Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Triumph in Dust by Ian Ross

Head of Zeus | 2019 (10 January – ebook: 1 December, 2018) | 467p | Review copy | Buy the book

Triumph in Dust is the sixth novel in Ian Ross’s fantastic Twilight of Empire series, books which have followed the career of soldier, centurion and general Aurelius Castus in campaigns across the late Roman empire, from Britannia to Persia, during the early 4th century AD. Triumph in Dust is set more than a decade after the events of the previous novel, Imperial Vengeance, and would, I think, stand alone well. But I’d definitely urge you to pick up this series and read it from the beginning with War at the Edge of the World, if only to find out just how far our hero Castus has come. It’s been an extraordinary, dangerous, thrilling journey.

It is 336 AD. After so many years of conflict and civil war, the empire is at peace. Constantine the Great continues to build the empire’s mighty new capital city of Constantinople. Former general Aurelius Castus is now 60 years old and retired, content in the company of his beloved wife and daughter, trying so hard to forget the terrible events that drove him from Constantine’s service over a decade before. But Castus is not to be left in peace. The Persians are stirring. They threaten the empire’s eastern border with bloody war. Constantine needs an experienced and wise man to assess the situation, to travel across the region’s forts and cities, preparing them for the possibility of war. Only one man will do – Aurelius Castus. Castus is not as young as he used to be. He suspects that his strength and health are failing him. But, after years of retirement, Castus can’t resist the lure of action and command. But, where Castus is going, he will have far more to fear than the Persians. Castus is a famous, respected general. To many, with Constantine nearing the end of his life, Castus is a threat.

Triumph in Dust is an outstanding novel. We’re familiar with Castus and his struggles with Constantine, the emperor’s sons and family as well as with his rival emperors. Castus has had years caught in the middle of civil war, in the most perilous situations. But now Castus embarks on a final mission for an emperor who has caused him so much grief and pain, and it stands out for the very personal struggle that it will bring. Castus is on his own. He has men to advise him, notably his beloved son Sabinus as well as his dear friend and secretary Diogenes, but this is ultimately a personal battle of strength for a man who fears that he may not have much time left. He must find the power within himself but, when it comes to it, he will do once more what he’s always done best – fighting for his empire, sword in hand, with his bare fists if he has to.

Triumph in Dust pits the Roman Empire against arguably its deadliest enemy – the Persians – and the action takes place in the hot deserts of the east. It’s a challenging environment. Life is hard in these forts, towns and cities, travelling between them across the featureless sand can be lethal in the heat. Officials can be corrupt and power-driven. It’s Castus’ job to rally the legions at these remote posts, while constantly being aware that he risks a dagger in the back. But when the war does come then Castus will be ready.

At the heart of Triumph in Dust is what I’ve always enjoyed the most in Roman military historical fiction – a siege! The siege of Nisibis in 337 AD is brilliantly depicted by Ian Ross. It’s exhilarating, exciting, shocking, bloody, astonishing and more. I’ve read some good Roman sieges in fiction over the years but this really must be a contender for the very best. And the fact that Castus is there fighting tooth and claw alongside his men makes us sit even further on the edge of our seats. The book also contains one of the very best depictions (Douglas Jackson has also done this brilliantly) I’ve read of the Roman fighting formation of testudo, the tortoise. With Castus at its heart, we really feel like we’re there and it is truly, truly horrifying, challenging and frightening.

Ian Ross describes Roman warfare so well. He brings the details of it to life in vivid colour and smells. But he is also a master of the rest of it – the politics, the conspiracies and cunning – as well as the details of life in a Roman town, including Constantinople, during the 4th century AD. It feels so real all around us. The story of Castus contrasts with that of his wife Marcellina who must face her own battle to survive as she sees a side to these places that Castus never can.

An element of these books that I’ve always enjoyed is their treatment of early Christianity. In previous novels we’ve seen Constantine’s ambiguous relationship with the faith, as well as his mother’s devotion, but in Triumph in Dust we see very little of Constantine. Instead, we see the role that early Christianity – and a couple of its saints – played in the town of Nisibis, when the town is at peace and also at war. It’s really fascinating and makes the people behind the mosaic iconography of Byzantium seem real and, in the case of St Jacob of Nisibis, extraordinary and very charismatic. Castus, of course, hangs on to his paganism which is so much a part of who he is. This tension between faiths, between the new and the old worlds, between Rome and Constantinople, is such an original and compelling element of the series and is particularly resonant in its finale.

