Category Archives: Historical Fiction

An Island at War by Deborah Carr

One More Chapter | 2021 (16 September) | 383p | Review copy | Buy the book

An Island at War by Deborah CarrIt is June 1940 and the people of Jersey are under no illusion – the British government has announced that the island has been demilitarised, effectively leaving Jersey open to conquest. Rosie Le Maistre is one of the lucky ones. The little girl is sent away on one of the last evacuation ships, heading to her Aunt Muriel in London. Estelle, her much older sister, is left behind to work on the farm with her father and grandmother. It’s not long before the German army arrives in force, a catastrophe for the men in Estelle’s life, her father and boyfriend. Life on the island changes entirely, everything from a conversion to German currency and time to the arrival of slaves who will turn Jersey into a fortress island. But it’s not just the island that’s occupied. Soon Estelle and her grandmother have a German office, Hans Bauer, billeted on their farm. Life becomes a struggle for survival.

I’ve always been fascinated by the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War and have read several novels on the subject over the years. I was therefore drawn to An Island at War. There is definitely something of The Guernsey Literary Pie Society about An Island At War, albeit on a different island, and that’s no bad thing. This is another very human story, focusing on the impact of war and occupation on the lives of otherwise ordinary people who happened to live in the only part of Britain that was occupied.

Most of the novel tells Estelle’s story on Jersey but there are a few extracts from Rosie’s journal, written in London. I found these tantalising and would have liked much more of Rosie’s life during the Blitz. It’s clear that tumultuous things are happening to her but it’s all in the shadows and all too brief.

I liked Estelle very much and enjoyed reading about her relationships with her grand mother, their friends and with the Germans on the island. It’s mostly black and white but there is some interesting grey as Estelle and Hans struggle to reach a compromise. But it is very difficult to have sympathy for Hans when the horror of the German occupation and what is happening on the continent to Jews and people from the east is such a big part of the book. In a way, there is a conflict between the fascinating historical detail of the novel and its emotional element. The author lives on Jersey and knows its history well and that adds so much to the book. I’m not quite sure that other parts of it – Estelle’s relationships, Rosie’s experiences in London – live up to that. My main issue with the novel, though, is its ending, which is far too abrupt and unsatisfactory.

An Island at War is an enjoyable light read, which shines with the author’s knowledge about her island and its history. I learned a great deal about the little details of life under occupation. I had no idea about much of it, and that is what I’ll take away from the novel.

The Good Death by S.D. Sykes

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 (5 August) | 304p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It is 1370 and time has passed at the manor of Somershill in Kent. But the past has never been so urgent for its lord, Oswald de Lacy. Oswald’s mother, a formidable woman, is dying and in her possession is a letter that raises ghosts from that terrible time of 1349 when the Black Death crossed the land, killing so many in its path, including Oswald’s father and brothers. Oswald’s mother needs to understand what happened all those years before in order to make peace with her son before it is too late. And so Oswald sits by her bedside and recalls the time when young women disappeared from the village and he, a young novice monk, tried to find out why, when every day the world grew smaller as communities shrank into themselves, or fled, as the plague crept relentlessly nearer.

The Oswald de Lacy series is wonderful. It’s beautifully written and it moves around the years, and around Europe (Oswald has spent time in Venice), but its focus is always the plague years and always this Kentish haven. Almost ten years have gone by since The Bone Fire but this fifth novel, The Good Death, calls a halt and instead goes back into the past. We spend brief interludes in the ‘present’ of 1370 but the majority of the time is spent in the days leading up to the arrival of the Black Death when Oswald found himself with reasons to investigate the disappearance, and presumed murders, of several girls from the village. At the time, Oswald was a novice monk on the cusp of manhood, never expecting to inherit. Everything was about to change.

The story, as usual in these fabulous novels, is excellent and the further it progresses the more involved the reader becomes. It has a gentle pace but during the second half I found myself utterly engrossed and read all of that half in one sitting. The mood and atmosphere build and build as the plague creeps ever nearer. The village feels like a refuge but for how long? And where are the young women? The answers lie in the woods around the village and, in that lawless place, anything is possible. It is sinister and menacing in equal measure while Oswald, the innocent, falls into the thick of it.

The Good Death is beautifully written and immersed in its time, surely one of the most terrible periods in English history. Of course, this was written, and read, in a time of pandemic and that certainly adds to its mood and perhaps makes it easier for us to relate to these frightened communities. You don’t need to have read the other novels to enjoy this one, although you might have a greater appreciation of Oswald’s mother and sister if you have done. The focus is most definitely on the past, although that is rather pleasing as it means we have fresh light thrown on the earlier novels in the series. It’s clever, without a doubt.

