Category Archives: Historical Fiction

‘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.”

The Third Nero by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (6 April) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Third Nero by Lindsey DavisIt is AD 89 and Domitian is ensconced on Rome’s imperial throne. His position is far from secure, not least because he’s such a horrible human being. In fact, he’s so unpopular that people have been getting rather nostalgic for their poor murdered emperor Nero, so much so that there have been at least three Neros who have recently popped up across the empire, eager to prove that they are in fact not dead. Not all of them can even speak Latin, but that doesn’t deter grumbling Roman officials, stationed far from home, from grabbing the opportunity to adopt a potentially resurrected emperor for their own gains. Much to the relief of his senators, Domitian is away from Rome at the moment, protecting the empire’s borders but, unfortunately, this leaves Rome itself wide open to conspiracy. The latest Nero contender has been brought to Rome for questioning and this has caught everyone’s interest.

The palace is nervous. It’s well aware of a plot embedded in Rome itself but it’s sensitive. Two of Rome’s nobles have fallen foul of Domitian, suspected of involvement in a Nero plot, but nothing has been proven. It is hoped that their widows might hold the answer but how to get it out of them? And then there’s the visiting VIP Parthians and their exotic household and harem. A woman’s sensitivity is needed. Flavia Albia will have to do.

Flavia could do with the distraction. She might have got married only the day before but the fact that her new husband was struck by lightning during their wedding procession and barely survived has meant her marriage has not got off to the best of starts. Worried about her husband but not wanting to sit by his sickbed all day, Flavia reluctantly accepts the case and finds herself as something she never wanted to be – but her father Marcus Didius Falco would know all about – an imperial spy.

The Third Nero is the fifth novel in Lindsey Davis’s wonderful Flavia Albia Roman detective series. It follows on almost immediately from The Graveyard of the Hesperides but you don’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy any of these books. You might not know all the ins and outs of Flavia’s family and romantic life but that’s about it. But if you’re as big a fan of the Falco books as I am, then it’s great to pick up the references to familiar people, places and dogs.

This is a little different from the books that have gone before. The Third Nero is far less of a murder mystery than it is a Roman spy thriller. Instead of working for private clients, Flavia is now in the unfortunate position of working for a government (or palace) that she doesn’t like and it takes her painfully close to some of Falco’s worst memories of being an imperial spy. She’s aware of this and she’s uncomfortable with it. This is a world of dungeons, torturers and secret agents. The latter are not easy to spot.

As usual, Lindsey Davis is expert in bringing to life the everyday details of ancient Rome. This book, like the others, is full of historical and social background – we learn about politics, government, the place of women and foreigners, diplomats, marriage, and much, much more, all set within the marvellously visualised city of Rome. However, I did find that at times this rich background was a little at the expense of the story, which is not one of the strongest of the series. I like the usual whodunnit format of these books and I missed that here. My biggest issue with The Third Nero, though, is poor Tiberius’s lightning strike. This felt like a convenient way to keep him out of the way, allowing his wife to do her detecting, something which may have been extremely irregular during this period.

Nevertheless, it’s always a pleasure to spend time with Flavia Albia. I love her wit and spark. Lindsey Davis writes her so well. She’s immensely likeable and, despite seeming modern in some ways, is also such a part of Rome and the time in which she lives. I always look forward to the latest novel by Lindsey Davis, a novelist I have read and loved for almost thirty years. I’ve read every single one and I can’t wait for the next!

Other reviews
Enemies at Rome
Deadly Election
The Graveyard of the Hesperideres

The Returning Tide by Liz Fenwick

Orion | 2017 (23 March) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Returning Tide by Liz FenwickIt is the summer of 2015 and a family is gathering in the beautiful Cornish village of Mawnan Smith to celebrate the marriage of young Peta. It will take place at Windward, the home of Peta’s grandmother, Elle. Windward holds many memories for Elle, especially now, because it was here, seventy years before, that another wedding took place and it changed her entire life. There is nothing she can to do to prevent the rush of memories. Ghosts walk everywhere.

