gin palaces where ne’er-do-wells drink and scheme, all told through the eyes of a heroine with nothing to lose. The year is 1831. Down the murky alleyways of London, acts of unspeakable wickedness are taking place and no one is willing to speak out on behalf of the city’s vulnerable poor as they disappear from the streets.Out of these shadows comes Hester White, a bright young woman who is desperate to escape the slums by any means possible.When Hester is thrust into the world of the aristocratic Brock family, she leaps at the chance to improve her station in life under the tutelage of the fiercely intelligent and mysterious Rebekah Brock. But whispers from her past slowly begin to poison her new life and both she and Rebekah are lured into the most sinister of investigations.Hester and Rebekah find themselves crossing every boundary they’ve ever known in pursuit of truth, redemption and passion. But their trust in each other will be tested as a web of deceit begins to unspool, dragging them into the blackest heart of a city where something more depraved than either of them could ever imagine is lurking.’

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders by Saul David (February; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘London 1888: George ‘Zulu’ Hart is the mixed-race illegitimate son of a Dublin actress and (he suspects) the Duke of Cambridge, commander-in-chief of the army. George has fought his way through wars in Africa and Afghanistan, won the VC and married his sweetheart, but he’s also a gambler, short of money and in no position to turn down the job of ‘minder’ to Prince Albert Victor, second in line to the throne. George is to befriend the charming young cavalry officer and keep him out of trouble – no easy task, given that the Prince is a known target for Irish nationalist assassins, while his secret sexual orientation leaves him open to blackmail and scandal. To make matters worse, the Prince is also in the habit of heading out late at night to sample the dubious pleasures of the East End. Both outsiders in their different ways, perhaps the two men have more in common than they know, but when a series of horrible murders begins in Whitechapel, on just the nights the Prince has been there, George is drawn into an investigation which forces him to confront the unthinkable… A brilliant standalone adventure based on detailed research, this is a thrilling novel of suspense and a fascinating new twist on the Jack the Ripper story.’

Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick (March; Sphere)
A new Elizabeth Chadwick novel is something to celebrate and here she returns to the Greatest Knight. ‘England, 1219: Lying on his deathbed, William Marshal, England’s greatest knight, sends a trusted servant to bring to him the silk Templar burial shrouds that returned with him from the Holy Land thirty years ago. It is time to fulfil his vow to the Templars and become a monk of their order for eternity. As he waits for the shrouds’ return, he looks back upon his long-ago pilgrimage with his brother Ancel, and the sacred mission entrusted to them – to bear the cloak of their dead young lord to Jerusalem and lay it on Christ’s tomb in the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jerusalem, 1183: In the holiest of all cities, the brothers become embroiled in the deadly politics, devious scheming and lusts of the powerful men and women who rule the kingdom. Entangled with the dangerous, mercurial Paschia de Riveri, concubine of the highest churchman in the land, William sets on a path so perilous that there seems no way back for him, or for his brother. Both will pay a terrible price and their only chance to see home again will be dependent on the Templar shrouds.’

Caligula by Simon Turney (March; Orion)
I read this over Christmas and it is a triumph! Its portrait of Caligula, which is wholly original and unusual, gave me nightmares… ‘Rome 37AD. The emperor is dying. No-one knows how long he has left. The power struggle has begun. When the ailing Tiberius thrusts Caligula’s family into the imperial succession in a bid to restore order, he will change the fate of the empire and create one of history’s most infamous tyrants, Caligula. But was Caligula really a monster? Forget everything you think you know. Let Livilla, Caligula’s youngest sister and confidante, tell you what really happened. How her quiet, caring brother became the most powerful man on earth. And how, with lies, murder and betrayal, Rome was changed for ever…’

Kin by Snorri Kristjansson (March; Jo Fletcher Books)
‘He can deny it all he likes, but everyone knows Viking warlord Unnthor Reginsson brought home a great chest of gold when he retired from the longboats and settled down with Hildigunnur in a remote valley. Now, in the summer of 970, adopted daughter Helga is awaiting the arrival of her unknown siblings: dark, dangerous Karl, lithe, clever Jorunn, gentle Aslak, henpecked by his shrewish wife, and the giant Bjorn, made bitter by Volund, his idiot son. And they’re coming with darkness in their hearts. The siblings gather, bad blood simmers and old feuds resurface as Unnthor’s heirs make their moves on the old man’s treasure – until one morning Helga is awakened by screams. Blood has been shed: kin has been slain. No one confesses, but all the clues point to one person – who cannot possibly be the murderer, at least in Helga’s eyes. But if she’s going to save the innocent from the axe and prevent more bloodshed, she’s got to solve the mystery – fast…’

