Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The River Between Us by Liz Fenwick

HQ | 2021 (10 June) | c.500p | Review copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

The River Between Us by Liz FenwickOn the rebound from her divorce, Theo buys a cottage, sight unseen, on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from Devon. The cottage is in a poor state of repair – fortunately the villagers prove to be a useful and practical sort – and Theo soon falls in love with it. Her ties are strengthened when she discovers some letters hidden away, which tell of a love affair between a servant, Zach, and Lady Alice who lived at the nearby manor house of Abbotswood. Their love is divided by the river but also by class and ultimately by war as Zach becomes a soldier in the First World War. In the present day, the remains of soldiers have been uncovered in a field in France. The indications are that they were Tamar men. The village waits to learn their identities.

Liz Fenwick writes the most beautiful romantic stories, each deeply embedded in the place that she loves – Cornwall. I share that love and so I am especially drawn to her novels. There is such a strong sense of place and The River Between Us is no different.

I was immediately drawn to Theo, a middle-aged woman who is starting from scratch all over again, having lost the home she loved. We get to know and like her as she rebuilds her new home and gets to know the people of the village. I do like a novel that features an older woman! Theo is an interesting woman.

The novel moves between the present and the past as Theo investigates the mysterious and unopened letters that she discovers. This is a device but I like it and the letters are soon joined by portraits and the manor itself as a picture is drawn up of society in this remote and beautiful area in the early 1900s before war took away so many of its men. The river symbolises the divide between classes as Zach must deal with his impossible love. I loved Theo’s story but I was also really attracted to Lady Alice.

I listened to the audiobook, which was beautifully narrated by Lucy Scott. This is just the sort of novel that I love to listen to. It carried me away to a place I love and the prose is beautiful and so evocative. I highly recommend it.

Other reviews
The Returning Tide
The Path to the Sea

Protector by Conn Iggulden

Michael Joseph | 2021 (13 May) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Protector by Conn IgguldenIt is 480 BC and the mighty Xerxes, King of Persia, has won a historic victory over the heroes of Greece and Sparta at the Battle of Thermopylae. Now he stands in Athens and watches the city burn to the ground. Athens is largely empty, its citizens have been evacuated, an epic undertaking, to the nearby island of Salamis and now the generals and leaders of Athens – Themistocles, Xanthippus and Cimon chief among them – must defend each and everyone of them in a sea battle. The Battle of Salamis lasts for days and the Greeks must use cunning every bit as much as its ships, oarsmen and warriors to take on Persia. But this won’t end it. The enemies will meet in battle again as Pericles, the son of Xanthippus, grows to manhood surrounded by war, death and a hunger for vengeance.

Conn Iggulden is one of the finest writers of historical fiction that you can read. He particularly excels when he takes on the great wars of the ancient and medieval worlds – the scramble for power after the assassination of Caesar, the Wars of the Roses – and Protector is the second novel in a series that covers the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC. It follows directly on from The Gates of Athens and builds on our investment in the people of Athens and Sparta, an uneasy but vital alliance, as they strive to fight off a relentless enemy whose army greatly outnumbers their own. We’ve watched them win and lose famous battles. Themistocles and Xanthippus are not friends – there is more hatred than liking between them, they are political rivals – but they have come together and the prickly relationship between them, and between them and the Spartans, has been absolutely fascinating to follow. There has also been the more human and emotional side of spending time with Xanthippus’s wife Agariste and their children, including Pericles. It is the families, after all, who would endure slavery or death if their warrior husbands and fathers fail and it is the women who would kill their own children if it came to it.

It is for this reason that I think you should read The Gate of Athens first. Protector is a fine novel but there is too much going on for there to be time to form an attachment to its characters. The reader will bring that from the former novel.

Conn Iggulden is second to none when it comes to battle scenes and the depiction of the sea battle of Salamis is absolutely brilliant. He perfectly captures the confusion, the mighty effort, the heroism and brutality, the pure horror and fear of it all, especially for the rowers. As the oarsmen literally row themselves to death, Greek warriors take their place. We also see the strategy of the battle and watch Themistocles emerge as Athens’ great hero. And this isn’t the only battle in the novel, which also features the famous land battle at Plataea. The pages fly by as the author catches up the reader in these exhilarating events.

