Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Emperor Rome: The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret George

Macmillan | 2018 (15 November) | 571p | Review copy | Buy the book

Emperor Nero: The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret GeorgeIt is AD 64 and the Emperor is in his villa in Antium, to the south of Rome, where he performs his own epic on the Fall of Troy for his appreciative audience of friends and fellow artists. It is while Nero is there that an exhausted messenger arrives from Rome and tells him that the city is burning. The Great Fire of Rome has begun and it is threatening everything in its path, including Nero’s own palace. Nero immediately rides back to Rome as fast as he can, determined to fight the fire with his own hands, alongside the fire officers and crews who are working day and night to save the city. What Nero experiences over the coming days and nights will change him forever, but it will also give his vision new expression – Nero will rebuild Rome. Its splendour will astonish the world.

The Splendour Before Rome completes Margaret George’s superb and original portrait of Rome’s most famous and infamous emperor that began with The Confessions of Young Nero. In the first novel we saw Nero’s rise to power, his transformation from the unknown young child Lucius into heir to Claudius’s throne, finally becoming emperor himself. It was a part of Nero’s life largely controlled and steered by his notorious mother Agrippina, whose fate forms such a central role in the first book and in the emperor’s life. It is from that point that Margaret George now resumes her story, covering the period from the Great Fire of Rome – possibly the most well-known event of Nero’s reign – through to the very end. You can read The Splendour Before Rome without having read The Confessions of Young Nero first, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

The Nero that presents himself to us here – for most of the novel is written in Nero’s own words – is not one that I’ve met before, and I’ve read a lot of wonderful books over the years that feature him. Margaret George explains in her afterword that she believes that Nero has been unfairly treated by Roman commentators, who had their own agenda to maintain, leading to a whole series of rumours that were perpetuated by later historians, not to mention Hollywood. Whether you agree with this or not, Margaret George here pulls together the strands of Nero’s life, finding the roots of some of the gossip that grew up around him, while also presenting a fascinating portrait of what absolute power can do to a young man who’d really much rather race chariots and compose heroic verse than rule an empire. It’s an intriguing mix. In one sense, we’re given reasons to explain why Nero was regarded as he was by historians, but conversely we’re also given glimpses of a man who failed in the one role he couldn’t maintain – emperor. He is both misunderstood and flawed.

Nero is conflicted and his self-awareness of this is a truly fascinating element of Margaret George’s treatment of him. Nero talks of the dark Nero, the third Nero, that will do anything to keep alive his other two Neros – the emperor and the artist. We’ve seen in the first book what his dark side will make Nero do but in this second book Nero does his best to suppress the evil. Instead he wants to focus on the arts and also on his passion for chariot racing, a cause of great scandal to Rome’s elite. The senate is shocked by Nero’s decision to go to Greece and compete in all of its festivals (all compressed into one year on his orders). Nero seems oblivious to how he is perceived by Rome and carries on regardless, but there are clues for us that this cannot end well.

Nero is oblivious to other things as well – how people will regard his great Golden House that he will build across much of the city’s centre, and then there’s the enormous colossus statue of himself that will tower over Rome. Nero genuinely believes that the people around him are his friends. He accepts their criticisms because he is a humble artist and that is what artists must do – they will always have their critics. But there comes a time when he will learn the truth about what they really think about him. And he is amazed.

The emperor might have his enemies but he is also loves and is loved and we see that here, especially in the figure of his wife Poppaea but also in his first love, Acte. The fate of Poppaea is dealt with so well while Acte is given occasional chapters as narrator, revealing another side to young Lucius, as she will always regard him. And then there’s the tragic figure of Sporus.

