Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Raven Books | 2020 (1 October) | 576p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the audiobook

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart TurtonIt is 1634 when the East India merchant ship Saardam sets sail from Batavia (Indonesia) to its home port of Amsterdam. In its dark and diseased depths it carries Sammy Pipps, a renowned and famous detective who is now a prisoner, being taken to his execution. He is accompanied by Lieutenant Arent Hayes, his bodyguard and close companion, who is determined to discover why Pipps is to die. And to do that he must play a careful game with the Governor-General of Batavia, the cruel and powerful Jan Haan, who is also aboard the Saardam, with his wife, daughter, and his mistress.

It is clear even before the ship sets sail that this will be a tormented voyage. A tongueless leper curses the Saardam from the docks, foretelling three terrible miracles. And when the ship sets sail, horrible sightings are seen, sinister whispers are heard and people begin to die. Arent fears that the ship will never reach its destination for how can it when the devil himself, Old Tom, is aboard? The only hope is Sammy Pipps.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a glorious, ingenious masterpiece – it is hard to imagine a debut novel that is more difficult to follow. But Stuart Turton has done a fine job with The Devil and the Dark Water. It is very different from its predecessor and so stands on its own terms very well. It is a more traditional novel of historical fiction, its tale is linear and it is steeped in its time of the first half of the 17th century. But it is still another clever novel. The action takes place almost entirely aboard the Saardam and on the high seas. This means heightened claustrophobia, sickness, danger but added to this is the element of something strange and supernatural haunting the ship, terrifying its crew and passengers, driving them to violence, to madness.

You can almost feel the spray of the sea on your face and the movement of the waves when you read this novel. You can strongly imagine the stench below decks, the misery of the unhappy passengers trapped below, the undercurrent of violence that menaces the women in particular, and the evil malignancy of the Governor-General. Stuart Turton is a fabulous writer and he uses his skills to great effect as we voyage across the high seas on a damned and cursed ship.

The Saardam is arguably the most central character of the novel but she has a rival in the extraordinary Arent. The author has mentioned in an interview (it follows the audiobook) that there are echoes of Holmes and Watson in the relationship between Pipps and Arent but what is interesting is that the relationship is turned on its head. Here we have the soldier, the helper, dominate, while the famous detective is forced into inaction. I’m not a fan of Sherlock Holmes (I know, I’m sorry about that) and so I’m pleased to say that the similarities didn’t influence my reading. Arent is a marvellous character and, as his past is slowly revealed to us, he fascinates more and more. His relationship with the Governor-General is truly intriguing.

My favourite character of the novel is, undoubtedly, Sara Wessel, the Governor-General’s beaten and badly-treated wife. She has heroic strength, loving and protecting her daughter Lia, determined to do what is right for those who need help even if it will result in another beating. Her courage and goodness are the light in this novel. As the Governor-General cowers and hides from the dark, Sara thrives.

Menace and foreboding shadow the voyage, and the novel, throughout. It’s a deliciously atmospheric tale. It’s dramatic and pacey, the crew is horrifying and compelling almost to a man, and it is all so beautifully described. I didn’t find it frightening but I did find it very disturbing. I listened to the audiobook, which was masterfully narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt, and I can thoroughly recommend it. Having said that, there are some gorgeous hardback special editions to be found! I settled for both.

Stuart Turton is most definitely an author to watch. I love the way in which he plays games with historical fiction. I can’t wait to see where and when he takes us next.

Other review
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

The Second Marriage by Gill Paul

Avon | 2020 (17 September) | 464p | Review copy and bought copy | Listen to the book | Buy the book

The Second Marriage by Gill PaulIt is the late 1950s and Maria Callas is the most adored and magnificent diva of the century when she captures the eye of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Both Maria and Ari are married when they embark on their glamorous affair, mostly aboard the stunning yacht Christina and also around Europe where Maria performs on the greatest stages. This is a life of riches and champagne and Maria successfully hides behind it. Her reputation of being demanding is a mask for the reality of insecurity, a commitment to training and maintaining her peerless voice, a deep desire to have a child. Across the Atlantic, Jackie Kennedy would also seem to have it all. Married to the charismatic Jack Kennedy, a member of America’s most glamorous political family, elegant and beautiful, and on the path to the White House. But Jackie, too, is insecure, not loved as she should be, and destined for tragedies. When she needs support, it is Aristotle Onassis, a man drawn to beautiful and influential women, who provides it.

