Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Six Tudor Queens IV: Anna of Kleve – Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir

Headline Review | 2019 (2 May) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book

Anna of Kleve: Queen of Secrets by Alison WeirIn 1540 Henry VIII married his fourth wife, here named Anna of Kleve, but it was a marriage that was to last mere months. Henry had fallen in love with Anna’s portrait, painted by the master Holbein, but the reality was, so legend tells us, not so pleasing to the ailing King’s eye. Alison Weir’s marvellous fictional retelling of the stories of Henry’s wives once more takes a fresh look at what is very familiar history. She questions what we know and puts forward an alternative interpretation. Henry famously compared Anna to a Flemish mare but perhaps there was more to it than that. That there were other reasons why the marriage remained unconsummated.

Queen of Secrets begins in 1530 in the court of Duke Johann III of Kleve, a fair city located on the Rhine. Johann’s daughter Anna is fifteen years old, betrothed to the son of the Duke of Lorraine, and very ready to fall in love. And so begins a sequence of events that will overshadow the rest of Anna’s life. I think that the degree to which you enjoy the novel may depend on how far you accept the author’s somewhat controversial interpretation of Anna’s early years. I didn’t necessarily believe it but I wasn’t ready to dismiss it entirely either. This is, after all, a work of fiction and as long as it rings true with the Anna that Alison Weir presents – which it does – then I’m ready to fall once more into the pleasures of Weir’s richly painted Tudor world.

This is the novel of the six that I was looking forward to the most, largely because so little is known, relatively, about this fourth wife. I’ve visited Anna’s home in Lewes, East Sussex, and I’ve always been fascinated by her. It’s hard to imagine how frightened she must have felt to arrive in England only to be rejected by a King with a history of killing his wives. The novel puts all of this in its context, showing us a court torn apart by power struggles as Thomas Cromwell fights for survival.

I found that the most interesting sections, though, are those in which we see Anna and Henry together, forging a friendship, surrounded by all of the little details of the Tudor period. The descriptions of rooms, houses, journeys and so on are painted so visually, benefitting from the knowledge of Alison Weir the historian. Once again in these novels Henry grabs the attention. He isn’t quite the Henry we’re used to from other novels. We’re made to feel some sympathy for him – although I must say this is against my will! It’s intriguing to see a different side to him. It’s also interesting to contrast Anna with Henry’s previous wives as well as spend time with Henry’s daughter, Mary.

Another of Henry’s wives makes her appearance in Queen of Secrets, Katherine Howard. It is as if the story of Anna of Kleves is a respite before the Tudor trauma picks up again with young Katherine.

This series is such a joy. I look forward to its novels each year. You’d have thought that there is little new to give readers with these familiar lives but Alison Weir proves that assumption wrong. She finds so much to fascinate us with and I am filled with expectation for the novel on Katherine Howard. Surely, this could be the most heart wrenching book of the sequence. I long to read it. And I must repeat once more, these are the most beautiful hardbacks!

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

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The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

Zaffre | 2019 (18 April) | 355p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Ten by Harry SidebottomIt is AD 265. The attention of the Emperor Gallienus is on rebels in the West but Volsianus, the powerful Praetorian Prefect has his eye on the East. The chance has come to unsettle the legendary, enormous Persian Empire. The King of Kings has turned on his brother, a man respected for his learning and wisdom, imprisoning his nephew, the child Prince Sasan, in the Castle of Silence, a dreadful, impenetrable fortress close to the far side of the Caspian Sea. It’s only a matter of time before the order is given for the boy to be murdered horribly. Volsianus is determined that won’t happen. He wants the prince in Roman hands, as a pawn in his own games.

A team is assembled to undertake the formidable journey through Mesopotamia to the Castle of Silence. Murena, the head of the frumentarii, Rome’s spies, is given the task of recruiting some of the ten men who will meet in the eastern city of Zeugma, ready to begin a mission that is surely suicidal. And it’s not long after they set off that the first death occurs, putting the young equestrian officer Marcus Aelius Valens in charge and totally out of his depth. He must pull this strange and hostile group together as they head deep into the desert and drylands and yet all the time, as mishap follows mishap, Valens’ suspicion that there is a traitor in their midst increases. This must surely be a one-way mission. He must prepare to fight for his life, then die for Rome.