Meanwhile, across the ocean in Cape Cod, Lara’s great grandfather is reaching the end of his days. As Lara holds his hand through those last moments, he utters one final word: ‘Adele’. Lara has never heard the name before and is surprised that his dying breath should be spent on a woman other than Amelia, his much mourned English wife who had died many years before. He never remarried. Only too happy to run away from problems in her own life, Lara leaves the Cape to spend time with a family friend on the Cornish coast, an area which held special meaning for her great grandfather and Amelia. Lara is determined to discover the identity of Adele and to learn more about those months when her great grandfather was stationed in Cornwall during the Second World War. The past is about to come to life.

I’m the first to admit that The Returning Tide is not my usual type of read but this was one of those occasions on which I read a synopsis of a novel and I knew instantly that I had to read it. The first reason is its movement between two periods of time – World War II and the present day, and the long-term effect of that war on the people we meet in this book. Secondly, it is largely set in my favourite place on the planet – Cornwall, particularly the bit around Helford, which I visit every year and to which, one of these days, I dream of retiring. Thirdly, I love family sagas, especially those which move through the wars of the 20th century. So, I picked up The Returning Tide and hardly put it down again until it was finished the next day. I fell in love with it instantly.

Liz Fenwick writes exquisitely. She poured me into the lives of these people, the generations of families and friends, and made me care deeply for them, even the present-day youngsters. Our main characters, Elle and Lara, are easy to like and Elle in particular is a compelling personality as she undergoes the trauma of reliving painful memories. It’s through Elle that we revisit the past and begin to understand her relationship with her twin sister. There is a real sense of carpe diem amongst these young people during the Second World War. Time is short, quite literally for some of their male friends. Elle is a Wren, deciphering telegraph messages, and she has to listen in to such things that they will colour her life. Elle is altered completely by the war, and so too is her sister.

The detail of these historical sections is marvellous. I’ve always been interested in the history of Cornwall during World War II, you can see the evidence of it everywhere, from wartime structures to gravestones that speak of great personal tragedy. The Returning Tide brings the past vividly to the fore but does it in such an evocative and moving way. Through tales of love and loss.

The novel is divided between the past and the present and, while the sections in the past were my favourite, I was also engrossed by the modern chapters, largely due to the forceful personality of Elle. Elle unites the novel in wonderful ways. She made me cry and smile.

There is great sadness in The Returning Tide, but it’s inviting. I wanted to read it with chocolate and red wine. It was hugely comforting despite the tears. Because it’s also a story about love and it is very tender, especially in its treatment of Elle’s grandson Jack.

The Returning Tide is a beautiful novel in so many ways, from its gorgeous locations and its characters, to its prose and its spirit. Liz Fenwick is a wonderful storyteller. For a few hours she transported me away to somewhere else entirely. I could almost feel the Cornish sea air brushing against my face.

Eagles in the Storm by Ben Kane

Preface | 2017 (23 March) | 343p | Review copy | Buy the book

Eagles in the Storm by Ben KaneIt’s been six years since Rome suffered its most infamous defeat in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. Three legions were destroyed and their eagles stolen by German tribes united under the leadership of Arminius, a man who once served Rome. The loss of the eagles and the betrayal by Arminius continue to grieve Rome, so much so that the few survivors of the defeat are no longer allowed within the walls of Rome. Senior Centurion Lucius Cominius Tullus didn’t just survive the battle, he saved more Roman lives than anyone else, and now he is doing what he can to atone for the shame he continues to bear. Tullus has re-entered the forest, he has taken the fight back to the tribes, he helped to restore one of the lost eagles. But it wasn’t his. Although Tullus is now an important member of the Fifth legion, promoted higher and higher, and worships its eagle, it’s the eagle of the Eighteenth that Tullus is determined to kneel before once again.

Eagles in the Storm completes Ben Kane’s magnificent trilogy on the the Battle of Teutoburg Forest and its bloody aftermath. You are well advised to begin this story at its beginning – this review assumes you have done so – with the superb Eagles at War. I’ve been fascinated by this battle for longer than I can remember and Eagles at War is now, for me, the definitive fictional account of this devastating and truly terrifying ambush and battle. In Hunting the Eagles, the second novel, the aftermath of the battle is explored, including its contribution to mutiny within Rome’s northern legions and their subsequent attempts to win back the eagles, led by the general Germanicus, nephew to the emperor Tiberius, and his centurion, Tullus. As Eagles in the Storm begins, Tullus once more prepares to take on Arminius.