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor (March; Constable)
I believe that this novel closes the investigations of Gordianus the Finder, something that makes me very sad indeed. I’ve been reading and enjoying this fine series for years. ‘Julius Caesar has been appointed dictator for life by the Roman Senate. Having pardoned his remaining enemies and rewarded his friends, Caesar is now preparing to leave Rome with his army to fight the Parthian Empire. Gordianus the Finder, after decades of investigating crimes and murders involving the powerful, has set aside enough that he’s been raised to the Equestrian rank and has firmly and finally retired. On the morning of March 10th, though, he’s first summoned to meet with Cicero and then with Caesar himself. Both have the same request of Gordianus – keep your ear to the ground, ask around, and find out if there are any conspiracies against Caesar’s life. Caesar, however, has one other important matter to discuss. Gordianus’s adopted son Meto has long been one of Caesar’s closest confidants. To honor Meto, Caesar is going to make his father Gordianus a Senator when he attends the next session on the 15th of March. With only four days left before he’s made a Senator, Gordianus must dust off his old skills and see what conspiracy against Julius Caesar, if any, he can uncover. Because the Ides of March are approaching…’

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom (March; Zaffre)
One of my favourite authors has here created that very rare thing – a Roman thriller. Everything takes place within one 24-hour period. It is brilliant! ‘A lone figure stands silhouetted atop the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Behind him, the sun is setting over the centre of the known world. Far below, the river is in full flood. The City of Rome lies spread out before him on the far bank. Footsteps pound up the stairs. He’s been set up. An enemy is closing in; he is cornered. He jumps. Bruised and battered, he crawls out of the raging river. He is alone and unarmed, without money or friends, trapped in a deadly conspiracy at the heart of the Empire. The City Watch has orders to take him alive; other, more sinister, forces want him dead. As the day dies, he realises he has only 24 hours to expose the conspirators, and save the leader of the world. If the Emperor dies, chaos and violence will ensue. If the Emperor dies, every single person he loves will die. He must run, bluff, hide and fight his way across the Seven Hills. He must reach the Colosseum, and the Emperor. He must make it to The Last Hour.’

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor (April; HarperCollins)
‘The Great Fire has ravaged London, wreaking destruction and devastation wherever its flames spread. Now, guided by the incorruptible Fire Court, the city is slowly rebuilding, but times are volatile and danger is only ever a heartbeat away. James Marwood, son of a traitor, is thrust into this treacherous environment when his ailing father claims to have stumbled upon a murdered woman – in the very place where the Fire Court sits. Then his father is run down and killed. Accident? Or another murder…? Determined to uncover the truth, Marwood turns to the one person he can trust – Cat Lovett, the daughter of a despised regicide. Marwood has helped her in the past. Now it’s her turn to help him. But then comes a third death… and Marwood and Cat are forced to confront a vicious and increasingly desperate killer whose actions threaten the future of the city itself.’

The Blood by ES Thomson (April; Constable)
I knew the smell of death well enough. But here the sweetness of decay was tainted with something else, something new and different. It was a curious, moist smell; a smell that spoke of the ooze and slap of water, of gurgling wet spaces and the sticky, yielding mud of low-tide… Summoned to the riverside by the desperate, scribbled note of an old friend, Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain find themselves on board the seamen’s floating hospital, an old hulk known only as The Blood, where prejudice, ambition and murder seethe beneath a veneer of medical respectability. On shore, a young woman, a known prostitute, is found drowned in a derelict boatyard. A man leaps to his death into the Thames, driven mad by poison and fear. The events are linked – but how? Courting danger in the opium dens and brothels of the waterfront, certain that the Blood lies at the heart of the puzzle, Jem and Will embark on a quest to uncover the truth. In a hunt that takes them from the dissecting tables of a private anatomy school to the squalor of the dock-side mortuary, they find themselves involved in a dark and terrible mystery.’

Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis (April; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘Private investigator Flavia Albia is always drawn to an intriguing puzzle – even if it is put to her by her new husband’s hostile ex-wife. On the Quirinal Hill, a young girl named Clodia has died, apparently poisoned with a love potion. Only one person could have supplied such a thing: a local witch who goes by the name of Pandora, whose trade in herbal beauty products is hiding something far more sinister. The supposedly sweet air of the Quirinal is masking the stench of loose morality, casual betrayal and even gangland conflict and, when a friend of her own is murdered, Albia determines to expose as much of this local sickness as she can – beginning with the truth about Clodia’s death.’