The Lost Ten is a standalone Roman thriller by Harry Sidebottom, the master of Roman military historical fiction. There was something about the TV thriller 24 in the author’s last novel, The Last Hours, as our hero had just a day to save the emperor’s life from an unknown assassin. This time we’re put in SAS-thriller territory. This is a rescue mission by a team of ruthless, highly capable soldiers in a hostile environment. Not all will make it, if any. It will all depend on the strength, courage and leadership of one man. Throw in an inaccessible, terrifying fortress and an enemy that has developed the most sophisticated, cruel ways in which to commit murder, and you have something irresistible.

Ballista is Harry Sidebottom’s most famous hero and, although he doesn’t feature here (only getting a few welcome mentions), we’re still in Ballista’s Rome and Empire. This is familiar territory and the author knows it inside out. It’s a fascinating journey into the East and every step of it is marked by action, natural disaster and treachery. We’re given glimpses of the boy in his tower and we will him to be freed and so we are invested in this story, just as we are exhilarated by its thrills.

Harry Sidebottom writes so well and his novel is enriched by his impressive historical military knowledge. But none of it feels heavy or out of place. It merges with the novel perfectly. We’re not distracted in anyway from the extraordinary endeavour of Valens and his men.

I loved The Lost Ten. It’s extremely exciting, historically fascinating and with a fantastic setting. I gobbled it up. I think readers of modern military thrillers will really enjoy this one while those of us, like me, who can’t get enough of Harry Sidebottom’s Roman storytelling will lap it up. There’s also something very appealing about a stand alone Roman thriller. Excellent!

Other reviews
Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East
Iron and Rust: Throne of the Caesars I
Blood and Steel: Throne of the Caesars II
Fire and Sword: Throne of the Caesars III
The Last Hour

The historical inspiration for Stasi 77 – guest post by David Young

Stasi 77 by David YoungDavid Young’s latest novel, Stasi 77, was published by Zaffre on 18 April and it’s an absolute corker! It’s the fourth in a series set in 1970s’ East Berlin and East Germany which features police detective Major Karin Müller. I’ve loved all of them but I think that Stasi 77 is my favourite. It’s also the darkest, as the post below indicates. You can read my review here. To celebrate the publication, I’m delighted to present for the blog tour such a fascinating guest post by David Young in which he discusses the novel’s historical background.

The historical inspiration for Stasi 77

The clue to the year my latest novel is set in, is given in the title. Stasi 77 takes place in communist East Germany in 1977. But that’s true only up to a point – a lot of the action, and the real-life inspiration for the book, is from 32 years earlier. In the case of my protagonist, Major Karin Müller, that’s a whole lifetime ago – the year she was conceived.

What I’ve tried to do is explore the lasting effects of the Second World War on the East German state – a country that actually emerged from the aftermath of the war, and the division of a defeated Nazi Germany into zones of occupation. The Soviet zone was transformed in October 1949 into the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the German Democratic Republic – a new socialist state, but still very much at Moscow’s beck and call.

The inspiration for Stasi 77 came from a Nazi massacre – sometimes considered the worst or most senseless single-day massacre they committed – which took place in the final weeks of the war, on what was later to become East German soil. You can easily find it on the internet although I’m not mentioning its name here, and in the book I’ve deliberately placed a dedication and maps from the time amongst the back matter to try to avoid spoilers.

That’s because I’ve moved slightly out of my comfort zone, and based my sub-narrative – through the eyes of a French slave labourer for the Nazis – very much on real-life events. Everything that happens to my fictional French character up until the point of the massacre, really happened to the labour camp prisoners – although it’s an amalgamation of first and second-hand accounts of different victims and survivors.

Where the fiction starts is in my extrapolation: what would happen if one of the survivors of the massacre (and there only were a handful) came back to what had become East Germany to wreak his revenge?

