Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy

Head of Zeus | 2017 (1 June) | 403p | Review copy | Buy the book

Vindolanda by Adrian GoldsworthyIt is AD 98 and all is quiet on the northernmost fringes of the Roman empire. It’s a generation or so since the Iceni revolt led by Boudicca and Hadrian’s Wall is still twenty years or so in the future. The majority of tribes have gone quiet. They’re paying their taxes (as late as possible) and they’re even integrated into the Roman army of occupation. Flavius Ferox is a fine example – he is both tribal prince (of the Silures) and centurion. Ferox has been seconded to the northern border where his role is to help mediate with the local people to keep the peace.

But Ferox has been harmed by his service to Rome. He’s been too good at his job, used to bad ends by the now dead and damned emperor Domitian, finding refuge in wine, beer and oblivion. But now Rome has a new emperor, Trajan, and, while many greet his accession with hope, there are others who see this empire in transition as weak, open to attack. You might have thought that Britain would be far enough away from Rome to be safe from such plots. But there are ambitious and treacherous Romans serving in Britain, ready to use the northern tribes to bring disgrace and defeat to Rome’s British legions and governor. These tribes, though, have plans of their own, and leading them is a terrifying figure – Stallion, a Druid of formidable influence and cruelty.

Adrian Goldsworthy is one of Britain’s most well-known Roman historians and with Vindolanda he makes his  Roman fictional debut (he is previously known for his Napoleonic fiction). A wealth of well-preserved evidence has been recovered from excavations in the Roman fort of Vindolanda and the author puts this to very good use – whether it’s the Vindolanda tablets (especially the famous birthday party invitation) or the astonishing number of shoes that have been found in the site’s waterlogged deposits. There are people in this novel who really existed, making a home so far away from Rome, and Adrian Goldsworthy brings these men and women whose names we know to life, just as he brings Vindolanda itself to life. He gives this archaeological site walls, gates, offices, roads, barracks, bathhouses and a neighbouring town of shops, taverns and brothels. You can almost hear the sound of hobnailed feet.

As you’d expect from a good historian, this is a novel supported by meticulous detail but it doesn’t take anything away from the drama of what always remains a thoroughly entertaining work of fiction. The result is a wonderfully rich portrait of clothes, armour, carriages, house furnishings and so much more, including, in particular, warfare. Ferox finds himself caught up in an increasingly tense and violent situation as the Druids call to arms the men of the tribes. Ferox can stand and watch the exodus of warriors from village to army or he can lead the Romans and make the locals fight. It’s very tense and exciting, as well as bloody. There’s nothing gratuitous about the violence in Vindolanda. Much is left to the imagination. When we are told the true outrage of what has happened – such as the cruel murder of a young Roman matron – it’s all the more horrific for standing out.

Vindolanda tells a fantastic story. It is packed full of action and thrills but this is balanced with real insight into Roman Britain and its people at the end of the 1st century AD. This is Roman military fiction written with restraint and I really admired and liked that. This did, though, lead to my only issue with the novel – the repeated use of the words ‘humping’ or ‘humped’ in place of the more expected curses! It really stood out and I wish it didn’t.

Historians don’t necessarily make good novelists but Adrian Goldsworthy has pulled it off. Vindolanda is such a well-written and authoritative novel that is always enjoyable and entertaining. Ferox is a great character (I love the repartee with Vindex) and so too are the women that we meet, especially the marvellous Sulpicia Lepidina. I really enjoyed the mix of military and civilian Vindolanda, its blend of religions and traditions, as well as its exploration of the mingling of Roman and Briton on this edge of empire. This is an excellent novel and I’m delighted to report that it is just the first in a new series.

I must mention that Vindolanda is yet another of Head of Zeus’s fine looking hardbacks – with a ribbon!