Themistocles is an extraordinary character. He does his best to be very difficult to like but he is such an interesting man. There is a sense, though, that Xanthippus is the true hero in Iggulden’s mind and it’s Xanthippus and his family who receive the warmest treatment. I really enjoyed reading about Pericles and his relationship with his siblings. I knew a little about Pericles the famous statesman but I had no idea about his childhood in war and it’s extremely involving.

If I had an issue with Protector, it would be its similarities to The Gates of Athens. There is almost a repetition, with the same characters – Athenian heroes – squabbling amongst themselves while uniting against mighty Persia in another round of battles. But there is a development in Pericles, who I suspect might be the main figure for the series as a whole, and he promises much for the third novel. But the highlight of Protector is an outstanding one, among the very best in all of the author’s novels – the Battle of Salamis.

This conflict took place about 2,500 years ago, such a long time ago, and yet it is well-known to history – the underdog Greeks fighting for survival against overwhelming odds. The battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea continue to resonate but Conn Iggulden brings new life to them and the men who fought them and the depth of his knowledge into the period as well as ancient warfare is resounding. The author has a gift of making each historical period he touches fascinating to the reader and this new Athenian series is no different. He is a great storyteller.

Other reviews
The Blood of Gods (Emperor V)
Stormbird (Wars of the Roses I)
Trinity (Wars of the Roses II)
Bloodline (Wars of the Roses III)
Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors (Wars of the Roses IV)
Dunstan
The Falcon of Sparta

The Gates of Athens

Blackout by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2021 (18 March) | 432p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

Blackout by Simon ScarrowBerlin in December 1939 is beginning to feel the effects of war. Shortages are becoming noticeable in the city’s most celebrated restaurants, much to the irritation of powerful men, but, far more menacingly, the newly-imposed nightly blackout has brought monsters out to play. When Gerda Korzeny, a former actress and celebrated beauty, is raped and murdered, the establishment takes note. Gerda was married to a top Nazi lawyer, a friend of Goebbels. The Gestapo call in Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke to investigate. There’s a reason Schenke has been selected – he’s not a member of the Nazi Party and is only tolerated for his glamorous past racing cars, an illustrious career that ended in a crash. If this case should uncover demons, then Schenke will make the perfect scapegoat. Then, as the nights draw even darker, another woman is murdered and the pressure on Schenke mounts.

Berlin is one of my favourite cities and I’ve always been fascinated by its past, especially during the 1930s when its reputation as a city of culture and hedonism comes up against the brick wall of the Nazis and fascism. Blackout is set at a particularly interesting time, during the first weeks of the Second World War when society seems bemused that Britain should have declared war on it. At this time war is mostly an inconvenience with the parties and dining out continuing, with the acceptance that eventually Britain and France will succumb to German military might, just like Poland. It’s intriguing to see how these men and women view the Nazis among them. Most have joined the Nazi Party and there is an acceptance and compliance, albeit one tinged with fear and regret. That’s for some, others positively thrive.

Crime fiction set in Nazi Berlin is not straightforward. The crimes of the regime are off the scale, so the author is faced with the challenge of making the reader feel that these murders matter. There also needs to be an empathy with Schenke. That issue is partly solved by giving him his glamorous past and also his angst with his Nazi controllers. He’s getting on with life as best as he can, loyal to Germany but uneasy with its fascism. There is some success. The murders are cruel – I actually couldn’t read some of this – and we do care for the women, especially Gerda. There is a whole social side to this, which goes beyond politics, with the lot of some women as trophy wives or mistresses. But I’m not sure I have the same empathy towards Schenke but that’s not so much to do with his issues towards the Nazis as with his attitude towards women, an attitude that seems prevalent through the novel.

The serial killer investigation part of the novel is bleak (admittedly I’m not much of a reader of serial killer crime fiction, whatever the setting) and I rather think that women have a hard time of it generally. Nobody seems to like them very much, including Horst Schenke, who, like other men in the novel, is very critical of the woman he professes to love. The women here are judged by their lovers. Gerda was and so, too, is Karin, Schenke’s girlfriend. He seems more interested in her important admiral uncle than her and he regularly reflects on her faults. Gerda is hit by her lover. I found this casual dislike of women quite difficult, quite apart from the violence done to them by the killer. It does, though, help build an atmosphere that this is a place doing great wrongs, an evil place and time. It is most definitely atmospheric and immersive – there is a fog of evil hanging over Berlin in December 1939, compounded by the blackout.