So my 1977 police case, led by Volkspolizei Serious Crimes Department head Karin Müller and her deputy Werner Tilsner, is pure fiction, bolted onto thinly-disguised fact.

I thought long and hard about the ethics of this. Should you create what is meant to be commercial fiction out of a horrific real-life event? In the end, I concluded that anything that serves to raise the profile of the massacre and its memorial site must be a good thing. If I’m wrong, I apologise.

The other thing I was interested in was what happened to Nazis in East Germany. The socialist state was avowedly ‘anti-fascist’: the Berlin Wall was even officially called ‘The Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’ (or Barrier). A euphemism, of course, and few if any of the GDR’s citizens really believed it existed to keep fascists out, rather than imprison the state’s own population.

But did members of the Nazi party just disappear into thin air in the east, or become communists overnight? In Stasi 77, some of my Nazis become members of the East German secret police, the Stasi. And despite the fictional nature of the 1970s end of the story, the idea of Nazis being recruited in this way is rooted in reality. For example, Der Spiegel in 2014 published research about Auschwitz SS guard Josef Settnik and how the Stasi made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: his past in the SS would be forgotten if he cooperated with the Ministry for State Security and spied on members of his own Catholic community. There are several other examples. The article quotes Henry Leide of the Rostock branch of the Federal Commissioner for the documents of the State Security Service of the GDR as saying: ‘Nazi perpetrators had a great opportunity in the GDR to get away scot-free if they behaved inconspicuously or cooperated.’

At the end of the day, though, the novel is a piece of fiction. It’s also meant to be entertainment, despite its sometimes grim contents. My hope is that if readers are moved by it, they might seek out the real history for themselves. Or indeed include the Memorial at the massacre site on any trips to Germany, in order to pay their respects to the dead.

In these difficult political times in the UK, history is an excellent tutor of what can happen if intolerance, xenophobia and hatred are allowed to flourish.

Reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State
Stasi 77

For other stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster below.

Stasi Blog Tour Graphic

Stasi 77 by David Young

Zaffre | 2019 (18 April) | 377p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi 77 by David YoungEast German police detective Major Karin Müller is enjoying a rare holiday beside the Black Sea with her grandmother and her little twins when she is urgently called back to East Berlin. A senior official in the secret police, the Stasi, has been murdered, killed by fire. Müller and her partner Tilsner search for the reasons for the murder in the dead man’s past but it’s soon clear that the Stasi will not allow her to ask the questions she must. She is removed from the case. And then another important and influential man is killed in a fire. When Müller digs into this one, she comes up against the Stasi once more. This is a pattern that can only lead to trouble.

It doesn’t help that Tilsner seems disinterested and distracted. He’s blaming it on personal problems but Karin’s not so sure. Despite their closeness, she’s had reason to suspect his loyalty before. She’s now convinced that he’s not to be trusted. More than ever before, Karin feels alone as she strives to discover the truth but what she reveals, at great personal risk to herself, is more shocking and terrible than she could have ever imagined. And somebody wants these secrets to stay dead, whatever the cost.

Stasi 77 is the fourth novel by David Young to feature the investigations of Karin Müller, a detective in the East German People’s Police during the 1970s. I’ve loved each one of these books but Stasi 77 is, I think, nigh on perfect. It is certainly my favourite of the four and is a novel that the author should be very proud of.

The book immerses the reader in this communist East German world, with its expectations and disappointments, its pride and confidence, its cars and bad coffee, its nights illicitly spent in front of the latest West German drama on the TV, the nosiness of spies absolutely everywhere, the interference of the State. David Young knows this world inside out. This is historical fiction (as well as crime fiction) of the highest order. It might be only forty years ago but this is a foreign place for sure and all of the little details build up the novel’s strong sense of authenticity. He has also created a thoroughly believable main character in Karin Müller. She genuinely believes in this Soviet-led socialist society even though she, more than almost anyone, is exposed to its failings. Karin holds on to the ideal, where every person has their place and is looked after, with everyone working for the benefit of others. She’s even prepared to put up with the Stasi. But that might be about to change. Karin’s relationship with the Stasi is fascinating as characters emerge from the shadows with ominous regularity, only then to fade away once more. But how can she put up with this, particularly when her own children become pawns in their game? It is absolutely fascinating.