I love Oswald. He feels real to me, as do his family and friends. I marvel at the way in which the author evokes this feudal age. It’s so well drawn and full of lots of historical details about life, society, law, medicine, work, obedience in a mid 14th-century manor, in which workers are compared to mute insects, and monastery. Oswald bridges society and in some ways is very alone and on its margins. There is a strong sense that he must let the past go and here we find out why.

The Good Death is a fabulous historical crime mystery and I didn’t guess it at all! The historical setting is great, as is its location in woody Kent. The story is so good but this book goes bigger than that, finding a way in to explore a time in our history when death became more horrifying than ever and when feudalism itself came under attack from an unexpected foe, plague.

Other reviews
Plague Land
The Butcher Bird
City of Masks

The Bone Fire

A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick

Sphere | 2021 (9 September) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth ChadwickIt is 1238 and Joanna of Swanscombe serves as a lady in waiting to Eleanor of Provence, Henry III’s Queen.  Joanna’s future is uncertain despite her illustrious heritage – she is granddaughter to William Marshal – but many stand between Joanna and any chance of inheriting her family’s land and titles. But all of that changes and suddenly Joanna discovers herself to be one of England’s wealthiest heiresses. She has become a prize and the King decides to award her to his own half-brother, William de Valence. Now a grand lady in her own right, Joanna’s relationship with the Queen changes as the nobles of England, led by Simon de Montfort, turn against Henry’s half-brothers. Civil war grips the land and Joanna and William must use all of their skill to avoid the destruction of everything they hold dear.

Elizabeth Chadwick has long been a favourite novelist of mine and the novels of hers that I love the most are those that focus on William Marshal and his extraordinary family, as well as on the women who are less well known to history but nevertheless played a significant role in public life in the 12th and 13th centuries. A Marriage of Lions gives us just such a story, and it is every bit as wonderful as the author’s last novel The Irish Princess, which I adored. Joanna is a fabulous character and, as we follow her from childhood to middle age, we experience so much of life at the court of Henry III, domestic and political, a place divided by land- and power-hungry lords, these conflicts intensified by strategic marriages. There can be no peace for Joanna once she’s wealthy – others want that that wealth – and once she’s married above her station.

It’s a fantastic story and it immerses the reader in so many ways. The domestic details of a privileged life in the early 13th century are particularly interesting, with Joanna moving between palaces, castles and manors, turning fortified walls into a home, even travelling between England and the Continent. It is grand until we’re brought into the birthing chambers of Joanna and the women she knows. It is then that these women are faced with a life and death situation. The brutal reality is that women faced death throughout their child bearing years and Joanna, the Queen and other women in the novel give birth many times. Death is a companion and a shadow. Rank is irrelevant to it. There are moments in this novel of such sadness.

Then there’s the political and martial side to Henry III’s court. The son of King John, Henry is a weak ruler and often a weak man. The novel takes place over a fair few years and we watch Henry and his wife change in character. Joanna feels it keenly. It’s actually tragic to watch Henry’s decline and the Queen’s increasing hostility. The title of the book, A Marriage of Lions, is so well-chosen and apt. There are many lions and lionesses in this novel, not least of whom is Simon de Montfort, who is well drawn here as an appalling bully. Henry is trapped between big personalities, including that of his brother William de Valence, Joanna’s husband. I loved William. He is a man of action and a man who frequently makes errors of judgement but he is always likeable. His marriage with Joanna is arranged but it is strong. It’s such a pleasure to read about Joanna and William’s life together and the way in which they face their trials.

Elizabeth Chadwick illuminates this period of medieval history like no other author I can recall. The men, women and children of her novels are so believable and genuine. Their motivations and aspirations are so well understood. I’ll be visiting Goodrich Castle in Wales shortly and, when I do, I’ll think of Joanna walking in its grounds. She lived there so many hundreds of years ago but, thanks to Elizabeth Chadwick, I can feel a connection. Likewise, when I’m next in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, just down the road from me, I’ll stand where the royal palace of Woodstock once stood and imagine Henry III and his court feasting, laughing and fighting in its great hall.

