Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Court of Lions by Jane Johnson

Head of Zeus | 2017 (6 July) | 397p | Review copy | Buy the book

Court of Lions by Jane JohnsonKate Fordham has left her old life, and much that she loves, behind her, driven from her home by brutal circumstances that have left her scarred and living under a new name in the beautiful city of Granada in Spain. Kate works in a bar in the city but her heart is most at home in Granada’s Alhambra, the palace of the Moors, with its stunning architecture and luxurious gardens. One day while visiting the site, Kate discovers in one of the walls a screwed up piece of very old paper marked with words written in no known language. And a door into the Alhambra’s past opens before us.

It is the late 15th century and the last act of the Sultans’ rule in Granada and southern Spain is about to play out. Prince Abu Abdullah Mohammed stands on the verge of the throne. The prince’s father, the Sultan, is unpopular, his cruel uncle hated even more, but the Sultan seals his fate when he puts his Sultana, the prince’s mother, aside in favour of Isobel de Solis, his beautiful Spanish war captive. But war within the family almost pales beside the threat from outside Granada. Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain are resolute in their determination to drive the Moors from Spain once and for all and they will show no mercy. But safe within the defensive walls of the Alhambra, the young prince shows another side. His closest friend is a child called Blessings. Blessings was sold from a desert tribe of North Africa to be the prince’s companion. Blessings finds the unexpected: painful unrequited love for the prince known and loved as Momo. Their story will play out against the drama of Granada’s last stand.

Court of Lions is such an enticing read! It’s a beautiful looking book with that fine hallmark of a Head of Zeus hardback – a ribbon – and just looking at it made me want to read it. I’m so glad I did. Jane Johnson richly evokes the last days of what must have seemed an Eden on Earth, the Alhambra, and brings it alive in colour, scents and fountain waters, though the involving story of Mumo and Blessings. The descriptions of the Alhambra are gorgeous, reminding us how hard it must have been for its Moorish inhabitants to give it up. This is a novel about war, though, and there are plenty of action-packed scenes as Mumo and his family fight each other for supremacy before Isabella and Ferdinand exert their own cruel influence. But the most wonderful parts of Court of Lions are those which take us within the walls of the Alhambra.

The novel moves backwards and forwards between the later years of the 15th century and the present day in which Kate struggles to escape and then confront her past. I enjoyed Kate’s story, particularly her interaction with the modern inhabitants of Granada, a city in which cultural differences still exist. But the heart of the novel, and the source of its greatest pleasure, is in the chapters which carry us back into history. Kate has little connection with this past beyond a sensitivity to the Alhambra’s history – this isn’t a timeslip novel – instead we’re given a sympathetic, atmospheric and elegant portrait of the Alhambra and its people through the centuries, focusing on characters past and present who capture our imagination wonderfully.

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of Court of Lions by Head of Zeus on 6 July. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.
Court of Lions blog tour poster

City of Masks by S.D. Sykes

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (13 July) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

City of Masks by SD SykesIt is 1358 and some years have passed since the events chronicled in The Butcher Bird. Oswald de Lacy, the young Lord Somershill, is not the man he once was. He is pursued by demons and they have chased him to Venice where he waits for passage on a vessel to the Holy Land. Pilgrimage is Oswald’s hope but Venice is at war with Hungary and this is keeping all ships in harbour. It’s also not doing much to help the mood in this naturally suspicious and paranoid yet pleasure-loving city. Executions and torture are common, and among the masked gamblers, drinkers and lovers, lurk spies, thieves and murderers.

As the novel begins, we’re not sure what has happened to Oswald to drive him from England in such despair but he’s in need of diversion. But this comes from an unfortunate source. A friend is found murdered outside the house where Oswald is staying and Oswald, who has brought from England a bit of a reputation as being a solver of mysteries, is hired by the dead man’s exceedingly unpleasant grandfather to find the young man’s killer. The pursuit of the murderer throws Oswald into the heart of this lively and misbehaving city of secrets. Most have something to hide. It doesn’t help that the belligerent Venetian authorities have Oswald in their sights – a foreigner asking questions stands out. But Oswald isn’t on his own. His mother has accompanied him to Venice. Oh dear.

