Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Honour of Rome by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2021 (11 November) | 431p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Honour of Rome by Simon ScarrowIt is AD 58 and retired Praetorian Centurion Macro has arrived in Londinium, Britannia, with his new wife Petronella. It wasn’t plain sailing getting there, to put it mildly, and, now that she’s seen the place, Petronella isn’t impressed. But the plan is to spend Macro’s retirement running the inn and brothel that he co-owns with his formidable mother Portia while also managing a farm in the veteran’s colony of Camulodunum.

If only matters ever went to plan for Macro. It isn’t long before Macro discovers that Londinium is a lawless place, run by gangsters, and he’s managed to get himself noticed by rival gangs after barely a day in this backwater. There will be trouble. And it’s not all plain sailing in Camulodunum either, where the veterans find themselves called up to deal with some hostile tribe members. Petronella’s increasing fears about the safety of Britannia seem well-founded. If only Cato were around to help Macro.

The Honour of Rome is the twentieth (wow!) novel in Simon Scarrow’s ever-popular Eagle series featuring the exploits of best friends and colleagues Centurion Macro and Prefect Cato. The two names go together as well as fish and chips and salt and vinegar (I’m clearly hungry) but this state of affairs has shifted thanks to Macro’s reluctant retirement from the Roman army. The last novel, The Emperor’s Exile, mainly focused on Cato and his troubles in Sardinia, with Macro making an occasional appearance, and this time we’re with Macro, his wife and mother in Britannia, with Cato turning up later on. I must admit that it’s when the two are together that I’m at my happiest. We’ll have to see how that works out in future novels although I think the signs are good.

Nobody attracts trouble like Macro and he’s up to his neck in it almost by the end of page one, as if he wasn’t scarred enough already. You can just imagine Petronella rolling her eyes at him as he gets into one scrape after another. Macro has a formidable foe in this novel in the shape of the gangsters running the local protection rackets. He also joins a force to tackle unrest among the local tribes near Camulodunum. It’s difficult to know which is more deadly.

I’m not a particular fan of novels about gangsters and I discovered with The Honour of Rome that this also extends to Roman gangsters but I really enjoyed the descriptions of Londinium, a city in its earliest days. Barely any time at all has passed since the conquest – which involved Cato and Macro – and there is a real feel of the wild west about the place. It’s also mid Winter, which doesn’t help the feeling of desolation. The reader will be well aware that Boudica’s revolt looms at the time in which this novel is set and so there is extra interest in the references to Macro’s old friend, Boudica herself.

The Honour of Rome is full of action, fighting, military skirmishes and camaraderie between old soldiers. It’s difficult not to be carried along by Macro as he immerses himself in this new environment and finds his place. There is, to be warned, violence and cussing. I liked how this masculine world is also offset a little by the inclusion of the very likeable Petronella and the indomitable Portia.

I did find The Honour of Rome very entertaining as always. While not being my favourite of the series, it is always good to spend time with Macro and Cato, and the clues are there that make me want to read the next novel very much indeed.

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

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

The Spirit Engineer by AJ West

Duckworth | 2021 | 304p | Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the audiobook

Belfast, 1914 and it is two years since the Titanic sank, taking with it to the cold dark depths William Jackson Crawford’s brother-in-law Arthur. William’s wife Elizabeth looks for comfort from medium Kathleen Goligher, who claims that restless spirits can speak through her. But William is a sceptic and a scientist who is determined to prove Kathleen a liar and fraud. But, when he attends an event to expose her, he hears voices that he cannot explain, intensified after further tragic events. Could it be that the rational scientist and teacher is himself haunted? William Jackson Crawford must know and his obsessive investigations attracts celebrity attention. But then William, the famous Spirit Engineer, begins his own experiments and enters the darkness.

I’m a big fan of historical gothic novels and The Spirit Engineer is a novel I couldn’t wait to read. I actually listened to the audiobook, which is wonderfully read by Dickon Farmar. This is a story that really lends itself to that format and gave it an extra creepy atmosphere. Excellent. The novel begins with tragedy and the reader is well aware that soon, this being 1914, there will be many more restless souls, people dying before their time on the battlefields of northern Europe. But, for Belfast, the loss of the Titanic is an immediate source of grief and questions about the nature of life and death. William Jackson Crawford, a real person and Professor of Engineering, can’t reconcile his wife’s need to commune with the dead with his own scientific query for fact. But then he hadn’t suffered his own tragedy quite yet.