Certain infamous deeds of Nero’s reign seem to take place in the shadows, especially the persecution of the Christians in the aftermath of the fire. It’s as if Nero can distance himself from these acts. It’s described almost as if it’s a dream. Nero seems proud that he’s never hurt anyone with his own hands but, as emperor, with power over life and death, this is a meaningless belief. Especially as many are forced to die by their own hand. I really loved this conflict between Nero’s view of himself and the view of others that we’re given tantalising glimpses of – the Nero who makes decisions about the government of the empire without consulting his senate, who evicts people to seize their land for his own palace, the extravagance of that palace. At times he is deeply saddened when people he loves seem not to love him back. He struggles to explain why when we can see it as clear as day. He is also very superstitious. He is a man who lives in dread of his fate while seeing signs to it all around. Nero is also an outsider – at odds with the ideal of Roman martial masculinity. There is no doubt that he is looked down upon. At times, one might almost feel pity for him. Almost.

I love these two books. Aside from the drama of Nero’s own conflicted personality, there are dramas of other kinds – the fire is described brilliantly as we follow its destructive path across the ancient city, burning its temples and holy places. It’s impossible not to warm to Nero the fire fighter. The chariot racing scenes are thrilling and I really enjoyed the chapters spent on Nero’s great cultural tour of Greece. Then there’s the great love affair of Nero and Poppaea, which is treated here in a wholly original way. Poppaea is such an unusual woman, as was Nero’s mother, and Margaret George does wonders in bringing such complex personalities to life.

I have enjoyed Margaret George’s ‘biographies’ for many years and her portrait of Nero is a fine addition to them. Here we have Nero as he may have been. Perhaps as Nero might have recognised himself. This remarkable, flawed, possibly mad, individual here gets the chance to speak for himself and his words are never less than riveting.

Other review
The Confessions of Young Nero

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The Blood of Rome by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2018 (15 November) | 369p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Blood of Rome by Simon ScarrowIt is AD 55 and Tribune Cato and his chief centurion Macro must once again go to war. This time they are to be sent east. Rome has a new and very young Emperor, Nero, who must quickly make a demonstration of power. Opportunity comes from Armenia. The mighty Parthian Empire has ousted King Rhadamistus of Armenia and replaced him with a king of their own. Rome will not tolerate a Parthian puppet state so close to its eastern border, nor will such a display of aggression be permitted. General Corbulo is despatched to put Rhadamistus back on his throne.

But Corbulo has grander designs. While he focuses on preparing for war against Parthia itself, he sends Cato and Macro ahead to escort Rhadamistus back to his kingdom. It will be a fearful journey, one from which Cato and Macro are not expected to return alive, but the most difficult challenge facing Cato and his men is Rhadamistus himself, for Rhadamistus is a monster.

The Blood of Rome is the seventeenth novel in Simon Scarrow’s Eagles of the Empire series, better known to many of us as the Cato and Macro series. I have read and loved this series for years and I look forward every year to each new book. It’s fair to say that The Blood of Rome follows on the heels of a run of particularly brilliant novels in the series and, with such a standard to be measured against, it turned out to be, for this reader anyway, one of the least successful of the books. This isn’t to say that there isn’t much to enjoy here, as there is. Cato and Macro are indefatigable as always in their drive to entertain us while they attempt to put the Roman Empire to rights, sword in hand, at great risk to themselves and to those they love.

The mood of The Blood of Rome is dominated by the figure of King Rhadamistus, a despicable excuse for a human being (let alone for a king), and his behaviour hangs over the novel and events like a black shadow. The fact that he’s merciless towards his own men, however, is not the worst of his crimes in my book – that honour falls to what he does to Cato. Cato descends into the depths during The Blood of Rome. He is damaged by what he sees. I think that Simon Scarrow treats the subject of traumatised soldiers well here. There is no reason to believe that soldiers in antiquity were exempt. But what I did have trouble with is how Cato acts out of character and on occasion acts with deliberate cruelty. There is one incident in particular (and you’ll know the one I mean when you read the book) that shocked me absolutely, and not in a good way. And I’m not sure it fits with this series of novels. Macro continues to act in the same loveable way which makes Cato’s new behaviour even harder to deal with, for this reader at least.