City of Masks is S.D. Sykes’ third Somershill Manor mystery and it’s very different from the previous two. The obvious difference is that this novel isn’t set in England but Oswald, our young hero, is not the man he was before, due to tantalising reasons that only become truly known in the second half of the novel. We’ve moved away from the devastating impact of the Black Death on Oswald’s manor and tenants but Oswald is clearly in pain. Discovering the reasons for this adds both power and poignancy to a novel that is also a thoroughly satisfying medieval mystery which throws a curious light on life in Venice during the mid 14th century.

The Venetian setting is marvellous. Its places familiar to us today mix with those lost in history but all are filled with colourful, lovely characters, many of whom are up to no good. There is a theme of religious pilgrimage running through City of Masks but this is skin deep, as shown in the city’s hypocrisy and unkindness to the poor, ill and vulnerable. I loved the descriptions of the waterways and islands of Venice, its palaces, grand houses, prisons and inns. It is richly evocative, both glamorous and seedy, wealthy and squalid. In a way, Oswald himself sums this all up – he might be a lord but he is living on the edge of respectability.

I have to admit that I was wary when I heard that City of Masks would be moved away from its setting in medieval England. Medieval Venice didn’t have the same appeal to me. But I needn’t have worried. S.D. Sykes is such a fine writer who really knows her subject and history and she makes Venice seem so real – a mysterious place in which one can be lost so easily. The mystery is a fascinating and gripping one, even more so because it throws such light on Venetian society at this time. S.D. Sykes is also great with people – I loved the characters in City of Masks. Oswald’s mother drives me mad at times (poor Oswald) but I’m rather glad she came along.

Oswald’s character and story dominate the novel and deservedly so. He is always likeable, flawed though he undoubtedly is, and we care for him. City of Masks works well as a stand alone novel but I think much can be gained for having read the three books in order. Watching Oswald grow from boy to man is well worth doing and a lot of this culminates in City of Masks. I also really enjoyed the way in which the mystery behind Oswald’s troubles is revealed.

I have loved each of the three novels in this wonderful, brilliantly written historical series but, if I had to pick a favourite, it would be City of Masks. From start to finish, it is nothing less than mesmerising and engrossing.

Other reviews
Plague Land
The Butcher Bird

The Real Wonder Woman – guest post by Emily Hauser, author of For the Winner

Last month, Transworld published For the Winner by Emily Hauser. This is a fabulous novel – an interpretation of the Jason and the Golden Fleece myth that focuses on the extraordinary and unusual story of Atalanta, a female Argonaut. I’m delighted to host a guest post by Emily on an irresistible subject – ‘The Real Wonder Woman’.

For the Winner by Emily HausnerThe Real Wonder Woman

I went to see Wonder Woman in the cinema a few weeks ago. I loved it. It was brilliant. But as I watched the astonishing feats of the Amazons – named after a mythical tribe of warrior women first mentioned in an ancient Greek epic over 2,500 years ago – I thought that the fantasy powers granted to them in the film paled into insignificance when compared to the achievements of the real Amazons, the real Wonder Women of the ancient world.

As a scholar of the ancient world and an author of historical fiction, it’s my job to bring those real, powerful ancient women back into the foreground.

One of these Wonder Women of antiquity was Atalanta, an extraordinary woman and a warrior who lived over three thousand years ago in ancient Greece, not far from modern-day Thessaloniki. She was a self-taught warrior, the fastest runner in the world, one of the best archers of her time, and the only woman, according to history, to accompany Jason and the Argonauts on the legendary voyage of the Golden Fleece. And it’s the story of this extraordinary warrior – a Wonder Woman before her time – that I set out to tell in the second novel of the Golden Apple trilogy, For the Winner (Transworld 2017).

