Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Time Was by Ian McDonald

Tor | 2018 (24 April) | 144p | Review copy | Buy the book

Time Was by Ian McDonaldEmmett Leigh is a used book dealer and one day in London he finds something that catches his imagination – a love letter from one soldier to another, written during the Second World War, hidden away in a book of poetry. Emmett is determined to find out everything he can about Tom and Ben and it takes him on a trail of bookshops and collections in England and further afield. What he finds seems impossible – photos taken during other wars and times, including World War I, and Ben and Tom look no different. Emmett has to accept that these two men are time travellers, lost in time, searching for one another, using the letters in copies of this book of poetry as a map.

Time Was is a novella and, as a result, skims the surface of a story that has the most intriguing premise – lovers cast out into time by a wartime scientific experiment that went very wrong indeed. On one level, it’s a gay love story that is both touching and tragic, and on another it’s a science fiction tale of time travel and wartime experiments. Both are equally appealing but I’m not sure that the story completely makes up its mind over which way to go. It is, though, exquisitely written. Ian McDonald writes so beautifully, filling this little book with poetic prose.

I loved the setting for much of the story which is in Shingle Street, Suffolk. I love books set in places that I’m fond of and I adore this area. The author captures it perfectly and it presents such an evocative backdrop to Ben and Tom’s story. Mostly, though, this is the story of Emmett, a man who has problems in his own relationships.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way that the story ends. I can’t say that I understood it completely but I loved how the strands came together. I am a huge fan of Ian McDonald’s Luna science fiction series. I will always seek out his writing. Time Was wasn’t quite what I was expecting but it certainly resonates and it most definitely haunts.

Other reviews
Luna: New Moon
Luna: Wolf Moon


Clash of Empires by Ben Kane

Orion | 2018 (17 May) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

Clash of Empires by Ben KaneIt is 202 BC and Rome’s legions are about to defeat the Carthaginians once at for all at the Battle of Zuma in North Africa. Facing Hannibal’s formidable elephants and army, it’s a chance for reputations to be made, but a handful of Roman soldiers are about to land in a whole heap of trouble. Legionary Felix has not been particularly well named. As for Rome itself, its senators and generals might have thought that they could enjoy the benefits of peace for a while after such a long, bloody war. But King Philip of Macedon has other ideas. Determined to reclaim lands once conquered by his ancestor, the father of the great Alexander, he is stirring up Greece, as well as the cities and tribes of the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean who look to Rome for help against Philip. The wily Senator Flamininus sees an opportunity. If he can lead the Roman army to victory over Philip, there will be no end to his power and influence. Unfortunately, not everyone in Rome agrees with his ambition.

This is Greece’s last chance to put upstart Republican Rome in its place. But Rome is determined to rise and conquer Philip just as it did Hannibal. As the old and new world clash, it’s the ordinary soldiers on both sides who must win the victory, suffer the defeat and pay the price.

Clash of Empires is the first novel in Ben Kane’s new series, which takes us back to a critical time in Rome’s history, to a war that has been overshadowed by the Punic Wars, just as Philip of Macedon has been overshadowed by his illustrious ancestors. A new book by Ben Kane is always cause for celebration and I loved the premise of Clash of Empires. The idea of these two cultures taking each other on, one with a glorious past against the other with a spectacular future ahead, in a great epic showdown is so appealing. This is a period of Roman history that I know very little about and I welcomed the chance to have my eyes opened.

Clash of Empires is a fantastic book. There’s so much going on and nothing in this war is going to be easy. I love the way that the action shifts as we move between ordinary soldiers on both sides as well as between the major players – Flamininus, and his colleagues in the Senate, and King Philip. Flamininus in particular has long-term goals. He’s a strategist, working out the best way in which to achieve them. Soldiers like the Roman Felix and the Macedonian Demetrios have more immediate concerns – when they’ll be able to get some sleep, more food, how not to be afraid, how not to be killed. We’re given reasons to like both men and therefore both sides. I particularly enjoyed being shown how the Greek phalanx worked, their use of the spear, their formation and so on. There are some brilliant fight scenes in Clash of Empires. Ben Kane knows his subject inside out and we’re informed as well as entertained.

There are sequences here that are so exhilarating and thrilling, when our two sides come together, man against man. This is exciting stuff. There are other moments of incredible brutality, particularly in the Roman army. There is one moment in particular that is shocking. Ben Kane writes graphically, we’re not spared the details, and it is all the more compelling and immersive for it. Sometimes we see the same scene from different Greek and Roman perspectives as these two cultures come face to face.