Adrian Goldsworthy’s website on Vindolanda

The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

Tinder Press | 2017 (1 June) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Wages of Sin by Kaite WelshIt is 1892 and, for the first time, the University of Edinburgh’s medical centre permits women entry to train to become doctors. Sarah Gilchrist is one of the first cohort of female students and, every single day she and her classmates are reminded how unpopular they are – by the male students, their lecturers and by society in general, which regards them as unnatural to their sex. And Sarah Gilchrist has it tougher than most. Sarah is an exile from London. From among the upper classes, which in itself marks her out, Sarah has been expelled from her family on account of a scandal for which Sarah was blamed entirely. She now lives a virtual prisoner under the roof of her aunt and uncle whose instruction is to improve Sarah and make her suitable for marriage. Studying to become a doctor is the last thing they want for Sarah but even they understand that this disinherited and discarded young woman must earn a living somehow. And there are worse ways…

The Wages of Sin immerses us in an Edinburgh that is stricken by that Victorian disease of hypocritical and dishonest morality. The city is itself divided in two, between its respectable side which lives in the streets under the sky, and then its poverty-stricken and dangerous side, which hides in buried sewer streets of brothels, taverns and opium dens. Sarah moves between the two, training to become a doctor in the University, scrutinised by chaperones, and helping out in a hospital for the deserving poor, attending, among others, prostitutes and drunks. And when one of Sarah’s patients from the hospital, a young prostitute, ends up on the dissecting table of her medical class, the two worlds collide and Sarah is determined to find justice for the poor girl, no matter the danger to herself. Sarah believes that the greatest weapon anyone can hold over her is her past. She is wrong.

I love Victorian mysteries and the darker they are the better, and The Wages of Sin is steeped in atmosphere. Everything is described so richly, from the medical hospital to the slums to the parlours of the rich and respectable. The colours are so well painted. I felt like I was moving through a world of brown velvet, of wood-panelled walls and cold, ill-lit streets. But the atmosphere is squeezed and oppressed by the prejudice that these young female students face day in day out and, in particular, the absolute injustice that Sarah has been dealt. Sarah’s story is agonising and made even more powerful that we only hear it bits at a time and what we learn is shocking. It’s not often when I read a book that I feel rage but I felt it for Sarah Gilchrist.

The origins of feminism can be found in this marvellous novel and it doesn’t always make easy reading. The chauvinism of the students and the lecturers towards the female students pales by comparison against the cruelty of Sarah’s own family. On top of this we have the hypocrisy of Victorian philanthropists and the brutality suffered by the poor. There is a great deal here to make my hackles rise and that’s even before we get to the murder mystery!

The Wages of Sin is as much a scrutiny of its times as it is a crime novel and it is very well done indeed. It takes its time to build up this world. The story is told by Sarah herself and it is weighted by the burden she carries. She is so easy to like but the risks she runs! The mistakes she makes! It’s such a good story and a wonderful debut by Kaite Welsh. The good news is that this is the first in a series. I am so pleased that we’ll be seeing Sarah again and I’ll be cheering on this pioneering young woman.

Six Tudor Queens II: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

Headline | 2017 (18 May) | 544p | Review copy | Buy the book

Anne Boleyn A King's Obsession by Alison Weir UKFrom her early years on the continent as a maid of honour to Regent Margaret of Austria and then to Queen Mary of France, Anne Boleyn was determined to retain her independence and reputation. Anne grew up witnessing the behaviour of lords and even kings to women at court, including women of the highest rank. Rape and assault were far from unknown and, later on, when Anne is a maid of honour in England to Queen Katherine of Aragon, she sees the way that Henry VIII pursues and captures her sister Mary, almost right under the eyes of his wife. Anne Boleyn will not be used in the same way.

The story of Anne Boleyn is a familiar one but Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession is a novel I have been longing to read since reading and thoroughly enjoying Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen, the first novel in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. That marvellous novel breathed new life into the ultimately tragic tale of this woman who refused to be beaten even when her daughter was taken from her and all she had left was her faith. Anne Boleyn is a less sympathetic figure to many, including me, and I did wonder how Alison Weir could make me engage with her. I needn’t have worried. I was riveted from the very beginning when we meet a young girl who manages to be both modern and belonging to her own time. Anne is presented as a wonderful observer of life, a witness to grandeur and intimacy, and increasingly she becomes a player in the world she has dissected.