This is also one of the more violent books of the series. I have nothing against violence in Roman military historical fiction (as that would be daft!) but the increase of it reflects the book’s darkened mood and the state of Cato’s mind. Cato’s attitude towards women also continues to cause me a few problems. There’s a casual callousness, a dislike, in the way he treats them, as if he were always the innocent. Which he is not.

Having said all that, I found the final third of the novel more enjoyable and I became wrapped up in the Armenian power struggle and the thrilling action sequences that drive the book on. Cato’s relationship with Macro is so entertaining to watch. There are some fascinating details about Roman warfare here, especially the use of siege weaponry, and this campaign, which was so important to Nero, is one that deserves attention. It’s an incredible story. The fact that most people are still in ignorance about the new emperor’s character also tantalises for the future. As always, I look forward to the next outing for Cato and Macro and hope that Cato can find some peace (while still fighting a war, if you see what I mean!).

Other reviews
The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Britannia
Invictus
Day of the Caesars
With T.J. Andrews – Invader

The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

Tinder Press | 2018 (26 July) | 342p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Story Keeper by Anna MazzolaIt is 1857 and Audrey Hart has left her father’s house in London to return to the place of her birth, the Isle of Skye in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Audrey has a deep fascination for this beautiful and remote place, it calls to her and it feels like home. She has found the perfect position. She will assist Miss Buchanan, the sister of Lord Buchanan, the lord of the manor, in her project to gather together the island’s folklore. Miss Buchanan isn’t able to travel around Skye herself and so that will be Audrey’s job – she must win the confidence of the islanders so that they will share with her their stories. It won’t be easy because some of these stories are as brutal and cruel as the conditions in which these near-destitute islanders live. For this is the time of the Clearances, when whole communities were cast out by their landowners. Many left for Canada but those who remain are barely hanging on.

When Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach, it is the start of a nightmare as the crofters reveal that it has happened before. Audrey is determined to discover the truth about the fate of these young women who, the islanders insist, were carried off by spirits in the guise of birds. And Audrey finds it increasingly hard to shake of the shadow of her past.

Anna Mazzola is such a fine writer, gifted in bringing the awful darkness that underpinned so much of 19th-century society into the light. In the marvellous The Unseeing, the author’s attention was on London during the 1830s, especially the hellhole that was Newgate Prison, and the unkind fate that poor women in particular could face. In The Story Keeper we are taken to the Scottish islands and an entirely different type of landscape, one that is relatively empty (or has been emptied), where life is influenced by the elements, by the surrounding stormy seas, by the dramatic scenery – and by the spirits that are believed to inhabit them. It isn’t surprising that folklore should play such a significant role in such a place and Anna Mazzola weaves these stories and themes through her Gothic tale.

It’s a compelling story and Audrey is at its heart. She occupies a strange position. She is both an insider (as she spent her childhood on Skye) but to most she is an outsider, a foreigner, an English person. Audrey bridges two worlds and so she is well placed to comment on both. The other characters are perceived as she sees them. Many fascinate her while some frighten her and others elude her. But so many have stories to tell about their lives and island.

Skye is described so vividly. The beauty of it contrasts with its bleakness. Audrey spends much of her time walking great distances over such rough ground. The reader might almost be there with her. But we can be under no false pretences – the life these islanders face is hard and unjust. We are made to understand the cruelty of the Clearances. We also witness cruelty by the crofters as they seek to appease the spirits, sometimes in the worst of ways.

But there are other injustices here, too, and not all of them on Skye. As Audrey’s past catches up with her we learn something of what it must have been like for a woman such as Audrey in this judgemental, oppressive and predatory male society.

I love Gothic reads, especially at this time of year, and The Story Keeper is perfect. It’s moody and creepy, steeped in atmosphere and dark mysteries. And yet reality is shown to be every bit as menacing and sinister on Skye as the fairies, demons and bird spirits that torment and tease its people.

