Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick

Sphere | 2019 (12 September) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick

It is 1152 when the wife of Diarmait, King of Leinster in Ireland, gives birth to Aiofe. Beautiful and clever, Aiofe will not only be much loved by her father, she will be prized by him as he uses her to help cling on to power in this most tempestuous of places in which to hold a kingdom. He has rivals on every side and his sons have become little more than bargaining pieces, held hostage to guarantee Diarmait’s oaths of loyalty, oaths he will never keep. There is a new powerful king across the water in England, Henry II, and he wants to spread that power westwards.

Henry also wants to control Richard de Clare, the Earl of Striguil (now Chepstow) and once the Earl of Pembroke. Richard had been on the side of the loser in the civil war that preceded Henry’s rise to the throne. Richard’s paying for it now but his influence is still strong. And it gets stronger still when Diarmit marries his young daughter to Richard, creating an alliance that will change the balance of power in this region. But Aiofe is no mere pawn. She owns titles and lands in her own right. She is a formidable woman, with three powerful men in her thrall – father, husband and King Henry. Aiofe is also deeply in love with this remarkable man, Richard, to whom she is so happily wed.

I cannot overstate my love of Elizabeth Chadwick’s writing and her novels. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who can immerse the reader so deeply in the medieval period, bringing to such vivid and colourful life kings and queens but also those other people whose names are known to history but so little else. Elizabeth Chadwick’s great writing love is William Marshal, The Greatest Knight, and here she turns her attention to his mother-in-law Aiofe, a beautiful Irish princess who was so much more than that. I knew nothing about Aiofe before reading The Irish Princess but now I am fascinated by her and feel that I’ve been given a glimpse into her extraordinary life in 12th-century Ireland and England.

It’s an incredible story and it begins in Ireland, a place of war, violence and passion. This is stunning stuff, with battles, feasting, love and hatred, as well as great emotion and trauma. I couldn’t have been more engrossed. And then the novel moves to England as Aiofe marries the love of her life. Life becomes a struggle as her husband Richard de Clare is pitted against Henry II, although between the three of them there is a kind of friendship that absolutely fascinates.

Elizabeth Chadwick knows this period inside out and we reap the rewards of this knowledge with a novel built upon incredible historical details and insight. Objects, clothing, rooms, buildings, places are all described with such richness. You really feel as if you’re in the room with these people, listening to them speak, watching them move. It all feels so real even though this novel is set such a long time ago and these are lives so different from our own. And because it feels so real we care deeply for these people, especially Aiofe and Richard. Expect strong emotion. I cried ugly tears more than once. I was so involved in Aiofe’s story.

This marvellous novel is a fierce contender for my novel of the year. It completely immerses the reader in these lives lived so long ago. It’s an incredible story, extremely well-researched and very, very moving. Elizabeth Chadwick is a master at putting us in the room with people from the past – Diarmait is not a man to forget in a hurry. There is so much vivid colour but it all feels natural and real. I’ve loved so many of Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels and The Irish Princess is right there among the very best, equalling The Greatest Knight, which, considering how breathtakingly good that novel is, is high praise indeed.

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

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The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory

Lake Union | 2019 (1 August) | 395p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rabbit Girls by Anna ElloryIt is 1989 and, as the Berlin Wall falls, Miriam Winter cares for her dying father Henryk. She knows so little about him. They’ve been apart for years but now she begins to learn of his past. He cries out for someone called Frieda, while Miriam discovers an Auschwitz number tattooed on his wrist, hidden by his watch strap. While searching for further clues, Miriam finds an inmate uniform from Ravensbrück concentration camp and, sewn into its seams, are letters to Henryk written by Frieda. The letters reveal something of Frieda’s past with Henryk but they also record the truth about the ‘Rabbit Girls’, women who were mercilessly experimented upon in the camp. Miriam’s own life has stalled. She needs to escape from her own past and it is Frieda, speaking though so many years, who inspires Miriam to strive to be free.

The Rabbit Girls is largely told in Miriam’s own words and it’s her we grow to know the most. Despite the momentous events happening outside the house – the fall of the Wall – Miriam is withdrawn and consumed by her past while fearful for her father. She barely knows him but she cannot let him go. She hangs on to him, barely leaving the house. Miriam is a tormented soul and the prose reflects this. At times lyrical, at other times disjointed, it epitomises Miriam’s damaged spirit.

I think that the reader’s response to the novel will depend on his or her reaction to Miriam and her voice. To me, at times, it felt rather too ‘floaty’ and self-absorbed, and I didn’t especially warm to her. However, I did warm to Frieda, whose letters are scattered throughout the novel. Her voice is distinct, focused, coping with the most terrible cruelty, holding other people’s lives together, sometimes literally holding them up. I am relieved that the Ravensbrück scenes are confined to the letters because what happens to the Rabbit Girls is too much to deal with. It’s very upsetting as indeed it should be. But through the darkness there is a light about Frieda that inspires.