The character of Flamininus is fascinating and through him we’re given an intriguing glimpse into the politics of Republican Rome. I really liked this mix of power politics with the nitty gritty of life and death on the frontline of war.

Clash of Empires is the first in a series and we’re left wanting more. Expect no resolution here. Instead we’re immersed in the beginnings of the final struggle between those two great powers of ancient Europe – Greece and Rome – and it is bloody, with disasters and very few triumphs on both sides. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Ben Kane’s last series, which began with Eagles at War, is superb and a very hard act to follow. Clash of Empires does the job brilliantly.

Other reviews
Hannibal: Enemy of Rome
Hannibal: Fields of Blood
Hannibal: Clouds of War
Spartacus: Rebellion
Eagles at War
Hunting the Eagles
Eagles in the Storm
(with others) A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii

The Illumination of Ursula Flight by Anna-Marie Crowhurst

Allen & Unwin | 2018 (3 May) | 410p | Review copy | Buy the book

In December 1664 Ursula Flight was born under inauspicious circumstances – a comet blazing a trail across the sky. Surely an ill omen. But not to Ursula. Although born to a gentry family with all of the material care that she needs, she is emotionally not supported. But her father did teach her something: a curiosity about the world and the stars above it and, helped by this, Ursula began to dream of a life so different from that lived by her distant, controlled mother. More than anything, Ursula wants to write and so she spends much of her childhood scribbling plays and acting in them with her servant and best friend Mary as well as her siblings and other children. Ursula has dreams of becoming a playwright but her background is against her and, while still a young girl of just fifteen, she is married off to the much older Lord Tyringham. The life of Lady Tyringham has little to do with the life Ursula lives in her dreams.

The Illumination of Ursula Flight is a beautifully glittery tale of Ursula Flight’s determined efforts to escape her destiny and forge one of her own, all set against the glamorous backdrop of the decadent Restoration court of Charles II and his mistresses. Initially, the newly married Ursula spends most of her time in the countryside, protected by her husband, an imprisonment indeed. But when she finally arrives in court, she shines. But perhaps the most enjoyable part of all of this, for this reader, is the way in which Ursula copes with her life away from all she loves – the novel includes extracts from all manner of Ursula’s scribblings, including scenes from plays, notes on how she spends a day, letters, journal entries and so much more, all presented in a font so evocative of the late 17th century.

This is very much Ursula’s novel. She narrates it, she fills it with her writings and, as a result, it sparkles with her personality. She has so much to give, despite what she must endure. She wants independence and to be a writer, but she also wants to be in love, and the scenes in which she must consummate her marriage with her curiously awful husband are, by contrast with much of the rest of the novel, painful to read and a reminder of how horrific such a marriage can be. Aside from the fact that Ursula must endure his fumblings, she is at risk of being emotionally crushed. And matters aren’t helped when she does find somebody to love. There are so many pitfalls lying in wait for young attractive women of means.

The pages of The Illumination of Ursula Flight fly through the fingers. Ursula herself is an absolute delight and there are other people we meet along the way who also grab our attention, notably Lord Tyringham’s unappealing sister. There’s a real sadness in the descriptions of Ursula’s mother. I felt for her. Her entire married life has been spent pregnant, usually with tragic results. No wonder Ursula wishes for a different future.

I really enjoyed the depiction of Charles II’s court and also this London with its theatres, actors and hangers on. It comes to life so colourfully, aided by the extracts from plays. These are larger than life personalities and Ursula fits right in. I must admit that I found the novel slightly frothier than I was expecting. This is a very light and fast read but it is also entertaining and often witty and playful, enlivened by its interesting and effective format. I enjoyed my time with Ursula Flight and wished her every success with her dreams and hopes, while feeling for her during her times of distress. She epitomises the times in which she lived and I can imagine her in her glorious gowns with arranged hair and flattering face patches. Her beauty is certainly reflected in the absolutely stunning cover of the novel and in its use of fonts. It all combines to present such a pleasurable read.