Other review
The Unseeing

Family Commitments by David Wishart

Self-published | 2017 | 280p| Bought copy | Buy the book

Family Commitments by David WishartIt is May, AD44, and purple-striper Marcus Corvinus and his wife Perilla are back in Rome after their eventful jaunt around Gaul. Marcus would like the world to believe that he’s happy spending his days crawling around Rome’s bars, putting the world to rights, untroubled by crimes to solve. They’d be wrong. He is, in fact, at a bit of a loose end. This fortunate state won’t last long. Firstly, Marcus’ mother comes round convinced that Marcus’ stepfather, a man who has always seemed to favour antiques over women, is having an affair, insisting that Marcus should find out exactly what’s going on. And then Marcus’ butler Bathyllus starts to get that guilty, pale and ill look. It’s not surprising. His brother, a fellow slave, has turned up after many years and he’s on the run, wanted for the murder of his master. Marcus has no choice but to help out and that’s when it all starts to go wrong. This is no straightforward case. Marcus should have run a mile.

Family Commitments is the nineteenth (not the twentieth as the back of the cover says) of David Wishart’s fantastic Marcus Corvinus series. This series has had more than one publisher over the years and I’ve worried for its future but the good news is that, although I’ll miss those elegant Severn House editions and wish Corvinus still had a home with them, the author is now publishing the books independently. I’m hoping this means that we’ll get many more of them and I’m very keen to give them my support. If you haven’t read this marvellous series, please do! Set during the first half of the 1st century AD, they bring this fascinating period of Roman history alive. And Marcus and Perilla are both perfectly placed to comment on it – they’re patrician, very well-connected and even know emperors personally, including the really bad ones. It also means that the crimes Marcus investigates are particularly juicy. As this crime especially demonstrates.

You can enjoy each of these novels as standalone mysteries but there is so much pleasure to be had reading this series. I’ll never stop enjoying Marcus, quite possibly my favourite Roman detective. He likes to think he’s satirical, when actually he’s rather sarcy, but he’s most certainly witty, likes a goblet of wine or three, and has his hands full trying to manage the staff while trying and failing to maintain his air of studied aloof detachment. The fact that their chef Meton is a genius with flavours does much to make up for his psychopathic temperament while Bathyllus, the long-suffering butler, has fine-tuned his sardonic attitude into an art form. He is, though, the perfect major domo. And Marcus Corvinus will do anything he can for him. Perilla does all that a matron restricted by strict patrician codes of conduct can do to support her husband, while trying to persuade him to cut back on the swearing and wine guzzling. But it’s Perilla’s input that often saves the day, much to her husband’s irritation. Getting to know these people over the last couple of decades or so has been an absolute joy.

Family Commitments has such a good mystery at its heart and it’s not long before Marcus realises he’s out of his depth. It’s such a tangled knot of intrigue, involving gangsters, cut-throats, politicians, the powerful and the desperate. I did get stuck a couple of times as the number of people involved increases. I found it easy to lose track. No wonder Marcus and Perilla find this one a difficult case to solve. But the way that it all comes together is so brilliantly done. It’s worth the brain ache of one section of the novel. And so much of it is so witty!

Rome is brought to life so well, especially the rather posh bit of it. This is a world of dinner parties and literary evenings, but we also encounter the other side of things as Marcus spends much of his time wandering around Rome on foot. And then there’s the dark shadow cast by slavery. As a patrician, Marcus would have taken slaves for granted and would have depended on them – he certainly depends on Bathyllus – but there are moments here when he reflects on what Bathyllus and his brother have endured and how, ultimately, they are all alone in the world. Marcus wants to do his bit to show them that they have him. It’s all rather complicated and no doubt these are unfamiliar thoughts for a man such as Marcus Corvinus. But it’s rather good that he has them. I love the way in which David Wishart depicts the relationships between master and slave, even though I suspect this is all rather wishful thinking.