A Marriage of Lions tells an utterly engrossing and captivating story, giving Joanna and William the limelight they deserve, bringing them out of the shadow of the monstrous and astonishing Simon de Montfort. I was particularly fascinated by the depiction of Henry III’s marriage but Joanna and William take centre stage and shine in this fabulous, immersive novel.

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

The Irish Princess

A Winter War by Tim Leach

Head of Zeus | 2021 (5 August) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Winter War by Tim LeachIt is 173 AD and only the Danube stands between the mighty army of Marcus Aurelius and the complete destruction of the Sarmatians, a fierce, fractious nomadic people. The warrior tribes come together to fight the Romans on the Danube’s ice surface but it is a disaster. Few survive and those that do must make a choice when given a terrible ultimatum by an emperor who believes himself a god. Kai survived, hidden by one of the fearsome horses that his people prize, and must become a leader of sorts, a role that doesn’t suit because to many he is a coward, a shamed outcast. And no-one hates him more than his sister, the most feared of warriors. But, as the winter freezes the ground and people alike, the Sarmatians must walk an uncertain path between honour and shame, watched over by a Roman army, fascinated by their enemy but determined to crush it forever.

The Last King of Lydia and its sequel The King and the Slave are among the most wonderful historical novels that I have ever read, immersing me in an unfamiliar and almost mythical period of history (the 6th century BC), and illuminating that time with its astonishing depiction of Croesus and his transformation from king to slave. Now Tim Leach portrays a clash of cultures on the fringes of a Roman empire ruled by an enigmatic, cruel philosopher emperor. We spend time with Marcus Aurelius, camped by the Danube, and it’s a dangerous place, but most of the novel is spent with Kai and those closest to him, his friend, his daughter, his lover and his slave. And his extraordinary sister.

Through Kai, Tim Leach explores the society of the Sarmatians, its blurring of genders and roles, its strange and terrible traditions, its relationship with horses and the land, and its complete lack of perception about what the Romans really are, what they represent and what they will do. Knowledge brings with it desperation and division. Male and female characters fascinate equally here, which is a real draw of this novel.

Tim Leach writes beautifully. This is gorgeous prose, immersing the reader in the trials of this cold, cold place at such a time of brutal crisis. It’s lyrical and thoughtful. There is plenty of action, some of it quite shocking – these are violent people! – but this is offset by Kai’s journey.

A Winter War is the first in a new series. It’s a complete novel in itself while also making the reader very keen for book 2! I can’t wait to see what happens next  because it is going to be incredible.

Other reviews
The Last King of Lydia
The King and the Slave

Three Words for Goodbye by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

HarperCollins | 2021 (27 July) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Three Words for Goodbye by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbClara and Madeleine Sommers were once the closest of sisters but their differences have driven them apart. But now they must come together to fulfil the final wishes of their much loved and dying grandmother, Violet, who has asked them to travel to Europe from their home in America to deliver letters to three people who changed Violet’s life in her own travels across Europe 40 years before, a journey inspired by the great explorer, journalist and close friend Nellie Bly. But the year is now 1937 and Europe is a very different place. As Clara and Madeleine embark on the Queen Mary for Paris, Venice and Vienna, they will find a Europe slipping into the darkness of fascism. There is much for the two sisters to experience before they can return back to New York City aboard the Hindenburg.

I am such a huge fan of historical romance set during the earlier decades of the 20th century and, after reading the authors’ fantastic Meet Me in Monaco, I couldn’t wait to read Three Words for Goodbye. I am fascinated by the 1930s and this novel does such a good job of exploring the culture of the time in the three great cities of Paris, Venice and Vienna, while subtly portraying the sinister menace and threat of Nazism, which increases as the sisters move from France to Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Austria. The sisters travel in luxury and style, heightening the contrast between their experiences and those of the local people, whose freedoms are being threatened. They are shocked by the violence they witness and the rumours they hear. But the focus, though, is on relationships, both old and new.

The novel is effectively divided into three as the sisters progress across Europe and deliver each of the three letters, discovering more and more about their grandmother’s life when she was a young woman, while also learning about each other and what they both want from life. Clara, in particular, has some significant decisions to make. The chapters alternate between the two women and it works so well.

I loved Three Words for Goodbye. It’s romantic but not sentimental and tells a wonderful story about families, growing up, finding and losing love, being an independent woman at a time when this was not easy, especially if from the kind of background that Clara and Madeleine are from. It also has a fascinating historical setting and the descriptions of 1930s’ Paris, Venice and Vienna, as well as the voyage aboard the Queen Mary, are fabulous. As for the section aboard the Hindenburg…. Hazel Gaynor (one of my very favourite authors) and Heather Webb are a collaborative tour de force and I can’t wait, and hope, for more.