The Body in the Boat by A.J. MacKenzie

Zaffre | 2018 (ebook: 5 April; Pb: 15 November) | 396p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Body in the Boat by AJ MacKenzie

It is the 1790s and the war between England and France has had little effect on the men and women of both coasts whose smuggling ventures thrive. Goods and gold regularly cross the channel, with ships passing in the mists, navigating by the full moon. The Kent coast is particularly active and one night smuggler Yorkshire Tom (otherwise known as Constable Joshua Stemp) observes a coffin being loaded onto a rowing boat from a ship. Meanwhile, a glamorous party is being held at the grand Magpie Court to celebrate the birthday of Cecilia Munro, whose husband, Hector Munro, is a well-known banker in Kent’s most prevalent bank.

Reverend Marcus Hardcastle, a justice of the peace, is at the party with his widowed sister, the celebrated Gothic novelist Calpurnia Vane, and as he leaves he accidentally overhears a secret and snatched conversation between Mr Munro and his wife’s father. Hector Munro it seems is about to undergo a perilous journey and there is nothing that his wife or father-in-law can do to stop him. When Hector’s body is found murdered in a boat just a few days later, Hardcastle feels compelled to search out the truth, aided by his neighbour and friend, the widowed and wise Amelia Chaytor.

The Body in the Boat is the third Hardcastle and Chaytor mystery by A.J. MacKenzie, a series that does such a fine job of bringing Georgian Kent to life, with its long stretches of beach and picturesque villages. I love the descriptions of country life, the journeys made my horse, gig or boat, and the dependence of villagers on one another. It’s a close knit community but it can also be a dangerous place (the Miss Marple syndrome) and nothing stirs up the blood quite like greed. Smuggling is rife – everybody’s either at it or turning a blind eye. But there’s a gentlemanly character to it, until people start getting murdered. It’s also rather intriguing to realise that this Kentish community lived in fear of a French army landing on its coast. This could very well have happened.

This novel also takes a look at the banking world, which I found both fascinating and perplexing. I loved the idea of watching people come to terms with bank notes instead of pieces of gold. The necessity of being able to trust a bank is central to the system and that is displayed to such good effect here, as is the utter reliance of small investors in their bank. And so, while we see some people at their worst, this is also the chance for the good to draw together. There are other moments in this novel, too, when Hardcastle, Mrs Chaytor, and even Calpurnia demonstrate such caring and selfless behaviour, although they are left vulnerable to hurt. Mrs Chaytor suffers so much here. I love both Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor but Mrs Chaytor I feel particularly warm to.

There are some intriguing female characters here. They certainly stand up for themselves, even if society would just have them as the chattels of husbands, fathers or sons. Smuggling is a free enterprise for men and women. Nobody goes by their real name. It’s a leveller. It’s also rather dangerous. And exciting.

I really enjoyed The Body in the Boat. There is a comfort in reading a historical mystery such as this, with such wonderful settings and characters. But I also like to think that I’m learning something and I certainly do with these books. I think my only issue is that early on I had trouble keeping up with the number of characters and it took a while for each to become distinct for me but, otherwise, I hung on to every word and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I do like this series and I’m most certainly looking forward to the next adventure for the Reverend and the splendid Mrs Chaytor. I’m also in danger of warming considerably to Calpurnia.

Other review
The Body in the Ice

The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden

Michael Joseph | 2018 (3 May) | 433p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Falcon of Sparta by Conn IgguldenIt is 401 BC. Darius, the King of Kings of Persia is dead, succeeded by his son Artaxerxes, who rules an empire that stretches from the Aegean to North India. He has kings and their armies in his power. He is king of over fifty million subjects. Every person brought into his presence must prostrate themselves before him, their faces in the dust. But there is one man who stands in Artaxerxes’ way – his younger brother Cyrus, the commander of their father’s armies. Cyrus only just escaped execution on Artaxerxes’ command when Darius was on his deathbed. Cyrus is now determined to make Artaxerxes pay. He will seize the throne and he will do it at the head of a mercenary army of 10,000 Greeks, at the core of which will be his Spartans, the most feared and resolute of all warriors.

After several books in which Conn Iggulden brought the Middle Ages and the Anglo-Saxon world to life, with his brilliant Wars of the Roses series followed by a novel on Saint Dunstan, this superb author now returns to the ancient world. For his inspiration he has taken Xenophon’s Anabasis, otherwise known as The Persian Expedition, which tells the extraordinary tale of the march of the ten thousand, one of whom was the Greek, Xenophon, who plays a critical role in The Falcon of Sparta.