Eagles in the Storm is divided between Tullus, the small band of legionaries who have followed Tullus since the beginning, and the other side – Arminius and his efforts to bring together once again tribes that appear to hate him almost as much as they hate the Romans. The fight is more personal than ever for Arminius now. Everyone has lost loved ones in Rome’s avenging raids and Arminius is no different.

Ben Kane, as always, has an extraordinary talent of making us feel that we are there with these soldiers, not only in the heat of the battle but also on the march, in camp, and off duty. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of a legionary camp. After three novels, we know these men well, especially legionary Piso and his fellow tentmen, who always seem to find some way to entertain themselves (i.e., get into trouble) during the monotony of life on the march. But there is a serious side to these soldiers as well, particularly in their devotion to their new eagle and their desire to set eyes again on their old. The meaning and significance of the eagle plays a crucial role in this final novel.

Tullus is a fantastic character. He is revered across the legion for his bravery. Even Germanicus listens to him and in this novel Germanicus has yet more reason to be grateful to him. Tullus is intimidating but he loves his men. They know it and they love him back. It’s not sentimentalised. It’s just the way it is. There is a real contrast between Tullus and Arminius. Arminius isn’t presented as a villain. He was fighting for a cause he believed in, for the freedom of his people against an invading oppressor. But Arminius has to look over his shoulder constantly – Tullus doesn’t.

The battle sequences are so thrilling and they set the pace for the novel, although I enjoyed the other sections of Eagles in the Storm every bit as much. This is brilliant storytelling from an author who is steeped in the history of the Romans, and he fills it with all the details, military and otherwise, you need to make it feel real.

Ben Kane is an author whose books will always go to the top of my reading mountain, without fail. This has been a wonderful trilogy – one of the very best that I’ve read. Although I’m sorry it’s finished I can’t be sorry about the way in which it’s been finished – it concludes perfectly. And I know that I’ll be hanging on to every word as we embark on Ben Kane’s next project, whatever that might be.

Other reviews
Eagles at War
Hunting the Eagles

Spartacus
Spartacus: Rebellion

Hannibal: Enemy of Rome
Hannibal: Fields of Blood
Hannibal: Clouds of War

A Day of Fire: A novel of Pompeii (with others)

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

Doubleday | 2017 (23 March) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel RhysIt is the summer of 1939 and Lily Shepherd is escaping her tedious life in London for a new beginning in Australia. The new rich of Australia are desperate for servants and no-one is more sought after than a young British woman. With her fare fully paid by the government, Lily boards the ocean liner Orontes, which sets sail from England on a month-long voyage to Sydney. Lily’s eyes are to be opened as never before. Although she travels in tourist class with other young women who are travelling for similar reasons, Lily finds herself mixing with first class passengers who are also on the look out for something – excitement, an escape. Always conscious that when they arrive in Australia, these would be the people she serves, Lily is captivated by her new rich, glamorous, hedonistic friends – Max and Eliza Campbell.

But Lily has also caught the eye of others – the quiet and flirtatious Edward and the loud and fascist George. Both men compete for Lily’s attention, while watched on by the decadent Eliza and Lily’s cabin-mate Ida, a serious and earnest young woman who appears to judge Lily for every thing that she does.

At sea, with only brief stops on land along the way, the passengers of Orontes have been separated from the world outside and it is a world in which the lights are going out – war with Germany is close, Chamberlain is conducting last minute talks with Hitler for peace, people aboard hope for the best but some fear the worst. The passengers include Jewish refugees and a large group of Italians. On board ship politics are kept at bay but most, especially George, already view these people as the enemy. And when she befriends a young Jewish woman, Lily is given a glimpse of the horrors that some have already experienced in Europe. Unfortunately, the ship cannot keep all of these horrors at bay. Not everyone who embarked in England will survive the voyage.