Henryk’s voice is also heard through his patchy reminiscences from his sick bed. I wasn’t totally convinced by his relationships with Frieda (or with his wife). His own experiences in Auschwitz are briefly dealt with. Again, the focus of our attention and feeling is on Frieda.

The Rabbit Girls is a moving, emotional read in some ways, especially when we come across each of Frieda’s letters. I didn’t engage as much with Miriam or Henryk, and the novel’s present day seems strangely more vague than the past it recalls, despite the events taking place in Berlin in 1989. But Frieda is not a character to forget in a hurry and her story, and that of the Rabbit Girls, serves as a vital reminder of what must never be forgotten.

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

Canongate | 2019 (29 August) | 416p | Review copy | Read the book

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

It is 1850 and Edinburgh is a leading city in the world of medical science but all is not well in the city. Many patients are falling suddenly ill, dying without obvious cause, while Dr James Simpson’s career is being threatened by rumour and scandal. Simpson’s protégé Will Raven has now returned from Berlin where his medical training has been completed. Now a qualified doctor he is ready to work alongside Simpson and to work with the former housemaid Sarah Fisher to clear the name of the man who has given them both so much. But Raven has left the continent under a cloud and it hangs over him while his relationship with Sarah will now be further tested. But Raven and Sarah are beginning to realise that a ruthless killer is loose in the city and it’s up to them to end it before more lives are taken.

The Art of Dying is the second novel by Ambrose Parry to feature Raven and Sarah. I’m sorry to say that I’ve yet to read the first novel The Way of All Flesh. This didn’t affect my enjoyment in The Art of Dying at all but, although its mystery is self-contained, it did mean that I didn’t know the history between Raven and Sarah and I think that if you do know these two already, then you will be delighted to encounter them again. They are wonderful characters. There’s a sense that Will Raven has changed. Perhaps he’s grown up a little but he still fights a battle within himself. He is a man of medicine, a doctor works to save lives, but he’s taken them, too.

Sarah is harder to know and she has more to endure. She is, for me, the most fascinating character in the novel. Through Sarah we explore the life of a Victorian woman, a Victorian wife who wants nothing more than to be a doctor herself, not a nurse but a physician. She is tested in the cruellest of ways while finding support, unexpectedly, from Will Raven.

I loved the historical medical insight that can be found throughout the novel. These were exciting days as such things as chloroform were becoming more widely used, pioneered by James Simpson in Edinburgh. Simpson and Raven are obstetricians, which means we see the happiness and grief of female health, pregnancy and childbirth in Victorian Britain. It forms such an effective and at times quite emotional backdrop to this tale of murder which threatens the foundations of medical science at this most significant point in its development.

The Art of Dying is an excellent Victorian crime novel, which mixes in comment on the position of women in 19th-century society (and medicine) with a a great deal of gripping plot. I may have missed the first novel in this series but I cannot wait to read the third!

Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster | 2019 (20 August) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, in the Sussex tidelands, when Alinor, a descendent of wise women, waits in Fairmile’s graveyard for the ghost of her abusive husband, presumed lost at sea, to appear to declare her free. But it’s not a ghost that she comes across but James, a young priest just arrived from the court of the exiled Queen. Charles I is imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, the Civil War is over. But, whereas this is a cause for relief among the villagers of the tidelands, it’s a matter of grief for the idealist priest and he is here on secret, dangerous business. It’s perilous enough in these Cromwellian days for wise women such as Alinor but James is about to make it a whole lot worse.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tidelands. I’ve loved some of Philippa Gregory’s novels very much and struggled with others. This one, set in a different period for the author and largely away from the courts of kings and queens, was a mystery to me when I first opened the pages. It captivated me instantly, right from the opening pages when we first meet the extraordinary Alinor and find ourselves in the tidelands.

Philippa Gregory is to be applauded for her depiction of the tidelands of Sussex and of the daily lives of the people, largely poverty-stricken, who endure it and have to scrape a living from this most inhospitable and yet hauntingly beautiful environment. This is a place of disease, hunger, jealousy and superstition, of mud floors, scraps of clothing, and endless terrible toil in someone else’s fields or out on the water or in the mud. It feels timeless and you can feel it all around you. It pulls you in.

This lovely, descriptive prose is full of historical details about daily life. The scenes describing the harvest are completely engrossing, as women line up to walk the harvested field and glean it clean. Alinor is such a fascinating character. She’s beautiful but quiet, abused but staggeringly strong, both physically and mentally. With two fatherless children to care for and provide for, Alinor has to be strong. And we are astonished to see how her day of toil is divided, with one hard physical job following another.