But there’s another world that rears its monstrous head in Stasi 77 and that’s the country’s Nazi past. A wartime tale threads its way through the narrative. Atrocities are committed and suffered. They must not be forgotten. There are some harrowing scenes in Stasi 77 but they are very sensitively portrayed. They're all the more shocking because much of it is based on real events. The author will be writing about this in a guest post on For Winter Nights in a day or two. I urge you to read the novel to learn more.

I've become very fond of Karin Müller through these novels and in Stasi 77 she demands genuine respect and admiration for her dogged pursuit of the truth. The way that she has to combine career with motherhood is a key theme. Fortunately, she has an incredible, long-suffering grandmother to help out. We see how much of what Karin has is dependent on her job, including her apartment. She could lose everything at any time. Karin’s used to looking over her shoulder, searching for her Stasi shadow. They’re there more than ever in Stasi 77 and it’s time for us to learn much more about those in their pay. Müller will have to re-examine many of the relationships in her life.

Stasi 77 is undoubtedly the darkest of the four novels but it is, in my opinion, the best so far. I could not put it down. You might get more from it if you’ve read the previous novels – and I’d certainly suggest that you do – but this novel stands alone very well. It’s striking, powerful and embedded in its historical setting and place. It will be very interesting indeed to see where Karin Müller can go from here.

Other reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State

The Scorpion’s Strike (Empire X) by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (18 April) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Scorpion's Strike by Anthony RichesOne of the novels I’ve been looking forward to the most this year, with no doubt at all, is The Scorpion’s Strike by Anthony Riches. I’ve read and loved everything that this author has ever written (just see the long list of reviews and features at the end of this review!) but there’s something a little extra special about this book. After a gap of three years – a gap that has been very well filled with the superb Centurions trilogy – the Empire series resumes and centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila is back! And how good it is to see him.

The Scorpion’s Strike is the tenth in the series, which means that you’ll get more from it if you’ve followed Marcus’s extraordinary journey, and that of his group of loyal Tungrians and Britons, from the beginning but I think this one does well as a stand alone novel. Marcus has come a long, long way since his journey began in Wounds of Honour, a novel I reviewed nine years ago. This review assumes that you've had the pleasure of reading the others.

It is AD 186 and Marcus and his Tungrians have returned to Rome after their deadly mission into the forests of Germania. It's good to see their families again but the reunion is brief. Marcus is still trapped by his past. The Emperor Commodus and his chamberlain Cleander continue to have a hold over him, and Marcus and his friends can't escape their grip. They are to be sent to Gaul to lead a force of Praetorians to defeat Martinus, a Roman soldier turned rebel who is becoming a magnet for anyone with a grudge against Rome. His threat is becoming dangerous. If it's a choice between fighting for their lives on a foreign field of war or trying to survive political games in Rome, it's clear which Marcus, Scaurus, Julius and the others would opt for. But with Marcus's children and Julius's wife left as hostages, and with Cleander adamant that Marcus will not return alive to challenge his own vulnerable position, our friends' imminent future couldn't look more uncertain.

Almost immediately it’s as if we’ve had no gap at all and I was right back in the midst of Marcus's story and we're marching again with the troops. Our centurions and the tribune Scaurus have had a shift up in rank, which adds humour as they learn their new responsibilities and they're soon tested as they're thrown into battles and skirmishes against an enemy who knows better than most how to fight the Roman way. He's a worthy opponent. Anthony Riches knows his stuff and this is especially seen in the battle scenes, which are thrilling as well as bloodsoaked, but also in the scenes in which the army march, build camps, prepare for the fight. It all feels real as well as making the heart beat faster. And it's good to see that Marcus's promotion doesn't stop him displaying his gladiatorial prowess with two blades.

The emphasis has moved away from Marcus's private life, which is good I think as it had become desperate, thanks to Commodus, an emperor who deserves every one of his countless enemies. Cleander adds political interest but the focus is on the military campaign and, interestingly, on the relationship between the Tungrians and the Praetorians as they have to fight side by side. We get to know a fair few of them over the course of the novel, which is always a risk, as you know with this series that not all will live to fight again.