I love Gill Paul’s writing and I love the way that she invests so much feeling in her characters, bringing to life people that we may know well from history but bringing so much more to their portrayal. I knew a little of the love triangle of Maria, Ari and Jackie but I hadn’t thought about the real people behind it, just suspecting the motives of Jackie for marrying one of the richest men in the world. But in The Second Marriage, Maria, Ari and Jackie are vividly real and complex, displaying the author’s incredible insight into their natures and motivations.

Jackie is just as I imagine her but more intensely so, while Ari is charismatic, powerful and attentive. He is seen through the eyes of Maria and Jackie. We see how duplicitous he is, how much he hides from each but also how protective he is, how much he gives, emotionally as well as materially. We also wonder about his actions behind the scenes, what he might be doing that Maria and Jackie might not be aware of.

But the triumph of this outstanding novel is Maria Callas who, appropriately enough, dominates its stage. She is a tour de force of a character and personality, extremely complicated, full of intense feeling, dramatic, capable of such love. I absolutely adored her. Her relationship with Ari is intense and fiery. Her devotion to her craft is staggering and so fascinating to learn about. Maria’s relationship with her voice is a central theme of the novel. She is a glorious star, and we witness that side of her, but we also see her off stage and she is fabulous.

The novel moves between Maria and Jackie over a period of many years. We witness the big events of their lives, some well-known, others less so, and it is mesmerising as well as dramatic. It is also at times extremely sad and I cried and cried over bits of this novel. When I finished it, I felt bereft, that I’d been part of a great story with astonishing people and I was so loath to leave them behind.

I listened to the audiobook. I am in awe of its narrator Lisa Flanagan. The voices of Maria and Jackie are incredible and made me feel even closer to these women.

The Second Marriage is most definitely a contender for my top book of 2020.

Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband
Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband
The Lost Daughter

V2 by Robert Harris

Hutchinson | 2020 (17 September) | 312p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

V2 by Robert HarrisIt is November 1944 and V2 rockets rain down on London. They arrive silently, no-one knows where they will hit but when they do the devastation is sudden, terrifying and deadly. Germany is in retreat but now every resource they have, whether slave or fuel, is being put into the production of these rockets, which are then launched from moving sites in occupied Holland on the cities of London and Antwerp. Rudi Graf is a leading German rocket engineer. His dream had been to design and propel rockets to the Moon but his research was hijacked when Hitler came to power. Now he launches rockets to kill civilians, urged on by his Nazi commanders and propagandists. In this cold, bleak seaside town, Rudi becomes increasingly disillusioned.

Kay Calton-Walsh is a young intelligence officer in the WAAF. It is her job to try and detect launch sites from aerial photographs. She’s good at her job and she has also experienced herself the horrors of a V2 strike. When she gets the chance to do even more for the war effort she leaps at it. She joins a team of WAAFs in Belgium. Their task is to observe launches and calculate their origin. The mathematics is difficult, incredibly pressured and the equations must be done quickly. It’s impossible to forget that behind the numbers, lives are at stake and that every second counts.

Robert Harris is one of my very favourite authors. His books vary enormously – ancient Rome, the Vatican conclave, World War 2, an alternate future, 19th century France, and so on – but they are all expertly constructed, ingenious thrillers. The tension and drama can be found in strangely quiet moments, within enormously intelligent individuals who must face a significant challenge, whether that’s an engineer trying to predict the eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii or a civil servant’s attempts to broker his own deal at Munich in 1939. These are places with secrets, where much can be underhand, and the stakes are enormous. In Rudi Graf we have another of these figures and he is a fascinating man who has an uneasy relationship with the rocket that he has created as well as with the people around him. He is very alone.

This is a novel in which one side faces off against another, where every act has a consequence. There are some fantastic, coldly horrifying sequences in which we follow a rocket through those four minutes from launch to target. The author takes us outside of the story to tell us how many people each rocket injures and kills. The facts are engrossing but they’re made real by the experiences of Kay Calton-Walsh. She is a busy young woman, liberated by war into being useful, with a role that peace would deny her. She also loves unwisely. But her focus is on stopping these rockets. I loved the chapters set in Belgium. How strange it must have been for the locals to have one army replaced by another in their town. There is tension in the novel from the rockets but it also comes from the relationship between the WAAFs and the local villagers.