This is an extremely atmospheric and pretty disturbing novel. It begins in normality, with William suspecting his wife of having an affair, thanks to some strange letters from their former maid who left in mysterious circumstances. But the more William becomes obsessed, the darker the book becomes. And it’s then that you start to take notice of the shadows in the room.

There are moments of surreal lightness, such as when William attracts the attention of celebrities of the day, such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini, but we’re entering the world of the macabre and gothic melodrama as we descend deeper into William’s mind. My one stumbling block in the novel was how absolutely despicable William Jackson Crawford is and being in his mind is not a pleasant place to be as the novel and his madness progress. His cruelty and the distress he causes are upsetting. But The Spirit Engineer is a powerful novel and it presents a compelling portrait of a man’s spiral into darkness.

The Spirit Engineer is a genuinely frightening novel, steeped in atmosphere, with a witty edge. The author’s achievement is even more incredible when you realise that this is a true story. AJ West finds the heart of it. Perfect reading or listening for these winter nights.

The Mitford Vanishing by Jessica Fellowes

Sphere | 2021 (4 November) | 416p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It is 1937 and Europe is marching towards war, with Civil War already raging in Spain. Idealists on both sides – Communist and Fascist – are drawn to the conflict in Spain, perhaps not realising the horrors they will face there. The Mitford family is as divided as Europe but they come together when they realise that Communist sister Jessica (nicknamed Decca) has eloped to France and believed to be heading for Spain. Their former maid Louisa now runs a private detective agency with her ex-policeman husband Guy and the two of them are surprised when novelist Nancy Mitford hires them to track down Decca and her unsuitable lover. Scandal, war, ruination face the young woman if she cannot be found in time.

The Mitford Vanishing is the fifth novel in Jessica Fellowes’ wonderful series, which follows the lives of this extraordinary,  glamorous and controversial family. Each one tends to look at a different sister and so you can pick them up easily but I’d really recommend reading the series from the beginning as then you’ll know more about Louisa and Guy. Louisa is the star of these novels however shiny the sisters are. One thing’s for sure, they all attract trouble and they have kept Louisa’s investigative skills busy since the day she first met them.

This time we’re on the trail of Decca but, as she remains elusive for much of the novel, the focus is on the people that Louisa and Guy meet on their travels across France. The war in Spain looms over events and the details about that are fascinating. Louisa, though, has other matters on her mind and spends much of the novel investigating another case in London of a missing woman while Guy chases clues on the continent.

The novel mixes fact and fiction very well and the scenes in France are particularly compelling. I wasn’t convinced as much by the London missing person case or its conclusion but Decca’s mysterious disappearance is thoroughly entertaining and a great device through which to look at the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War.

Louisa is a fabulous main character and I’ve enjoyed following her over the years. Her husband Guy plays a much bigger role than usual and he is improved for it. The two now feel like an equal partnership and they work so well together.

I listened to the audiobook, which was well-read but I think the treebook would be better due to the many brief chapters.

We are running out of Mitford sisters now but arguably the strangest of them all remains – Unity. I really, really hope Jessica Fellowes tackles her next!

Other reviews
The Mitford Murders catch up (The Mitford Murders and Bright Young Dead)
The Mitford Scandal
The Mitford Trial

Vengeance by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 (11 November) | 321p | Bought copy | Buy the book

It is December AD 192 and Marcus Aquila, known and loved by many in his disguise as Marcus Corvus, has returned to Rome, his identity once more hidden. He has a mission and it is a deadly one. The mentor of Marcus’s commander Scaurus has plans. His name is Pertinax. He is a respected and honoured member of the Senate and he and many like him have had more than enough of the megalomaniac gladiator emperor Commodus. The news that Commodus intends to murder Pertinax and many of his colleagues on New Year’s Day is the final desperate straw. But to kill Commodus, a man of Herculean strength, protected by his Praetorians, will take a soldier like no other. But Marcus Aquila is no ordinary man. His swordfighting skills in the arena and on the battlefield are legendary and his hatred and hunger for vengeance against Commodus are unequalled. The soldiers and politicians of Rome wait and watch in the wings. Each has an agenda and each will be merciless.

Where to start with my love of this series, Empire, by Anthony Riches…. This is the twelfth in the series and it continues the run of enthralling, hugely entertaining and involving action thrillers set during the reign of one of Rome’s most bonkers emperors (which is saying something). You don’t need to have read them all to enjoy Vengeance but, if you have, you’ll have more of an idea of why Marcus and Scaurus are prepared to embark on what is surely a suicide mission. The world of the early books in the series was kinder to Marcus in some ways – he had a family to support him in his exile. Now his world is smaller, focused and he is supported by his old comrades, Britons, Tungrians, Syrians, Greeks – many of whom are built like an ox. They all adore Marcus. Now they’re going to step into the lion’s den to keep him safe.

