Category Archives: Historical Fiction

River of Gold by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2020 (6 August) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

River of Gold by Anthony RichesIt is AD 187 and a deadly, unknown force from the mysterious land of Kush is attacking Roman settlements in the far south of Egypt. This is a wealthy region, the site of diamond mines as well as a gateway between continents for exotic goods from the east. With Egypt at its weakest in thousands of years, it is perhaps not surprising that Rome should have a rival for its riches. Emperor Commodus’s closest and most devious advisor sends Marcus Corvus, his superior Scaurus and their too few men deep into the deserts of Roman Egypt to drive the enemy back to the south. But what can so few achieve against a mighty army? Scaurus and Marcus suspect that this is one mission they are not supposed to survive.

It will only take a glance at the long list of reviews and interviews below to know how much I adore Anthony Riches’ Roman books! The Empire series is one of my favourite series of all and I always look forward to them. I was thrilled to receive River of Gold and gobbled it up. It was delicious. River of Gold is the eleventh in the series. It’s been quite a journey for Marcus and his bunch of Tungrians and Britons. Nevertheless, each of the books stands on their own well and this one particularly so. But, obviously, I would recommend that you read the whole series just so you can find out just what these men have endured. You’ll also be able to meet much loved comrades who fell along the way….

As soon as I saw that this was a book about Roman Egypt, I couldn’t wait to read it even more than normal. It’s an irresistible destination. I loved the journey of Scaurus and Marcus through Egypt, passing the pyramids, going deep into the desert, a place of legend even to the Egyptian guide and scholar who accompanies them. The people of the far, far south are feared, presumed monsters. It’s all fascinating and richly described. I was also interested in another man who accompanies them – a former centurion who is now a Christian, who suffers for his previous persecution and torture of Christians. That adds something extra to this tale of war.

The enemy, when we discover them, are a worthy foe and are intriguing in their own right, as well as being suitably menacing. I love sieges in Roman historical fiction and we have one of those here. It’s tense, exciting and backed up with the author’s attention to detail and historical and military knowledge. This is also such an interesting period of Roman history, taking us to the time of Commodus (of Gladiator fame).

I absolutely loved River of Gold, reading it in just a couple of days, which is pretty unheard of for me these days. It was such a pleasurable read and I loved being back with characters that I am so fond of and wouldn’t be without (although I do worry about them!). A reading highlight of my summer. There isn’t enough Roman historical fiction being published these days and so I am particularly grateful for the Empire series. Long may it continue!

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
Empire X: The Scorpion’s Strike
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

Six Tudor Queens V: Katheryn Howard – The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir

Headline Review | 2020 (6 August) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen by Alison WeirIn 1540 the very young Katheryn Howard, one of Anna of Kleve’s ladies, cousin to Anne Boleyn, caught the roving eye of Henry VIII and her fate was sealed.

We’ve now reached the fifth novel in this superb series by Alison Weir on Henry’s six wives and I approached it with some trepidation because this is the most tragic of stories. It’s one that is very familiar and so we know what’s coming. By spending so much time on Katheryn’s childhood – she never had the chance of adulthood, after all – Alison Weir brings the tragedy home. This child was misued and abused for most of her life and she is here so likeable, naive, foolish and adorable that there are sections of this novel that are too painful.

Katheryn Howard – The Tainted Queen portrays Katheryn’s broken home and her move into the household of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Katheryn’s grandmother. The date of Katheryn’s birth isn’t known and so we can never be entirely sure how young she was when she moved into the household but she was most likely in her early teens and there she and the other young ladies ran wild with the men of the household. Katheryn falls in love time after time with men so much older than she was, whose motives the reader can only question. Reading it, appalled at what the Duchess allowed to go on in her household, one still falls for the charm of this young girl and wishes that she had been born to a different family or in a different time.