V2 is a relatively short novel and we’re told it was written quickly through lockdown. It does have the feel of a novel written with urgency. It is true I would have liked it to have been longer. I would have liked more but what there is, is fantastic. The characterisation is spot on and the locations are richly evoked, especially the launch sites, which were lethal, manned by expendable, tired men, driven on by absurd targets who often became the victims of their own rockets. I’m fascinated by this subject – my grandfather went behind enemy lines to spy on V2 rocket production – and Robert Harris is the perfect writer to convey the dread and terror of these weapons while also respecting the science behind them. It’s an extremely tense thriller – rockets are launched time after time, day after day. They must be stopped.

I can’t wait for the next Robert Harris novel. It could be about anything. It might surprise me as much as The Second Sleep did. Whatever it is, I know I’ll be enthralled. His novel Pompeii remains my favourite historical novel. If you haven’t read it, read it!

Other reviews
An Officer and a Spy
Dictator
Conclave
Munich
The Second Sleep

V for Victory by Lissa Evans

Doubleday | 2020 (27 August) | 304p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It is late 1944 and the end of the war is approaching but it brings with it a terrible sting in the tail – V2 rockets. They arrive silently but with deadly violence. It all compounds the misery of families missing their loved ones, who are killed, missing, fighting for victory or imprisoned in camps. Green Shutters was suffragette Mattie’s home. It now belongs to Noel, an unusual boy of about 15, and with him lives his guardian of sorts, Vee, and a houseful of lodgers who teach Noel in return for a discount in their rent. Science, literature, languages, the arts are all taught to Noel by an array of colourful men and women. Vee is just about scraping by but, when she witnesses a car accident, the very real risk emerges that her true identity might become known and her world, and that of Noel, could come crashing down around then.

V for Victory is the third novel in a tremendous trilogy that brings to life the characters of Mattie, Noel and Vee with such warmth and wit. I really recommend that you read the previous two first because only then can you understand the ongoing influence of Mattie – who is absent from this novel – on the lives of so many people. Crooked Heart is the first, set in the early months of the Second World War, when Noel meets Vee while mourning for the wonderful, kind Mattie. The second novel, Old Baggage, takes us further back to Mattie’s suffragette days when she created an army of Amazons on Hampstead Heath, young girls who were inspired and emboldened by Mattie’s leadership. These two novels can be read in either order, although I rather liked reading them in the order in which they were written.

In V for Victory we also spend time with one of Mattie’s Amazons. Air raid warden Winnie Crowther has been separated from her husband, who is in a prisoner of war camp, for almost the entirety of her marriage. Now she is making her own life, part of the war effort as the V2 rockets rain down on London. Mattie might be gone now but she continues to influence Winnie as she fights for her independence. I really enjoyed Winnie’s chapters, set in a London that is being terrorised by rockets but where life goes on, people continue to meet, fight, fall in love, go hungry, go dancing, put out fires. Just like the preceding books, this is such an evocative novel. The lodgers are a joy – all so beautifully described and loved by Lissa Evans.

The relationship between Vee and Noel is central to the novel. But it isn’t a sentimental relationship. It’s tough scraping by in this world but both Vee and Noel are survivors. There are surprises in store for both of them in V for Victory. I’m not going to give anything away but, as on so many previous occasions, my heart wept for Noel.

Lissa Evans writes so beautifully. Her novels are so gorgeous but they’re also insightful, especially highlighting the challenges facing women during the early 20th century and during the war. This is a time of extreme stress and here we see people coping with it, or not, in their own ways. The characters are delightful – full of warmth, humour and sadness. But there is also a frightening menace hanging over the novel as the V2 rockets fall silently on London. I realise that this might be the end of a trilogy but I really, really hope we are able to spend more time with Noel, who has become one of my favourite characters in recent fiction.

Other reviews
Crooked Heart
Old Baggage

The Return by Harry Sidebottom

Zaffre | 2020 (ebook: 11 June, Hardback: 1 October) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Return by Harry SidebottomIt is 145 BC and Roman soldier Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home to his farm in Calabria, south of Rome, after two years of fighting to protect and extend the empire’s growing borders. But Paullus has returned alone. His childhood friend Alcimus was killed in action and now Paullus must face his friend’s grieving father. The matter is complicated by the fact that Paullus was awarded the civic crown for his bravery in battle. This now places him equal to any man in his community, even his elders. It benefits people to befriend him as he becomes a pawn in their petty games but most of all it means he must endure the scrutiny of everyone who wonders why, if he was so brave, he didn’t bring his friend back home safely to his family.