There’s always sadness in seeing a much loved series come to a close but Triumph in Dust is a triumphant conclusion. Castus is larger than life and yet still just a man. His reputation soars but we see him at his most vulnerable and at his most alone. It’s a fine portrayal and one I won’t forget. Thanks must go to Ian Ross and Head of Zeus for such a spectacular series.

Other reviews and features
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire 1)
Swords Around the Throne (Twilight of Empire 2)
Battle for Rome (Twilight of Empire 3) (with interview)
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire 4)
Imperial Vengeance (Twilight of Empire 5)
Guest post by Ian Ross, author of Triumph in Dust

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Roman historical fiction – a big thank you!

Rome: Eagle of the Twelfth by MC ScottAs the end of the year approaches – and while I continue to hum and haw about my top ten books of the year (at one point this week I managed to get my top 10 down to 58), I thought I’d embark on a series of posts to thank those serial authors whose books I have loved over the years and who, in very large part, are responsible for making me the hungry reader that I am today.

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, to put it mildly, and there are some series that I have deep affection for and I look forward to the latest addition every year. The fact that each series must eventually end is not something that makes me happy. And this year I’ve mourned the loss of more than one. Although there is now the excitement of wondering where these beloved authors will take us next!

I’m an archaeologist by trade and my favourite period has always been the Roman era. Roman historical fiction forms the heart of my book love. Other periods of history do come in and cheekily steal my attention but I can never get enough of the Romans. So here are the authors I’d heartily recommend, although I suspect that many of you will be enjoying their books already and you don’t need me to tell you how flippin’ marvellous they are.

Hammer of Rome by Douglas JacksonThis year, Douglas Jackson finished his Hero of Rome books with the fantastic Hammer of Rome. Gaius Valerius Verrens is a true hero of Rome, a man we’ve followed through hard times and good as he’s faced some of Rome’s deadliest enemies of the 1st century AD, including Boudicca. He did not emerge from that fight unscathed.

In the new year, Robert Fabbri will finally conclude his chronicle of the rise to power from humble origins, through bloody war, of the Emperor Vespasian. Tribune of Rome began the series and it now ends with Emperor of Rome. Vespasian is not the man he once was – how can he be? He must now learn to become a god.

Another series due to end in the new year is Ian Ross’s Twilight of Empire series set in the 4th century AD. It began with War at the Edge of the World and will conclude with Triumph in Dust in January and I cannot wait to read it! Aurelius Castus is such a fine character who has risen through the ranks to the very top but there seems no end in sight to the civil war that has divided the empire into pieces.

Anthony Riches is an author it’s an absolute pleasure to rave about. He’s just finished a trilogy on the incredible Batavian Revolt, which followed the death of Nero. The Centurions trilogy began with Betrayal and concluded this year with Retribution. This is a masterpiece of storytelling and so good is it, I am prepared to forgive its disruption of his long running Empire series (begun with Wounds of Honour), which is due to continue shortly. We’ve travelled a long way with Marcus Aquila and his troop of Tungrians and I can’t wait to resume the journey.

Conn Iggulden has turned his attention elsewhere in more recent years but his Emperor series is superb. Covering the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, the series ended with the brilliant The Blood of Gods. Conn’s most recent novel takes us to ancient Greece with the fantastic The Falcon of Sparta.

Eagles at War by Ben KaneI’ve been a big fan of Ben Kane for years and he’s given us several series and I love them all. Ben has tackled Hannibal and Spartacus. My favourite series so far by Ben has been his recently completed trilogy on the great defeat of Varus in AD 9 by Arminius and the seizure of Varus’s three eagles – Rome’s most infamous and famous defeat. It began with Eagles at War, which tells the terrifying and bloody tale from the point of view of centurion Tullus. It’s brilliant. Ben’s latest novel, Clash of Empires, tells the story of what happened when Greek culture encountered head on the might of Rome.