The Falcon of Sparta is a triumph. I can even go so far as to say that it is the finest book that Conn Iggulden has written, which is quite a thing to say considering the quality of the books that he has given us over the years. Ancient Greek history isn’t my favourite topic for historical fiction but I put all of that to one side because this is a Conn Iggulden novel and I was gripped by the quality of the prose and the tension of an extraordinary opening scene between Darius and his young son Artaxerxes – I was hooked by the end of the very first page and that’s no exaggeration.

This is beautiful, descriptive writing and it’s supported by the author’s incredible insight, not only into the period but also into the motives of these historical figures. He understands what drives them. It’s an interpretation, after all so little is known about most of the characters in the novel, but it is wholly believable and consistent. I’m always amazed at how Conn Iggulden can do this with such a broad range of historical periods and figures. He takes us to the heart of the matter and wraps it up in tension, drama and the fiercest of action. He is a master storyteller and we see this at its very best in The Falcon of Sparta.

I’m reluctant to give anything away about what happens in The Falcon of Sparta beyond the bare bones of the opening paragraph of this review. This is because so much happens that is shocking and so engrossing. I’d even recommend that you don’t read the inside sleeve of the book. If you go into it not knowing what happens then you will be all the more spellbound by it. So much is invested in these characters, especially Prince Cyrus, his Spartan general Clearchus, and Tissaphernes. What these characters all go through is incredible. The nobility of the Spartans is actually quite frightening in its ruthlessness but Clearchus in particular is almost superhuman in his dedication to what drives him on.

The depiction of the Persian empire and its customs is riveting, especially the way in which tyranny and abuse is passed down through the levels of society. There are times when Cyrus wants nothing more than the simple if extreme life of a Spartan warrior but there’s no escape from his heritage and he, too, can be every bit as harsh as Artaxerxes and their father Darius. This is a throne built upon fratricide after all.

The descriptions of life on the march, especially over mountains controlled by lawless and brutal tribes, are fascinating and so well drawn. The battle scenes are thrilling, intensified by the author’s detailed knowledge about all aspects of warfare around the year 400 BC. The Falcon of Sparta is certainly informative but it is also extremely exciting.

I struggle to find the words to describe how magnificent this new standalone novel by Conn Iggulden is. The March of the Ten Thousand is an extraordinary tale from history, the perfect subject for a novel, and Iggulden breathes life into every step of it.

Other reviews
The Blood of Gods (Emperor V)
Stormbird (Wars of the Roses I)
Trinity (Wars of the Roses II)
Bloodline (Wars of the Roses III)
Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors (Wars of the Roses IV)

Six Tudor Queens III: Jane Seymour – The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

Headline Review | 2018 (3 May) | 544p | Review copy | Buy the book

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison WeirAlison Weir’s fictional retelling of the lives and fortunes of Henry VIII’s six wives is one of the most enjoyable historical series that I’ve read in quite a while. Just when you think that you’re completely Tudored out and that there’s nothing more of interest to be wrung from Henry’s notorious marriage record, it’s wonderful to be proved so wrong. The third novel in the series tells the tale of one of the most overshadowed of Henry’s Queens, Jane Seymour. We’ve had tantalising hints of Jane in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books (a series named after the Seymour home) and these have made me keener than ever to read a novel dedicated to Jane, particularly one written by as fine a historian as Alison Weir. Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen is the book of the series that I have looked forward to the most and I wasn’t at all surprised to find it excellent.

The King’s Great Matter – Henry’s annulment of his long marriage to Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, with all that this entailed, such as the break from Rome – features heavily in all three of the books that comprise the first half of Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. And what makes this retelling so successful is that we are presented with it from the three very different perspectives of these three Queens. Jane was a maid of honour to both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and her sympathies most certainly lay with Katherine and the Old Religion. Jane’s perspective on Henry’s affair with Anne and his divorce from Katherine is that of an observer, as someone who is deeply disturbed by what she is seeing. She is only in a position to catch glimpses of what’s going on and the court is alive with whispers of gossip and worried secrets. Alison Weir brings this stricken court to life while also revelling in its luxurious splendour and ceremonies.

My favourite half of the novel, though, is the second in which Jane must deal with the repercussions of Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace and death as well as her own progress to become Henry’s wife and Queen in what was seen as indecent haste. Alison Weir’s focus is now almost solely on Jane and Henry as a couple and this is a very different Henry from the one that Katherine and then Anne knew. This means that Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen has a different atmosphere and mood – here’s a Henry who’s now getting on in years, has sores on his legs and is after the quiet life while seeing conspiracies around every corner. There’s a danger that you might end up even liking this Henry, which is novel! The title also suggests how Jane is dealing with replacing another wife who has been executed by her husband.