Anne is fiercely intelligent and not a little intimidating. She is a contrast to her sister Mary, to the other Mary (Henry VIII’s sister and Queen of France) and to Queen Katherine. Katherine is bound to retain our sympathies, especially if you’ve read the previous novel. And it’s pitiable watching Katherine try to be such a good friend and patron to this young girl so newly returned from the French court. We all know what’s going to happen. Anne is friend to few.

Henry VIII looms over the novel as you’d expect and his character transforms through the novel from a young man in love to one bored and prepared to kill. It’s a compelling portrait and, at times, as Anne dangles the king on the end of a leash, it’s almost possible to feel sorry for him. But we’ve seen what he can do. Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn is a constant reminder of that. But while Henry changes through the book so too does Anne and what makes it so interesting is that she knows it. She is transformed by power and later by fear. She is aware of it and she hates it. She hates what she becomes. And it’s both painful and irresistible to read.

I love the way in which Alison Weir writes. She presents a great deal of historical detail and background while preserving the drama of the story and finding new ways in which to tell it. The Tudor court was full of incredible personalities and they’re all richly painted here, including Anne’s brother George, his wife Jane and their grand uncle the Duke of Norfolk. But it’s Anne and Henry who dominate the book, sweeping away anyone in their path.

We all know how Anne Boleyn’s story ended and those pages here tore my heart out. At times, this is an emotional novel and it pays to remind yourself when reading it that, although this is a work of fiction, these were real people. Anne has to adapt constantly and you can certainly understand why even if it makes her difficult to warm to. I was hoping to find a different approach to Anne in this novel and that’s what I found. Likewise, it provides an original perspective on the role of women in the Tudor and French courts. I also loved the novel’s size. Its substantial length allows the reader to wallow in this incredible story.

As this series continues it will be fascinating watching Henry’s progression towards his monstrous destiny as he discards his wives, and others, by the wayside. I can’t wait for the novel on Jane Seymour – to watch her emerge from the shadow of her more famous predecessor, Anne Boleyn.

Other review
Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen

Deposed by David Barbaree

Twenty7 | 2017 (4 May) | 469p | Review copy | Buy the book

Deposed by David BarbareeIt is AD 68 and an emperor is deposed. He lies in his prison cell, newly blinded by the men who once served and protected him. There is little to comfort him as he works through the pain and torment of his utter fall from grace, just the kind care of a frightened slave boy called Marcus and fierce thoughts of vengeance. Once this man was Nero, emperor and god. Now he has been lost to history.

In AD 79, Vespasian is emperor of the vast Roman empire but his family, the Flavians, cannot rest. Vespasian’s son Titus has become obsessed with worry about murderous plots against his father. They usurped power and now it is the turn of others to take their chance. But who? An obvious threat comes from the East where yet another False Nero has emerged to fan rebellious flames but Titus believes there is more danger, closer to home. A close friend to the family has vanished while a dog brought another man’s hand, wearing a nobleman’s ring, directly to Titus in one of Rome’s temples. The Flavians look for support and money where they can find it, and sometimes it comes from the most unlikely of sources, including an immensely wealthy senator from Spain who wears a bandage over his blinded eyes and is accompanied by an angry young man, his nephew called Marcus.

Deposed is without doubt one of the most extraordinary and original novels I have read about ancient Rome. It takes one particular bit of it – AD68-79, a time of transition from the Julio-Claudians to the Flavians via the turmoil of civil war and the Year of the Four Emperors – and makes it new. As the author David Barbaree says in his notes, we don’t actually know what happened under Nero and Vespasian. We don’t really know them at all. Because all we do know comes from historians writing decades or centuries afterwards who related ‘what others claim to have observed. It would be inadmissible in court’. The existence of several False Neros (there were no such False other emperors) suggests that there was doubt over Nero’s supposed assisted suicide. Who knows? Perhaps he lived. This is an author’s gift and David Barbaree makes perfect use of it. The result is a novel that could quite easily prove itself my book of the year.