Anthony Riches is a fantastic author, one of my very favourites, and his Empire series is one I wouldn't be without. As we'd expect, Marcus continues to have a price on his head. His survival and that of his comrades is not guaranteed. The fight will be dirty. Excellent – welcome back!

Other reviews and features
Empire I: Wounds of Honour
Empire II: Arrows of Fury
Empire III: Fortress of Spears
Empire IV: The Leopard Sword
Empire V: The Wolf’s Gold
Empire VI: The Eagle’s Vengeance
Empire VII: The Emperor’s Knives
Empire VIII: Thunder of the Gods
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
Betrayal: The Centurions I
Onslaught: The Centurions II
Retribution – The Centurions III
An interview for The Eagle’s Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2019 (4 April) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The King's Evil by Andrew TaylorIt is 1667 and the court of Charles II is rife with intrigue, political rivalry and scandal. The king is also without legitimate children and that isn’t helping matters as rival noble factions scramble for influence. The Duke of Clarendon is on the way out, despite being the father-in-law of the Duke of York, the king’s brother and heir. Clarendon is being bested by another of the court’s troublesome dukes, of Buckingham, and even though Buckingham has some bad form in his past (he negotiated his own personal peace with Oliver Cromwell), he knows how to entertain the fickle king. Buckingham’s star looks set to rise even higher when a corpse is found in the well in the grounds of Clarendon’s brand new monstrously lavish and enormous mansion in the heart of London. The government investigator James Marwood is sent to look into the business and to cover it up. But the identity of the dead man is going to cause Marwood all kinds of problems.

The dead man is none other than Edward Alderley, the cousin of Cat Lovett, a woman who has played a key role in Marwood’s earlier investigations. Cat had every reason to want Alderley dead and Marwood isn’t the only person to know this. And now, only hours after she threatened him, Alderley is dead and Cat is the chief suspect. Marwood has been told to prove her guilt but he, however, is intent on proving her innocence. But in Charles II’s decadent London, can anyone be truly innocent?

The King’s Evil is the third novel in Andrew Taylor’s brilliant series featuring James Marwood, the son of a traitor. Each of the novels (beginning with The Ashes of London and continuing with The Fire Court) stands alone very well but if you read them in order then you will have the added treat of following the story of Marwood and Cat from its beginning in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. What’s clear, though, is that this is a series that goes from strength to strength.

The plot of The King’s Evil is excellent and, as is usual with these novels, is as much about the court of Charles II as it is about a murder. Marwood is a fantastic creation who, as we saw in the previous novels, has suffered a great deal. He’s trapped in the middle of a political situation from which he has no way out due to his treacherous father. He’s our perfect witness to all sides of the political games being played in this glamorous and yet grotesquely ugly court. Everyone remembers the gloom and danger of the Commonwealth and the king’s time in exile, but the moral corruption of the Restoration has proved equally dismal to many. Marwood stands apart. What he can do, though, is try and do the right thing by Cat, whose past is equally stained. But there are distractions lying in wait.

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of 1660s’ London, especially the Duke of Clarendon’s extraordinary and unwise palace in Piccadilly. Andrew Taylor is so good at bringing past streets and places to life and when I read one of his books I immediately go away and do some more research on what he has revealed. It’s fascinating. The courtiers are as ugly as their king – who is a strange creature indeed – but they are mesmerising.

Having said all that, the people that we get to know the most in The King’s Evil aren’t the courtiers but those who serve them. The little slave boy Stephen is a child I won’t forget in a hurry. It’s through him that we get to learn a bit more about what it is that gives this book its extremely appropriate and effective title. There is something melodramatic about the case itself – Edward Alderley does the job of stage villain very well – but this fits so well with the theatricality of London society at this time. Everything is hidden below the wigs and glorious frocks and waistcoats. Here we see the truth and it’s certainly entertaining.