Then the bodies begin to appear. Other farmers are murdered and their bodies horrifically mutilated. Rumours begin that an old demon has returned to haunt the woods and fields. Paullus isn’t so sure. He suspects a human hand has done this evil work and he sets out to discover the killer before he too is either blamed for the murders or killed himself. And all the time he is haunted by the events of the last two years. Carthage had only just been taken in an absolute bloodbath but Paullus had faced his own hell on earth, in the destruction of Corinth in Greece. Paullus now realises he may have brought death back home with him.

Harry Sidebottom is a well-known and fantastic writer of Roman historical military fiction and is particularly well-known for his Warrior of Rome series. In recent books, though, the author has been trying something different while keeping his writing feet firmly in the world of ancient Rome. In The Last Hour we were given an excellent Roman thriller, which took place over the course of one day. This was followed by the fabulous The Lost Ten, which tells the story of a rescue mission deep into enemy territory. The Return gives us something different again – a stand alone murder mystery featuring a detective who has been traumatised by war and is desperate to find peace and can only achieve that by defeating evil.

The period of Roman history is also different. The centuries are turned back and we’re now in the mid 2nd century BC, to the Roman Republic, which is most certainly unknown territory for this reader at least. It feels different. People seem to be more superstitious – gods and demons lurk everywhere, watching everything. Society is more rural and farm-based, at least in Calabria where this novel is set, and soldiers are picked from that society to fight for Rome, in this case to fight the league of Greek cities which are attempting one final time to defeat their conquerors. There is plenty of military action in The Return and there aren’t many authors who can write about Roman warfare with such knowledge and insight as Harry Sidebottom. These scenes are tense, violent, exhilarating and realistic. Paullus knows better than anyone how horrific it was, how absolutely appallingly the people of Corinth suffered. He sees it every time he closes his eyes.

The novel moves back and forwards as Paullus continues to remember what he’s trying to forget. These memories interrupt the present where he faces a different kind of enemy. I really enjoyed the depictions of this Roman rural society, with its rules, superstitions and codes. It is all absolutely fascinating and described with such colour and atmosphere. It is a very immersive read.

This was my first read of the Lockdown (the publication was delayed, as with so many books), when I was finding it extremely difficult to settle on a book to read. I was very fortunate that this book arrived at just the right time and allowed me to escape back into the Roman past. The Roman period is my favourite for historical fiction (and for history, generally) and so at the moment I can’t get enough of it. The Return is such a fine example and shows yet again why Harry Sidebottom is one of my very favourite authors. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of Harry’s books before then The Return would make an excellent introduction.

Other reviews
Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East
Iron and Rust: Throne of the Caesars I
Blood and Steel: Throne of the Caesars II
Fire and Sword: Throne of the Caesars III
The Last Hour
The Lost Ten

The Dance of the Serpents by Oscar de Muriel

Orion | 2020 (20 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Dance of the Serpents by Oscar de MurielThe Dance of the Serpents is the sixth novel in the fabulous Frey and McGray series. Whereas others were more self-contained, this novel does rely on you having read previous books, especially the second (A Fever of the Blood), and so I would recommend you do that before reading this review. Suitably warned, I shall continue!

The Commission for the Elucidation of Unsolved Cases Presumably Related to the Odd and Ghostly, a subdivision of Edinburgh’s police force and hidden away in its basement, is in trouble. It’s run by English inspector Ian Frey and his boss, the Scottish and tartan clad ‘Nine Nails’ McGray and, quite apart from being an embarrassment to their superiors, they are now discovering that killing Queen Victoria’s favourite witch and medium (in a previous book presenting their cases) may well seal their fate. The Queen is after their blood, aided and abetted by her particularly unpleasant Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and his thugs. The two detectives are given an ultimatum – they must find Queen Victoria a new witch before Christmas Eve, the night when Victoria likes to communicate with Prince Albert, or they’ll be secretly executed. Unfortunately, this is only a few days away. With the help of a cursed young woman who is pursued by vengeful witches and the less than forthcoming assistance of McGray’s taumatised and silent sister, McGray and Frey undertake a pursuit of witches across England and Scotland, to distant islands and palaces. And all the time, the clock ticks.