Deposed is brilliantly written and very cleverly done. It moves back and forth between the years and also between characters, always speaking in the first person in present tense. This is undoubtedly ambitious but it is wholly successful. The voices are distinct, clear and immediate. Among them we have Nero, Titus and Domitilla (Titus’s sister) – all three of whom have an eye on history, but we also hear from others who don’t, including Calenus, a former soldier, and Marcus. Every story here is fully developed and gripping.

There is a deliciously complex plot running through the novel as conspiracies and plots emerge and hide. Some we’re aware of, others we’re not. And watching over it all is the malignant force of a terrifying and violent religious cult. It all adds to the mood of menace, the darkness that blights Nero’s life, the obsession that threatens to make Titus mad. Because these characters are all made to feel so real, we care for them and so there are moments of real tenderness scattered through this book, as well as sadness and fear and triumph.

Nero’s character is perhaps the most fascinating of all and it is riveting. You must discover it for yourself. It is equalled, though, by the novel’s strong sense of historical authenticity. Without overloading the narrative with background, David Barbaree makes it all feel real – the palaces, houses, prisons, feasts, temples and Rome itself. They are all beautifully portrayed. But what I also really enjoyed about this novel is that it explores what the immediate aftermath of Nero’s overthrow would have been like for the ordinary man, woman and slave of Rome. It would have been a very frightening and violent time, and extremely uncertain. As someone asks, ‘Is Rome safe?’. It feels very unsafe indeed.

The premise of Deposed is fantastic but its delivery is even better. It is remarkable that Deposed is a debut novel from David Barbaree. It is brilliantly accomplished and assured and I hung on to every word. I was just so sorry to finish it! I’m not sure if there will be a sequel. It’s a complete novel with a fine and satisfying conclusion but I would dearly love to discover what happens next. This is a world I didn’t want to leave. Extraordinary!

What inspired me to write about Joan of Kent? Guest post by Anne O’Brien, author of The Shadow Queen

The Shadow Queen by Anne O'BrienThis week, on 4 May, HQ publishes Anne O’Brien’s latest historical novel: The Shadow Queen. To mark the occasion I’m delighted to host a guest post from Anne in which she writes about what inspired her to write about Joan of Kent, the wife and widow of the Black Prince and mother of Richard II.

First, here is a little of what The Shadow Queen is about:

From her first clandestine marriage, Joan of Kent’s reputation is one of beauty, rumour and scandal. Her royal blood makes her a desirable bride. Her ambition and passion make her a threat. Joan knows what she must do to protect her reputation… the games to play, the men to marry. She will do anything to get what she wants: The Crown of England. A tale of ambition, treachery and desire, The Shadow Queen tells of a woman’s ascent through the court to command royal power alongside her young son, King Richard II.

What inspired me to write about Joan of Kent?

Who was she?

Joan of Kent, during her eventful life, was Countess of Kent in her own right, Princess of Wales, Princess of Aquitaine and ultimately King’s Mother. She was a woman of royal birth and unsavoury reputation. What was it about this woman who made an impact on the court circles of the late fourteenth century that appealed to my imagination?

A Plantagenet princess, she was first cousin to King Edward III, a woman of royal status although her father’s name was tainted with treason. Joan was by tradition beautiful, raised in the royal household, but was salaciously notable for her three marriages, two of them clandestine and one certainly bigamous. Thus she has intrigued readers of history as much as she has invited condemnation. Was she ‘the most beautiful lady in the whole realm of England, and by far the most amorous’. Was she ‘beauteous, charming and discreet’? Or was she ‘given to slippery ways’?