Atalanta is in many ways a forerunner of the character of Diana in DC Comics’ Wonder Woman. She was a formidable fighter, one of the greatest heroes of her generation, and yet she struggled to gain recognition and credibility as a woman. She was abandoned by her father, who (in Atalanta’s case) cast her out on a mountain to die because he had wanted a son and heir. She was a devotee of the goddess Artemis – the Greek goddess of the hunt who later, in the Roman world, would be called Diana.

But what I love most about Atalanta is that, in contrast to today’s Wonder Woman, she is entirely human. She does not need to rely on superpowers or her birthright as the daughter of a god to vanquish her enemies. Her strength comes from her own determination, her own training, her own will to survive. She fights in battles alongside heroes like Hercules and Theseus. She earns her place on the voyage with Jason and the Argonauts and travels to the ends of the earth, disguised as a man – and when she is discovered and exiled in the wildnerness, she refuses to give up. When she returns to Greece and her father – having recognised her at last – wants to force her to marry, she will only do so on her own terms. She demands that the man she will wed should outrun her in a footrace – which she believes will be impossible, until she makes a fatal mistake… And as Atalanta is forced to make a choice during that final footrace that will change her life forever, we see not only her strength, but also her courage as she faces all the odds and… you’ll have to read For the Winner to find out what happens next!

Wonder Woman is, without a doubt, a brilliant and necessary demonstration of the power of a female lead who does not need a man to survive; a woman who can fight as well as – if not better than – a man.

But the ancient Greeks got there first.

Reviews
For the Winner
For the Most Beautiful

For the Most Beautiful by Emily HauserGiveaway!
The giveaway has now closed and the winners have been contacted.

The publisher has kindly given me signed copies of For the Winner and its predecessor For the Most Beautiful to give away here and/or on Twitter. If you’d like to go into the hat, just let me know which you’d like in the comments below or retweet the post on Twitter, again saying which you’d like to go for. The deadline is this Friday (7 July) at 4pm (UK and Ireland entries only – sorry about that.).

HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown 2017 Longlist

It’s a big day today. After several months of intense and enjoyable reading and lively discussion with fellow judges, the Historical Writers Association today announced the longlist for the HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown 2017. It was an honour – and a lot of fun – to be among the judges. So many good books were submitted and the task might have been pleasurable but it wasn’t easy. The result, though, is a longlist that we’re all proud of and I hope they give you ideas for future reading.

But, before the books, I must thank Antonia Senior, our marvellous Chair, Imogen Robertson, judge and HWA representative, and the publisher Endeavour Ink for its sponsorship, as well as fellow judges Amy Durant, Robin Carter, Nick Rennison and Richard Foreman.

Here in alphabetical order is the longlist. Congratulations to all twelve authors!

All together they make a lovely set. But what a challenge to get a shortlist from twelve such brilliant books!

A couple of years ago I was one of the judges for the HWA Debut Crown and I’ve been looking forward to seeing the 2017 shortlist for that and today there it was. Such good books! Completing the trio of awards, the longlist for the HWA Non-Fiction Crown 2017 was also announced today. You can see all three of the longlists here on the HWA website.

Soot by Andrew Martin

Corsair | 2017 (6 July) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Soot by Andrew MartinIt is November 1799 and York freezes under a blanket of snow. Life is especially grim for Fletcher Rigge, a gentleman who has fallen on hard times, who languishes in York’s debtor’s prison. An unexpected opportunity for release comes in the form of a proposition from a Captain Harvey. The Captain’s father, a painter of silhouette portraits or shades, has been murdered and Harvey is convinced that one of his last sitters was the one to do the deed. If Rigge can discover which it was within a month then the Captain will clear all of his debts. All Rigge has to go on is the outline of a face’s profile, a hat, a pet dog – this will be no easy task – but Rigge is a gifted and observant man. He is also on the verge of desperation.