I am such a huge fan of this series and have loved each of them. The Dance of the Serpents is no different but it is a little different from the previous books in that there isn’t a particular case to solve just a situation to correct, which puts our heroes in a great deal of danger. It also very much depends on the reader having enjoyed the previous novels, which is no difficulty whatsoever as these are addictive reads. But what makes these books so fantastic is every bit as evident here – the characters of Frey and McGray.

The personalities of our two detectives, so opposite to one another in absolutely every way, and the banter between them is brilliant and so many times I burst out laughing. The situations they find themselves in can be ridiculously weird and terrifyingly dangerous, not helped by the fact that even the supernatural wants to do them in, and we are engrossed. We’ve spent a few years with them now. We know them well but we are also well aware that there’s a lot more to learn from them. Maybe they don’t quite trust us yet. But on occasion they let down the barriers and there are glimpses of feeling, even, dare I say, friendship between the two men. That doesn’t stop McGray calling Frey names. Frey is our narrator and so his frustration and bewilderment at his partner in solving supernaturally-tinged crimes is extremely amusing.

I love the locations as well and they are particularly evocative in The Dance of the Serpents as we head across Scotland on the trail of the witches to the Orkneys – which isn’t great because Nine Nails gets seasick just walking the gangway on to a boat. I love the places which are so moodily and atmospherically described. And then there’s the other world of palaces when we find ourselves in Victoria’s extraordinary presence. What a fabulous chapter that is!

These books are always a delight and I loved The Dance of the Serpents. I really enjoy the late Victorian setting and then the blend of crime and supernatural possibilities and shivers. Oscar de Muriel writes so well. I love how he portrays his characters, male and female. They are larger than life in many ways and they’re all the more fun to read. His witches are terrifying…. just how I like them. Excellent!

Other reviews
A Fever of the Blood
A Mask of Shadows
The Loch of the Dead
The Darker Arts

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor

HarperCollins | 2020 (20 August) | 386p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel GaynorWhen the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japan’s war against China is now turned against the allies. For the children at Chefoo School, a missionary school in the Shantung Province of China, the ramifications will be devastating. Nancy Plummer is ten years old and has been left at the school for safety by her anxious missionary parents whom she hasn’t seen for years. She and her close friends, nicknamed Sprout and Mouse, have become their own family, watched over by teachers who have far more responsibility for these lonely children than they might have wanted. Teacher Elspeth Kent feels that responsibility too keenly and had been ready to leave China to remake her life in England but all her plans are forgotten when Japanese soldiers occupy the school and overturn their lives, damaging them all with negligence and brutality. Internment follows and the children and their teachers must look within themselves and to each other to find the hope and courage to survive these four years of war and imprisonment.

Hazel Gaynor is a wonderful writer and I couldn’t wait to read The Bird in the Bamboo Cage. It was everything I hoped for and more. I picked it up to read and when I put it down I was over two thirds of the way through, finishing it in one more sitting. It’s completely engrossing and compelling. It is also heartbreaking, harrowing and emotional, all the more so because it is based on a true story. And what an incredible story it is.

The characters in the novel are so beautifully portrayed, with chapters narrated by young Nancy alternating with chapters narrated by the teacher Elspeth. Each has a distinct voice and each has their own perspective on events, whether in the school or the internment camp. This structure works perfectly. Elspeth, as an adult woman, has a very different time of it, with extra fears and dangers, as well as the driving need to keep those in her care safe, her brownies and guides. Nancy and her friends use guides’ codes and rules as a way of getting through this nightmare, directing their actions, thinking of others, keeping themselves as clean as possible. But, of course, that is almost impossible as they all begin to slowly starve in the squalor and dirt of the camp. It’s a harsh awakening from childhood as these girls and boys grow into teenagers without their parents.

It’s all so powerful, particularly when we learn more about the School’s Chinese servants, who also turn up at the camp. There is brutality and cruelty, throughout, but it isn’t presented graphically. Much is left to the imagination. The focus instead is on the children and their teachers. The children dwell on their friendships and are remarkably resilient. They have hope. The teachers think back on their past, especially Elspeth who must worry for her brother who is missing in action in the European War while also recalling past loves. Elspeth’s story is particularly painful but how we grow to love her, and the children, through the author’s beautiful writing! It’s not often a book makes me cry as much as this one did.