But scandal was not the only element of fascination in Joan’s life. So was her ambition. As wife of Edward of Woodstock, later to be known as the Black Prince, she blossomed as Princess of Aquitaine where she made as many enemies as friends. As King’s Mother to the boy King Richard II she succeeded in the early years in keeping a firm grip on the power behind the throne. But her past scandals could undo all that she had achieved, threatening to destroy her secure hold on power. Would it, because of Joan’s marital history, be possible to accuse Richard of illegitimacy and so dethrone him?

How was the proud woman to be able to protect herself and her son? Always subtle and carefully manipulative, Joan exhibited a range of talents drawing into her political net the Royal Council and the powerful prince, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

There is so much here to entice the lover of medieval historical fiction. Was Joan simply a pawn in the pattern of royal alliance-making, forced into marriage with a powerful family against her personal wishes, or did she take her future into her own hands? Was she a woman of perfect compliance, or did she have a will of iron? Was her marriage to Prince Edward one based on a childhood love affair, or were Joan’s motives far deeper in her bid for personal power?

A character of much notoriety, some charm and considerable ambition. This is Joan of Kent, The Shadow Queen.

The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien is published 4 May by HQ (£12.99 hardback)

Other post
The Queen’s Choice – review and extract

Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

Michael Joseph | 2017 (4 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dunstan by Conn IgguldenIn 937, King Æthelstan must fight once more against the Vikings to preserve and protect the one English nation founded by his grandfather, King Alfred the Great. Fighting by his side is Dunstan, a young man from Glastonbury, who is himself on the verge of deciding what to do with his life. For much of his youth, Dunstan, with his younger brother Wulfric, was raised by the monks of Glastonbury but, whereas Wulfric chose the secular path of marriage, parenthood and business, it is not such a straightforward choice for Dunstan. Dunstan aspires. A gifted mason and engineer, Dunstan wants to build to the glory of God the greatest abbey church in the land. But almost as powerful as the pull of God is the appeal of a king’s patronage.

Dunstan is no ordinary man. More than a mason and architect with dreams of rebuilding Glastonbury Abbey, Dunstan is an ambitious and witty statesman. He is called from Glastonbury repeatedly to the royal court of Winchester where he serves an extraordinary dynasty of kings – brothers, nephews and grandsons. Under some Dunstan will flourish but others will drive him from the court, even from the country. Perhaps they can see deeper into his soul than Dunstan would like, because Dunstan is not entirely what he seems. Beneath the robes lies more than ambition – Dunstan is a man carried aloft by pride, ruthlessness, and worse.

Conn Iggulden is undoubtedly one of the finest writers of historical fiction – of any fiction – and I can’t sing his praises enough. In fact, it’s testament to my fondness for this author’s books and my trust in him that I didn’t hesitate to read Dunstan, a novel that is set in one of my least favourite periods of history. I studied Anglo-Saxon history and literature as part of my degree and it did an excellent job of killing any interest I might have had in reading historical fiction set during those years. But I knew that if anyone could bring the 10th century alive for me it would be Conn Iggulden. And I was right. Dunstan is an astonishing achievement, even for Conn Iggulden. Here is a period which has left relatively little evidence – documentary or archaeological – and yet it comes alive in these pages.

This is a novel driven by character. It’s not an action novel. There is an occasional battle but we don’t spend the book on the march with warriors or armies. Instead we spend time with one of the most fascinating historical figures of the age – Dunstan. A man who is presented here as both secular and religious, as an advisor to kings but also as a visionary. Beneath it all lies corruption and it is in discovering just how far Dunstan is prepared to descend that gives much of this glorious novel its tension and intrigue. Dunstan did not live a quiet life. He moved across the country, a country in recovery from years of war and under threat of more, where earls must live as nobles and not as rival kings, where the personality of the king is everything. Conn Iggulden presents us with a line of kings, some good, some evil, but they are all depicted as real people caught in a conflict. They have to protect England at all costs and yet they are only human. They love and hurt like everybody else. Dunstan is a witness to it all and he is closer than almost anyone to some of these kings. At one of these times of closeness, I wept. How Conn Iggulden can write!