So the contrast with the priest and his world is immense. Alinor’s brother hates the King. He proudly fought against him and would do so again. The reality of civil war has hit this remote community. But James does not see the King in this way and it’s in James’s company that we’re taken into the captivity of Charles I. It’s easy to feel the fury of the populace for an arrogant man such as this, who caused such blood to be shed. But we also witness him as a figurehead, as God’s annointed. James learns conflict as he finds himself newly rooted in the reality of life in the tidelands, lived on the land, at sea and in the mud.

James is a particularly intriguing character, trying to bridge two worlds, two ideologies. He is most definitely not the romantic hero that you’d expect from the novel’s opening. This is one of the many reasons why I loved this novel. There are surprises but life is also squarely embedded in the mud, in the sea and in the land, not in palaces.

As the book’s description suggests, we’re placed in a society in which suspected witches are discovered, tortured, drowned and killed. I’m pleased to say that this storyline, so overdone now in my opinion, isn’t as prevalent as I’d feared. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the novel’s ending (or Alinor’s daughter’s decisions) but what mattered to me is the journey that takes us to this point – the slow meander through these people’s lives, interspersed with glittering moments in the presence of a delusional king.

I believe that Tidelands is the first of a new series, The Fairmile. This is such good news. If its succeeding novels are half as good as its first then we are in for such a treat.

Other reviews
The Taming of the Queen
Three Sisters, Three Queens
The Last Tudor

The Darker Arts by Oscar de Muriel

Orion | 2019 (8 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Darker Arts by Oscar de MurielIt is 1889 and Madame Katerina is about to hold a séance for three of Edinburgh’s most well-known and well-to-do families. They are all related to Grannie Alice, a formidable matriarch who has recently died, taking her secrets with her to the grave. Having tried everything else, these six people feel they have no alternative but to call Grannie Alice from the ‘other side’ so that she can communicate with them. But the next morning, when the room is opened, all six are found dead in their seats, only Katerina is alive. Katerina is the obvious suspect, not least because these are supposedly enlightened days in which gypsies have no place, but her friend Inspector ‘Nine Nails’ McGray does not believe she’s guilty. Somehow, somebody, something killed these people, something that has terrified Madame Katerina and for which she must face trial and punishment. McGray summons his colleague Inspector Ian Frey from England where he is dealing with the death of his uncle. Together they must try and solve an unsolvable puzzle, while journeying deep into the dark, frightening world of Madame Katerina and late Victorian mysticism and superstition.

The Darker Arts is the fifth novel by Oscar de Muriel to feature his irresistible and troublesome detectives, one English, one Scottish, one polite, one a whole lot less polite. McGray and Frey form an unlikely alliance, based in the cellar of Edinburgh’s police station where they tackle inexplicable crimes. McGray’s past is a dark place (hence the ‘nine nails’ and not ‘ten’) and he is determined to understand it. He must know what happened during this séance . Frey, on the other hand, feels far closer to the dead than he’d wish.

This is a wonderful ‘closed room’ tale of murder, with a premise that is immediately appealing, so much so that I began it the day it arrived. I’ve loved all of these books. I love Oscar de Muriel’s writing, which has such a sparkle to it even when he takes us into such dark and dangerous places and his detectives are both remarkable and completely convincing. The case they must solve now is worthy of them and I do believe that The Darker Arts is my favourite of the series so far.

We are presented with a superb cast of characters! These interconnected families are at war and it’s a pleasure getting to know the kin of those who died. It’s an outrageous crime, children have been left orphaned while mothers have lost their children. The impact on their lives is devastating but all the time we are aware that these are no straightforward lives. There is much to learn from them and they fascinate every bit as much as the extraordinary, fabulous McGray and Frey.

The setting of late Victorian Edinburgh is impeccably drawn. It’s also extremely atmospheric, moody and dark, just as you’d hope for from the title, premise and stunning cover. It’s also witty and at times melodramatic. The séance is essentially an act of theatre, Madame Katerina is hard to know, essentially an actor, but the reality is that a hangman’s noose now stalks her and so there is tragedy and pathos to be found as well as melodrama, superstition and ghostly tales.

This series goes from strength to strength. It’s one of the very best Victorian crime series there is – it is, I think, a worthy contender to take the title – and The Darker Arts is a spooky pleasure from start to finish. I hope we’ll be spending much more time with ‘Nine Nails’ and ‘Percy’.

Other reviews
A Fever of the Blood
A Mask of Shadows
The Loch of the Dead

The Bear Pit by S.G. MacLean

Quercus | 2019 (11 July) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bear Pit by SG MacLean

It is 1656, the war is long over and Oliver Cromwell’s grip on England is tight. But despite Cromwell’s new title of ‘Highness’ and even though he now lives in palaces emptied of their royal owners, his government is all too aware that their Commonwealth could crumble if anything should happen to their Lord Protector. And Charles II’s court in exile knows it. Captain Damian Seeker is back in London on a mission to protect Cromwell from assassins. And he knows that three of them at least are now in London.