Vengeance is a thriller from start to finish. It is so exciting! It’s full of underhand trickery, plotting, rather dim and bitter Praetorians, gladiatorial combat, lascivious feasting, senate pomposity, palace politics, and it is all brilliantly done. Anthony Riches knows his stuff and I love how this book is set in Rome, some of it even in the palace, above and below stairs. It’s full of fascinating details – such as how people can access certain areas of the palace and how Commodus was fed his daily feast of gladiators to fight. We see what life was like as a servant in the palace, as a mistress, as a soldier. And, what I find completely fascinating, how a conspiracy comes into shape and how ideals and greed just don’t get along. Rome as a society and power seems both knowable and totally alien. I love it.

And then there’s Commodus. We may know him from Gladiator but there’s much more to him here. Not long before the Pandemic hit, I went to Rome and I saw the astonishing statue of the emperor as Hercules. What a beautiful statue. Here we see the madness behind it unveiled. I love how Anthony Riches does that. He takes the known facts, buildings and dates and builds such an enthralling story around them.

Vengeance is, with no doubt at all, one of my favourites of this fabulous series. It’s such a good self-contained story in its own right that I think anyone would enjoy it. You’d then, no doubt, fill your shelves with the other eleven books in the series, so you can see what life was like in those long ago days when the young Marcus found himself on the front line in Britannia serving alongside a bunch of terrifying warriors that we have now come to love so much. More, please!

Other reviews
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 X: The Scorpion’s Strike
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
Empire X: The Scorpion’s Strike
Empire XI: River of Gold
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

Commander by Paul Fraser Collard

I must start this review with a bit of an apology. I’ve fallen behind with reviews because I’m currently unwell, with orders to rest, walk a lot and eat a lot, so the upshot is that I’m now daunted by the reviewing task ahead of me! Not helped, of course, by the fact that I’m reading like a reading ninja. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I do a series of short reviews. There are some books I really want you to read and I don’t want to hold you up!

Commander by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2021 (28 October) | 386p | Review copy | Buy the book

Commander by Paul Fraser CollardEgypt, 1869. Jack Lark is working as an official agent for the Consul-General but he is bored. The chance for adventure and purpose comes when he meets the famous explorer Sir Samuel White Baker, who has been engaged by the Pasha of Egypt to lead an expedition into the Sudan to eradicate the slave trade and open the area to commerce. It will be an arduous journey. The danger posed by smugglers and slavers will be more than equalled by the horrendous conditions of travelling up the crocodile-infested Nile into deepest Africa with the water levels dropping by the day. Jack Lark cannot wait.

Commander is the tenth novel by Paul Fraser Collard to feature Jack Lark, an enigmatic man of inscrutable feelings, with a taste for disguise, a need to protect his heart, and a great skill with the rifle and sword. He is a born leader, despite the London slums of his birth. But Jack is getting on in years. There are more aches and pains than there used to be. He should take it easy. But he really doesn’t want to do that. Although the tenth, there’s no actual need to go back to the beginning if you haven’t met Jack before, other than that you would be in for a treat.

This is a novel full of adventure and excitement, whether that’s because of the scenes of hand to hand combat, or from the drama of Lark, his men and the crew trying to inch the expedition vessels through the clogged up, narrow Nile, watched by reptile eyes. There is also violence and there were scenes I had to skim over. I am rather squeamish. As usual, there is also female interest but these women have no need of Jack Lark. They have their own role to play in the story.

Jack Lark is one of my favourite fictional heroes and it’s good to see him back. I loved the Nile setting and for me that’s the stand out feature of this excellent addition to the series.

Other reviews
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General
The Devil’s Assassin
The Lone Warrior
The Last Legionnaire

The True Soldier
The Rebel Killer
Fugitive
Guest post: ‘I am a writer with a plan’
Guest post – ‘Commute writing’

 

The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters

Allen & Unwin | 2021 (4 November) | 512p | review copy | Buy the book

The Swift and the Harrier by Minette WaltersIt is 1642 and England is descending into Civil War. The country is divided as are families, even minds, as tradition and religion and long-held loyalties come under attack from brave new ideas. Jayne Swift is the daughter of a gentry family in Dorset but she has long resisted attempts to marry her off and now her parents and brothers are learning to accept her as a physician with a growing reputation for her skill. When Lyme Regis is besieged by a Royalist army, led by one of the King’s nephews, Jayne’s skills are needed by both sides. Jayne’s intention of remaining neutral, being physician to both Royalist and Parliamentarian, is suspected by some and there are claims on her from both sides. One man in particular seems to walk the line between each side, the mysterious William Harrier, who first appears to Jayne as a footman but acts like no servant. This is a war like no other as the prospect of a King’s execution makes all too clear.