Retribution by Anthony Riches (April; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘The author of the bestselling Empire series reaches the action-filled climax of his epic story of the uprising of the Batavi in AD 69. Victory is in sight for Kivilaz and his Batavi army. The Roman army clings desperately to its remaining fortresses along the Rhine, its legions riven by dissent and mutiny, and once-loyal allies of Rome are beginning to imagine the unimaginable: freedom from the rulers who have dominated them since the time of Caesar. The four centurions – two Batavi and two Roman, men who were once comrades in arms – must find their destiny in a maze of loyalties and threats, as the blood tide of war ebbs and flows across Germania and Gaul. For Rome does not give up its territory lightly. And a new emperor knows that he cannot tolerate any threat to his undisputed power. It can only be a matter of time before Vespasian sends his legions north to exact the empire’s retribution.’

Mad Blood Stirring by Simon Mayo (April; Doubleday)
‘On the eve of the year 1815, the American sailors of the Eagle finally arrive at Dartmoor prison; bedraggled, exhausted but burning with hope. They’ve only had one thing to sustain them – a snatched whisper overheard along the way. The war is over. Joe Hill thought he’d left the war outside these walls but it’s quickly clear that there’s a different type of fight to be had within. The seven prison blocks surrounding him have been segregated; six white and one black. As his voice rings out across the courtyard, announcing the peace, the redcoat guards bristle and the inmates stir. The powder keg was already fixed to blow and Joe has just lit the fuse. Elizabeth Shortland, wife of the Governor looks down at the swirling crowd from the window of her own personal prison. The peace means the end is near, that she needn’t be here for ever. But suddenly, she cannot bear the thought of leaving. Inspired by a true story, Mad Blood tells of a few frantic months in the suffocating atmosphere of a prison awaiting liberation. It is a story of hope and freedom, of loss and suffering. It is a story about how sometimes, in our darkest hour, it can be the most unlikely of things that see us through.’

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison WeirSix Tudor Queens III: Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir (May; Headline Review)
As soon as this arrived I read it and it is marvellous. This is the novel of the series I’ve been most looking forward to and it did not disappoint. ‘Eleven days after the death of Anne Boleyn, Jane is dressing for her wedding to the King. She has witnessed at first hand how courtly play can quickly turn to danger and knows she must bear a son… or face ruin. This new Queen must therefore step out from the shadows cast by Katherine and Anne – in doing so, can she expose a gentler side to the brutal King? Jane Seymour, the third of Henry’s queens. Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir draws on new research for her captivating novel, which paints a compelling portrait of Jane and casts fresh light on both traditional and modern perceptions of her. Jane was driven by the strength of her faith and a belief that she might do some good in a wicked world. History tells us how she died. This spellbinding novel explores the life she lived.’

Clash of Empires by Ben Kane (May; Orion)
‘It is the turn of the 3rd century BC. Hannibal has just been defeated, and Rome now turns its eyes on Greece. The Roman legion was pitted against the Greek phalanx in the ultimate ancient military showdown as Rome stretched its military muscles into the birthplace of civilisation. In Kane’s trademark style, the novel will follow both soldiers on the ground, as well as the great political figures of the day. In three tumultuous years, Greece, birthplace of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and Alexander of Macedon, whose soldiers saw off the invading Persians hordes at Thermopylae, whose phalanxes made the world tremble, fell beneath the inexorable Roman legions’ march. This victory cemented the birth of the mightiest empire that has ever existed.’

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse (May; Mantle)
‘Bringing sixteenth-century Languedoc vividly to life, Kate Mosse’s The Burning Chambers is a gripping story of love and betrayal, mysteries and secrets; of war and adventure, conspiracies and divided loyalties… Carcassonne 1562: Nineteen-year-old Minou Joubert receives an anonymous letter at her father’s bookshop. Sealed with a distinctive family crest, it contains just five words: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE. But before Minou can decipher the mysterious message, a chance encounter with a young Huguenot convert, Piet Reydon, changes her destiny forever. For Piet has a dangerous mission of his own, and he will need Minou’s help if he is to get out of La Cité alive. Toulouse: As the religious divide deepens in the Midi, and old friends become enemies, Minou and Piet both find themselves trapped in Toulouse, facing new dangers as sectarian tensions ignite across the city, the battle-lines are drawn in blood and the conspiracy darkens further. Meanwhile, as a long-hidden document threatens to resurface, the mistress of Puivert is obsessed with uncovering its secret and strengthening her power…’

The Encircling Sea by Adrian Goldsworthy (May; Head of Zeus)
‘AD 100: Flavius Ferox, Briton and Roman centurion, is finding it hard to keep the peace. Based at Vindolanda – an army fort on the northern frontier of Britannia and the entire Roman world – he feels the eyes of his enemies on him at all hours. Ambitious leaders sense a chance to carve out empires of their own. While men nearer at hand speak in whispers of war and the destruction of Rome. And out at sea, ships of pirates and deserters restlessly wait for the time to launch their attack on the empire’s land.’