So, despite my issues with the novel, it is a powerful read and, if you enjoy serial killer thrillers, then this may well be for you. Its historical setting is vividly real and is undoubtedly one of the most evocative portrayals of Nazi Berlin that I’ve read. You can feel the cold horror of it as Nazism permeates itself into society and people’s lives. The killings don’t seem out of place and that makes them even more harrowing.

I can’t finish this review without saying how much I adore Simon Scarrow’s Cato and Macro novels!

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

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

The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2021 (29 April) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Royal Secret by Andrew TaylorIt is 1670 and the squalid and decaying court of Charles II is rife with intrigue as the unsteady Stuart crown is threatened by forces in the Netherlands and France. When Abbot, one of the agents working for the Secretary of State Lord Arlington, is found dead, his colleague James Marwood is sent to retrieve confidential papers from his home. It is clear that some are missing, not that this is an easy house to search – it is stinking with rats, poisoned and dying in agony. The trail leads Marwood to the house of Mr Fanshawe where Abbot’s wife and her child, secretive and frightened, now live, alongside the talk of the town, a lion.

Meanwhile, architect Cat Haskins has been hired to design a grand poultry house for the King’s sister in France, a project of great interest to the Dutchman Van Riebeck. Cat finds herself caught in the centre of a disturbing business, one that straddles the English Channel. Marwood can only watch on in alarm before he, too, steps into the fray.

The Royal Secret is the fifth novel to feature James Marwood and the woman who is frequently on his mind, Cat Haskins (once Lovett). You don’t need to have read the others but I would really encourage you to do so as these are among the best historical novels you could possibly read. Their depiction of Charles II’s court during the Great Fire and in the succeeding years is superb. This book does mark a new beginning of sorts because Cat is now independent again. She is working for herself as an architect and is viewed as a curiosity by the people who employ her to design elaborate houses for chickens – it’s all the rage and all rather strange. That’s even before you consider the logistics of owning a pet lion and placing him in your stables.

The plot of The Royal Secret is pleasingly complex and immerses both Marwood and Cat in a situation that endangers them both, while also threatening the security of the realm and a King who is constantly under attack by foreign powers and spies closer to hand. It all gets rather personal when Cat finds herself mixing with the wrong people and all Marwood can do is watch on anxiously. It’s a great story, brilliantly told by Andrew Taylor, and I recommend you dive in. You’ll soon catch up if you haven’t read any of the other books.

It’s the portrayal of Charles II’s court and government that I found the most riveting. It’s a hotbed of personal ambition and envy, sin and disease, corruption and a rather odd idealism surrounding the nature of the crown after years of all too recent civil war and Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Charles does make occasional charismatic appearances in this novel and in the others and they are always highlights. I absolutely love the way in which he is depicted. The men who work for him and conduct his business are far less appealing and Marwood is in the unfortunate position of being caught in the middle of most of them.

There is extra glamour in The Royal Secret thanks to some extremely enjoyable scenes set in France where Cat must wait on the pleasure of Madame, Charles II’s sister. Equally fun to read are the chapters set aboard ships. It’s hard to be refined and noble when in the grip of seasickness. Complementing these personal stories is the intrigue as secret messages move between countries and agents. There’s also a menace at work and he makes for an interesting villain.

The King’s Secret is clever, historically rich and detailed, and extremely engrossing. I can’t rave about it enough as this fabulous series gets even better. It tells a great story – compelling, tragic and thoroughly intriguing and, of course, it is deliciously steeped in the atmosphere of this secretive, diseased, decaying court of Charles II. The King’s Secret is quite possibly the best of the series, which is saying something.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court

The King’s Evil
The Last Protector

Six Tudor Queens VI: Katharine Parr – The Sixth Wife by Alison Weir

Katharine Parr by Alison WeirKatharine Parr must have thought when she buried her second husband that now she could marry for love and not for the advancement of her family but, in 1543, when Katharine caught the eye of an ailing King Henry VIII, her fate was decided and she became his sixth wife. These are dangerous times to have beliefs that stray towards Protestantism and Katharine is seen by some of that faith as a beacon of hope. That means she has enemies and they seek her ruin. Even more dangerous, perhaps, is the love that hides in her heart for a man close to the King – at the end of that path, if found out, would lie the axe.

And so we come to the sixth and final novel in Alison Weir’s ambitious and spectacularly-presented series, a series that I have read and loved for almost six years now. Where has the time gone?! It naturally ends with the last of Henry VIII’s wives – the one that survived and also, on a personal note, the one that I’m named after! Visiting her grave at Sudeley Castle is one of my earliest memories and I’ve visited it many times since. Katharine Parr is very special to me. It also means that I know a fair bit about her, which can be a hindrance when going into another novel about this fascinating and rather overlooked woman and queen.