The novel contrasts Dunstan and his brother Wulfric throughout and it is a deeply interesting and complex relationship. Dunstan undoubtedly has a vision of himself but a more realistic portrait might be the one perceived by Wulfric and other members of their family. Dunstan’s behaviour is at times shocking and disturbing. The novel is presented as Dunstan’s own chronicle, told in his own words, and so he doesn’t tell us everything. But there are gaps and those gaps shout out. We can be under no illusion about the lengths to which this man will go to achieve his glory on earth and in heaven. Our own complicated response to Dunstan is part of this novel’s pleasure.

Conn Iggulden wears his research lightly. It’s clear it’s there and a great deal of it but he uses it well, integrating the historical details thoroughly into the story. Glastonbury, Winchester, London, Rome and many other places are colourfully painted. There are sounds, smells and flavours of the past here. We experience life as a child in a monastery, as men and women of business in London, as a politician in Winchester, as a treasurer in the mints and mines of England. It is so completely engrossing. One aspect that I especially enjoyed is the use the Saxons made of the remains around them of the ancient Roman past. We see signs of that heritage everywhere.

Before reading this novel, I would not have imagined Dunstan as the obvious subject for a historical novel, especially one of this length. But that was before Conn Iggulden revealed him before my eyes and showed him to be the perfect subject for a novel on late Anglo-Saxon England. Dunstan is a novel rich in intrigue and drama, bringing to life the royal court as well as the country’s monasteries, cities and fields. And through it all we hear Dunstan’s voice, back from the dead, alive once more with a great story to tell, thanks to Conn Iggulden.

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)

‘Writing Cromwell’s London’ – Guest post by Antonia Senior, author of The Tyrant’s Shadow

The Tyrant's Shadow by Antonia SeniorThis week, Corvus published The Tyrant’s Shadow, Antonia Senior’s third novel and the second to be set in the troubled middle years of the 17th century. The Civil War, and Cromwell’s Commonwealth, is one of the most compelling periods in English history (Oxford, where I live, is steeped in Civil War history) and I can’t get enough of it. I am so pleased to be able to host a guest post in which Antonia Senior looks at the challenges an author faces in bringing this period, and its remarkable personalities, back to life – especially Oliver Cromwell. Many thanks to Antonia for taking the time to write such a fascinating piece.

First, here is a little about The Tyrant’s Shadow. A review will follow shortly.

A court without a kingdom, a kingdom without a king…England, 1652: since Charles I’s execution the land has remained untethered, the people longing for change. When Patience Johnson meets preacher Sidrach Simmonds, she believes her destiny is to become his wife and help him spread the Lord’s word. Simmonds sees things quite differently. Patience’s brother Will has been bestowed the job of lawyer to Oliver Cromwell. Tasked with aiding England’s most powerful man, he must try to overcome his grief after the loss of his wife. Then Sam Challoner, Will’s brother-in-law, returns unannounced after years in exile, forcing Will and Patience to question their loyalties: one to a ruler, the other, a spouse. Who do they choose to save? Themselves, their loved ones or their country…

Writing Cromwell’s London

I was raised to hate Oliver Cromwell. Hatred of Cromwell, dark mutterings about Drogheda and a bone-deep affection for the Mountains of Mourne – these the are legacies of an Irish mother. It was a dark day when, steeled with red wine and misplaced bravado, I said to my Mum: “Actually, I don’t think Oliver Cromwell was so bad. In fact, I quite like him.”

Readers, she was not tickled.

Treason's Daughter by Antonia SeniorI went looking for Cromwell the Monster in the sources when I set out to write The Tyrant’s Shadow. My first book on the period, Treason’s Daughter, followed events from 1640 until the death of Charles 1 in 1649. My second Stuart novel, The Tyrant’s Shadow, is set in London in the mid 1650s – when England’s politicians and soldiers are desperately attempting to find a solution to the King-shaped hole in the constitution.