It doesn’t take Rigge long to identify the shades’ six subjects – their shadows – and in their pursuit Rigge moves across York and further afield to London. His investigations take him into the assembly rooms of the fashionable, into literary circles, into the world of the theatre (in which an unpopular actor is lucky if the missiles lobbed at him miss), of gambling and seedy inns populated by prostitutes, thugs and spies. Much of what happens is told in Rigge’s own words via his journal entries, but we’re also given other viewpoints thanks to the letters and diaries of others involved in the case. Watching over it all are the lawyers, who seem more interested in Rigge’s own story than in the murder he’s investigating.

I adored Soot and the reasons for this are many. It’s a far more sophisticated plot than is first revealed and it is uncovered in an increasing number of layers. Plenty of perspectives are given and, as the novel proceeds, they change our opinion of almost everything. Nobody is safe. As time goes by, we learn that we’re not quite certain where we stand. Some of the ‘interpolations’ suggest that there is at least one perspective written with the benefit of hindsight. The lawyers make a brilliant contribution to the style of the novel as well as its plot. And because we can have two commentators interpreting one scene, we’re given intriguing insights. A character might think that his true nature is revealed, while another voice makes it clear that it isn’t. There is delicious irony at work here, which fits in so well with this late Georgian age of coffee houses, literary musings, hedonism and theatrical entertainments.

There are several thoroughly enjoyable character portraits in Soot – at first, they appear as shadows or shades but, as the pages go by, we learn much more than they would wish to give away. The most fascinating character for me, though, is Rigge himself. We know very little about him at the beginning and he doesn’t give much away but there is quite a journey ahead as his past and his beliefs become known. There is one moment in particular when I raged at him, and another that shocked me as Rigge truly surprised me, but I never stopped hoping for the best. It’s an incredible story, slowly built up with great skill by the author.

I loved the style of Soot with its multitude of voices, each individual and so evocative of the times. The language captures the spirit of the very late 18th century but it doesn’t labour it. It is never hard work to read. Instead, the narrative is light, witty and very clever, rich in social commentary, humour, irony and, now and again, sarcasm. At times they invite the reader in for intimacy while at other times they keep us at bay.

Soot does such a good job of bringing the Georgian world of York and London to life, with its fashions, pleasure-seeking, hypocrisy and sins. It’s a fascinating world in which morality occupies an uncomfortable space, as shown by the enigmatic, troubled and so likeable Fletcher Rigge.

The True Soldier by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2017 (13 July) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The True Soldier by Paul Fraser CollardIt is 1861 and Jack Lark has turned his back on the British army after hard years fighting campaigns in Europe, Crimea and India. It’s a sad sense of duty and responsibility that drives Jack to Boston in the United States – Thomas Kearney, a comrade from the French Foreign Legion, never felt able to send his letters back to his family in America while alive but, since his death in battle, in Jack’s arms, it’s now fallen to Jack to do it for him. And so Jack arrives at the door of the wealthy and influential Kearney family in Boston and it’s there he is given new purpose.

War is imminent between the Union and Confederation – volunteers are joining both sides in their thousands. Samuel Kearney is a leading figure behind the scenes for the Unionists and his younger son Robert, as expected, has enlisted as a lieutenant in its army. But Kearney is under no illusion. Charming he might be, but Robert is not a natural soldier and the army he will fight in is untrained and untested. Samuel Kearney has no wish to lose another son to war and so he makes Jack an offer that is hard to refuse – Jack will become a sergeant in Robert’s Company and will be paid to do two jobs: to give the Company the benefit of his experience and skill and, above all else, to keep Robert safe. Elizabeth, Robert’s beautiful sister, adds her pleas to her father’s and she is not easy to turn down. It seems that Jack will also be fighting alongside Elizabeth’s fiancé Captain Ethan Rowell. That could prove to be as much a trial for Jack as facing the Confederates across a battlefield.