It might be early in the year but I already know that A Dangerous Crossing will be a key read of 2017 for me. It is sensational. I was engrossed from the very first enigmatic chapter and I stayed hooked until the end. I grabbed every spare moment to read it and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

The writing is absolutely stunning. Rachel Rhys seemingly effortlessly carries us back to 1939, a world in some ways still innocent and yet poised on the edge of blackness. Life aboard the Orontes, with its galas, dinners, parties and gossiping on deck, is brilliantly portrayed, as are the descriptions of the excursions that the passengers undertake, in such inviting places as Naples, the Pyramids and Ceylon. It’s a terrific blend of claustrophobic life aboard the ship and then the excitement of experiencing new places, the heat intensifying as the ship voyages southwards.

But the appeal of A Dangerous Crossing doesn’t just lie in its locations and historical detail but also in the passengers themselves. Lily is a wonderful companion and like so many of the other people that we meet she has a past to run from. Eliza and Max are an extraordinary couple, with a depth to them that you would never have guessed at the beginning. As the voyage continues we learn more and more about all of these people as they are forced into ever closer intimacy. At times, the revelations are beautifully touching and emotional, at times tragic. We are brought so close to it all.

It feels like these are the dying days of the old world and George in particular exhibits some shocking behaviour, especially towards local people on the excursions. But there is also a sense that the behaviour of socialites such as Eliza also belong to another time and maybe the future belongs to young women such as Lily who are escaping the past to start afresh, independent. A Dangerous Crossing does contain a mystery but it actually contains lots of mysteries, all of them engrossing and intriguing. There is so much more to this novel than you might initially think.

The story is captivating, the writing enchanting – and what a spectacular cover. A Dangerous Crossing is a triumph. Rachel Rhys is the penname of Tammy Cohen, whose unusual and original thriller When She Was Bad was such a highlight of 2016. How Tammy/Rachel can write! I have no doubt that A Dangerous Crossing will feature in my top books of 2017 post – it’s that good. I’m so excited to think where Tammy/Rachel will head next – I do know it will be wonderful.

Other review
Writing as Tammy Cohen: When She Was Bad

My Name is Victoria by Lucy Worsley

Bloomsbury Childrens | 2017 (9 March) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

My Name is Victoria by Lucy WorsleyIt is the late 1820s and King George IV is close to death. He will be succeeded by his brother William who is not expected to survive George for long. His heir, Princess Victoria, is effectively held captive in Kensington Palace by her mother and her mother’s dearest friend Sir John Conroy. Conroy is the creator of the Kensington System, a regime designed to keep Victoria constantly under observation and so secure from the plots of her royal relatives who might fancy themselves as heirs to the British throne, rather than this lonely, unhappy yet spirited child. But Conroy wants to extend his influence over Victoria even more and to do that he gives Victoria his own daughter, known to one and all as Miss V (to distinguish her from Miss Conroy, her elder sister, and from the princess), as companion, sister and, Conroy hopes, spy. But both Victoria and Miss V have minds of their own and, after uneasy and suspicious beginnings, they form the tightest of friendships.

And so begins the story of Princess Victoria and Miss V’s friendship. With half of the novel covering their years as small children, about the age of 10 or 11, the second takes us up to their later teens and the arrival of German princes and the relentless approach of fate in the shape of an ailing King William IV.

Lucy Worsley does such a fine job of spreading her enthusiasm and knowledge of history. She’s an inspirational presenter and writer, and I loved Eliza Rose, Lucy Worsley’s debut novel for young adults which told the story of Henry VIII’s tragic fifth queen, Katherine Howard. This time, the author goes back (or forward) to another period of history and once again reveals a young girl who is in many ways, despite the glamorous appearances of power, a vulnerable victim of history. Princess Victoria, though, is determined to win her freedom from the enemy, which is here represented by Conroy and the Kensington System. And history tells us how this will turn out.

But My Name is Victoria isn’t quite as it seems and it’s possibly because of this that the book lost me during the second half when we move from historical fiction to historical fantasy or alternate history. This is, though, my fault. I’ve never got on with alternate history, especially when I know quite well the period of history from which we’re diverted. However likeable, stubborn and proud she is, I didn’t recognise Princess Victoria from history, or her mother, or the German princes. The princess’s mother plays barely a role here.

