Category Archives: Historical Fiction

A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan

Zaffre | 2018 (4 October) | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book

A House of Ghosts by WC RyanThe winter solstice of 1917 is approaching and Lord Highmount has arranged a meeting of spiritualists and friends at his old and creaking house, Blackwater Abbey, located on a small island off the Devon coast. Lord Highmount and his wife Lady Elizabeth recently lost both of their sons in the war. The boys disappeared from their lives and they’re missed desperately. Lady Elizabeth believes that mediums Madame Feda and Count Orlov will unite her with their spirits. There are other visitors to the house, including a doctor who believes that his patient, a traumatised soldier, is in touch with the dead due to his own traumatic near-death experience. They have come to the right place.

And then there are Kate Cartwright and Robert Donovan. Kate and Donavon are at the house on a mission from Britain’s secret service. Lord Highmount is a successful industrialist contributing to the war effort. There are reasons to believe some of his plans have ended up on German desks and this ‘house party’ will provide the perfect opportunity to trap a spy. But there is far more to Kate than meets the eye.

A House of Ghosts is a stunning novel, a thoroughly absorbing read that combines a chilling ghost story – because it is indeed set within a house of ghosts – with a tale of war. The First World War overshadows everything in this novel. Almost everyone in the house has either lost someone to the war or has fought in it themselves and is recovering from its nightmare. It’s hardly surprising that the dead are restless.

Blackwater Abbey provides the perfect location, especially as it is cut off from the land by a mid winter storm. The house itself might be frightening but the outside is no less deadly. There is no escape for our small group of suspects when one of their number is found murdered. This classic murder mystery scenario, so well executed here, is reason enough to enjoy A House of Ghosts but it is enhanced by its melancholic mood, the result of war and loss, and by the very real chill of its ghosts for this is a house where the dead far outnumber the living.

Kate Cartwright and Donovan are the characters we grow closest to and they’re an enigmatic pair. I particularly enjoyed Kate’s attitude to the spiritual world around her, which contrasts so vividly to the attitude of Madame Feda. Kate is enduring her own loss. There is someone she too would like to contact. But all are distracted by the murderer stalking the house – is this person real?

As the evenings draw in, A House of Ghosts is the perfect read. It’s so easy to lose yourself in it. It’s beautifully written – as you’d expect from the author of The Constant Soldier – and richly evocative of its time and setting. It’s frightening in places but also, rather unexpectedly, I found it comforting and warm, despite the chill of its winter storm. It provides food for thought, particularly on the devastating harm of war, and is impossible to put down.

Other reviews
The Constant Soldier

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Hero of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Corgi | 2010, Pb 2011 | 480p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Hero of Rome by Douglas JacksonIt is AD 59 and Roman officer Gaius Valerius Verrens is finishing off his tour of duty to Britain as tribune to the Twentieth Legion while they’re stationed in the Severn Valley. For now all seems calm but the British tribes are growing restless as demands for tax, subservience and control increase. The situation is aggravated by the Druids. Most are now hiding away on an island off the coast of north Wales but one young Druid left behind, Gwlym, is growing in influence. Valerius is a natural soldier and leader and he has more than one opportunity to show his skill with the sword before he is sent to Colonia in the east of the province to await his orders to return to Rome where he can begin the next stage of his career on the way to the Senate. But there’s someone who has something to say about that and her name is Boudicca.

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, is on the rampage. Whipped and humiliated by the Romans, her daughters raped, her lands seized, Boudicca is after Roman blood and thousands flock to her banner. Colonia stands between Boudicca and London. Valerius with so few men is given orders to work with Colonia’s local militia of retired legionaries to stop Boudicca’s army in its tracks. It’s a terrible task.

Hero of Rome, published in 2010, began a series that rapidly became one of my very favorites of all series, whatever the genre, and it started it in spectacular fashion. Its centrepiece, the siege of Valerius and the Roman forces and townspeople inside Colonia’s enormous Temple of Claudius, a symbol of Roman might if ever there was one, is phenomenal and remains one of the best action sequences I’ve ever read. Perhaps its closest rival is the siege of Jerusalem in another of this series, Scourge of Rome.