The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden (May; Michael Joseph)
‘In the Ancient World, one army was feared above all others. This is their story. When Cyrus, brother to the Great King of Persia, attempts to overthrow his reckless sibling, he employs a Greek mercenary army of 10,000 soldiers. When this army becomes stranded as a result of the unexpected death of Cyrus, and then witnesses the treacherous murder of its entire officer corps, despair overtakes them. One man, Xenophon, rallies the Greeks. As he attempts to lead them to freedom across 1,500 miles of hostile territory seething with adversaries, 10,000 men set off on the long way home.’

This list is by no means exhaustive and I’m looking forward to some surprises but it’s certainly more than enough to keep me very happily reading indeed! I hope you find something here to tempt you.

Next up will be science fiction and crime thrillers…

Inquisition by David Gibbins

Headline | 2017 (28 December) | 355p | Review copy | Buy the book

Inquisition by David GibbinsIt is 258 AD and the Emperor Valerian has turned on Rome’s Christians, slaughtering them and their pope in the most imaginatively cruel ways, as entertainment for the masses. A Christian legionary runs into the fire-drenched catacombs beneath the city to retrieve his faith’s most sacred object, the Holy Grail, to save it for the future. In 1684 the famous diarist Samuel Pepys is in Tangier to oversee the handing over of Charles II’s defeated colony to the Moors. A mysterious object concealed within an ancient leather saddlebag becomes part of the negotiations. Pepys’ aim is to send it away to safety in the Caribbean, far from the attention of kings and emperors, but something terrible stands in the way – the Altamanus, a merciless element within the Inquisition, and they never lose sight of their target.

In the present day, marine archaeologist and explorer Jack Howard is diving off the Cornish coast on the wreck of a ship that he is able to identify as one of those that Pepys despatched from Tangier. It presents a tantalising glimpse into a mystery ready to be solved and it sends Jack and his diving partner Costas, as well as his daughter Rebecca, on a trail of clues that will lead them across many miles of stormy ocean seas. But every step Jack takes is one dogged by the evil that is the Altamanus and the Inquisition.

If you’re a fan of archaeological adventure then you are in for a treat with David Gibbins’ Jack Howard series. It is unbeatable. I hesitate to call the books thrillers because, although they do contain action, fights, chases and spilt blood, they go deeper than that into the history behind the mystery and their archaeological context is sound. Gibbins is a marine archaeologist himself and it shows on almost every page. These books are full of exhilarating diving sequences, infused with the excitement of discovering historical artefacts as well as the thrill of exploring this dangerous yet beautiful environment. You can learn something while reading these books, as well as being thoroughly entertained and I love them. As soon as Inquisition arrived, I read it.

Inquisition is the tenth book in the series and I don’t think it matters at all if you read this on its own. I love Jack and Costas very much so there’s definitely much to be gained from reading all of the books but I don’t think it would matter too much in which order you read them (with the exception of Pharaoh and Pyramid, which are a pair – and outstanding).

David Gibbins tells a great story and at its heart is the Inquisition, particularly in 17th-century Portugal. While most of the novel takes place during the present day, there is a significant chunk that transports us to Tangier and to Portugal. We witness the tension of the British evacuation of Tangier through the brilliantly-realised figure of Samuel Pepys – most definitely a man with one eye on his posterity (and the other well fixed on alcohol and women). I did enjoy Pepys. David Gibbins is so good at evoking the past. But the section set in Portugal during the Inquisition is far darker and deeply disturbing.

Inquisition is a shorter novel than usual and Costas has far less of a role than normal. While I would have liked much more (of pages and Costas), the focus is very much on the Inquisition and the shipwrecks that evoke so powerfully this bygone era. The mystery is almost secondary to the history and archaeology and that is something I’ve always appreciated in these novels. I love the author’s attention to the details of marine archaeology. You feel like you’re there beneath the waves with Jack and Costas and that anything could be found amongst the rotting timbers of a forgotten wreck. But in this book in particular there is great trauma – the Inquisition that gives the novel its name – and its telling is extremely moving. I will never be able to get enough of David Gibbins’ novels.

Other reviews
The Gods of Atlantis (Jack Howard 6)
Pharaoh (Jack Howard 7)
Pyramid (Jack Howard 8)
Testament (Jack Howard 9)
Total War Rome: Destroy Carthage
The Sword of Attila: Rome Total War II