Jane isn’t particularly easy to like and I think this is largely because, as a mere knight’s daughter, she didn’t know how to behave as Queen. She does come across as grasping, materialistic and proud. She’s also very traditional in her beliefs and faith. But she does display moments of strength and courage which are fascinating to read about. I also really enjoyed the sections on Jane and her family – the opening to the novel in the Seymour home is especially compelling and descriptive.

There’s much in Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen that gave me food for thought – about Jane, Anne Boleyn and Henry. I enjoyed so much getting to know the Tudor Queen I perhaps know the least about. These middle years of the 1530s were extraordinary years in English history, with Cromwell’s power at its height, the Pilgrimage of Grace, bouts of plague and sweating sickness, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which must have affected almost everybody in the land. Jane is thrown into a position of influence almost out of the blue and has to deal with people looking to her to control the King’s capricious and paranoid nature. Perhaps most fascinating of all is that here we are shown a young bride who, in this interpretation at least, loved her husband. This mix of intimate affection and royal power is portrayed so well in this novel.

Henry’s wives are in safe hands with Alison Weir and Jane Seymour has at last been given a voice. I can’t wait for the three more novels to come, particularly the next. In that we will see the legacy of Jane Seymour on Henry VIII. Watching his character and nature alter and change through the years (and the wives) is one of the highlights of this series. It makes it unmissable.

Other reviews
Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen
Six Tudor Queens II: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

Raven Books | 2018 (3 May) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex ReeveIt is 1880 and Leo Stanhope, assistant to a coroner in London, is in love. It doesn’t matter to him that his love Maria works as a prostitute in Mrs Brafton’s brothel on Half Moon Street. Leo knows that Maria loves him and he has proof. She knows Leo as he really is – a man who was born a girl called Charlotte or Lottie. But Lottie grew up knowing that there was no future for Charlotte the woman. There could only be Leo the man. Very few know Leo’s secret, which is just as well because a woman dressed as a man is committing a criminal offence. But all of Leo’s hopes for the future are shattered when Maria is found dead, murdered, and Leo is a chief suspect. With his heart broken, Leo must discover the truth but in doing so he learns how little he really knew the love of his life.

At the heart of The House on Half Moon Street is its vulnerable and yet immensely courageous transgender hero, Leo Stanhope. He’s so easy to warm to, and fear for, as he lets us into his secrets, we watch him mould his body, suppress his appetite to remain unfeminine, meet with friends who could destroy him with one careless word. The narrative is in the first person and so we know only too well just how much he loves Maria while we also suspect that this relationship is never going to end well. And we worry for him when we watch him risk absolutely everything to chase her killer.

So on one level this is a Victorian murder mystery and it’s a very good one. But on another level it’s an emotional portrait of Leo Stanhope who lived at a time when there must have seemed little hope for someone like him. At times the narrative takes us into very dark places indeed and there is one moment in particular which I found difficult to cope with, that contrasted so sharply with the tone of much of the rest of the novel. And so at times the novel does seem to straddle different worlds. Inevitably, it also reminded me of the much loved Jem series by E.M. Thomson. But there is so much feeling in The House on Half Moon Street that it is impossible not to warm to Leo, who is so beautifully drawn and brought to life, and fear for his situation. But there is more to this novel than Leo’s situation. It also reflects on the situation of London’s poorest women, including its prostitutes.

The portrayal of Victorian London is fantastic. We move around a fair bit of it and I really enjoyed where it it takes us but the best of scenes are reserved for Mrs Brafton’s brothel as well as the evenings Leo spends playing chess with his closest friend. But I particularly liked the moments Leo spends with his landlord and his young daughter. There is such a life to these scenes, although the thought of the landlord practising his dentistry skills is not a comforting one. I loved the lightness and humour of these pages, which do a fine job, I think, of breaking up the darkness.

The House on Half Moon Street is a really enjoyable and at times quite intense portrayal of life in London in the 1880s for poor women and for those who challenged Victorian conceptions of sexuality and gender identity. Leo is an intriguing hero with the weight of the world on his shoulders. The House on Half Moon Street is Alex Reeve’s debut novel and is, I’m delighted to say, the first of a new series. I’m really pleased that Leo will return.