But re-reading Hero of Rome reminds me that there is much more to this fantastic, thoroughly exciting novel than the Temple of Claudius sequence (although reading it again, it was every bit as brilliant as it was the first time). This is a substantial novel, after all. We spend time getting to know Valerius and his men and it is so good to meet the tribune again as a young man. The series has very recently finished with the excellent Hammer of Rome, set over twenty years after the events of Hero of Rome and the mature Valerius is a very different man from the one we first meet here. But perhaps that’s not surprising because the siege of the temple at Colonia and its aftermath is life-changing for Valerius in more ways than one.

I’ve said it more than once and I’ll say it again – it’s been an absolute joy to read the nine books that comprise the Hero of Rome series. I’ve loved every step of the way. Douglas Jackson knows this period inside out and the books are packed full of historical and military details, and Gaius Valerius Verrens is a worthy, unusual hero. Now that the series is complete, it’s the perfect time to read it, if you haven’t had the pleasure already.

Other reviews
Caligula
Claudius
Defender of Rome
Avenger of Rome
Sword of Rome
Enemy of Rome
Scourge of Rome
Saviour of Rome
Glory of Rome
Hammer of Rome
An interview

Thrillers written as James Douglas
The Doomsday Testament
The Isis Covenant
The Excalibur Codex

‘Opening the Doors of Perception’ – Guest post by Gavin Scott, author of The Age of Exodus

Earlier this month, Titan Books published Age of Exodus by Gavin Scott. You can read my review of this excellent historical thriller here. I’m delighted to present here a guest post by Gavin Scott in which he discusses the books that inspired him the most, that liberated his imagination and opened the doors of perception.

In 1960, when I was ten years old a mysterious boy appeared at my primary school in Hull and gave me to a heavy, cloth-covered volume published by Ernest Benn and Co: The Short Stories of H.G. Wells. I cannot remember the boy’s name, and I sometimes ask myself who he really was, but it was a book that for me opened the Doors of Perception. I began with a story called The Stolen Bacillus, which starts out as a scientific thriller and ends as riotous comedy. Then I read A Deal in Ostriches and found the payoff was even funnier, which led to the delights of The Truth about Pyecraft and his extraordinary weight reduction formula. Then Jimmy Goggles the God, and the mysteries of The Moth, and on, and on… Collectively, Wells’ stories liberated my imagination, and it has never, I think, been entirely recaptured by mere everyday reality.

I discovered Jules Verne around the same time, inspired – no, desperate – to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea after seeing the Disney movie starring James Mason as the tragic, haunted Captain Nemo. At my urging my parents bought the book for me for Christmas 1960 and I remember coming down secretly to read it before it was officially handed over on Christmas Day. If Wells freed my imagination, Verne taught me how to send it racing along the great, streamlined canals of scientific research.

And then, of course, there was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in John Murray’s evocative paperback edition, drew me into the foggy streets of 1890’s London through prose that made me feel as if Dr. Watson’s pipe-smoke was swirling hypnotically around me as I read. To science and the imagination were added the allure of mystery and detection, and I read and re-read the entire Holmes canon on the ship that took my family from England to New Zealand in 1961.

Not long after we arrived amid the fields and orchards of Hawkes Bay, the pleasures of detection were supplemented by the delights of pell-mell, helter-skelter action, as experienced in John Buchan’s great thriller, The Thirty Nine Steps. And not just action – but terrific nature writing which evoked, with great precision, the green glens of the Scottish lowlands where the chase took place. From then I traveled with Richard Hannay through the forests of Germany, the dangerous alleys of Istanbul, and the austere northern beauties of The Island of Sheep.

In 1962 at a church bazaar in the little village of Havelock North I discovered P.G. Wodehouse’s, Jeeves and Wooster stories, in those thick-paged volumes with their alluringly cartoon covers produced by Herbert Jenkins Ltd. As well as comic timing, Wodehouse not only taught me plotting – he is a master of narrative construction – but also the incredible richness of which the English language is capable. His prose incorporates the cadences of Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ethel M Dell and the British Foreign Office in a series of gloriously baroque word-cathedrals.

Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible are also to be found, of course, in the next great author into whose world I entered: J.R.R. Tolkien – together with the sturdy rhythms of Icelandic sagas and Anglo-Saxon chronicles. I found The Lord of the Rings during the early lonely weeks after I got a scholarship to a boarding school called Wanganui Collegiate, which gave me a good education in a somewhat demanding environment. Over the next three years whenever I needed to escape from it all I needed to do was open one of those volumes with Sauron’s eye staring out of the grey cover, and find myself in Middle Earth – and particularly among the wooded hills between Hobbiton and the Buckland Ferry – on a quest of my own.