I did enjoy reading the novel. Alison Weir, as a historian, clearly knows her stuff and the novels are packed with historical details of Tudor life and its setting. These are very immersive reads and they are rich with sumptuous fabrics and jewels, grand buildings, music and feasting, love and death. Katharine Parr is an attractive figure who gives her love easily. It was good to read more about her earlier life with her first two marriages, each of which is just as interesting as her third marriage to Henry. I particularly liked the section during which Katharine is married to John Latimer – the Pilgrimage of Grace makes an appearance. It is in these scenes that Katharine is most alive.

Throughout the series I have been intrigued by the author’s interpretation of the character of Henry VIII. It’s fair to say that I’m at odds with it, particularly so in this final novel. Henry is effectively exonerated of his deeds, the blood is wiped from his hands, and the blame is passed to those around him, to his victims. Henry is pitied for having to execute his young fifth wife, Kathryn Howard, for example. When Katharine Parr almost faces the same fate and is about to be arrested, it is Katharine’s fault. She doesn’t blame Henry even though it’s his signature on the warrant. We’re told about the stench and foulness of Henry’s diseased leg as well as his immense size, but Katharine is happy to share his bed and do her duty. Katharine’s considerable intellect is hinted at but I’m not sure that the novel does her justice, just as it plays down the abject fear she must have felt at marrying such a man, who had executed two of his wives and treated others, and his children, terribly.

Thomas Seymour is another problematic character for his relationship with Katharine’s step daughter, the child Princess Elizabeth. Personally, he’s one of my least favourite figures in Tudor history. Here, it’s as if Katharine doesn’t allow herself to feel too deeply. What did she really want? To have a child or to be free of marriages and be religiously and intellectually independent at a time when this was just not permitted? Katharine is a fascinating, deeply intriguing woman, who stood out during her own time – her Meditations was the first book published in England by a woman using her own name and in the English language. She played a deadly game with Henry through their marriage and it is arguable that it was his death that saved hers.

Katharine Parr is a thoroughly entertaining novel, it’s fun to read and it brings the splendour of the Tudor court to life. I will really miss these books. Each has been engrossing and, at times, tragic as well as light. For me, though, there have been two themes that have fascinated me the most – the early lives of these women before their royal marriages and the personality of the one constant of the novels, Henry VIII.

Without doubt, this is about the most beautiful series to be published in recent years. The covers and the endpapers have been truly stunning throughout. It’s a fine collection to read and own and admire. You can read my reviews of the previous five books below.

Other reviews
Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen
Six Tudor Queens II: Anne Boleyn, a King’s Obsession
Six Tudor Queens III: Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen

Six Tudor Queens IV: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets
Six Tudor Queens V: Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen

The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

Head of Zeus | 2021 (13 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Pompeii, AD 74: Amara wasn’t always a slave and ‘Amara’ wasn’t always her name. A Greek and a doctor’s daughter, family ruin led her on this path to slavery and prostitution in the Wolf Den, Pompeii’s most notorious Lupanar, or brothel. The women who work alongside her on these stone beds in confined cells come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some know no other life, saved from rubbish heaps where they had been dumped as babies, but others, like Amara and Dido, stolen from her home in Carthage, remember their past lives and are desperate for freedom. Amara is determined to get it, but at what cost?

The Wolf Den is set at a time when Pompeii’s inhabitants had no idea of what Vesuvius, the mountain looming over the city, had in store for them. This is a novel of what life was like in Pompeii just a few years before the eruption and the result is nothing short of a triumph. I adored this novel so much. It is my favourite novel of the year so far. I regularly visit Pompeii, I know it pretty well, and this novel has transformed my view of it.

Elodie Harper populates the streets and buildings of Pompeii with real people, moving the focus away from the ruins to the bustle and noise of a vibrant, busy city, so full of life. I loved these women, the she-wolves. We follow them as they go about their lives – ‘fishing’ for clients, visiting the local bar for lunch, going to parties to ‘perform’, looking out for one another, especially in regard to the brothel keeper, their owner, searching for a way out, the rich man who will save them. We’re presented with a network of Pompeii’s slaves, both male and female – prostitutes, bar workers, shop workers, doormen, musicians and entertainers. Then there are the people who own them or exploit them, even love them, or kill them. Some of these people are known to history and we see them in The Wolf Den in a new light.