One of the aspects of this series that I have enjoyed throughout is Alison Weir’s depiction of Henry VIII. He is the constant through the novels, changing before our eyes as he grows fat, old and diseased. He is so different now from the Henry of the first book, the young man who fell in love with Katherine of Aragon, and it’s been fascinating watching him evolve. The author still manages to make us feel sympathy for him, as he’s obviously suffering and at times he can be surprisingly gentle, but it is impossible to forget that this is a man who had his second wife, Katheryn’s own cousin, killed and is about to do it again, to a very young girl. It is grotesque thinking of Henry and Katheryn together. She has been conditioned not to mind it, by her past experiences and by the pressure of her unscrupulous and monstrous Howard relatives, and so that does help to get past it but it makes me pity her even more, that she doesn’t seem to think there’s any harm in it or in Henry himself. This Katheryn falls in love with Henry, which does add something different to the novel, to the story.

As a historian, Alison Weir does such a good job of enriching her novels with Tudor details. I love the descriptions of the clothes, the houses and palaces and the people in them. It’s filled with colour. This is fiction, not non-fiction, and it reads like it, flowing along and proving very hard to put down. We all have our perceptions of Henry VIII and of Katheryn and that does colour the reading, as they might be different to the author’s. It can’t be an easy task at all to tackle such a familiar subject as Henry VIII! But I think that Alison Weir has done a wonderful job of bringing Katheryn Howard to life, with a distinct voice and character, loving, charismatic and beautiful, and doomed. I did find the end difficult, unsurprisingly, but it’s a necessary part of this absorbing and utterly compelling retelling of the stories of Henry’s six wives. One more to go – Katharine Parr. I was named after her and so she’s particularly special to me. She will be in very safe hands with Alison Weir.

I must add that the cover of Katheryn Howard, just like all of the others in this stylish series, is stunning!

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

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden

Michael Joseph | 2020 (6 August) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Gates of Athens by Conn IgguldenIt is 490 BC and King Darius of Persia wants nothing more than to bring the Greek states within his empire, whether they like it or not. Athens is a very different place, with no kings but an Assembly which allows every free man a voice and a vote, deciding how the city will be run. And now it must defend itself. Athen’s most respected and admired citizens now pick up their spears and shields and march to Marathon. Among them is Xanthippus, father to a small boy called Pericles. Marathon is just the beginning of the Persian Wars. Almost ten years later the Greek states, uneasily united, march and sail into battle once more, clashing against Persian forces on sea and on land, at a place called Thermopylae. All those left behind in Athens must wait to discover their fate.

Conn Iggulden is a phenomenal writer. His historical fiction is outstanding. It doesn’t matter what period of history he writes about, he brings it to life and makes the events and people of the past real, exciting and vital. This time the author takes us to a tumultuous period in ancient history, the Persian Wars. The novel is framed by well-known and familiar battles, of Marathon and Thermopylae, but they are given fresh treatment here because Conn Iggulden takes his time to make us really care about these people while also making us fascinated by their society and culture.

We spend time in Persia and with the Persian army, and it’s a world away from Greece in so many ways. It is exotic and dangerous with an incredibly powerful fleet and army. But most of the novel is spent in Athens, particularly with Xanthippus, an honourable man, a loving family man, a hero, but he also has his flaws and must suffer the whims and political games and rivalries of the Assembly. I found this absolutely engrossing. The political system of the Assembly seems chaotic and harsh. And we’re reminded that this political ‘freedom’ was only for male citizens, who were vastly outnumbered by women, children and slaves. It all becomes even more intriguing when Sparta joins the mix and we watch Athenian and Spartan men assess each other, sum each other up, and try and find ways to work together in war against a common enemy. The tension is there throughout as Persia builds its army and navy, ready to take its vengeance on Athens.

The battle sequences are spectacular. Conn Iggulden knows his stuff and his knowledge shows throughout but he also knows how to write thrilling battle scenes. The naval battles are fantastic and so too are the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae. So much is at stake.