I am thoroughly enjoying this series, which does such a fine job of immersing the reader in a London that is being rebuilt after the Great Fire. It’s recognisable in some ways and very different in others. And walking through its streets, or rowing a boat along its river, are some extraordinary figures. James Marwood is an excellent main character. At times he seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders as he stands almost alone and isolated. But the way in which he clings to interest, to life in London, to his friendship with Cat and other vulnerable people, is compelling to read about. I look forward to spending more time with him.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Head of Zeus | 2019 (4 April) | 359p | Review copy | Buy the book

Wakenhyrst by Michelle PaverIt is 1966 and Maud Stearne has lived a reclusive life for over fifty years, living alone but for her cook in Wake’s End, her large house in the tiny hamlet of Wakenhyrst in the Suffolk fens. The outside world has left Maud in peace for many of those years but now that might be about to change, thanks to the recent discovery of her father’s remarkable paintings. These portray a tortured mind, reminding the world what happened sixty years before during the Edwardian period. Maud’s father murdered somebody in a terrible fashion and Maud was the only witness. She’s never talked about it, or indeed talked about much, to anybody since. But now, in need of funds to restore this dilapidated, rotting house, Maud is prepared to reveal the horrible truth, to disclose the contents of her father’s journals, to wake up the demons.

Michelle Paver is a master of historical horror. Both Dark Matter and Thin Air, ghostly tales set in the 1930s, are must-reads and I couldn’t wait to read Wakenhyrst. This time, we travel back to the Edwardian period and, whereas before we were taken to the Arctic Winter and then into the Himalayas, we now find ourselves in the Suffolk fens, a remote swampland, disconnected from the rest of England. It is another of those places in which anything can happen, hidden from the outside world, and where superstition and fear of the dark can conquer reason.

The novel is book-ended by the 1960s but otherwise events take place in the first years of the 20th century and is divided between Maud’s own story and extracts from her father Edmund’s journal. It’s a structure that works so well as the personality of Edmund, and of Maud, develops before us. The contrast between Edmund’s words and his view of himself with the way in which Maud sees him and history judges him is striking. Wakenhyrst is, in fact, not so much of a horror tale, although it describes horrible things, but a psychological thriller set in a time and place when the unexpected or the unusual could be blamed on demons, witches and spirits that lurk in the fens. Edmund Stearne, an intellectual (in his eyes) with a fascination for medieval superstition, is an easy victim. There’s also another voice in the novel which adds to its mood, that of a medieval mystic, with whom Edmund becomes obsessed.

But alongside the horror of what Edmund perceives in the fens around him, that fills his house with a smell he hates as well as creatures that wriggle and scurry, there is Maud’s own nightmare and that has resulted from the reality of life in a remote house with a father such as Edmund Stearne. The themes resonate. The fate of unhappy wives doomed to bear child upon child, never given a rest by their lecherous, foul husbands, the disrespect and lack of care given to girl-children who are left uneducated and little more than servants. Then there are the servants themselves, especially the young women who become prey. Maud lives in a house of monsters very different from those that haunt Edmund and it’s to Maud’s story that we’re drawn. And we’re aware that so much of it would be typical through so much of history. Michelle Paver tells a compelling story and Maud is its worthy heroine.

I loved the sense of place that is created in Wakenhyrst. The fens are a character in their own right. Some hate them and others love them and almost become part of them. The descriptions are beautiful and the characters who live within them are brilliantly brought to life, dialect and all. Maud very much belongs to the fens and I loved the way in which her relationship to it, as well as to its animals and people, is portrayed. I visit the fens frequently myself, it’s a place I love to be, and I really enjoyed their place in this wonderful novel.

In Wakenhyrst, Michelle Paver has moved away from ghostly tales and instead placed us firmly in the Gothic. This book is steeped in atmosphere as well as the stench and slime of the fen itself, a place barely touched by the outside world, and it is beautifully written and deliciously, gorgeously creepy.

Other reviews
Dark Matter
Thin Air

With this review, I’m delighted to start off the Blog Tour to celebrate the publication of Wakenhyrst on 4 April. Please take a look at the poster below for other stops on the tour.

Wakenhyrst blog tour banner