The final early literary influence to whom I want to pay tribute has fallen from fashion these days, but is still, in my view a font of wisdom and insight into the human heart. I came across C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers novels when, graduating from my boarding school at 17, I volunteered for a New Zealand government program to teach English to Iban, Chinese and Malay kids in a jungle school in Sarawak. It was an extraordinary experience, but again, like Wanganui Collegiate, a demanding one, and there were times when the perfect antidote was not just to accompany Snow’s hero, Lewis Eliot on his rise through the English class system but to bask in the judicious humanity of Snow’s own wise, forgiving company.

That, I think, is what those early literary experiences inspired me to want to create – worlds, both physical and psychological, into which readers would want to enter when reality becomes just a little too much. And to which both they – and I – can return whenever we wish. That, at any rate, is what I believe lay behind the gift of the mysterious book when I was a child, and it is certainly what the Duncan Forrester adventures aspire to now.

The Age of Exodus by Gavin ScottGavin Scott’s third historical detective thriller, The Age of Exodus, was published by Titan Books on 11 September. It features Scott’s archaeologist hero Duncan Forrester, the creation of Israel, Ernest Bevin, and a Sumerian demon. With its two predecessors, The Age of Treachery and The Age of Olympus, it is available from Amazon and other outlets in paperback, on Kindle and as an audiobook, read by the author.

Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry

Riverrun | 2018 (6 September) | 468p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dark Water by Elizabeth LowryIt is 1855 and Hiram Carver, doctor to the insane in Charleston near Boston in Massachusetts, is putting to paper his thoughts concerning ‘the dark water, or submerged aspect of the human mind’, reflecting on those pivotal moments in his life and career when he served as assistant surgeon aboard the Orbis in 1833. In that brutal environment, so far from home and safety, Carver met William Borden, a man loved by everyone and known to all as ‘The Hero of the Providence‘.

The Providence was an unhappy ship, its crew torn apart by mutiny. Borden put a small number, including the captain, aboard a dinghy and he sailed them to land after a terrible journey of several months. This experience has left its mark. Back in Boston some time after his experiences aboard the Orbis, Dr Carver receives a new patient in his asylum – William Borden. Madness has pursued him but Carver is determined to cure him. And the only way he can do that is to make them both understand what happened on the Providence, to go back to the dark water that continues to haunt both Borden and Carver.

Dark Water is a novel I’ll remember for a long time. I love novels about the sea, especially when they’re tinged with the hint of mystery, of the unknown, and this novel swept me off my feet. It is beautifully elegiac, telling a Gothic story that also feels so grounded in 19th-century Boston, before the events of the American Civil War. The sea and the land – namely Boston, Charlestown and the island of Nantucket – play equal parts and they’re both evocatively depicted, although it’s at sea, the sea that laps up against the coast of Massachusetts and is always inescapable, where the true mystery lies.

Above all else this is the story of Hiram Carver, told in his own words. Carver hates the sea, it hates him. He feels most at home in his office in the asylum for the insane observing patients who are most surely at sea, kept apart from their families and loved ones, from reality. These are Carver’s memoirs and in them we find the Hero, the enigmatic William Borden, Carver’s addiction, but there are others equally memorable – Carver’s sister Caro, Borden’s fiancee Ruth, Carver’s boss and mentor at the hospital, Dr Mansfield, and so many others and they all leave their mark, perhaps more than anywhere on the island of Nantucket.

Watching Hiram Carver’s personality change so severely for the worse through the years is compelling and here is the quiet, moody drama of Dark Water. What happened to Barden is a great mystery to Carver but for us it holds fewer surprises. Instead, I was riveted by this most elegant tale of lost human lives, that fragile line between sanity and madness, and the hopelessness of love. It is melancholic and cruel in places but there’s such a beauty to it. Images  and themes are pursued through the novel, especially the act of eating and starving – it’s cleverly done. I also really enjoyed the extracts from the court case that prosecuted the mutineers. It’s such a riveting story.

Dark Water is a relatively lengthy novel and every page of it is a pleasure. It’s extremely hard to put down. Elizabeth Lowry is such a fine writer, she pulls you into the book and there’s no chance of release until the end. There is so much to it. A tale of seafaring disaster, madness, impossible love and loneliness set against the backdrop of 19th-century Boston, Nantucket and the vast blue expanse of the ocean. Irresistible.