The Gates of Athens isn’t just about battles and the men who fight them. Conn Iggulden doesn’t neglect the other half of society. I was really intrigued by our glimpses into the homelife of Xanthippus and his wife Agariste. While there is much that seems familiar and timeless about their relationship, there is much that is very different. Their home is strange, with slaves living in a chamber dug into the earth under the house. Xanthippus sleeps apart from his wife. Slaves are trained to kill to protect their mistress and Agariste is prepared to kill her own children if the Persians come. I found it completely fascinating.

Athens itself dominates the novel. It is more than a city, it is an entity, beloved by its founding goddess Athena, and it is also an ideal. Its laws and codes, the rights of its free men, are all religiously pursued and defended, in its courts, Assembly and on the battlefield. Conn Iggulden examines all of the various aspects of Athens, and Sparta, and shows both its strengths and its failings. Excellent!

The Gates of Athens begins a new series and I can’t wait to read more of it. Whereas Xanthippus (and Athens itself) is the central figure of this first book, it seems likely that his son Pericles will become increasingly significant and I am fascinated to read more about the origins and development of Athen’s most famous statesman. His remarkable story is in such safe hands.

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

Island of Secrets by Rachel Rhys

Black Swan | 2020 (25 June) | 368p | Bought copy | Buy the book

It is 1957 and Iris Bailey, a talented amateur artist, is so bored of her life in Hemel Hempstead, living with her parents, working in the typing pool (where the male bosses grade the new girls’ looks out of ten) and being courted by dependable, reasonable Peter. Escape comes from an unlikely source. An old contact, Nell, a wealthy American socialite, asks Iris to come to Havana with her to draw at the wedding of her father, a famous Hollywood director.

It all seems too good to be true and, when Iris arrives in humid, overheated Cuba, she is overwhelmed – by the glamorous people at the wedding, their passions and secrets, the sights and sounds of this beautiful, vibrant, exotic place. It is indeed a playground for the very wealthy, and the poor are kept poor, but now there are the rumblings of rebellion from the hills. It’s a heady mix and Iris is intoxicated. But, as she sits and draws these charismatic, unusual people, she discovers that more than one of them has something to hide. And then they start to look at her with suspicion. That’s when she begins to feel afraid.

Islands of Secrets has broken new ground for me – it was my first audiobook! I’ve resisted the pull of audiobooks for some years but, in these days when it’s a little harder to get hold of new treebooks in shops and I seem to spend far too much time doing jigsaw puzzles, which, I have now discovered, are even more enjoyable if done while listening to a good book, the timing seems right. I picked my first audiobook well. I adore Rachel Rhys’ writing – it’s lyrical and beautiful – and the narrator Sara Alexander does it justice. Initially, as a novice, I found it a little difficult to keep track of who was who but I soon got used to it and I was thoroughly immersed in this atmospheric and engrossing tale.

As with all Rachel Rhys novels, the historical setting is gorgeously evoked, fully capturing what Havana must have been like for the very rich in the months leading up to the revolution. The reader can completely understand why Iris is so captivated by it and is so reluctant to return to her dull life in England (I did feel a little sorry for Hemel Hempstead – it faces an uphill struggle to compete with Havana). But even more beguiling than Havana is the wedding party that Iris is tasked with drawing. She is an outsider, almost paid help, but, although the novel is told from Iris’s perspective, we soon feel as the party does – that Iris is someone who draws out secrets, who can be confided in. She listens and finds herself caught up in their complicated, tangled relationships, and in their lives, especially in those of Nell and of the bride.

Island of Secrets is deliciously mysterious but it isn’t a mystery thriller. It’s a gorgeous literary novel of people and places, all beautifully created and evoked, transporting us across the ocean to the steamy, vibrant island of Cuba, which feels so alive and alters those who are fortunate to make it their playground. But, as this novel makes clear, there is a cost to pay. Island of Secrets is a wonderful novel, whether you read it or listen to it, and I heartily recommend it as I do anything that this fine author writes.