Harry Sidebottom is well known for his military series featuring Ballista, the Warrior of Rome (begun with Fire in the East, and Ballista has reappeared recently in this year’s excellent Roman thriller The Last Hour – Ballista has only one day to save the emperor from assassination and the empire from disaster. I can also recommend Harry’s now complete trilogy The Throne of the Caesars, begun with Iron and Rust.

The Earthly Gods by Nick BrownI am a huge fan of Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series. Cassius Corbulo is a young spy thrown very much into the deep end and sent off on all manner of perilous missions across the empire during the late 3rd century AD. His Christian servant Simo is such a memorable creation as is Cassius’s bodyguard and ex-gladiator Indavara. This series began with The Siege and the most recent and sixth novel was The Earthly Gods. I long for this series to return – I’m keeping everything crossed.

Manda (MC) Scott is one of the finest writers about, whichever period of history she writes about. I adore her Rome series, which began with The Emperor’s Spy and ended with book four The Art of war. The Eagle of the Twelfth, set during the reign of Nero, is one of the very best novels I’ve ever read. Demalion of Macedon is an extraordinary character. This is powerful writing that also never forgets how to tell a good tale.

Britannia by Simon ScarrowWhen talking about Roman military fiction, I can’t leave out Simon Scarrow’s Macro and Cato series which I have loved for years (the latest novel The Blood of Rome was published this year. My favourite is Britannia). You also shouldn’t miss SJA Turney’s Marius Mules’ long running series which covers the military campaigns of Julius Caesar. The series began with The Invasion of Gaul.

I can’t get enough of Roman crime fiction and some series have long legs. David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus series is possibly my favourite and I’ve been reading it for more years than I care to mention. This year the nineteenth was published, Family Commitments, and I think it could be one of the best of the entire series. Although arguably Corvinus isn’t the star of the books. That honour begins to his butler Bathyllus and his megalomaniac chef. Other series that I’ve enjoyed are Rosemary Rowe’s long running series featuring the British mosaic maker Libertus (the latest novel is The Price of Freedom) and Steven Saylor’s Sub Rosa series. The Throne of Caesar about the assassination of Julius Caesar was published this year and it is wonderful! I must also recommend Ruth Downie’s crime series which features Roman doctor Ruso. His latest case, Memento Mori, was published this year.

Pandora's Boy by Lindsey DavisLike so many of us I’ve read and loved Lindsey Davis’s books for years. Who doesn’t love Marcus Didius Falco, Vespasian’s spy? His cases kept me entertained for years until it was time for him to retire and settle down in the antique business. Now it’s the turn of his adopted daughter Flavia Albia, who must also contend with Rome’s attitudes towards a female detective (Rome doesn’t like it) plus a new husband who is suffering from being struck by lightning. Flavia’s last case was Pandora’s Boy. She will return for her seventh case, A Capitol Death, in the spring. Fantastic!

I’ll finish with Rome’s emperors. I just can’t get enough of them. I’ve hugely enjoyed Margaret George’s two books on Nero, beginning with The Confessions of Young Nero and concluding this year with The Splendour Before the Dark. Caligula by Simon TurneyOne of the book highlights of this year was Simon Turney’s fantastic novel on Caligula. Simon will next turn his attention to Commodus – this makes me very happy indeed.

And so there we have it! I know I’ll have left wonderful authors and fabulous books out and I’ll be troubled by that. But I think there’s enough here to start with. My plea to publishers is that you never stop publishing Roman historical fiction. I cannot be without it. I need more! And to all of those authors whose novels have, and continue to, thrill, move and entertain me – I’m so grateful. Thank you! I can’t wait to travel back through time with you again next year.

House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

Virago | 2018 (1 November) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

House of Glass by Susan FletcherIt is June 1914 and Clara Waterfield, a young botanist of independent means, is summoned to the large house of Shadowbrook in the Cotswolds. The house had been owned by the Pettigrews, a family feared and loathed among the local community, but with the last of the line having died, the decaying house is now owned by Mr Fox. Clara’s task is to fill a glasshouse with exotic plants from Kew Gardens. It shall be a haven for Mr Fox. But the strange thing is that Mr Fox refuses to be seen. The housekeeper explains that he is usually away on business but, when he is around, he keeps to his rooms on the first floor and he is not to be disturbed. His house is left unloved.