This is one of those rare series that I have followed and adored from the very beginning. I still remember reading Ovid all those years ago. Such a wonderful book. Right from the start this series has included some of the most famous and infamous personalities of the day and Family Commitments is no different. This is a time when it very much paid to keep your head below the parapet. Unfortunately, Marcus Corvinus can’t do that. His curiosity – after all he is rich and doesn’t have a job to distract him – leads him into all kinds of trouble and I can’t get enough of it. More, please!

Other reviews
Solid Citizens
Finished Business
Trade Secrets
Foreign Bodies

Tombland by C.J. Sansom

Mantle | 2018 (18 October) | 850p | Review copies | Buy the book

Tombland by CJ SansomTombland is the seventh novel in this fine series to feature Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Although there are a few references to previous events, Tombland stands well on its own as our journey through the Tudor period continues. Many of you, though, will have been looking forward to this just as much as me. It’s time once more to immerse ourselves in Tudor England.

It is 1549, a few years have passed since the events of Lamentation. Henry VIII is dead, as is, sadly, his Dowager Queen, Matthew Shardlake’s patron Catherine Parr. Edward VI, the boy king, sits on the throne but power is held in the hands of his Protector, Lord Somerset. Times are difficult. Somerset pursues his costly war with Scotland while religious intolerance upsets the common people, although not as much as their lords illegally enclosing their fields and common land in order to make a profit from sheep at their expense. The country is not content.

Matthew Shardlake has recently had a chilling reminder of why the powerful Richard Rich, now Edward VI’s Lord Chancellor, is his enemy. He needs to escape the court. It’s good timing, then, when he is called to the household of the King’s sister Lady Elizabeth in Hatfield to investigate a murder. Edith Boleyn, the wife of John, a distant cousin of Elizabeth’s, has been found murdered in the most grotesque manner in a small town in Norfolk. John stands accused of her murder and is expected to hang. Elizabeth would be most displeased if that were to happen. And so Matthew Shardlake and his assistant young Nicholas Overton travel to Norwich in Norfolk for a summer that will change them all forever.

Tombland is one of my most anticipated novels of the year (in fact, I was so excited I had a nose bleed… the power of books) and so I began it the day it unexpectedly and wonderfully arrived. It’s not a small book. On the contrary, it’s a mighty tome of 850 pages, and, as expected, every page is a pleasure as it brings us as close to Tudor Norfolk as I think any work of fiction possibly could. It’s quite extraordinary, really. As I was reading it – for instance, during the chapter when Matthew first rides through the gates of Norwich and up to its castle and cathedral – I could imagine it all so clearly. This is some of the most visual descriptive prose I’ve read. It’s packed with historical detail but it’s used to build a picture of the streets, buildings and people of the time. I took my time to imagine it all around me and I could do so incredibly clearly. How fantastic!

One would have thought that the Tudor period has been wrung dry by novelists but C.J. Sansom always reveals its lesser known aspects and this time he takes us to 1649 and the great rebellions of the people. Edward VI’s reign is largely unmined territory and it’s fascinating to learn what went on, in Norfolk and also elsewhere in England. I did some research while reading this and was so interested to learn how close these rebellions came to my home town of Oxford. Here, though, the emphasis is on Norfolk and perhaps the most significant of the rebellions, that led by Robert Kett. I gobbled this up. It’s so compelling.

There is no black and white here. Matthew is a man caught up in a situation that is out of his control and it’s so interesting watching him adapt to it, try to cope with it, try and survive it. I was really glad to see the involvement of Matthew’s former assistant, Jack Barak, and Jack and Nicholas must also respond to their situation in their own ways. C.J. Sansom carefully reveals the causes of the rebellions. There’s nothing dry here. It’s thoroughly engaging and absorbing as we see the impact of enclosures on ordinary men and women. We meet many of them – men, women and children, the rich and the poor, the fortunate and the unlucky. There are triumphs and tragedies. I shed tears more than once while at other times I was exhilarated. The positions of the King’s two sisters Mary and Elizabeth, rivals and yet both in a similar situation, is also such an intriguing element of a book full of intriguing elements.