Other reviews
Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb – Meet Me in Monaco
Hazel Gaynor – The Bird in the Bamboo Cage

The River Between Us by Liz Fenwick

HQ | 2021 (10 June) | c.500p | Review copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

The River Between Us by Liz FenwickOn the rebound from her divorce, Theo buys a cottage, sight unseen, on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from Devon. The cottage is in a poor state of repair – fortunately the villagers prove to be a useful and practical sort – and Theo soon falls in love with it. Her ties are strengthened when she discovers some letters hidden away, which tell of a love affair between a servant, Zach, and Lady Alice who lived at the nearby manor house of Abbotswood. Their love is divided by the river but also by class and ultimately by war as Zach becomes a soldier in the First World War. In the present day, the remains of soldiers have been uncovered in a field in France. The indications are that they were Tamar men. The village waits to learn their identities.

Liz Fenwick writes the most beautiful romantic stories, each deeply embedded in the place that she loves – Cornwall. I share that love and so I am especially drawn to her novels. There is such a strong sense of place and The River Between Us is no different.

I was immediately drawn to Theo, a middle-aged woman who is starting from scratch all over again, having lost the home she loved. We get to know and like her as she rebuilds her new home and gets to know the people of the village. I do like a novel that features an older woman! Theo is an interesting woman.

The novel moves between the present and the past as Theo investigates the mysterious and unopened letters that she discovers. This is a device but I like it and the letters are soon joined by portraits and the manor itself as a picture is drawn up of society in this remote and beautiful area in the early 1900s before war took away so many of its men. The river symbolises the divide between classes as Zach must deal with his impossible love. I loved Theo’s story but I was also really attracted to Lady Alice.

I listened to the audiobook, which was beautifully narrated by Lucy Scott. This is just the sort of novel that I love to listen to. It carried me away to a place I love and the prose is beautiful and so evocative. I highly recommend it.

Other reviews
The Returning Tide
The Path to the Sea

Protector by Conn Iggulden

Michael Joseph | 2021 (13 May) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Protector by Conn IgguldenIt is 480 BC and the mighty Xerxes, King of Persia, has won a historic victory over the heroes of Greece and Sparta at the Battle of Thermopylae. Now he stands in Athens and watches the city burn to the ground. Athens is largely empty, its citizens have been evacuated, an epic undertaking, to the nearby island of Salamis and now the generals and leaders of Athens – Themistocles, Xanthippus and Cimon chief among them – must defend each and everyone of them in a sea battle. The Battle of Salamis lasts for days and the Greeks must use cunning every bit as much as its ships, oarsmen and warriors to take on Persia. But this won’t end it. The enemies will meet in battle again as Pericles, the son of Xanthippus, grows to manhood surrounded by war, death and a hunger for vengeance.

Conn Iggulden is one of the finest writers of historical fiction that you can read. He particularly excels when he takes on the great wars of the ancient and medieval worlds – the scramble for power after the assassination of Caesar, the Wars of the Roses – and Protector is the second novel in a series that covers the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC. It follows directly on from The Gates of Athens and builds on our investment in the people of Athens and Sparta, an uneasy but vital alliance, as they strive to fight off a relentless enemy whose army greatly outnumbers their own. We’ve watched them win and lose famous battles. Themistocles and Xanthippus are not friends – there is more hatred than liking between them, they are political rivals – but they have come together and the prickly relationship between them, and between them and the Spartans, has been absolutely fascinating to follow. There has also been the more human and emotional side of spending time with Xanthippus’s wife Agariste and their children, including Pericles. It is the families, after all, who would endure slavery or death if their warrior husbands and fathers fail and it is the women who would kill their own children if it came to it.

It is for this reason that I think you should read The Gate of Athens first. Protector is a fine novel but there is too much going on for there to be time to form an attachment to its characters. The reader will bring that from the former novel.

Conn Iggulden is second to none when it comes to battle scenes and the depiction of the sea battle of Salamis is absolutely brilliant. He perfectly captures the confusion, the mighty effort, the heroism and brutality, the pure horror and fear of it all, especially for the rowers. As the oarsmen literally row themselves to death, Greek warriors take their place. We also see the strategy of the battle and watch Themistocles emerge as Athens’ great hero. And this isn’t the only battle in the novel, which also features the famous land battle at Plataea. The pages fly by as the author catches up the reader in these exhilarating events.