The Jack Lark series is one of my very favourites and it’s been a joy (albeit at times an anxious pleasure) to follow Jack’s exploits over the last few years. The novels differ in mood as Jack takes on a succession of different enemies in some of the most famous conflicts of the mid 19th century. In the past Jack has stolen identities and ranks, fighting as an officer under a false name, but his courage and military prowess have never been less than true. But there has been something of the loveable rogue about Jack and this is borne out in some of his exploits and relationships – of which there have been a fair few. But in The True Soldier, the sixth in the series, we have a very different Jack Lark.

Jack now fights as himself and he is no longer an officer. There is no cause left that he wishes to fight for. He is purposeless and his soul is bruised and hardened. But he discovers something of the old Jack Lark in this new challenge in a country that he knows very little about. He learns about the Union cause, the origins of the Civil War, and the drive to rid the United States of slavery. There is much for Jack to believe in, although it’s not that straightforward. Rich Union families, including the Kearneys, employ black servants and the divide between master and servant goes way beyond differences in social standing and wealth. Paul Fraser Collard informs us about all this through the wonderful medium of Rose, Elizabeth’s maid. Rose is a very intriguing and enigmatic character and is a refreshing change from some of the other women that Jack Lark has been drawn to in the past.

In these novels, Paul Fraser Collard never flinches from portraying the true horror of Victorian war and The True Soldier is no different. The American Civil War is shown to be particularly brutal due in part to the contrasting naivety of the American population. The Civil War is only just beginning and soldiers are being seen off with parades, flowers and kisses. Members of Washington’s society drive out in their carriages to watch the first ‘proper’ battle of the war with their picnics. But Jack knows what war is like and he’s proven right here time after time after time, and always in graphic technicolour. Some of the battle sequences are painful to read as men line up to face one another and then shoot. There’s nothing glamorous here about war or Jack’s role in it. It’s angry and bloody. But it never goes too far. Paul Fraser Collard is never gratuitous in his descriptions of battle. You know from what is implied that the reality would have been unimaginably worse.

I’ve always been interested in the American Civil War and I was delighted to hear that the author was sending Jack overseas to experience it. It works well that Jack is placed at the very beginning of the conflict. It means we can watch people change – both those who fought and those who spectated. Much of the second half of the novel is concerned with the Battle of Bull Run and it is brilliantly depicted. Jack Lark might be a fictional character but his role in the conflict seems real and likely, just another of the many immigrants who filled the army’s ranks.

The True Soldier both informs and entertains as, I believe, all good historical fiction should. This novel made me want to do more research on the events it depicts while also immersing me in the more intimate stories of Jack, Elizabeth, Robert, Ethan and Rose – and O’Dowd. I mustn’t forget O’Dowd. This is such a strong series and, while I have such a soft spot for The Maharajah’s General, I do believe The True Soldier could be among the best. I cannot wait to find out what happens next because surely this novel marks a new beginning for this fantastic hero, Jack Lark. As such, if you want to read it as a stand alone novel, then you certainly can.

Disclaimer: Paul Fraser Collard is, I’m honoured to say, a friend of mine. But this in no way affects the honesty of this review. Paul just happens to write great books.

Other reviews and posts
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General
The Devil’s Assassin
The Lone Warrior
The Last Legionnaire
Guest post: ‘I am a writer with a plan’
Guest post – ‘Commute writing’

For the Winner by Emily Hauser

Doubleday | 2017 (15 June) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

For the Winner by Emily HausnerWhen King Iasus of Pagasae ordered his newborn daughter to be exposed on the frozen rocks of Mount Pelion, he set in motion a series of events that not only threatened his own kingdom’s future but also the peace and order of the gods themselves. The baby, with only a medallion around her neck to hint at her true heritage, was rescued and adopted by a woodcutting man and his wife but, as the girl grew into a woman, it became increasingly clear to the family that loved her that Atalanta was destined for a great future. On learning the truth, having committed an extraordinary feat of daring and skill, Atalanta is determined to prove herself to the father who discarded her like rubbish on the mountainside.