Lamentation was my favourite of the series but it’s now been replaced by Tombland. This is a book that hugely rewards the reader and shows just how much of Tudor England there is left to explore. And it’s very possible that nobody else can bring it as much to life as C.J. Sansom. There’s usually a wait between books but they’re always so worth it.

Other reviews
Lamentation
Dominion

Blood’s Revolution by Angus Donald

Zaffre | 2018 (18 October) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Blood's Revolution by Angus DonaldIt is 1685 and Lieutenant Holcroft Blood, son of the infamous Crown Jewels-stealing Captain Blood, has returned to England after years in France as a reluctant spy. It’s now his job to look after (for his rather unpleasant commanding officers) the army’s Royal Train of Artillery, its cannon and other large guns, and he couldn’t enjoy his job more. He can calculate to the inch the position of a cannon to hit its target, however small. Holcroft’s skills are in more need than ever because rebellion has come to England. The Duke of Monmouth is determined to seize the throne from his Catholic and unpopular uncle King James II and now the armies must meet and kill each other at the Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset.

And so begins Blood’s Revolution, the second novel in a series begun last year with Blood’s Game. Although this new book is a follow up, to all intents and purposes it marks a new phase of Holcroft’s life and can be read as a standalone. It’s almost fifteen years since the events of Blood’s Game, when the teenage Holcroft, a page, became ensnared in the intrigue of Charles II’s decadent court. Our hero is now in his early thirties, he’s an impressive man to look at physically and he’s gained a great deal of respect for his courage and military skill. Holcroft, somewhere on the autism spectrum, is even more intriguing than he was before. He can wind people up the wrong way. He can be difficult. He knows that and he tries to not take everything so literally, but people are drawn to him, including his old and closest friend Jack Churchill (later Lord Marlborough).

Blood’s Revolution thrills from the outset. Its opening pages set on the battlefield set the pace for the rest of the novel and it doesn’t let up even though the story continues through several years as the events leading up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 are brought to life. This is a period of history that I know relatively little and it well deserves this excellent novel. So soon after the Civil War, the country is once more on the verge of war, a King again in danger of being removed. Holcroft’s role puts him in the midst of the action and it had me gripped, from the horrific execution of Monmouth through to James’s frantic attempts to hang on to power.

There is another side to Blood’s Revolution as well and it’s just as exciting. An evil French villain, the master spy Narrey, has followed Holcroft back from France and he is determined to exact his terrible revenge. Narrey has another mission as well and it’s compelling stuff. Angus Donald is to be congratulated for fitting in so much entertaining plot! It all works and connects brilliantly well. And did I mention there’s a spot of romance? Of course, it involves Holcroft so it might not be your conventional romance.

If I had to find fault, I’d be struggling, but I did have a little dissatisfaction for the way in which one particular lady, with a rather unusual voice, is treated. It felt a little unkind and I felt sorry for her. But that’s it. Otherwise, Blood’s Revolution is a corking historical adventure and I enjoyed it as much as I did Angus Donald’s glorious Robin Hood and Alan Dale novels (one of the best historical series ever written, in my opinion). I had a few minor issues with Blood’s Game but they all disappeared with Blood’s Revolution. I liked that Holcroft is now older and removed from the court. Now he’s in the big bad world and he has to take it on as an adult and a soldier, in his own unique way.

Blood’s Revolution is set during such a fascinating and dangerous period of history when people such as Holcroft and Jack Churchill had to make some terrible decisions and live with the consequences. And when there’s a rabid foreign spy after your head, it doesn’t make things any easier. This is such a fun, thrilling novel and I cannot wait to see what’s next for Holcroft Blood. As you can see from the long list of reviews below, I love Angus DOnald’s novels and Blood’s Revolution is a fine example of why that is.