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage is easily one of the best books I’ve read in a long time and it’s a contender for my favourite novel of 2020. I can’t praise it enough. It’s engrossing, thoroughly engaging, beautifully written, extremely hard to put down and full of life, colour and love, despite the terrible and desperate situation in which these wonderful characters are placed.

Other review
With Heather Webb – Meet Me in Monaco

The Honey and the Sting by E.C. Fremantle

Michael Joseph | 2020 (6 August) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1628 and sisters Hester, Melis and Hope must run and hide, taking with them Hester’s young son Rafe. Twelve years before Hester was raped by George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham and the favourite of James I. Rafe was the result and now Villiers wants the child, to do with nobody knows. The sisters hide at the country house of friends but they stand out – Melis is connected to nature in an intimate way, she has visions and feels an affinity with bees (as you’d expect – Melissa is Greek for bee*). She attracts suspicion. Hope is a young beauty. She attracts attention. Hester, meanwhile, must keep her son safe and hold her family together, supported by a soldier who has been sent by a relative to guard them. But this man is not who he says he is.

I am such a fan of this author’s historical fiction, whether writing as E.C. Fremantle or as Elizabeth Fremantle, and so a new novel is always a treat. I love her depiction of women of the past and their experiences in a society that is often unkind and unjust. This time the women are fictional characters but the man they have to deal with is not and George Villiers was an infamously nasty and corrupt man. His fate is well chronicled, which does reveal a little of what happens here, but I won’t make any mention of that in the review. But Villiers makes a perfect villain, although much of the menace here is provided not by him (who is largely absent) but by his henchman, Felton, a soldier whose mission is to kill the sisters and steal the boy. He is sinister and menacing and strange.

The sisters are wonderfully portrayed, especially Hester and Melis. Melis is an unusual girl and I love how she is depicted. Hester, though, is my favourite and it’s fitting that much of the novel is told in her own words, bringing us closer to her and her determination to keep her son safe. Hope is not a sensible girl and I couldn’t help becoming annoyed with her! The mystery in all this is Rafe, a character who only emerges gradually, to powerful effect. I think we need more of Rafe.

The Honey and the Sting is a beautifully written historical novel set at a time that I’m really interested in, during the days of the debauched, profligate and unpleasant Stuarts. The novel explores the effects of this society on those who are vulnerable, the women and the children, the beautiful and the innocent. Villiers exemplifies all that is rotten with the court, whereas through the sisters, especially Melis, we witness the purity of nature. It’s very well done. I’m keen to know where and when and to whom this author will take us next!

*Thanks to my Dad for the Greek reference!

Other reviews
Queen’s Gambit
Sisters of Treason
Watch the Lady
The Girl in the Glass Tower
The Poison Bed

River of Gold by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2020 (6 August) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

River of Gold by Anthony RichesIt is AD 187 and a deadly, unknown force from the mysterious land of Kush is attacking Roman settlements in the far south of Egypt. This is a wealthy region, the site of diamond mines as well as a gateway between continents for exotic goods from the east. With Egypt at its weakest in thousands of years, it is perhaps not surprising that Rome should have a rival for its riches. Emperor Commodus’s closest and most devious advisor sends Marcus Corvus, his superior Scaurus and their too few men deep into the deserts of Roman Egypt to drive the enemy back to the south. But what can so few achieve against a mighty army? Scaurus and Marcus suspect that this is one mission they are not supposed to survive.

It will only take a glance at the long list of reviews and interviews below to know how much I adore Anthony Riches’ Roman books! The Empire series is one of my favourite series of all and I always look forward to them. I was thrilled to receive River of Gold and gobbled it up. It was delicious. River of Gold is the eleventh in the series. It’s been quite a journey for Marcus and his bunch of Tungrians and Britons. Nevertheless, each of the books stands on their own well and this one particularly so. But, obviously, I would recommend that you read the whole series just so you can find out just what these men have endured. You’ll also be able to meet much loved comrades who fell along the way….

As soon as I saw that this was a book about Roman Egypt, I couldn’t wait to read it even more than normal. It’s an irresistible destination. I loved the journey of Scaurus and Marcus through Egypt, passing the pyramids, going deep into the desert, a place of legend even to the Egyptian guide and scholar who accompanies them. The people of the far, far south are feared, presumed monsters. It’s all fascinating and richly described. I was also interested in another man who accompanies them – a former centurion who is now a Christian, who suffers for his previous persecution and torture of Christians. That adds something extra to this tale of war.