But Mr Fox isn’t the only unusual presence at Shadowbrook. Clara hears footsteps at night; flowers brought into the house are dead within hours; paintings on the walls fall to the ground. The housekeeper and maids have no doubt what is causing the disturbance – Shadowbrooks is haunted. Clara is determined to find out what is going on in the house, what it is that worries the villagers. As the country heads towards a war that will change everything, Clara becomes immersed in this Gothic house of secrets.

I love a creepy Gothic tale, especially one that is focused upon a large decaying and unloved country house. There are so many closed doors, creaky floors and dark, forbidden passageways, rumours of ghosts – we have all of that and more in House of Glass. By contrast, the world outside Shadowbrook is enjoying a fine summer, although the fact that it is 1914 casts a shadow over even the sunniest days. There is a sense that for many, there will be no more summers. The setting is enticing. The fact that it’s set in the beautiful Cotswolds, which is my own part of the world, made me enjoy it even more.

Clara is a fascinating and unusual heroine. She has what we would know as brittle bone disease. Just a touch can cause an agonising break. Her body is distorted by old and recent breaks, and vividly coloured with bruises. After years spent indoors as her poor bones grew and developed, she is now free to venture outside and this is the world that captivates her. She must always be careful but she is happiest when her fingers are immersed in soil, caring for plants. There is something very no-nonsense about Clara Waterfield. She wears her hair down and unpinned, she speaks bluntly, she has turned her back on religion, and she is a strong supporter of the movement to win female suffrage. Clara stands on the edge of a new world for women. She is ready to enter it.

There are other characters in House of Glass that I really enjoyed, especially Hollis the gardener and Kit the neighbouring landowner, but the novel’s heart belongs to Clara Waterfield. The story is told in Clara’s own words and Susan Fletcher brings her to life beautifully.

House of Glass is gorgeously written as Clara endeavours to make sense of this strange, potentially very frightening world around her. I especially enjoyed the first half of the novel during which time is spent evoking the world of Shadowbrook and its surroundings. There is such a mood of foreboding and menace, offset by the beauty of the weather and the garden. Dark and light contrast so well. I’m not so sure that I fell entirely for the way in which the plot developed in the latter stages of the book but my overriding impression of House of Glass is how beautifully its world and characters are portrayed. I loved the sense that a new modern world is on the horizon, on the other side of the horror that will be the Great War. There is a strong feeling of uncertainty and unhappiness due to the war but for Clara and women like her new possibilities and freedoms beckon while old attitudes to women, especially concerning female morality and their role in the workplace, may be about to start changing.

Emperor of Rome by Robert Fabbri

Corvus | 2019 (3 January) | 349p | Review copy | Buy the book

Emperor of Rome by Robert FabbriWith Emperor of Rome, the ninth book in his engrossing Vespasian series, Robert Fabbri reaches the year AD 68 – the prophecy that has shadowed Vespasian for almost all of his life is about to come true. At last, Vespasian will become Emperor of Rome. This final novel completes the life and career of Vespasian and those closest to him. To feel the full weight of these significant events, I would recommend that you read the series from the start. We’ve got to know Vespasian, his family, friends, servants and enemies over the years. We’ve watched them change. Their time has come.

I’ve loved this series from the beginning, from the early days when the young outsider Vespasian arrived in Rome and started to climb up the political and military ladder, deftly manoeuvering a path through the dangerous whims and fantasies of infamous, deadly, jealous emperors such as Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, even befriending them on occasion. Vespasian’s relationship with Caligula was particularly intriguing while the displays of barbaric cruelty by Tiberius and Nero are unforgettable. Somehow Vespasian always survived but now, in the aftermath of the death of Nero and during the succession of brief, petty emperors, Vespasian’s life has never been less secure. In Emperor of Rome we see how Vespasian has learned the lessons of a life lived at the height of Roman imperial politics.

But Vespasian was a soldier above all else and much of Emperor of Rome follows the general’s campaign, with his son Titus beside him, against the Jews in Judaea. As a result, there is plenty of military action in these pages and once more Robert Fabbri shows his knowledge of Roman warfare, especially siege warfare. It’s gripping stuff. But offsetting this is the utter barbarism with which the defeated Jews are treated and their religion almost destroyed. This might be set 2000 years ago but at times it’s still not easy to read. Vespasian has shown his cruel side before in this series and he does so again here and more often. Vespasian has changed so much over the years. And yet how could he have survived otherwise? Then there are all the terrible things that he’s witnessed, particularly in the previous novel. But it still leaves an unpleasant taste. It’s a fascinating portrait of the corruption of power. And yet Vespasian still considers himself ‘good’, although he does retain some pleasing self-irony.