But Seeker is preoccupied. He’s holding together his own network of untrustworthy spies, led by his former royalist prisoner Sir Thomas Faithly, when he and Faithly discover the remains of a man, torn apart by a bear. Cromwell has banned bear baiting and had all of the bears killed. One has clearly got away. Faithly tracks the bear, while Seeker goes after the dead man’s identity. It leads him on a perilous journey across London, from its grand houses to its Southwark stews and Lambeth marshes. At its heart lies a man who will stop at nothing to restore the monarchy.

The Bear Pit is the fourth novel in S.G. MacLean’s series featuring that most enigmatic, troubled and flawed of men, Damian Seeker. He is both hero and anti-hero. He is ruled by his code of honour but at times it is prejudiced, while his scarred face and body reminds us of his violent past, in war and in times of peace. He is a killer but he is also now a father and the two fight within him. He serves Cromwell faithfully and is prepared to die for him but we are all too aware that Cromwell may well not deserve this loyalty. We can approve, like Seeker, of some of Cromwell’s new laws, such as those banning bear baiting, and Seeker welcomes the new codes of morality and modesty, but we know, as he must too, that people don’t change. They just go underground. And it’s down there that Seeker must descend.

The plotting is fantastic. It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale of spies and murder, full of surprises and twists as people shift their position in these uncertain times. There’s a host of fascinating characters, some innocent, many not, and they live in a brilliantly described London, with its prisons, dark lanes, inns and bear pits. I love the little details – the descriptions of buildings and clothing, the moments we spend with famous historical figures. And there are people here we care for even though our own loyalties are tested by both sides. This isn’t black and white and demonstrates how divided and damaged England was by those years of royal neglect, war and then the Commonwealth.

The 1650s were such a fascinating and critical period in British history and the Seeker novels bring these years to life with such drama and colour. There’s violence and gore (how could there not be with a bear on the loose?!), there’s passion and tenderness. And there are so many lies. Although this is the fourth novel, The Bear Pit stands alone very well but I do recommend you read them all. Damian Seeker is one of my very favourite figures in historical fiction and historical crime. He lights up the page and demands our attention even when he follows a darker path.

Other reviews
The Seeker
The Black Friar
Destroying Angel

The Bone Fire by S.D. Sykes

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (25 July) | 308p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bone Fire by SD SykesIt is 1361 and plague has returned to England and it’s just as devastating as it was a decade before. The difference is that this time people know what to expect and they are terrified. Oswald de Lacy, Lord of Sommershill in Kent, flees with his wife, child and mother to the safety of a remote castle on an island surrounded by marshes, owned by his friend Godfrey who is about to seal off his fortress against the approaching onslaught of disease. But when the portcullis is shut, the small group sealed within are uneasy in each other’s company and it isn’t long before one of them is murdered. Oswald can either leave and risk the plague, already working its way through the villages beyond the walls, or stay inside and try and protect his family by catching the killer among them. Everyone is a suspect and the death toll is rising.

The Bone Fire is the fourth novel in the Somershill Manor series by S.D. Sykes and, as with the others, it is an excellent novel. The book works well as a stand alone historical mystery but I do think that the reader would benefit from knowing what Oswald has been through since the events of the first novel Plague Land. Set in 1350, that novel portrayed the dramatic impact that plague had on Oswald in 1350 and since then he has had much to endure, culminating in the previous novel City of Masks, in which Oswald travelled to Venice where events once more changed his life. It’s that life that Oswald must now protect in Castle Eden.

I love the setting of The Bone Fire within this crowded medieval castle, filled with servants, a jester, lords, ladies and children, a priest, even a clock maker. These are interesting times. Medieval feudalism is very slowly giving way to a more modern era of science and humanism. The castle’s owner Godfrey bridges both worlds. I enjoyed the descriptions of the castle itself as well as the scenes of daily life within its walls. When characters do venture outside then it’s as if they’re entering a world of horror, with the stench in the air of the festering remains of the plague dead.

The characters are a great bunch, from Oswald and his argumentative and really rather unpleasant mother (we’re spared the sister this time round), to the strange clockmaker and his even stranger nephew.

Above all else, The Bone Fire tells an excellent story very well indeed. Poor Oswald carries the weight of the world on his shoulders as he tries to protect his family against the plague, but there is just as much to fear from his fellow man. I love murder mysteries set in a confined, isolated location, with just a select number of suspects. S.D. Sykes adapts this to the 14th century so well, with the added horror and tension of the Black Death lurking beyond the castle walls. The Bone Fire is a hugely entertaining novel which could well be my favourite book of the series so far.

Other reviews
Plague Land
The Butcher Bird
City of Masks