The Age of Exodus by Gavin Scott

Titan Books | 2018 (21 August) | 399p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Age of Exodus by Gavin ScottIt is 1947 and for many the Second World War is not yet over. Dr Duncan Forrester, an archaeological fellow at Oxford University, rather hopes it is for him. He was a Special Operations Executive during the war, risking his life behind enemy lines. Now he wants to put all of that behind him, as well as affairs of the heart, and focus on the archaeology and linguistics of ancient Minoan society.

But then a student calls in a favour. A friend of his, Templar, now working at the Foreign Office, bought a Sumerian seal when he was based in Cairo during the war. At the time Templar thought little of it but now he is receiving anonymous and bizarre threats, demanding the return of the seal. Forrester promises to do what he can but then one night Templar is found horribly murdered in the Near Eastern galleries of the British Museum. It is almost as if a supernatural power has wreaked its vengeance on him. And Templar’s death is just the beginning.

The Age of Exodus is the third and final novel in Gavin Scott’s Duncan Forrester trilogy, set during the aftermath of World War Two. I haven’t read The Age of Treason and The Age of Olympus but I’m now determined to put that right because I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent mix of archaeological mystery and diplomacy gone awry during these difficult months and years as the world tries to make peace work. The fact that I hadn’t read the others didn’t affect my enjoyment, other than that some people were mentioned that I think familiar readers might have encountered before. There were also hints of previous events and cases but nothing that spoiled the earlier books. This is a stand alone thriller.

It’s a great story and it’s cleverly done. The menacing gods of ancient Sumer loom over events and occultists flourish in the magic and esoteric bookshops of London and further afield. It all adds such a chilling, quite frightening yet fascinating atmosphere. And the hint of the supernatural hanging over the gruesome murders is very effective. That’s one side of the book. The other takes us into the halls of diplomacy at a time when countries squabbled over the creation of an independent State of Israel for those Jews who suffered unspeakable horror. This part of the novel is compelling as we meet some of the key figures of the debate, some historical and some fictional, as the arguments move across Britain, Europe and the United States. I really enjoyed the novel’s movement and journeys. What stays with the reader, though, may well be the Jewish refugees that Forrester encounters while they wait for a vessel to sail them on that hugely risky voyage to safety. These people will never be able to leave the war behind them.

I’m hard pressed to find a fault with The Age of Exodus but if I had to find one it would be that there are an awful lot of characters who come and go through these pages. I did find it a little difficult remembering who some of these people were and I would have welcomed a list of characters at the beginning or end.

The Age of Exodus tells a fascinating tale, combining a fun archaeological mystery complete with larger than life characters with a significant historical issue and making both compelling and gripping. Duncan Forrester is a fantastic detective. He has his own inner struggles. He is both a reluctant killer and a studious academic. At times his actions surprise himself. He’s led by his heart, even as he works things out. He’s a likeable man, searching for answers in a world that’s left him a little lost. I can’t wait to read the earlier two books.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday | 2018 (6 September) | 337p | Review copy | Buy the book

Transcription by Kate AtkinsonIn 1940 Juliet Armstrong, a young woman of just 18 years old, is recruited by the secret service to monitor a group of Fifth Columnists. They regularly meet in London and are led by Godfrey Toby, a man they believe to be a Nazi spy but who is in fact working for the British secret service. It will be Juliet’s job to transcribe their bugged and recorded conversations, a task that both bores and thrills Juliet. She also wants to impress her boss, the enigmatic and curious Peregrine Gibbons. But soon Juliet is given a more active role, undercover, becoming perilously involved with the fascists she must spy upon.

In 1950 the war is long over but any hopes that Juliet might have that the past is behind her are terrifyingly crushed. The work of the secret service continues, fighting a different kind of war with a new enemy, and Juliet, now a producer working at the BBC, is about to get entangled again. She begins to see faces from the past and she knows that they are due a reckoning.