I love Minette Walter’s writing and characterisation whatever the genre and I love that she has turned her attention to the English Civil War, one of my favourite periods of history. The Swift family embodies the tragedy of this war, with the very real possibility that father may face son, brother may face brother, on the battlefield. The Swift and the Harrier examines the trauma of this as well as the efforts people, including landowners, made to resist the war and its pillaging, looting, violent soldiers. Effectively, this is a war of three sides. Sometimes all would be calm, when the fight is taken elsewhere, but at other times it literally comes to the door.

Jayne Swift is defiantly neutral whereas William Harrier’s allegiances are, at least initially, unclear. This means that the novel shows us both sides, making a distinction between the cause and those who fought for it. The ways in which an army treats its soldiers is important to Jayne, the physician who must pick up the pieces, and it’s telling that many of the Royalist soldiers are effectively pressganged whereas the Parliamentarian soldiers are well-trained and motivated. Neither side emerges smelling of roses but The Swift and the Harrier made me re-evaluate my own assumptions about the Civil War and it completely altered my point of view. As someone who lives in Oxford, surrounded by reminders of Charles I’s residence in the city, it’s about time that I looked over the city’s walls to the claims of the other side! All of which means that I was thoroughly engrossed in the novel.

A substantial chunk is set during the siege of Lyme Regis and this is enthralling. I know and love the place and it was fascinating to imagine the bombardment and privations of the siege in the town, and the role of the cobb, which I’ve walked along so many times. The descriptions are fantastic and it’s also good to imagine the role that women would have played in the defence of their homes and families. Jayne’s own role as physician is carefully drawn. It feels believable. She works closely alongside male doctors, giving an air of authenticity to her role, but whereas some of them cling to medieval ways, Jayne is all about hygiene and cleanliness.

The main subject of the novel, apart from the war itself, is the  growing relationship between Jayne and the enigmatic William Harrier, who pops up at critical times in the novel. He is a man of many guises but he remains mysterious. As a result, I didn’t particularly warm to him, as I did to Jayne and her brothers, and I did think there was a certain inevitability to this element of the story.

My favourite characters were the novel’s eldest – Lady Alice, Jayne’s father and the Duke, William’s grandfather. The impact of civil war on the older generations is particularly fascinating. Too old to fight, their opinions ignored, their loyalties to the old ways trampled upon, their sons divided, it must have been extraordinarily difficult. Jayne’s father is a good man who struggles to hold his family and home together. His growing pride in his daughter is wonderful. The Duke is a marvellous creation! There is a tenderness in the way that Minette Walters writes these characters. She is also at pains to show that one must look below the surface in judging a person. I did enjoy Cromwell’s cameo appearance!

The Swift and the Harrier is a fine novel, reassessing a period of history that continues to fascinate and has left its mark across the land. It’s beautifully written. It’s brutal at times – the opening chapters contain a horrific scene (don’t let that put you off) – it’s also tense. But there are also quiet and happy times as families go against the mood of the times and come together.

Other reviews
The Last Hours
The Turn of Midnight

The Burning Road by Harry Sidebottom

Zaffre | 2021 (30 September) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Burning Road by Harry SidebottomIt is AD 265 and the famous general Ballista is returning from Rome and the empire’s battlefields to his family in Sicily. With him travels Isangrim, the eldest son he barely knows. The journey is intended to remedy that but, from its outset, catastrophe piles on disaster and it becomes a fight for survival. The island is aflame with a slave revolt. The roads aren’t safe, luxurious villas have become slaughter houses, as slaves spill out from farms, mines and houses, following the man they believe to be their messiah. Many of them are recently captured Germanic warriors and Ballista, himself considered a barbarian by many of his equestrian class, as well as by his son, feels a connection but his mission is to keep his son safe, to find his family and defeat the brutal revolt.

Ballista is back! Most readers of Roman historical fiction will be familiar with Harry Sidebottom’s ‘Warrior of Rome’, who has been missing from the author’s more recent historical thrillers. The author continues his run of stand along thrillers set in the ancient world but this time he gives us Ballista as well and the result is, in my opinion, the best of his novels. This is no mean feat at all as it has serious competition.