Photo by Kate Atherton, 2019

When I visited the Lupanar (in the evening, when most visitors had left and I had the place to myself), I was shocked by it, with those little cells with their stone beds, the cramped little corridor with its toilet. The Wolf Den portrays the cruel and brutal life that these women (and boys) lived, with the darkness and abuse of the night contrasting with the business and chatter of the day. We’re given glimpses of fabulous villas, with their cool pools, fine wines and food, and libraries. Amara wants that.

The Wolf Den isn’t salacious, it isn’t erotic. Instead, it is a fascinating portrayal of these women’s lives, so full of misery and abuse but with such fight and resilience. It is a romance of sorts but this isn’t romance as we would know it. The women are all so different in the ways that they have responded to their situation, with the reader’s deepest emotional response perhaps going to those who are mothers. There is so much sadness and pain. Elodie Harper tells their stories with such emotional insight and warmth. But there is also a toughness and a sharpness as well as wit as some of the women, such as Amara, try to work the system and is a leader of sorts. She is an incredible character.

We know what looms over Pompeii and the fate in store for it. For much, if not all, of the novel, the reader can forget about that. Our attention is on AD 74 and not on AD 79, such is the power of the storytelling, but that fate is there and I really hope the author returns to Pompeii to continue its story and that of its she-wolves.

The Wolf Den is utterly engrossing and immersive. I will never see Pompeii with the same eyes again. I can’t wait to go back, more than ever now, and, when I do, I will take time to imagine the city’s slaves going about their masters’ business, walking those streets, inhabiting those buildings. This is a serious contender for my book of 2021. I don’t often return to novels but I’m looking forward to re-reading The Wolf Den when the beautiful hardback is published this week. Simply fabulous.

Nightshade by E.S. Thomson

Constable | 2021 (15 April) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nightshade by ES ThomsonIt is 1851 and apothecary Jem Flockhart, with the help of close friend Will Quartermaine, decides to restore her physic garden. The project is intended as a distraction, a relaxation, for Will who is recuperating after serious illness. The garden was originally designed by Jem’s late mother, Catherine Underhill, a woman who was every bit as fascinated by poisons and medicinal plants as Jem. But Jem and Will’s digging disturbs the past when they uncover the remains of a body buried years before, clearly murdered, under a bush of deadly nightshade. Jem feels compelled to investigate, little knowing that these actions will ignite a new series of murders with each victim found with deadly nightshade berries in their mouths and each connected to the garden. Jem finds herself on a painfully personal journey as she descends into a world of poisons, exotic plants, memories, murder and madness.

It’s hard to believe that Nightshade is the fifth Jem Flockhart novel. I’ve read and loved these books from the beginning and this one is, I think, my favourite. You can read it without having read the others but I think in many ways it represents the fulfilment of the past. Jem’s character – a girl brought up as a boy and now living and working as a man – is fully evolved, we’ve witnessed the events that have shadowed her recent years, the murders of friends and colleagues, the establishment of her role as apothecary, part of a medical community, and an investigator of murder – it’s now time to learn more about her mysterious mother who died when Jem was an infant. Jem doesn’t like people getting too close to her past and to herself. Her gender is her biggest secret. But, in this case, there is nowhere to hide.

The captivating story mixes with the past as we read extracts from the journal kept by Catherine Underhill as she undertook a botanical expedition to India alongside some extraordinary women, completely out of step with society’s expectations for their gender. Once they are away from England, they leave that corseted world behind and enter another place, which is exotic, intoxicating. This is brilliantly evoked by E.S. Thomson and it complements perfectly Jem’s London, which is also heady with poisons, poverty, dirt, depravity, a place in which people can drive themselves mad. There are some incredible scenes where Jem and Will encounter the insane, secrets locked away within. The cast of characters in this novel are fabulous – each is fascinating and most are disturbing, even frightening.

Victorian London is vividly portrayed. The novel (and series) is full of historical medical and botanical knowledge. The book is enriched by its detail. At the heart of all of this, though, is Jem, who seems lost, vulnerable and at risk. There is only so much protection Will can provide. I urge you to read this superb series, with its ingenious tales of murder and murderers, and get to know Jem, one of my very favourite figures in historical fiction.