Other reviews
A Dangerous Crossing
Fatal Inheritance

The House of Lamentations by S.G. MacLean

Quercus | 2020 (9 July) | 410p | Review copy | Buy the book

The House of Lamentations by S.G. MacLeanIt is 1658 and Cromwell’s England is no longer what it was. Cromwell himself, who lives in palaces as a king in all but name, is rumoured to be dangerously ill while his regime tortures and brutally executes minor royalists for little more than unwise gossip. People are leaving the country, sick at how events have played out. But, while disenchanted Puritans head to the Americas, royalists head eastwards to Bruges where the exiled King Charles II plots with his impoverished court to reclaim his throne. And that is where we find Damian Seeker, a secret agent of Cromwell’s spymaster John Thurloe. Seeker, undercover as a carpenter, has a spy among Charles’s circle and the royalists are determined to identify who it is. Seeker hears word that a woman is being sent to sniff them out. Seeker knows that his identity would also be revealed and his fate would be sealed. But in a city full of English refugees, with both a convent and a brothel a focus for new arrivals, where is this woman to be found? The race is on to be the first to discover her identity.

The enigmatic Damian Seeker is one of my favourite figures in historical fiction and I always look forward to these books. Sadly, The House of Lamentations, the fifth in the series, is the last. This novel brings together the men and women, spies and double agents of the previous books and so, while it is a self-contained story in many ways, I would definitely recommend that you read these five books in order. The fourth novel, The Bear Pit, especially influences events here.

Knowing that The House of Lamentations is the last in the series, I went into the novel with some trepidation. The enigmatic Damian Seeker is one of my favourite figures in historical fiction and I always look forward to these books. I will miss Seeker very much. But history tells us that Cromwell’s Commonwealth didn’t last and that 1658 was a turning point in its demise. This was a dangerous time, of tension, uncertainty and cruelty. All of this is brilliantly captured by S.G. MacLean. The opening chapter leaves us in no doubt as to the brutality and unhappiness of Cromwell’s London and England in 1658. It’s a shocking opening and it feels like a relief when we’re then taken to Bruges and the shabby court of the king in exile.

Bruges is a change of scene for these novels and I really enjoyed discovering the city as it would have been in the mid-17th century. Bruges is in the control of Spain, Jesuit priests walk its streets. The city’s institutions are brought to such vivid life here – its convent, its brothel and its prison, all of which influence events. Then there is the house containing four of Charles’s supporters, not all of whom are as they seem. One of them is someone we got to know well in The Bear Pit. The reader knows this can’t end well. But there are new people to meet here, too, including the extraordinary and resiliently mysterious Sister Janet, an Englishwoman who became a nun in Bruges over fifty years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the chapters spent in her company. Nobody knows what she’s up to. The Seeker may have met his match. I’ve always liked Lady Anne in these books. There is conflict and chemistry in her relationship with Seeker and, once more, this is one of the highlights of The House of Lamentations.

There is much more to this novel than its tale of spies and plots. There is another story running through it of a young woman with a terribly scarred face. Seeker is driven to find her and learn her story, even though he knows this puts his mission in jeopardy. We, too, are desperate to know. The curious link between the convent and the brothel is also explored so brilliantly as we learn about the choices many women were forced to make. There is an undercurrent to this novel. This is a man’s world in so many ways but the novel draws on all life, male and female, and, with the exception of the tremendous Seeker, my favourite characters are its women.

The House of Lamentations is a fine finale to a superb series set during one of the most fascinating, exciting and dangerous periods in English history. I was fully immersed in its story and its setting, which is brought to life due to all of the historical detail, whether it describes town streets, buildings, clothes, furnishings or people. This is an excellent historical mystery, spy thriller and adventure which is, as always with this series, beautifully told. If you haven’t read these books then now, with the series complete, is the perfect time to do so. You will not be disappointed. I look forward to going wherever this wonderful author next takes us.