The action is non-stop and immediate, beginning with the catastrophic sea voyage – this is hugely exciting! From then on, Ballista and Isangrim, or Marcus as his son wishes to be known, undergo ordeal after ordeal and Isangrim, a boy on the edge of young manhood, has to grow up fast and brutally. This is one of the great successes of the book, the growing relationship between Ballista and Marcus, who are worlds apart in so many ways, and the development of Marcus into Isangrim. The theme of barbarian versus Roman is a major one and so much of it is embodied in the remarkable figure of Ballista, whose reputation is formidable and yet he stands apart from Rome in many ways even though he is so important to it.

There is violence here but it’s not overdone and reflects the cruel lives endured by slaves. My sympathies were conflicted, there’s no black and white, but the revenge inflicted on owners is as horrifying as you’d imagine. The novel also raises the question of can there be such a thing as a ‘good’ owner. We have to remember that this is a novel about the Roman world, which is so different to our own, but the theme of slavery is timely and The Burning Road is a reminder that the empire was built on the ownership, labour and mistreatment of slaves. Sometimes that backfired as here, with the realisation that slaves far outnumbered their owners.

Harry Sidebottom, whose background is teaching classics at Oxford, really knows his stuff and he enriches his novels with his knowledge about warfare and society in the ancient world. One of the aspects of The Burning Road is that the author places Sicily firmly in its historical and mythological context. The thrilling story of Ballista’s journey across the burning island, so famous for its volcano, is also a story of Sicily’s legends and Greek battles of the past. They almost signpost Ballista’s heroic, epic journey.

I’m also glad to say that Ballista gets his chance to lead men in a fight once more and there are fantastic sections in which Ballista fights to save a town from attack. Sieges are one of my favourite aspects of Roman military fiction and few write of them as well as Harry Sidebottom.

It’s not often that I read a book in one day, let alone in one sitting, but that’s just what I did with The Burning Road. I’m not a fast reader and so I spent some wonderful hours one sunny Sunday in the garden engrossed in this novel, enjoying spending time with Ballista again and getting to know his son. I didn’t even move to have lunch! If you haven’t read any of the Ballista novels it doesn’t matter. The Burning Road stands alone brilliantly as a Roman thriller and as an outstanding historical novel.

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 Lost Ten
The Return

The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul

Avon | 2021 (30 September) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Collector's Daughter by Gll PaulEvelyn’s long life has been extraordinary. The daughter of the Earl of Carnarvon, she grew up at Highclere Castle, but, just like her father, Lady Evelyn Herbert had no interest in high society. Her dream was to travel and be an archaeologist, a dream that came true when Howard Carter found the tomb of Tutankhamun while working for Lord Carnarvon. Evelyn was the first person to crawl inside the tomb. It was the defining moment of her life, the greatest moment. But it was followed by a series of tragedies that would shape the rest of Evelyn’s life, despite her long and happy marriage to Brograve Beauchamp. And now, over fifty years later, Egyptian academic Ana Mansour is determined to discover what really happened all those years ago in the tomb and what it is exactly that Evelyn has determined to forget.

I am a huge fan of Gill Paul’s novels. I adore them. She manages to focus on women at the heart of events that are irresistible to me and now, with The Collector’s Daughter, she’s done it again. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 is so utterly fascinating, glamorous, dangerous – I could not wait to read it! Eve Beauchamp is a wonderful character, in the scenes where she’s young and in those chapters where she’s old and ill. This is the story of her life and the people she filled it with, both living and dead, and they are all so vividly portrayed along with the world in which they lived.

There is a darkness to the novel. We are aware of the curse and Eve was closer to it than most and the character of Ana Masour haunts the pages. She haunts Eve. It’s as if she’s there every way Evelyn turns. The past is not escapable. It doesn’t die. It just decays like Tutankhamun in his desert tomb. The atmosphere is constant and heavy. You can feel the heat of Egypt, the mustiness of the tomb, the light of Highclere Castle, the love in Evelyn’s heart.

The Collector’s Daughter is completely engrossing. As always, Gill Paul combines absolutely fascinating historic events with the most interesting and fully realised people, adding an air of mystery, a hint of something menacing, a curse, as well as the joy of living.

Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband

Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband’

The Lost Daughter
The Second Marriage

An Island at War by Deborah Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good Death by S.D. Sykes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews
Plague Land
The Butcher Bird
City of Masks

The Bone Fire