Other reviews
Beloved Poison
Dark Asylum
The Blood

Surgeons’ Hall

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline Winspear

Allison & Busby | 2021 (23 March) | 350p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline WinspearThe Consequences of Fear is the 16th novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s much loved and wonderful series featuring Maisie Dobbs, a well-to-do investigator and secret agent in London before and during World War Two. You don’t need to have read all or any of the series to enjoy this latest addition to it (it would even serve as a good introduction) but, if you have, you’ll be as emotionally invested in Maisie as I am and that will add a certain special something to your appreciation of it. I haven’t read them all yet. I’ve read the last few and a couple of the earlier ones and I can thoroughly recommend them and I’m looking forward to catching up with the others. Maisie is definitely a person worth knowing, as is her very dependable and invaluable assistant Billy.

It is October 1941 and bombs continue to fall on London. It is a scarred and pitted city, full of deserted or destroyed buildings. The war effort is everything with many trying to do their bit, while others try and hold things together, still remembering the horrors of the Great War. When young Freddie Hackett, a runner who carries government messages across London, witnesses a murder in a doorway, nobody believes him. But Maisie Dobbs does.

Maisie does everything she can to help Freddie and his family, in tandem with the overstretched police, while continuing in her other job working with a secret government department to train men and women to go undercover in occupied France to work with the Resistance. The burden of this role is almost overpowering for Maisie and is due to become even more so. Maisie is soon to learn that the secrets of the last war remain as dangerous as ever while the current war is reaching a critical stage.

This is a fantastic series and I read The Consequences of Fear as soon as I could. I’m so glad I did as I think this novel could well be my favourite. It feels like a significant book in the series. Maisie’s family life seems to be settling down, causing her to re-evaluate her life and the significance of her friendships. Maisie’s friends play an important role in the novel, as do women in general. She might work for and with men but Maisie is well aware of how special these women are – women who parachute into France to work for the Resistance as radio operators (a role with an average life span of only six weeks), women spies, army drivers, mothers, daughters, friends. I love this circle that surrounds Maisie.

But we can’t forget Billy, Maisie’s assistant, who is completely wonderful. Maisie is, not to put too fine a point on it, posh. She has money to spare and there’s a philanthropic side to her. There’s a formality to her dealings with those who work for her, even if she is very happy to get her hands dirty. Billy can’t really be called a friend but I think Maisie would certainly regard him as family. The two of them together follow their case across London and I love the detail of this – the pubs they visit to question landlords, the deserted houses, the trains, the dark streets, the river. There is a deeply poignant scene near the beginning with the river. This is a city under attack, people are suffering. While it brings out the best in some, it certainly doesn’t in others. Freddie, just a child, bears the weight of this.

I loved spending time with Maisie again. I hoped for the best for her throughout and I worried with her when she felt responsible for the women being sent into France. I enjoy how she mixes with hard-drinking government men and stressed detectives. She straddles male and female wartime experiences. Above all else, Maisie and Billy are immensely likeable, as are Maisie’s friends and family. I can’t wait to see them all again.

Other review
The American Agent

The Drowned City by K.J. Maitland

Headline | 2021 (1 April) | 448p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

The Drowned City by KH MaitlandIt is 1606 and Bristol has been devastated by a catastrophic tidal wave. Many are dead, lost, orphaned or homeless. It’s a year after the Gunpowder Plot and James I and his adviser Robert Cecil are overcome with paranoia and fear. While Cecil worries about plotters, James is concerned about witches. Daniel Pursglove, who has special talents, is despatched to Bristol with two missions – to find the escaped Catholic conspirator Spero Pettingar, who is believed to be in Bristol, and to find out whether the terrible flood was an act of God or the work of witches.

Daniel finds a city wrecked by the flood, its citizens tested to their limit, susceptible to rumours of witchcraft, desperate to find somebody to blame. It’s not long before there are lynchings, Jesuit plots, and then Daniel discovers there is a murderer at work.

Karen Maitland writes beautifully about the people of the past and their lives and beliefs, especially in the medieval countryside. Now, writing under a slightly different name, she turns her attention to the early 17th century and a time that was more modern and knowable in some ways but was still alive with suspicion, fuelled to a large degree by the witch-hating James I. The starting point is compelling – the true story of the wave that destroyed much of Bristol – and here she puts it in a context of religious turmoil, persecution, conspiracy and suspicion.