Other reviews
The Seeker
The Black Friar
Destroying Angel
The Bear Pit

Lionheart by Ben Kane

Orion | 2020 (28 May) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1179 and Henry II rages war against Ireland’s kings. Ferdia, more usually known as Rufus, is a young Irish nobleman who is now a hostage to secure the good behaviour of his family. Rufus is taken to Striguil Castle (now known as Chepstow) where he is put in the charge of the powerful de Clare family. As the years pass, Rufus becomes ever more distant from his homeland, tormented by a brute of a knight and distracted by his own desire to become a squire to a great lord. When Rufus saves the life of Henry’s son, the charismatic warrior Richard, Rufus’s life is changed forever and dictated by new loyalties and new battles to fight. This is an uneasy time. As the King’s health declines, his sons turn against one another in a scramble for power and land. Rufus has his part to play in a struggle that will divide the land and put a family at war with itself.

Ben Kane is known to many of us as a fine writer of Roman historical fiction and so it came as a surprise to me to learn that he was turning his attention to that other favourite historical period of mine – the late 12th century and the reigns of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, two of the most mesmerising figures in English history. Lionheart, the beginning of a new trilogy, tells the story of Richard through the fictional character of Rufus, whose own story is every bit as action-packed and dangerous as Richard’s.

Above all else, Lionheart is an adventure and it’s a thoroughly exciting one as we follow Rufus through his early, horrendous months as a hostage and his personal struggle against the cruel Robert FitzAldelm to his time in the service and retinue of Richard, then the Duke of Aquitaine. It’s told in the first person and this places us in the heart of the action and there is plenty of it, in England and on the continent where Richard must contend with not only his own brothers and their allies but also with the King of France. If there’s one person that seems to attract trouble even more than Rufus, it’s Richard, a man born to skirmish, besiege and battle.

But there’s more to the novel than fighting. We’re also taken inside castles where courtliness guides behaviour and squires pursue love, or something much less refined as they make their beds in the great hall. Rufus is a fickle lover, demonstrating how the ideal of chivalry and courtesy, exemplified by the greatest knight, William Marshal (who, I’m thrilled to say, plays a role here), wasn’t the reality for most. I enjoyed the moments spent inside castles just as much as I did those spent outside.

As usual, Ben Kane writes very well and the pages fly through the fingers. The story of Richard I is a familiar one but there is so much to it and it deserves another retelling, especially by an author who is clearly deeply immersed in the period and perhaps relishing the shift from Rome. Lionheart reads as if it was fun to write and this definitely rubs off on the appreciative reader. Historical fiction provides escapism during these difficult and strange times and Lionheart fits the bill perfectly.

And if you haven’t read any of Ben’s Roman historical fiction yet (and why not?!), take a look at the reviews below. My favourites are the Spartacus books and the Eagles trilogy.

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

The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins

Orion | 2020 (2 April) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Puritan Princess by Miranda MalinsIt is 1657 and Frances Cromwell’s life is transformed. At eighteen years old, Frances is the youngest child of Oliver Cromwell and his wife Elizabeth. Cromwell has reached the height of his powers and the kingless Commonwealth has never been stronger. Cromwell is the head of the government and now it wants Cromwell to rule the land as Lord Protector or even King. All of the family now lives in royal palaces and castles, they are bowed to, addressed as ‘Highness’ and Cromwell’s daughters have become valuable commodities in the business of state.

The Cromwell children are divided by age. Some are much older. They remember the times before their father’s rise to power and they made marriages of a different kind. The older daughters Bridget and Elizabeth were given leeway in their choice of grooms, their husbands becoming part of the family. But for Frances and her slightly elder sister Mary, there will be none of that. Which makes it all the more difficult when Frances meets the young aristocrat and courtier, Robert Rich. But, as the months pass, Oliver Cromwell faces his own challenges, not least those posed by his own family.