Atalanta learns that King Iasus has sent his nephew Jason on a formidable yet glorious mission – to sail with a band of Greek heroes aboard the Argo to claim the legendary Golden Fleece from the distant land of Colchis. His reward will be the kingdom of Pagasae. But Atalanta is determined to win that throne for herself. And to do that this formidable young woman must earn a place among the Argonauts and steal the Golden Fleece for herself. But this is no mortals’ game. The gods watch the affairs of men from the blissful gardens and pools of Olympus and they are more than ready to take sides. Each of them has a favourite; the rest must suffer the tempests of divine disfavour. But even the gods can’t have everything their own way. For the winner, the stakes will be very high indeed.

In For the Winner, Emily Hausner once again returns to the pre-classical world of Greek myth and legend. This is the age of heroes and mighty quests, when gods walked the earth and meddled in the affairs of men, and centaurs and other strange creatures did their bidding. In her last novel For the Most Beautiful, Emily Hausner portrayed the Trojan War, focusing on the women, both divine and mortal, who steered its course. In For the Winner it’s the story of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest to steal the Golden Fleece. But once again, Hausner examines a well-known legend from an unusual and female perspective, this time focusing on Atalanta, one of the lesser known Argonauts but an extraordinary woman of her time.

Much of the novel follows Atalanta on her adventures with the Argonauts and it’s an astonishing tale of larger-than-life heroes and their mighty ambition. The ultimate affront is a woman daring to pretend to be a man to sail with them. Their outrage can be nothing but calamitous. But Atalanta is a woman set on her course, in pursuit of justice and vengeance, and she will endure whatever obstacles the gods put in her path. And there are plenty of those. Throughout the novel are chapters which take us to the playworld of the gods and what a capricious bunch of gods they are. But in this novel, their scheming is held in check by the influence of Iris, one of the ‘lesser’ yet undoubtedly powerful gods, who also has her eye on Atalanta.

I wasn’t sure about how well the gods worked as a device in the previous novel For the Most Beautiful. But I have no such concerns with For the Winner, possibly due to the extremely successful and calming influence of Iris, who serves as an effective bridge between the mortal and the divine. They still have comic value but it’s not overpowering and I thoroughly enjoyed these diversions – I particularly liked Zeus. King of the gods he might be, but somebody needs to tell the other gods.

For the Winner isn’t a novel about Jason and the Golden Fleece, it’s about Atalanta. I enjoyed the glimpses we’re given of Jason’s cruel character and I was gripped by the scenes aboard the Argo (and did wish that we saw something of Medea), but our attention stays with Atalanta and she deserves it. She’s a woman of her age, fighting against it, but she’s also easy for us to empathise with. But it’s wonderful how Emily Hauser brings alive this Bronze Age world of ancient Greece, with its walled towns and rural settlements, its sea passages and its fundamental beliefs in the gods and fates. Women, obviously, don’t fare too well, barely treated better than slaves, and so Atalanta’s story is all the more extraordinary and powerful. We’re behind her on every stage of her perilous journey.

Emily Hausner is a classics scholar and clearly knows her subject, bringing the time and its people and places to life, but she also writes beautifully. This is immersive writing, marvellously descriptive and evocative, and the voyage itself is thrilling from the outset. The dialogue and narrative feels natural yet reminiscent in some ways of the great classics, particularly Homer, but it isn’t laboured. It feels right. I enjoyed For the Most Beautiful but For the Winner is a great step forward – an elegant, exciting and in some ways moving story of Atalanta’s adventure to steal back her fate from man and gods.

Other review
For the Most Beautiful