The result is a richly evocative and atmospheric novel, gorgeously written, with attention given to the details of daily life as well as the devastation of the flood. This is a population that has been traumatised and we feel that keenly. We meet men, women and children in dire straits, including a young boy who must survive as best as he can, homeless and still hoping that he can find his family, that they won’t be lost to the sea. He is one of the survivors and they can be ruthless.

Daniel is an outsider who wanders through the city’s streets, suspected by many and a witness to some terrible things. There are some devastating scenes in The Drowned City as people find witches in ordinary places and treat them brutally. Daniel is there to uncover secrets, without knowing what those secrets are. He is caught in the middle of something that he can hardly understand but it constantly reminds him of a past he is trying to forget.

The Drowned City is beautifully written, with an emphasis on atmosphere, on Bristol and its people during this period of turmoil and persecution rather than on the plot, which meanders considerably. I did find this a little frustrating on occasion but it is certainly engrossing and involving. I loved the scenes featuring King James – especially the memorable scene when he visits the Tower of London to see his lion. This is fabulous! I’ve read a fair few novels featuring James over the years and this James is excellent (and fortunately long dead)!

Other reviews (writing as Karen Maitland)
The Vanishing Witch
The Raven’s Head

A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 (1 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey DavisThe festival of Saturnalia is rapidly approaching and this year Flavia Albia and her aedile husband Tiberius know that it needs to be extra special due to the two young boys now in their care. But the best laid plans and all of that soon go awry when it becomes clear that a gang of hoodlums is messing around with Rome’s lucrative nut market. When matters turn nasty, Tiberius is forced to investigate while Albia has her own hands full with another matter. A woman has thrown her husband out and wants to know exactly what he’s been up to. It seems like such a simple case, just something to pass the time. Albia couldn’t be any more wrong. And that’s before their pet sheep (called Sheep) is stolen and its head dumped on their welcome mat. Meanwhile, Rome carries on regardless, carrying out practical jokes, decorating their houses, tolerating cheekiness from their slaves, and passing out drunk in doorways.

I have been reading Lindsey Davis’s Roman mysteries for more years than I care to mention – first the Falco books and now those that focus on Falco’s adopted daughter rescued from Britannia. In this now soundly established second series, Domitian’s Rome is brought to life due to the author’s masterful way in backing up her wonderful, engaging stories and characters with all of those fascinating historical details. Lindsey Davis knows her stuff and it enriches these novels every bit as much as her humour. A Comedy of Terrors is the ninth volume of the series (how can it be that many already?) and you can enjoy it with or without knowledge of its predecessors. If you love Marcus Didius Falco – as if anyone doesn’t – then you’ll be pleased to see that he pops in. Saturnalia is a family festival after all.

Flavia Albia, as normal, is our narrator and what a wonderfully witty and entertaining companion she is. It’s clear that sometimes what she says hides what she really feels – such as her relationship with her husband (now on the right track again after the lightning incident, I’m relieved to report), her worries for the two little boys in her care, her responsibility for her household, and her memories of her terrible former life. There is an undercurrent of darkness, should you look for it.

A Comedy of Terrors is, perhaps, a more playful read than others in the series. This might be because the author wants to cheer both herself and her readers up. It worked, at least for me. At its heart is Saturnalia, the festival that has links with Christmas. I know little bits and pieces about the festival but this fabulous novel explores it thoroughly, immersing us in its chaos and fun, while also highlighting its downsides – the streets were far from safe for women and perhaps there is a cruelty behind some of the japes. As usual in these novels, we are reminded of the place of women in this society and the complete and utter barbarity of slavery, as well as the brevity of life for many. No wonder everyone looked forward to Saturnalia and the reversal of roles, with the slave playing king.

The story is a good one, with several strands which are slowly developed. There is so much of interest happening outside the cases. Everything you wanted to know about the Roman nut business or pie making business can be found in this book. It is all pulled together satisfactorily, and rather amazingly, and I think that the last third is particularly fantastic. I felt like applauding at the end.

Lindsey Davis is so good at placing us in the streets (and high-rise tenements) of late 1st-century AD Rome. There is so much to look at. I love her characters and Flavia Albia has now established herself as a worthy successor to Falco – Falco would, no doubt, have it no other way. I look forward to this series every year and A Comedy of Terrors shows so well exactly why that is.

Other reviews
Enemies at Home
Deadly Election
The Graveyard of the Hesperides
The Third Nero
Pandora’s Boy

Vesuvius by Night
A Capitol Death
The Grove of the Caesars