The 1650s is such a fascinating period of history and one of my favourites when it comes to historical fiction. I was really excited to read The Puritan Princess as soon as I heard of it. We all have our conceptions of what Cromwell was like, possibly dictated to us by a certain Richard Harris film or from history retold by the ultimately victorious and vengeful royalists, but this novel turns this upside down. Here is Oliver Cromwell the family man as well as the soldier and, particularly here, statesman. I’ve always been interested in how Cromwell became almost royal, was treated as royalty, and yet he played such a large role in the end of kingship. And here we’re shown a man who loved his family, who liked pleasant and unPuritan things, such as horse riding, plays and music. Above all, he wants what’s best for his children and that does bring him into conflict with them on more than one occasion.

There is some intriguing insight into the political and religious circumstances of the day, such as the resurgence of the Levellers, who divided the country and Cromwell’s family, and put Cromwell in real danger, leading to some exciting moments here. We’re also brought into the world of political intrigue, as important men quibbled over minor points, turning them into impassable mountains. The heart of the novel, though, belongs to Frances and it is more than anything a love story played out against a colourful, fascinating historical backdrop.

I did like Frances, who tries to reconcile herself to this new royal life, wanting to carry out household tasks herself, and not being able to. She and her mother and sisters are a tight group, almost bewildered by what has happened to them. Frances loves deeply but this is not a love that will flow smoothly and so there are upsets along the way and there are moments which are truly upsetting, for Frances and for the reader. I think that my favourite character, though, is Mary, who is prepared to make such a sacrifice so that her younger sister would be happy. Oliver’s admiration for his children, especially Mary, is evident.

Miranda Malins writes very well and there are some wonderful descriptive scenes of life in London during these times. I enjoyed the scenes in which the sisters go hawking, experiencing the privileges of true princesses. History tells us what will happen to Cromwell but it’s so good to see what happened to the other, lesser known members of his family, especially his youngest daughters. This is one of those books which inspired me to do some research afterwards. I love it when historical fiction does that.

The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2020 (2 April) | 399p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey DavisThe Groves of the Caesars is the eighth novel in Lindsey Davis’s now well-established Roman crime fiction series featuring Flavia Albia, the daughter of Marcus Didius Falco who, I’m sure, needs no introduction! Flavia took over the family trade of private detection once Falco retired (to focus on his auction business). The lack of status accorded to women in Rome means that Flavia might have trouble getting cases but she gets by very well indeed, partly because of her father’s reputation, partly because her husband is an official (who should really be investigating these cases himself but prefers to concentrate on his building company, especially since he was struck by lightning on his wedding day) and partly because Albia just seems to attract trouble. Each of these novels stands alone very well indeed although it is a great pleasure to read them all as they come out each year and long may they continue to do so!

Albia’s husband Tiberius has had to leave Rome to see his sister who is believed to be on her deathbed. It’s a terrible time for the whole family. Albia stays behind to look after the business but her mind is with her husband. Distraction comes from one of the building sites. The old grotto in the Grove of the Caesars, a park bequeathed to the city by Caesar and now rundown and home to the shifty and the criminal, is being turned into a grand nymphaeum or holy grotto as part of a plan to hopefully rejuvenate the place. The workmen dig up a large number of scroll fragments, each covered in, it transpires, scribbles from some long forgotten philosophers, just the sort of thing that might do well at auction.

But very shortly Albia is distracted from her distraction by something horrendous. A powerful man celebrated a big birthday in the grove and during it his wife went off for a peaceful walk. She didn’t return. She was horribly murdered. The same night two boys in Albia’s service who should have been at the grotto, also disappear. This makes the case Albia’s business and, in her husband’s absence, she works with local officials to solve a murder that soon appears to be the work of a monster who has been slaying women in the grove for years. How can Albia possibly stop The Pest?

I am such a fan of the Flavia Albia books, just as I am of the Falco books, and I look forward to each addition to the series. The Grove of the Caesars is excellent. Once more Lindsey Davis uses her considerable skill as a writer and as someone who knows an awful lot about the city of Rome during the 1st century AD to bring the place to life at this time – in its appearance and in its society. Albia always walks a great deal around the city. Through her eyes we see the streets, monuments, parks and river crossings vividly brought to life. It is such a wonderful way of immersing the reader in the past.