I fell in love with Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. I knew that Transcription, a novel I’ve longed to read, would be every bit as good and I was not disappointed. This is an author who writes literary fiction that is also accessible, warm and wise, witty and clever, despairing and loving – and Transcription confirms all of this. A thrilling and compelling plot is wrapped up in a time-shifting, multi-layered narrative in which Juliet’s life, and all of the people who made it what it was, is revealed before us. It demands an emotional response from the reader while at the same time he or she will marvel at just how much there is to be found in this book. It’s an extraordinary achievement for so much to be packed in to a novel shorter than 350 pages.

I’m so pleased that Kate Atkinson returned to the Second World War for Transcription. I can’t get enough of World War Two spy thrillers at the moment and so this was perfectly timed and reminded me in such a good way of the pleasure I recently had reading Our Friends in Berlin. On the surface Transcription is a fine war thriller but it also digs deeply into the motivations of people who desperately want to retain for themselves their inner beliefs. Much here is suppressed, whether it’s a political allegiances or an affair of the heart. This is a time of secrets and a time when people were paid to hunt them out.

Juliet is a wonderful main character. Her youth initially marks her out as almost naive and there’s much pleasure to be had in the chapters in which she tries to make sense of the conversations she is transcribing. These transcriptions can be found throughout the book, reinforcing the historical context of the novel while also lifting the mood. And that is arguably what the book is about – how do you transcribe people? How do you work them out when there is so much interference between you and them? For Juliet has so much more to understand than the words of Fifth Columnists.

Juliet is surrounded by a cast of fascinating characters, some larger than life, others quietly existing in the background, others whose lives are pinched out. It’s fascinating as well as tense watching these relationships work themselves out.

Kate Atkinson’s writing is so beautiful. It’s elegant and warm. It reflects how well she understands the people she has brought to life, their aspirations and their fears. And yet wit and elegance can hide something else far darker and this is shown so well in the contrast between the politeness and manners of many of the novel’s characters with the ugliness of some of their secret thoughts and the brutal actions that they can spur. This is war after all.

The novel takes place over several years, moving backwards and forwards between them, and so it pays to stay alert. This is a book that rewards the reader – there are moments here that astounded me as well as others that profoundly moved me.

Kate Atkinson is consistently one of the very finest authors around today – very clever but also accessible – and Transcription demonstrates yet again why. Don’t miss it. I must also mention that the hardback, complete with ribbon, is a thing of beauty.

Other reviews
Life After Life
A God in Ruins

The Angel’s Mark by S.W. Perry

Corvus | 2018 (6 September) | 418p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Angel's Mark by SW PerryIt is 1590 and Elizabeth I’s rule is under threat. The Spanish Armada is only recently defeated but the threat continues, perhaps in an even more sinister way. The danger has gone underground in the form of hidden priests who preach sedition to the Catholic subjects of this excommunicated Queen. But, of course, not all Catholics are traitors and Elizabeth is content for many to pay their fines and live their lives in peace, as long as no priest is hidden within their walls. It’s the job of Robert Burleigh, son to Elizabeth’s most powerful minister, to seek them out and he’ll use any means in his power.

Physician Nicholas Shelby has fallen on the worst of times but he finds his salvation in the most unlikely of ways. A young boy has been pulled out of the river, murdered, a strange symbol carved into his leg. This little child couldn’t walk. He was especially vulnerable and Nicholas grieves for him. With the help of Southwark innkeeper Bianca, Nicholas will find justice for him. And then another body is found and it won’t be the last.

The Angel’s Mark is S.W. Perry’s debut novel and it’s a corker. It certainly helps that he’s picked such a fascinating period in English history in which to place a very strong mystery and he does it justice. Elizabethan London, especially that part of the city that lay to the south of the river, where the inns, theatres, bear-baiting pits and brothels could be found, is brought to life so vividly. And Nicholas, as a physician who chooses to treat the poor, is perfectly placed to show it to us in all of its colour and foulness. But it’s among the rich and powerful that the true danger lies.

The mystery is such a good one and this sad story is told beautifully. We get to know a fair few people very well indeed and there are some that really stand out, such as Bianca, John Lumley and his wife Lizzy. The Lumley home is nothing less than Henry VIII’s grand Nonsuch Palace and I loved the descriptions of it. What a place to live in! Our glimpses into the terrors of the Tower of London are equally memorable but for other reasons. But it’s the character of Nicholas Shelby who dominates this novel and he is such a likeable if troubled hero.

There are good themes here – the nature of Tudor medicine and surgery, the role of women in business, the place of Catholicism in Elizabethan society. It’s all done very well indeed.