Having said all that, this is a novel aimed at children, not at me. Whereas Eliza Rose seemed to me to have a wide appeal across ages – perhaps because of its themes and dire consequences, My Name is Victoria feels more comfortably targeted at younger readers. And I have no doubt that they will thoroughly enjoy it! I love the idea of children being inspired to discover history for themselves thanks to the skills of such historians and writers as Lucy Worsley. This happened to me as a child and teenager with the marvellous Jean Plaidy, whose books I still cherish all these years on. I can see parallels between Jean Plaidy and Lucy Worsley and that makes me very happy indeed. I’ll be sure to read all of the novels that Lucy Worsley produces, even though I must accept that not all of them, or indeed any, were written with me in mind!

Other review
Eliza Rose

Dark Asylum by E.S. Thomson

Constable | 2017 | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dark Asylum by ES ThomsonIt is 1852 and St Saviour’s monastery in London is no more, its hospital relocated. But Jem Flockhart, the apothecary to the infirmary, has stayed behind thanks to roots too deeply embedded. Jem isn’t quite what he seems, and not only because of the large birthmark that obscures the top half of his face like a Venetian mask. Jem is a woman, brought up as a boy and then a young man by a father who turned mad. And now Jem works as apothecary in the place where her father died, the Angel Meadow Asylum across the road from what survives of the monastery and Jem’s beloved infirmary garden.

The head doctor of Angel Meadows, Dr Hawkins, has been away for some time, having left the care of the asylum in the hands of Dr Rutherford, a man with his own brutal theories about the ways in which to treat the souls in his care. Few mourn when, on Dr Hawkins’ return to the asylum, Dr Rutherford is found murdered in his rooms. But this is no typical murder – Rutherford’s head is bashed in, his ears cut off, his eyes and lips are sewn shut. There will be many suspects, not all of whom are locked in their rooms at night, and Dr Hawkins gives the case to Jem and his close friend Will Quartermain. Jem and Will have proven their detective skills already and both are indefatigable in their pursuit of truth and justice as they move through a society that is as black as night for its cruelty, madness and punishment.

Dark Asylum is the second novel to feature Jem and Will. It follows close on the heels of Beloved Poison, an outstanding historical crime debut from E.S. Thomson. Each book stands alone well but I certainly recommend that you read them both.

Dark Asylum takes us into a part of Victorian London at its very worst. The fact that some of its inhabitants are scientists and doctors makes its corruption and casual injustice seem even worse. The poor, especially the insane, have little value – their actual bones and brains matter more to most of the doctors than their living bodies and welfare. We meet some pitiful men and women within the walls of Angel Meadows. The moral corruption is matched by the stench of the place, its dirt and squalour. And its misery. There is light, though, and it comes from Jem and Will’s pursuit of justice, as well as the sincere efforts of one or two of the doctors to help their patients come through a disease that yields no physical symptoms to treat. There is entertainment, too, from one eccentric doctor in particular.

The medical detail is absolutely fascinating and I was engrossed by E.S. Thomson’s recreation of this dark asylum and the people in it, whether doctors, doctors’ wives, servants or patients. We travel outside the asylum, too, thanks to the journal extracts scattered throughout the novel which tell the sad and compelling story of a female slum-dweller and convict. The glimpse of life aboard a convict ship bound for the other side of the world is especially involving – and repellant.

Jem’s double life provides the heart of the novel and it’s affect on him/her is immense and colours almost everything that she does, as well as her relationships. E.S. Thomson writes Jem’s life with such feeling and it is wonderful to see Will’s behaviour towards his friend. I really care for Jem, even though there are things she does, moral judgements she makes, that are harder to understand.

It is because of Jem and the fabulous mood and atmosphere that E.S. Thomson builds that I have been waiting so impatiently for this follow-up to Beloved Poison. I was thrilled to receive it and it satisfied all my expectations. Long may the series continue!

Other review
Beloved Poison