For me, this is one of the most fascinating moments in all of English history. We were without a King; without a settled constitution. A vacuum of power, and a violently unsettled body-politic. In all my work, I have grappled with the nature of power; how is it earned, exercised and lost. And more pertinently as a novelist, perhaps, why do people want it?

This is no new pre-occupation for a writer. In my novel, my character Will quotes Lucan’s Civil War – a masterpiece study on the men who fought for Rome, written by a poet compromised by his proximity to Nero’s toxic court. “As long as earth supports the sea and air the earth, there will be no loyalty between associates in tyranny and no power will tolerate a partner.’

This is the position in 1653: power is uneasily shared between Cromwell as head of the army, the army itself, and parliament. But the triumvirate is fatally flawed – all three partners want different things; and there is further dissent between army factions and within Parliament. There are two versions of what happened next. Version 1 has King Oliver violently seizing power as the fruition of years of scheming. Version 2 has Saint Oliver reluctantly taking charge to prevent a descent into anarchy and madness.

The answer, I think, is a tangle of the two. And it is these historical tangles that are irresistible to a novelist. In I wriggled, looking for the hints and clues, extrapolating wildly. I found not a monster, but a man who believed himself sincere, who was continually compromised by the exigencies of wielding power. A man who could be both sincere and duplicitous, violent and gentle.

I also found God. Not personally, you understand. There is nothing like a good rummage in the barmy theistic arguments of the seventeenth century to bolster your atheism. But Cromwell cannot be weighed without reference to his great and bombastic belief in God’s providence working through him.

God presents problems to the secular novelist. He is central to understanding the torments of Stuart Britain. It is too easy to be a little sneering of these ardent beliefs – which seem to us to be dancing on the head of a pin. Fighting over the unknowable. I was reminded of 6th century Constantinople – the setting for an earlier, unpublished novel. There were riots on the streets, vicious, bloody affairs whose entire catalyst was over the nature of Christ: was He both God and Human separately and simultaneously, or was He His own divine mesh of the two?

It is easy to mock the sincerity of these beliefs. Hard to understand that for our forefathers who interpreted the bible literally, these were not arcane arguments of the cloister, but questions of faith which could lead to eternal damnation in a flaming hell.

God, I think, is one of the reasons why the English Civil Wars are not a popular era for readers. Publishers find it hard to shift books on the Civil Wars, which is odd given the attractions: a murdered King, families split apart, a high blood count, stories of great courage and great betrayals.

But God muddies the waters. It is not east to know which side you are on. The old adage that the Parliamentarians were Right but Repulsive and the Royalists were Wrong but Romantic is actually pretty fair. Our 21st century souls rejoice in the Parliamentarians’ distrust of tyranny and impulse to freedom, but recoils at the peculiar joylessness of their puritanism.

And of course, the rebels ended up, anyway, with King Noll – a tyrant of sorts. But as tyrants go he was no Robespierre, no Lenin, no Mao. His Shadow was relatively benign. Unless you were an Irish catholic, I can hear my Mother muttering darkly.

Why did Cromwell want power? I did not quite find him – he is too obscured by other people’s views of his motives. I found a man who inspired great loyalty, and devotion. A man who roused fierce hatred. A man who tried – but often failed – to hold the moderate line in a world turned upside down.

Cromwell’s London is a place of subtlety and shadow – and I loved writing it for all the reasons that make the era difficult to sell. It is full of ambiguities. In The Tyrant’s Shadow, there is another Tyrant – a domestic one, rather than a political one. The obverse of tyranny is complicity with it; and I wanted to explore this idea as well. My heroine, Patience, is married to man of certainties who treats her badly. At one point, as he hits her, she thinks: “He will do as he will do. Such is the nature of tyranny. All she can do is find her pride, hiding in peculiar corners.”