Albia is an excellent character in her own right, especially now that she has fully emerged from her father’s shadow. The story is told from her perspective and her narration is witty, warm and sharp. Listening to her, you would think that she cares about nothing but if you really listen to her you would see that she cares enormously and her detective work is one way in which she can escape the worry she feels for her husband and for others, in this case, the two children gifted to her family as some sort of joke by Domitian following the Emperor’s Black Banquet. This feast was a deadly affair and, although Albia discusses it humorously, it’s perfectly clear how horrific this event was and how fortunate her husband and her uncles survived it. What they’ve been left with are these two poor boys and their story is a powerfully upsetting one. Lindsey Davis is so good at this – using humour to disperse the horror and then throwing in something truly upsetting and disturbing.

One of the main crimes of the novel, that of the woman in the grove, is appalling and I did question if its horror is too extreme for the book, too incongruous. I’m still in two minds about that one but there is no doubt that there is a monster loose in Caesar’s grove. The novel’s story is a particularly strong one in the series and it develops in some interesting ways as we get to know the men who work in the gardens. Lindsey Davis is so good at filling her novels with the ordinary men and women of Rome, especially workmen, bar owners, musicians, prostitutes and so on. In this case we have gardeners. And book collectors! The story of the scrolls does provide such a welcome and frequent tonic to the darker side of the novel.

Talking of darkness, it shouldn’t be forgotten why Albia’s husband is absent – because his sister is expected to die in childbirth. Once more, Lindsey Davis reminds us that the people of Rome faced more dangers than those posed by their mad emperor. Married women died every day having children.

The Grove of the Caesars is undoubtedly one of the very best in this excellent series that both entertains and informs. Lindsey Davis is a marvellous writer – the dialogue is always such a joy to read. The Falco books are classics but in Flavia Albia Falco may well have met his match. He would be very proud, I think. And then he would try and stop her ever leaving the house again.

Other reviews
Enemies at Home
Deadly Election
The Graveyard of the Hesperides
The Third Nero
Pandora’s Boy
Vesuvius by Night
A Capitol Death

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2020 (2 April) | 417p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Protector by Andrew TaylorThe Last Protector is the fourth novel in Andrew Taylor’s fine series that portrays the intrigue, decadence and fragility of Charles II’s Restoration court in the years beginning with and following the Great Fire of London. This is most definitely a series and so, although you could read it on its own and enjoy it, you really need to read these books in order, to follow the course of events and to understand the relationship between government agent and lawyer James Marwood and Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is 1668 and the honeymoon period following the restoration of Charles II and the monarchy is most definitely over. The King’s court is a hotbed for dissent, rivalry, licentiousness, cuckoldry and rebellion. Unfortunately for James Marwood, son of a traitor and now a lawyer and government agent, he’s once more thrown into the deadly heart of it. He is sent to spy on a duel between the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Shrewsbury and, unluckily, Marwood is spotted by Buckingham’s men. The duel was ostensibly due to Buckingham having an affair with Lady Shrewsbury but Marwood, and his boss Lord Arlington, the Secretary of State, knows that it goes far deeper than that. Buckingham is plotting against the King.

Events grow ever more dangerous when Cat, now uneasily married to her elderly employer architect Mr Hakesby, is greeted by an old acquaintance. Elizabeth Cromwell, the granddaughter of none other than Oliver Cromwell is in town and with her is her father, Richard Cromwell, the last Protector. He is a man with a price on his head and someone that Buckingham wants in his power. Both Marwood and Cat are caught in a web of treachery and sedition and the stakes couldn’t be higher, or their lives more expendable.

I do enjoy this series. There are plenty of reasons for this but, as I read The Last Protector, I was reminded once more at just how skilfully Andrew Taylor can evoke the past. Just the right amount of detail is used to bring 17th-century London to life, with its busy river, its Tudor warren of alleys, apartments, brothels, inns and palaces, where the poor and the rich seem almost to live on top of one another, except for those oases of grand houses and gardens on the Strand. This book is full of the colour, smells, stench, misery and grandeur of London life at this time. As in previous novels, we’re reminded of how the most vulnerable suffer. In The Last Protector it’s the turn of the young prostitutes and the strange man who scrapes clean the royal sewers.