The relationship between Vespasian and his sons and also with his longterm lover (and ex-slave) Caenis are particularly fascinating. History tells us what will become of Vespasian’s younger son Domitian and the warning signs are here for Vespasian to ignore (perhaps intentionally). On the other hand, the elder son Titus has rather a glowing reputation but we see a bit more to him here. The suggestion that Titus did his father’s dirty work so that Vespasian could be adored is really interesting. And did he really consider treachery towards his father? As I say, fascinating! Caenis is a strange one. She’s endured more than most because of her position but she’s found the best way to survive – through the manipulation of other people’s power. She, too, has grown bored by cruelty. She barely blinks an eye when she sees it played out before her. I found this chilling. This strange Roman family.

Vespasian is no longer a man I can like and this did affect my enjoyment of the book a little, I must confess. As did the repetitive ‘my love’ uttered by Caenis to Vespasian almost every time she opens her mouth – this is a very minor point but it did get to me after a while. But I was swept away by the scope of the story and the fulfilment of Vespasian’s destiny. After all these years, after nine books, the time has arrived. Emperor of Rome tells such a compelling story while depicting the way in which Vespasian used his military and political knowledge to shape the empire to suit him. It moves between Judaea, Alexandria and Rome and brings this ancient world to life, blending military action with political intrigue.

It isn’t easy to say goodbye to a series that I’ve looked forward to each year for a fair few years now. They’ve always gone straight to the top of my reading pile and there’s going to be quite a gap without them. The end of Emperor of Rome tells us where Robert Fabbri will be heading next – to the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death. I cannot wait. But, in the meantime, if you haven’t read the Vespasian books, now is the perfect time to do so. The completion of this marvellous, ambitious series is a wonderful achievement that deserves to be celebrated. Bravo, Robert Fabbri!

Other reviews
Vespasian I: Tribune of Rome
Vespasian II: Rome’s Executioner
Vespasian III: False God of Rome
Vespasian IV: Rome’s Fallen Eagle
Vespasian V: Masters of Rome
Vespasian VI: Rome’s Lost Son
Vespasian VII: The Furies of Rome
Vespasian VIII: Rome’s Sacred Flame
Arminius: The Limits of Empire

Guest post by Ian Ross, author of Triumph in Dust

The Twilight of Rome series by Ian Ross has given me such reading pleasure over the last few years. Set during the early years of the 4th century AD, the books provide such a fascinating and thrilling portrait of a divided Roman empire at war, covering the rise to power of one of Rome’s most famous (but perhaps not that well known in fiction) emperors Constantine the Great. The centurion Aurelius Castus, a fantastic hero, is placed at the heart of events and it is gripping stuff. In January, the series comes to a close with the sixth book, Triumph in Dust. This obviously makes me sad as I’ll miss it but I’m really excited to see how it will end – for Rome and for Castus. I’ll be posting a review of the novel closer to its publication in hardback on 10 January but the ebook will be available from 1 December. To celebrate the occasion, I’m delighted to join the blog tour with a guest post by Ian Ross on how he picked this particular period of Roman history to bring alive in the Twilight of Rome series.

War at the Edge of the World by Ian RossGuest post

You decide that you want to write a series of novels, following the adventures of a single character through an epic period of history. You’ve always been fascinated by the ancient Roman world, so that seems the ideal setting; but Rome endured for over half a millennium, and featured a wealth of extraordinary events; how do you narrow it down?

You want to choose a period that will allow you the widest geographical scope. You also need a cast of engaging historical figures, familiar to the educated reader but not over-represented in fiction. You want to steer your stories as close as possible to recorded facts, so you need a well documented era, but one with sufficient breadth of uncertainty to allow your imagination free rein. Lastly, of course, you need to choose a setting with the greatest possible dramatic potential, a time of wars and uprisings, plots and intrigues, a moment when the certainties of the past are being overthrown, and a single man – or woman – can rise from obscurity to take a guiding role in great events.