Other reviews
Outlaw
Holy Warrior
King’s Man
Warlord
Grail Knight
The Iron Castle
The King’s Assassin
The Death of Robin Hood
Blood’s Game
Guest post: Rampant hedonism in the restoration

The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

Allen & Unwin | 2018 (4 October) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Turn of Midnight by Minette WaltersThe Turn of Midnight follows on directly from The Last Hours and concludes this two-part series, so you’ll need to read them in order. This review assumes you’ve read The Last Hours.

It is late 1348 and the southern counties of England have gone quiet. Towns, villages and hamlets have been mostly silenced and emptied, by death and by the flight of those too terrified to stay and face the same fate as their loved ones, only to die somewhere else, friendless, instead. The small community at Develish in Dorseteshire survives within its moated enclosure due to the care and protection of Lady Anne. Their strict quarantine has kept them safe from the Black Death that killed Lady Anne’s husband, Sir Richard, a vile owner of land and souls. The serfs and slaves of Develish have been given the equality Lady Anne feels is due to all, and an education to go with it. One peasant, Thaddeus, a giant among men for his height and good sense, has risen to become Lady Anne’s most trusted friend but now he continues his travels across Dorseteshire seeking out the truth of what the pestilence has left behind. With him are five boys, fast growing into young men, and their journey will lead them to Blandeforde where everything that they, and Lady Anne, have achieved is put at the most terrible risk.

The Last Hours was such a welcome book – a new novel after many years by the fantastic Minette Walters in a new genre, historical fiction. And what a time she picked in which to set it. 1348 is such a pinnacle year in English history, not just for the Middle Ages but for all periods. England, like so many other places, was transformed by the torment of the Black Death and it could never be the same again for this de-populated land. To all intents and purposes, The Turn of Midnight opens in a post-apocalyptic world, a world that must be rebuilt, and the debate here is how that new world will be ordered – what will be the place of the peasant? and why did God allow so many to perish in such agony? Why did I survive?

I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight, which completes its story, is every bit as good. As it continues into the spring of 1349, the plague, at least in this part of England, has been left behind. Many survivors continue to hide in the most terrible conditions, imprisoned as much by their status as by their fears. Sheep roam free and ownerless but some peasants are too frightened to eat them and would prefer to starve. This is what centuries of feudalism have done to them. Other peasants, though, especially in the towns, are beginning to speak out, albeit cautiously. And it’s these beginnings of society’s transformation that is portrayed here with such colour and feeling.

The Turn of Midnight is on one level such an entertaining historical adventure as it recounts the journey of Thaddeus and his companions across an empty landscape. Many peasants would hardly have travelled and so I loved the section in which they encountered the sea for the first time. The joy of freedom is offset, though, by the desolation of some of the places they pass through. There are sights here that nobody should have to see.

Less time is spent in this novel in the Develish manor as the feeling grows that the time to cross the moat might be approaching but what we have is so well presented. There is change within, new people enter, so brilliantly observed by Minette Walters, while others are not the people they once were. As with Thaddeus and the boys with him, and all of the various people they encounter, everyone in this novel is beautifully brought to life. There are so many little touches that remind us that, although there are similarities between this world and our own, this is a very different, remote and possibly ultimately unknowable period of history. Language, for example, was almost a tool of oppression – the rich spoke in a different tongue, the poor of one area might be completely understood by the poor of another area, and the written word was the privileged knowledge of the few.

Then there is the role of priests, Christianity and religion in general. There is much talk of the deserving poor, the deserving dead, the role of mercy, charity and kindness – practical Christianity is put to test. Power, whether it’s in the hands of priests, stewards, lords, peasant elders or just men in general, is also another fascinating theme.

There is so much to be found within these two books. 1348 must surely rank among the worst of years of any age and Minette Walters brings the horror, desolation and terrible grief of it to life, while reminding us of its legacy for future generations. This is compelling historical fiction, which combines a thrilling story of adventure with some really big themes, all told with Minette Walter’s customary splendid flair.

Other review
The Last Hours