The characters are always interesting and I do enjoy the glimpses we’re given of Charles II. He’s devious and decadent and he’s also entertaining – as we see here with his little spaniels – but he is more canny of what’s going on than some might think. In this novel we meet the Cromwells and it’s an intriguing portrait of Richard Cromwell, the man who grew up in a palace and now must live abroad, secretly and quietly.

The heart of the novel rests with Marwood and Cat. The paths of the two don’t cross quite as much as in previous novels but, when they are together, the tension is as strong as ever, with the added complication of Mr Hakesby. We’ve seen the relationship of Mr Hakesby and Cat change over the years and now we see the old man in yet another light. What really stands out in this novel are the portrayals of the put upon and the abused, the prostitutes and Ferrus, the mazer-scourer’s labourer, the poor, damaged man who clears out the court’s excrement. As you can imagine, there is an awful lot of it.

The Last Protector tells an excellent story. It’s thrilling and also clever. There are moments when I was on the edge of my seat. Most of all, though, I just thoroughly enjoyed being transported to this other time and place where there is so much to see around every corner. This is an excellent series, now fully established, and I look forward to the next.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court
The King’s Evil

Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

William Morrow | 2019 | 358p | Gift | Buy the book

Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbIn May 1955 Grace Kelly attends her first Cannes Film Festival on the French riviera. With the paparazzi hot on her trail, she takes shelter in the parfumerie of Sophie Duval. Sophie has inherited her perfume business from her father but it is a struggle to keep it afloat, and there are some who wish to buy her land, where her flowers grow and her scents are created. And there is a wealthy male friend in her life who wishes to be much more than a friend, to take her from this life. But Sophie is determined to succeed and when Grace Kelly enters her shop and falls for her perfumes, she has hope that her business can survive and that she can create her own perfumes, which will tempt a Hollywood princess.

James Henderson is a press photographer and he is on the trail of stars. When he follows Grace Kelly through the streets of Cannes, he encounters Sophie Duval and realises his life is about to change. He is there to witness the first and arranged meeting of Grace Kelly with Prince Rainier of Monaco. It seems unspectacular, uneventful to James but history is about to show James just how wrong he can be. As the preparations for the marriage of the year get underway, Sophie and James will find themselves drawn closer and closer to each other. But will their love story have the same happy ending?

I am a huge fan of Hazel Gaynor. She writes beautifully, as anyone who’s read The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter will attest, and I was drawn so strongly to Meet Me in Monaco. I have become such a reader of historical romance or ‘women’s fiction’, especially when it’s set during the 20th century and features real women that I have an interest in. Here we’re given Grace Kelly and she is captivating. Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb bring this charismatic and slightly mysterious, perhaps unknowable figure to life and I loved watching her experience Cannes and the other wonderful locations of this novel. It is fascinating to see the origins of her relationship with Rainier but I also loved all of the descriptions of Grace, her clothes, her style and her manner.

There is more to this lovely novel than Grace Kelly. At its heart is the growing romance between Sophie and James. These are very different people, one a French parfumer and the other an English newspaper photographer but there is more to both than initially meets the eye and it’s wonderful getting to know them. I enjoyed learning about Sophie’s perfume business and her relationships with her mother and father but I think James, or Jim, is my favourite character. We explore his background, his family and his friendships as well as his past. I think he’s a fantastic character.

Meet Me in Monaco is a gorgeous novel. It is filled with the glamour of Cannes and Hollywood in the 1950s, it has the intrigue of Grace Kelly’s rushed and curious romance, and it tells the involving story of Sophie and James. The pages are filled with the warmth and sunshine of the Mediterranean. I read the novel in just one day. It’s a light, enchanting read and the pages flit through the fingers.