It’s strange to consider, as I reach the conclusion of my ‘Twilight of Empire’ series – the sixth and final book, Triumph in Dust, is published in January – that I did once ask myself these questions. But for me, there could only have been one answer. Years before, when I lived in Sicily, I had visited the ruins of the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina, and seen the fabulous floor mosaics, dating from the early 4th century AD, showing scenes of daily life: soldiers and hunters, aristocrats and slaves, all in dazzling colour. I soon realised that the thirty-year reign of the Emperor Constantine would provide an ideal framing chronology. From his first acclamation at York in AD306, Constantine’s bloody and dramatic rise to sole power would give me a powerful narrative arc, around which my story could evolve. He was also the first emperor to adopt Christianity, and the revolutionary changes in religion would add an extra social dimension to the turmoil of the era.

Imperial Vengeance by Ian RossBut I did not want to tell the story of Constantine himself; instead I wanted to view his world through the eyes of a figure on the periphery of power, a man who could move freely between the frontiers and the very heart of the empire. And so my protagonist was born: Aurelius Castus begins the first novel as a common soldier, recently promoted to centurion of a legion in northern Britain. His adventurous career will take him through the greatest battles of the age, and right across the Roman world from the barbarian wilderness to the palaces of the emperors, then onward to the distant eastern frontiers, as he scales towards the dangerous summit of power.

Now, even as I consider future projects, and once more ask myself those same questions about setting, I know that the world of the ‘Twilight of Empire’ novels will always endure in my imagination. Historical fiction gives us a way of encountering familiarity in the strangeness of the past.

Reviews and posts
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire 1)
Swords Around the Throne (Twilight of Empire 2)
Battle for Rome (Twilight of Empire 3) (with interview)
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire 4)
Imperial Vengeance (Twilight of Empire 5)

The Corset by Laura Purcell

Raven Books | 2018 (20 September) | 395p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Corset by Laura PurcellDorothea Truelove, a young and beautiful heiress, feels that she has little control over her own life, that she is in danger of just sitting around while her father arranges a marriage to a suitably grand personage she will be tied to for the rest of her life. She finds an escape in charitable work, particularly visiting women in prisons that she herself helps to fund. This also gives her the chance to practice her passion – phrenology. Dorothea believes that the disposition of a character to commit crimes can be seen in the shape of the perpetrator’s skull and that their moral improvement will be reflected in the skull’s changing shape. She now has another young woman on which to test her theories – the teenage seamstress Ruth Butterham, imprisoned and awaiting trial for murder.

Ruth couldn’t be any more different from Dorothea. Having begun her life in gentile poverty, tragic, terrible circumstances forced Ruth and her mother to the very depths of what they can survive. Ruth has much to feel bitter about but she also feels guilt – not because she murdered anyone but because she believes that she inadvertently killed with her needle and thread, that some supernatural power had turned every stitch into a weapon, driven by Ruth’s grief and fury.

The Corset tells the story of these two young women, one barely more than a child, in alternate sections as Ruth tells her life to Dorothea who then reflects on what she has learned and how this must affect her own beliefs and life. Ruth’s story challenges everything Dorothea believes, that crime can be explained rationally by the dimensions of a skull. There is little that is rational in what Ruth describes. Can she be believed? Can this murderous supernatural power really be true? But, whether it’s true or not, the brutality and cruelty that Ruth has suffered has much to teach Dorothea about the nature of evil and much of it is very much the work of real men and women.

Ruth’s tale is extraordinary and I was engrossed by it. Laura Purcell demonstrated her fine storytelling powers in The Silent Companions, a truly frightening and chilly ghost story. These are on show again although now the dark powers are much more ambiguous while the evil of man is thrown much more into the light. As a result, this isn’t so much a frightening story as a disturbing one. Ruth’s experiences are horrific and they are explored in detail from the very beginning. There is a shocking scene early on that I must admit was too much for me and it proved to be a stumbling block that I had to overcome. I’m glad that I did overcome it because the rest of the novel kept me in its grip. But this is undoubtedly a very dark tale for much of the time and Ruth’s words, as she describes what has happened, are powerfully descriptive.