Themistocles is an extraordinary character. He does his best to be very difficult to like but he is such an interesting man. There is a sense, though, that Xanthippus is the true hero in Iggulden’s mind and it’s Xanthippus and his family who receive the warmest treatment. I really enjoyed reading about Pericles and his relationship with his siblings. I knew a little about Pericles the famous statesman but I had no idea about his childhood in war and it’s extremely involving.

If I had an issue with Protector, it would be its similarities to The Gates of Athens. There is almost a repetition, with the same characters – Athenian heroes – squabbling amongst themselves while uniting against mighty Persia in another round of battles. But there is a development in Pericles, who I suspect might be the main figure for the series as a whole, and he promises much for the third novel. But the highlight of Protector is an outstanding one, among the very best in all of the author’s novels – the Battle of Salamis.

This conflict took place about 2,500 years ago, such a long time ago, and yet it is well-known to history – the underdog Greeks fighting for survival against overwhelming odds. The battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea continue to resonate but Conn Iggulden brings new life to them and the men who fought them and the depth of his knowledge into the period as well as ancient warfare is resounding. The author has a gift of making each historical period he touches fascinating to the reader and this new Athenian series is no different. He is a great storyteller.

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)
Dunstan
The Falcon of Sparta

The Gates of Athens

Blackout by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2021 (18 March) | 432p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

Blackout by Simon ScarrowBerlin in December 1939 is beginning to feel the effects of war. Shortages are becoming noticeable in the city’s most celebrated restaurants, much to the irritation of powerful men, but, far more menacingly, the newly-imposed nightly blackout has brought monsters out to play. When Gerda Korzeny, a former actress and celebrated beauty, is raped and murdered, the establishment takes note. Gerda was married to a top Nazi lawyer, a friend of Goebbels. The Gestapo call in Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke to investigate. There’s a reason Schenke has been selected – he’s not a member of the Nazi Party and is only tolerated for his glamorous past racing cars, an illustrious career that ended in a crash. If this case should uncover demons, then Schenke will make the perfect scapegoat. Then, as the nights draw even darker, another woman is murdered and the pressure on Schenke mounts.

Berlin is one of my favourite cities and I’ve always been fascinated by its past, especially during the 1930s when its reputation as a city of culture and hedonism comes up against the brick wall of the Nazis and fascism. Blackout is set at a particularly interesting time, during the first weeks of the Second World War when society seems bemused that Britain should have declared war on it. At this time war is mostly an inconvenience with the parties and dining out continuing, with the acceptance that eventually Britain and France will succumb to German military might, just like Poland. It’s intriguing to see how these men and women view the Nazis among them. Most have joined the Nazi Party and there is an acceptance and compliance, albeit one tinged with fear and regret. That’s for some, others positively thrive.

Crime fiction set in Nazi Berlin is not straightforward. The crimes of the regime are off the scale, so the author is faced with the challenge of making the reader feel that these murders matter. There also needs to be an empathy with Schenke. That issue is partly solved by giving him his glamorous past and also his angst with his Nazi controllers. He’s getting on with life as best as he can, loyal to Germany but uneasy with its fascism. There is some success. The murders are cruel – I actually couldn’t read some of this – and we do care for the women, especially Gerda. There is a whole social side to this, which goes beyond politics, with the lot of some women as trophy wives or mistresses. But I’m not sure I have the same empathy towards Schenke but that’s not so much to do with his issues towards the Nazis as with his attitude towards women, an attitude that seems prevalent through the novel.

The serial killer investigation part of the novel is bleak (admittedly I’m not much of a reader of serial killer crime fiction, whatever the setting) and I rather think that women have a hard time of it generally. Nobody seems to like them very much, including Horst Schenke, who, like other men in the novel, is very critical of the woman he professes to love. The women here are judged by their lovers. Gerda was and so, too, is Karin, Schenke’s girlfriend. He seems more interested in her important admiral uncle than her and he regularly reflects on her faults. Gerda is hit by her lover. I found this casual dislike of women quite difficult, quite apart from the violence done to them by the killer. It does, though, help build an atmosphere that this is a place doing great wrongs, an evil place and time. It is most definitely atmospheric and immersive – there is a fog of evil hanging over Berlin in December 1939, compounded by the blackout.