The enemy, when we discover them, are a worthy foe and are intriguing in their own right, as well as being suitably menacing. I love sieges in Roman historical fiction and we have one of those here. It’s tense, exciting and backed up with the author’s attention to detail and historical and military knowledge. This is also such an interesting period of Roman history, taking us to the time of Commodus (of Gladiator fame).

I absolutely loved River of Gold, reading it in just a couple of days, which is pretty unheard of for me these days. It was such a pleasurable read and I loved being back with characters that I am so fond of and wouldn’t be without (although I do worry about them!). A reading highlight of my summer. There isn’t enough Roman historical fiction being published these days and so I am particularly grateful for the Empire series. Long may it continue!

Other reviews and features
Empire I: Wounds of Honour
Empire II: Arrows of Fury
Empire III: Fortress of Spears
Empire IV: The Leopard Sword
Empire V: The Wolf’s Gold
Empire VI: The Eagle’s Vengeance
Empire VII: The Emperor’s Knives
Empire VIII: Thunder of the Gods
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
Empire X: The Scorpion’s Strike
Betrayal: The Centurions I
Onslaught: The Centurions II
Retribution – The Centurions III
An interview for The Eagle’s Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

Six Tudor Queens V: Katheryn Howard – The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir

Headline Review | 2020 (6 August) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen by Alison WeirIn 1540 the very young Katheryn Howard, one of Anna of Kleve’s ladies, cousin to Anne Boleyn, caught the roving eye of Henry VIII and her fate was sealed.

We’ve now reached the fifth novel in this superb series by Alison Weir on Henry’s six wives and I approached it with some trepidation because this is the most tragic of stories. It’s one that is very familiar and so we know what’s coming. By spending so much time on Katheryn’s childhood – she never had the chance of adulthood, after all – Alison Weir brings the tragedy home. This child was misued and abused for most of her life and she is here so likeable, naive, foolish and adorable that there are sections of this novel that are too painful.

Katheryn Howard – The Tainted Queen portrays Katheryn’s broken home and her move into the household of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Katheryn’s grandmother. The date of Katheryn’s birth isn’t known and so we can never be entirely sure how young she was when she moved into the household but she was most likely in her early teens and there she and the other young ladies ran wild with the men of the household. Katheryn falls in love time after time with men so much older than she was, whose motives the reader can only question. Reading it, appalled at what the Duchess allowed to go on in her household, one still falls for the charm of this young girl and wishes that she had been born to a different family or in a different time.

One of the aspects of this series that I have enjoyed throughout is Alison Weir’s depiction of Henry VIII. He is the constant through the novels, changing before our eyes as he grows fat, old and diseased. He is so different now from the Henry of the first book, the young man who fell in love with Katherine of Aragon, and it’s been fascinating watching him evolve. The author still manages to make us feel sympathy for him, as he’s obviously suffering and at times he can be surprisingly gentle, but it is impossible to forget that this is a man who had his second wife, Katheryn’s own cousin, killed and is about to do it again, to a very young girl. It is grotesque thinking of Henry and Katheryn together. She has been conditioned not to mind it, by her past experiences and by the pressure of her unscrupulous and monstrous Howard relatives, and so that does help to get past it but it makes me pity her even more, that she doesn’t seem to think there’s any harm in it or in Henry himself. This Katheryn falls in love with Henry, which does add something different to the novel, to the story.

As a historian, Alison Weir does such a good job of enriching her novels with Tudor details. I love the descriptions of the clothes, the houses and palaces and the people in them. It’s filled with colour. This is fiction, not non-fiction, and it reads like it, flowing along and proving very hard to put down. We all have our perceptions of Henry VIII and of Katheryn and that does colour the reading, as they might be different to the author’s. It can’t be an easy task at all to tackle such a familiar subject as Henry VIII! But I think that Alison Weir has done a wonderful job of bringing Katheryn Howard to life, with a distinct voice and character, loving, charismatic and beautiful, and doomed. I did find the end difficult, unsurprisingly, but it’s a necessary part of this absorbing and utterly compelling retelling of the stories of Henry’s six wives. One more to go – Katharine Parr. I was named after her and so she’s particularly special to me. She will be in very safe hands with Alison Weir.

I must add that the cover of Katheryn Howard, just like all of the others in this stylish series, is stunning!

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