Ruth forms the heart of the novel and it’s her sections which I enjoyed the most. Dorothea did little to win me over at the beginning, not least because of her dubious preoccupation with phrenology. She is also privileged and aware that she is. Money is important to her, as is her status. And, although she fancies herself in love with a lowly policeman, one can’t help wondering if that is all a childlike romantic dream. But as her story progresses and she becomes more self-aware, as well as more aware of the horror that society is inflicting on its poorest members, I warmed to her a little more. And Dorothea’s story does develop in a quite surprising if possibly not entirely unexpected way. But the Ruth sections are superb.

The mood of the novel, its menace and evil force, loom so large over the novel, making it such an appropriate read during these long dark evenings. This is the perfect time of year for a Gothic novel and The Corset hits the spot so well. I love Laura Purcell’s writing as well as her eye for historical detail. The Corset isn’t fixed to a particular time, it’s set in a past in which evil flourishes. There’s a kind of dark fairy tale feel to it, an unreal world in which the relationship between mothers and daughters, between fathers and daughters can take on a frightening, shadowy quality. Dorothea’s surname of Truelove contributes to the symbolism as she worries before the looming possibility of an evil stepmother. There are demons and angels in this novel, whether or not the supernatural haunts Ruth’s stitches.

Other review
The Silent Companions

The Lost Daughter by Gill Paul

Headline Review | 2018 (18 October) | 456p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Daughter by Gill PaulWhen the Romanovs, the overthrown ruling family of Russia, arrived in Ekaterinburg in 1918 they could have had no idea that this would be their final prison, that there could be no escape. At least, not for all. Maria Romanov, one of the Grand Duchesses, drew people to her with her naturally friendly nature. While this could lead to grief, it could also lead to love and to salvation. More than one of the guards fell for Maria but one in particular risked his life for her. This is the story of what might have been.

This isn’t the first time that Gill Paul has written a novel about the Romanovs. In the wonderful The Secret Wife, the life of another of the daughters, Tatiana, was reimagined. Now, in the centenary of their murder, the author turns to her sister Maria, giving her another chance of life. Events from the earlier novel are referred to here so it exists in the same historical universe. It adds another poignancy as Maria ceaselessly wonders what happened to Tatiana.

The Lost Daughter is an enchanting novel, quite melancholic at times, and extremely hard to put down. Maria is brought to life so beautifully. We live years of her life with her as she endures so much, her memories of her grand childhood growing ever fainter as she must deal with the reality of living in a Russia that wanted her dead and killed her family. But, as the years pass, things don’t get easier as the novel takes us through decades of Russian history, through the poverty and hardship of Lenin’s rule, through the terror of Stalin, and through the misery of the Second World War – the Siege of Leningrad forms a central part of the novel and it was this section that kept me up until so late into the night. It is utterly compelling.

As with The Secret Wife, there is a parallel story going on here. In this strand, we follow Val, an Australian woman living in Sydney who has an elderly, bitter, haunted Russian father. Val’s own life is difficult. She has an abusive husband. Her mother was driven away by her father. But now Val is breaking free and to do that she must understand her origins and what it is that tormented her father on his deathbed. It will lead her on a fascinating pilgrimage to the Soviet Union.

I must admit that I didn’t find the early chapters in Val’s life easy to read. Domestic violence is a subject I prefer to avoid in fiction but, once that section was past, I became thoroughly involved in Val’s tale. The chapters covering Maria’s life were the most engrossing – and how could they not be? What a story! – but I became increasingly intrigued by Val’s role in the novel, especially towards the end when everything comes together in such an emotionally charged and perfect way.

The Secret Wife is so steeped in 20th-century Russian history, mainly focusing on St Petersburg, or Leningrad as it became. I’ve visited the city several times (when it was Leningrad), including the mass graves from the Siege, and I think that Gill Paul captures its spirit – resilience, fortitude and suffering. I found it really emotional. But the novel also has the feel of a saga. Several generations are covered as Maria’s family grows and each must face their own challenges while finding their own peace and love. The role of the family is central to this book, especially the relationship between parents and children. Maria has lost so much and yet she has so much to give. I wept for her, and with her, more than once. Maria is the perfect subject for this gorgeously written, emotional, glorious, sweeping tale of tragedy, survival and Soviet Russia.

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