So, despite my issues with the novel, it is a powerful read and, if you enjoy serial killer thrillers, then this may well be for you. Its historical setting is vividly real and is undoubtedly one of the most evocative portrayals of Nazi Berlin that I’ve read. You can feel the cold horror of it as Nazism permeates itself into society and people’s lives. The killings don’t seem out of place and that makes them even more harrowing.

I can’t finish this review without saying how much I adore Simon Scarrow’s Cato and Macro novels!

Other reviews
The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Britannia
Invictus
Day of the Caesars

The Blood of Rome
Traitors of Rome
The Emperor’s Exile
With T.J. Andrews – Invader

The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court

The King’s Evil
The Last Protector

Six Tudor Queens VI: Katharine Parr – The Sixth Wife by Alison Weir

Katharine Parr by Alison WeirKatharine Parr must have thought when she buried her second husband that now she could marry for love and not for the advancement of her family but, in 1543, when Katharine caught the eye of an ailing King Henry VIII, her fate was decided and she became his sixth wife. These are dangerous times to have beliefs that stray towards Protestantism and Katharine is seen by some of that faith as a beacon of hope. That means she has enemies and they seek her ruin. Even more dangerous, perhaps, is the love that hides in her heart for a man close to the King – at the end of that path, if found out, would lie the axe.

And so we come to the sixth and final novel in Alison Weir’s ambitious and spectacularly-presented series, a series that I have read and loved for almost six years now. Where has the time gone?! It naturally ends with the last of Henry VIII’s wives – the one that survived and also, on a personal note, the one that I’m named after! Visiting her grave at Sudeley Castle is one of my earliest memories and I’ve visited it many times since. Katharine Parr is very special to me. It also means that I know a fair bit about her, which can be a hindrance when going into another novel about this fascinating and rather overlooked woman and queen.

I did enjoy reading the novel. Alison Weir, as a historian, clearly knows her stuff and the novels are packed with historical details of Tudor life and its setting. These are very immersive reads and they are rich with sumptuous fabrics and jewels, grand buildings, music and feasting, love and death. Katharine Parr is an attractive figure who gives her love easily. It was good to read more about her earlier life with her first two marriages, each of which is just as interesting as her third marriage to Henry. I particularly liked the section during which Katharine is married to John Latimer – the Pilgrimage of Grace makes an appearance. It is in these scenes that Katharine is most alive.

Throughout the series I have been intrigued by the author’s interpretation of the character of Henry VIII. It’s fair to say that I’m at odds with it, particularly so in this final novel. Henry is effectively exonerated of his deeds, the blood is wiped from his hands, and the blame is passed to those around him, to his victims. Henry is pitied for having to execute his young fifth wife, Kathryn Howard, for example. When Katharine Parr almost faces the same fate and is about to be arrested, it is Katharine’s fault. She doesn’t blame Henry even though it’s his signature on the warrant. We’re told about the stench and foulness of Henry’s diseased leg as well as his immense size, but Katharine is happy to share his bed and do her duty. Katharine’s considerable intellect is hinted at but I’m not sure that the novel does her justice, just as it plays down the abject fear she must have felt at marrying such a man, who had executed two of his wives and treated others, and his children, terribly.

Thomas Seymour is another problematic character for his relationship with Katharine’s step daughter, the child Princess Elizabeth. Personally, he’s one of my least favourite figures in Tudor history. Here, it’s as if Katharine doesn’t allow herself to feel too deeply. What did she really want? To have a child or to be free of marriages and be religiously and intellectually independent at a time when this was just not permitted? Katharine is a fascinating, deeply intriguing woman, who stood out during her own time – her Meditations was the first book published in England by a woman using her own name and in the English language. She played a deadly game with Henry through their marriage and it is arguable that it was his death that saved hers.

Katharine Parr is a thoroughly entertaining novel, it’s fun to read and it brings the splendour of the Tudor court to life. I will really miss these books. Each has been engrossing and, at times, tragic as well as light. For me, though, there have been two themes that have fascinated me the most – the early lives of these women before their royal marriages and the personality of the one constant of the novels, Henry VIII.

Without doubt, this is about the most beautiful series to be published in recent years. The covers and the endpapers have been truly stunning throughout. It’s a fine collection to read and own and admire. You can read my reviews of the previous five books below.

Other reviews
Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen
Six Tudor Queens II: Anne Boleyn, a King’s Obsession
Six Tudor Queens III: Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen

Six Tudor Queens IV: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets
Six Tudor Queens V: Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen