Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Bear Pit by S.G. MacLean

Quercus | 2019 (11 July) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bear Pit by SG MacLean

It is 1656, the war is long over and Oliver Cromwell’s grip on England is tight. But despite Cromwell’s new title of ‘Highness’ and even though he now lives in palaces emptied of their royal owners, his government is all too aware that their Commonwealth could crumble if anything should happen to their Lord Protector. And Charles II’s court in exile knows it. Captain Damian Seeker is back in London on a mission to protect Cromwell from assassins. And he knows that three of them at least are now in London.

But Seeker is preoccupied. He’s holding together his own network of untrustworthy spies, led by his former royalist prisoner Sir Thomas Faithly, when he and Faithly discover the remains of a man, torn apart by a bear. Cromwell has banned bear baiting and had all of the bears killed. One has clearly got away. Faithly tracks the bear, while Seeker goes after the dead man’s identity. It leads him on a perilous journey across London, from its grand houses to its Southwark stews and Lambeth marshes. At its heart lies a man who will stop at nothing to restore the monarchy.

The Bear Pit is the fourth novel in S.G. MacLean’s series featuring that most enigmatic, troubled and flawed of men, Damian Seeker. He is both hero and anti-hero. He is ruled by his code of honour but at times it is prejudiced, while his scarred face and body reminds us of his violent past, in war and in times of peace. He is a killer but he is also now a father and the two fight within him. He serves Cromwell faithfully and is prepared to die for him but we are all too aware that Cromwell may well not deserve this loyalty. We can approve, like Seeker, of some of Cromwell’s new laws, such as those banning bear baiting, and Seeker welcomes the new codes of morality and modesty, but we know, as he must too, that people don’t change. They just go underground. And it’s down there that Seeker must descend.

The plotting is fantastic. It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale of spies and murder, full of surprises and twists as people shift their position in these uncertain times. There’s a host of fascinating characters, some innocent, many not, and they live in a brilliantly described London, with its prisons, dark lanes, inns and bear pits. I love the little details – the descriptions of buildings and clothing, the moments we spend with famous historical figures. And there are people here we care for even though our own loyalties are tested by both sides. This isn’t black and white and demonstrates how divided and damaged England was by those years of royal neglect, war and then the Commonwealth.

The 1650s were such a fascinating and critical period in British history and the Seeker novels bring these years to life with such drama and colour. There’s violence and gore (how could there not be with a bear on the loose?!), there’s passion and tenderness. And there are so many lies. Although this is the fourth novel, The Bear Pit stands alone very well but I do recommend you read them all. Damian Seeker is one of my very favourite figures in historical fiction and historical crime. He lights up the page and demands our attention even when he follows a darker path.

Other reviews
The Seeker
The Black Friar
Destroying Angel

Advertisements

The Bone Fire by S.D. Sykes

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (25 July) | 308p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bone Fire by SD SykesIt is 1361 and plague has returned to England and it’s just as devastating as it was a decade before. The difference is that this time people know what to expect and they are terrified. Oswald de Lacy, Lord of Sommershill in Kent, flees with his wife, child and mother to the safety of a remote castle on an island surrounded by marshes, owned by his friend Godfrey who is about to seal off his fortress against the approaching onslaught of disease. But when the portcullis is shut, the small group sealed within are uneasy in each other’s company and it isn’t long before one of them is murdered. Oswald can either leave and risk the plague, already working its way through the villages beyond the walls, or stay inside and try and protect his family by catching the killer among them. Everyone is a suspect and the death toll is rising.

The Bone Fire is the fourth novel in the Somershill Manor series by S.D. Sykes and, as with the others, it is an excellent novel. The book works well as a stand alone historical mystery but I do think that the reader would benefit from knowing what Oswald has been through since the events of the first novel Plague Land. Set in 1350, that novel portrayed the dramatic impact that plague had on Oswald in 1350 and since then he has had much to endure, culminating in the previous novel City of Masks, in which Oswald travelled to Venice where events once more changed his life. It’s that life that Oswald must now protect in Castle Eden.

I love the setting of The Bone Fire within this crowded medieval castle, filled with servants, a jester, lords, ladies and children, a priest, even a clock maker. These are interesting times. Medieval feudalism is very slowly giving way to a more modern era of science and humanism. The castle’s owner Godfrey bridges both worlds. I enjoyed the descriptions of the castle itself as well as the scenes of daily life within its walls. When characters do venture outside then it’s as if they’re entering a world of horror, with the stench in the air of the festering remains of the plague dead.

The characters are a great bunch, from Oswald and his argumentative and really rather unpleasant mother (we’re spared the sister this time round), to the strange clockmaker and his even stranger nephew.

Above all else, The Bone Fire tells an excellent story very well indeed. Poor Oswald carries the weight of the world on his shoulders as he tries to protect his family against the plague, but there is just as much to fear from his fellow man. I love murder mysteries set in a confined, isolated location, with just a select number of suspects. S.D. Sykes adapts this to the 14th century so well, with the added horror and tension of the Black Death lurking beyond the castle walls. The Bone Fire is a hugely entertaining novel which could well be my favourite book of the series so far.

Other reviews
Plague Land
The Butcher Bird
City of Masks

A Prisoner of Privilege by Rosemary Rowe

Severn House | 2019 (31 May) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Person of Privilege by Rosemary RoweIt is AD 194 and the Roman Empire is in turmoil following the murder of the Emperor Pertinax by his own Praetorian Guard. The new Emperor, Septimus Severus, sees threats on every side and one of those threats is the Governor of Britannia, Clodius Albinus. Sides are being drawn and the effects are felt as far away as Glevum (modern Gloucester) in Britannia. Pavement maker Libertus has risen high, thanks to the patronage of Marcus, a powerful man in Britannia and the friend of Pertinax. Libertus, a citizen who was once a slave, is now sitting on the town council.

Libertus now has influence of his own. But he must still do whatever Marcus instructs and one day Marcus informs Libertus that a cousin of his is being sent to Britannia as the Emperor’s own messenger. Everyone knows he’s a spy, sent to uncover dissenters and followers of Clodius. Marcus knows that his rank will not be able to save him from the spy’s awkward questions. And so the murder of a local moneylender, another influential man in Glevum, couldn’t have come at a worst time. It’s up to Libertus to solve it before he, too, falls victim to the spy. But then another murder upsets everything.

I’ve been reading Rosemary Rowe’s Libertus novels for more years than I care to recall. I’ve not missed one of them and I always look forward to them. They’re comforting and entertaining but they’re also packed with historical detail and research, backed up by informative introductions in which the author sets the time and place. A Person of Privilege is the eighteenth Libertus mystery. They all stand alone very well but I’ve loved getting to know Libertus and his household of family and young slaves over the years, as well as demanding patrician Marcus and the men and women of a beautifully realised prosperous Roman town.

Libertus’s life has been full of incident and drama and it’s given him insight into the lows and highs of Roman society. He was once a slave and slavery is a repeated theme through the series. Libertus is a father figure to his young slaves. He cares deeply for them. In this novel, slaves, recently sold, play an important role. Libertus never lets us forget that they’re human beings, in contrast to the attitudes of his patron, Marcus. Libertus’s family plays such an important role in his life, and therefore in the novels.

I really enjoyed the depiction here of local Roman government with all of its little rituals and expectations, such as the command that Libertus and councillors like him must always wear a toga, with its thin purple strip, when outdoors. Not that he does, of course, because at heart Libertus is still a pavement maker, a craftsman of mosaics. We also learn about the customs, rituals and practicalities of death. It’s all deeply fascinating and informative.

The Prisoner of Privilege, while not my favourite of the series (it has a lot of competition), was a delight to read. I love the world of Roman Britain it takes me to. It’s comforting and cosy but it’s also clever and superbly researched. Marcus is always leading Libertus into trouble and I’ve loved being there with him every step of the way as he puzzles, or blunders, his way out of it. I always look forward to these books. Long may they continue!

Other reviews
Dark Omens
The Fateful Day
The Ides of June
The Price of Freedom

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

Serpent’s Tail | 2019 (4 July) | 278p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Warlow Experiment by Alix NathanIt is 1793 and Herbert Powyss, living on a small estate in the Welsh Marches, is an enlightened man. He reads the latest scientific and philosophical texts. He exchanges letters with some of the finest minds of the day. Yet his life is mostly one of seclusion and solitude. But Powyss is a man who wants to leave his mark. What he really wants, though, is to impress London’s Royal Society. To do that Powyss comes up with a radical experiment. He will pay a man fifty pounds a year for the rest of his life if he will spend seven years in perfect isolation in the cellar of his manor. He wants to test the limits of the human mind, its appetite for fulfilment and improvement when it is deprived of human society.

Perhaps not surprisingly there isn’t a rush to answer Powyss’ advertisement. Only one man replies – John Warlow, a semi-illiterate brutish labourer with a wife and six living children (six other children died). What need has Warlow of the fine books, the organ and music, the journals to record his enlightenment through the seven long years? Powyss is about to discover the fine line between enlightenment and madness.

The Warlow Experiment is a beautiful book in so many ways. The cover and the inside cover are stunning with their images of flowers, insects and fruits – the rewards of life. Inside there are wonders to be found. Alix Nathan’s prose is captivating. It captures the Enlightenment scientists’ hunger for knowledge as Powyss spends time examining the world around him and questioning it. But these chapters, full of analysis, detailed description, curiosity and awe, alternate with those that take us into the dark cellar where John Warlow festers. In these chapters, the language falters. Warlow has no education. In utter boredom he tries to grapple with the books and journal but it can’t make up for the companionship he misses and seeks now where he can find it – with the frogs that drop in through the cistern.

This is a captivating, fascinating novel. It takes us back to the time of the French Revolution, a time in which ideas have become dangerous and forbidden. The ideas of the revolution have stretched across the Channel to England. Powyss feels fear. But his feelings are far more complicated than that and much of that is to do with Warlow. Powyss is about to learn far more about himself than he ever imagined.

There is an inevitability about The Warlow Experiment that, for me, meant that the first half was more successful than the first but I really enjoyed this novel. I loved its language, its portrayal of a time of scientific enquiry contrasting with the reality of the poverty faced by most of the population. This is a time ripe for revolution. Science is teetering on a knife edge as necessity and hunger rise up in desperation. But it’s not as simple as that, as the character of Warlow demonstrates so brutally. The Warlow Experiment immediately appeals to the reader with its beautiful cover and inside cover. It invites the reader in. And what they find there will not disappoint.

The Exiled by David Barbaree

Zaffre | 2019 (27 June) | 367p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Exiled by David BarbareeThe Exiled is the sequel to one of my very favourite books of 2017, the remarkable Deposed. What if Nero didn’t die in AD 68? What if he managed to get away, blinded, maimed, a different man, to somewhere distant from Rome where he could plot against the emperors who succeeded him? That is the premise of this fantastic series and I’m delighted (but not surprised) to say that The Exiled is every bit as good as its predecessor. I would urge you to read Deposed first, even though The Exiled stands well on its own. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is the summer of AD 79. Emperor Vespasian has just recently died and the new ruler is his son Titus, a man of action. Titus is also a superstitious man and he is troubled by the words of an oracle, which foretold a great disaster and, perhaps even more troubling, that a slave will rule. There is trouble in the East, yet again. Brothers compete, and murder, for the Parthian throne. There are Parthian hostages in Rome, pledged during an earlier war, and now they will be caught in the middle of a power struggle between Rome, which they hate, and Parthia, which they no longer know. As a Parthian embassy arrives in Rome, trouble stirs and plots are hatched.

Keenly observing it all, with senses other than his blind eyes, is the wealthy Spanish senator Lucius Ulpius, who is growing ever closer to the emperor Titus. Titus’ closest friend, Pliny, both admiral and scientist, is jealous but, more to the point, he is also suspicious, and he instructs his young nephew Gaius to observe. But there is something else to fascinate Pliny – the mountain of Vesuvius rumbles ominously and the ground shakes.

The Exiled is a very, very good book. As with its predecessor, this is such an original take on a very familiar period of Roman history. Here we have Nero as never presented before. He was brought to the very depths of despair, blinded, tortured and humiliated. But, thanks to Marcus (now passed off as the senator’s nephew) and men like him, Nero survived and he has forgotten nothing, despite the transformation undergone by his character due to what he has suffered. Nero, now Lucius Ulpius, has learned wisdom from his suffering. He wants revenge but he is prepared to wait for the right time and serve it cold.

The focus in this novel isn’t actually on Ulpius at all. He’s always there in the background. We can never forget him. But much of the narrative is told in the present tense by Gaius, the nephew of the extraordinary man we know as Pliny the Elder. This is fascinating! Gaius is the perfect witness to history. He’s been instructed by his uncle on how and what to observe and, although at times he is forced into social situations he hates, he learns and watches and records. And then everything is overshadowed by the eruption of Vesuvius.

The Exiled is such an exciting and riveting novel – a Roman political thriller with a disaster novel thrown in for our added enjoyment. I couldn’t take my eyes off the pages. We hear other voices and they resonate, especially Titus’s sister Domitilla, who is caught up in something way beyond her control. And then there’s the Parthian hostage, Barlaas. Each of these has a unique voice and plays such a central part in a brilliant story. We see so many aspects of Roman life, including the games. Here we meet gladiators as well as senators, servants, the inn keepers, the ordinary man and woman on the street, each of which has a significant part to play in what unfolds.

There is so much plot in The Exiled! There is clearly – thankfully – much more to come and in a future novel I’m sure we will see how Nero/Ulpius has manoeuvered himself. In The Exiled, he plays a quiet but significant part. Ironically, Titus is worried by the False Neros who threaten him in the East, never realising that the real Nero is right under his nose.

I could go on and on about how much I love The Exiled. Really, you just need to read it for yourself. It’s a story, a thriller, that works on so many levels as Nero works his way into the emperor’s court. But, on top of that, the chapters set in Pompeii are riveting. The Exiled, just like its predecessor Deposed, is original, clever, exciting and engrossing. I can’t praise it or its author enough.

Other review
Deposed

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Picador Classics | 1990 (this edition 2013) | 554p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardIt is 1937 and the Cazalet households are preparing for their annual return to the family estate of Home Place in Sussex, where life is played out seemingly almost idyllically under the benevolent eyes of William Cazalet (the Brig) and his wife Kitty Barlow, known to everyone as Duchy. Their three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, bring their wives and children to stay, while Rachel (the only daughter of the Brig and Duchy) holds the household together, waiting for the time when she can be joined by her close friend Sid.

Hugh and Edward both fought in the Great War and Hugh in particular has paid a heavy price for his service. The war clouds are gathering once more and the whole family waits to hear if Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement will win peace from Hitler. As the country prepares for war – everyone is measured up for a gasmask – Some of the children have nightmares about what war will mean. Edward and Rupert would surely have to fight. But, for now, these are the light years – it’s time to spend a summer together in the countryside while keeping one eye on the future. Everyone, including the children, has their own alliances to forge and battles to fight.

Recently I reached a stage in my reading when I really needed to try something different. You can have too much of a good thing when it comes to crime and psychological thrillers. I’ve also been reading a great deal of historical fiction behind the scenes for the HWA Gold Crown, for which I’m one of the judges. So an escape was needed and Twitter friends suggested the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, which were begun in the 1990s. The family saga stretches over five substantial novels and, as I love a good saga, I gratefully dived in.

The Light Years is the first of the five novels and it sets the stage beautifully. The cast of adults, children and servants is vast (happily introduced with both a family tree and a list) and the author takes care to ensure that we spend time with them all. Even a character who plays a minor role is given a little scene or two, or more, which takes us into their world. I particularly enjoyed the time spent with the governess Miss Milliment, whose life couldn’t be more different from those of her pupils. The children are given as much time as their parents, if not more so, and, I’m very glad to say, their voices are realistically and sympathetically done. I’m not a big fan of children in fiction as a whole but I loved Polly, Clary and Louise in particular. The boys are harder to warm to as they’re off mostly, doing their own thing. I suspect they’ll play a bigger role in the later novels.

The novel moves along slowly, following the details of life at a very leisurely pace, interspersed with squabbles, stresses and disappointments, but it’s far from dull. I was completely engrossed. I became addicted to reading this book and always looked forward to picking it up each time. Them I would be immediately transported back to this beautifully crafted and remembered world. But it isn’t all sunshine, buckets and spades, and tea or gin on the lawn. This is real life being presented here and, as such, sometimes it’s unpredictable and utterly shocking. There are a couple of events that made my blood flow cold. Not everyone here is who they seem. There is danger in Eden and it’s not just Hitler who threatens it. And the characters are not at all stereotypes, despite the Upstairs Downstairs feel of some of the novel or the wealth of the characters on their country estate. Rachel, the sole daughter of the Brig and Duchy, challenges attitudes of the day in some significant ways, and the grief it causes her as she lives a life of compromise and duty is agonising.

There’s a lot going on in this book and I don’t want to go into it in any detail but I must say a few words about my favourite character – Zoë, the second wife of the youngest son, Rupert, and stepmother to his children, including the isolated Clary. Zoë appears on the surface to be empty-headed, cold and obsessed with her own beauty, with little time for the youngsters in her care. But she grows through the novel more than anyone else and I really can’t wait to see what becomes of her as she rises to meet and overcome serious and horrible obstacles. Her relationship with Clary is so beautifully explored. And, as with all of the relationships in the book, they’re given time to grow.

As soon as I started The Light Years I knew I needed more and so I instantly bought the whole series and I’m already well into the second novel, Marking Time, which takes us to September 1939 and the outbreak of war. I am so pleased to have been led to these novels and I’m looking forward to spending time with them all over the months to come. The Light Years is an absolute delight but, as Hilary Mantel commented, this is a novel (and series) far less cosy than first appears.

Commodus by Simon Turney

Orion | 2019 (13 June) | 482p | Review copy | Buy the book

Commodus by Simon TurneyMarcia’s place at the Roman imperial court is unusual. She has the status of a freedwoman, the daughter of the seamstress of Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius’ co-emperor, but she spent her childhood alongside those of the royal family, growing especially close to Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus, and his brothers. Years later, when Commodus succeeds his father as Emperor, Marcia becomes closer still to this young man she loves so much. But a man cannot rule the world without it changing him. History knows Commodus as the megalomaniac who loved to fight as a gladiator (just remember Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the man in Gladiator!), and Marcia is witness to it all. Marcia knows Commodus better than anyone. She loves him the most and she also has reason to fear him.

Simon Turney’s latest novel in his ‘Damned Emperors’ series focuses on one of the most charismatic and infamous of Rome’s rulers, who was emperor in the later years of the 2nd century AD. Commodus really did think of himself as Hercules reborn but Simon Turney here shows that there was much more to the man than this. As with the previous novel, Caligula, the story is told from the perspective of a woman (a genuine historical figure) who was closest to the Emperor. Marcia was quite possibly the love of Commodus’ life and she achieved a status that far outstripped her rank as a freedwoman. Once again, Simon Turney creates a convincing, fascinating and complex female figure – someone who is a central part of the story while also being an outsider, due to her gender and her rank.

Through Marcia we see glimpses into Commodus’ soul, beginning in AD 162, from their earliest years as children playing together, along with Commodus’ siblings. This is a novel filled with disasters, some that affected all of Rome and others that damaged Commodus. Commodus better than anyone understood the fragility of life. It also makes for an exciting novel as we see floods, fires, civil unrest, war and accidents. One of the biggest threats facing Rome and the empire, though, was plague. It’s never that far away from these pages.

Commodus is such an engrossing novel, filled with characters who each leave their mark, whatever their rank. Marcia is our narrator but she isn’t quite what she seems. There’s a psychological thriller element here, I think. She is an unreliable narrator at times. She has her own agenda and at times I found her horrifying, no less a demon than Commodus himself. Perhaps this is one reason why they grew so close. Marcia keeps her eye on the men and women who live in Commodus’ circle. Intrigue is rife and, as time goes on, intrigue becomes something else. Marcia seems to be at the heart of it all. Commodus is almost the innocent at times. But it all shows what a complicated man Commodus was. There is more to him than history has recorded and, although we only see some of it in glimpses – it’s difficult for Marcia to see into Commodus’ deepest thoughts – it’s compelling and our feelings towards him are conflicted as we try to understand him.

This is such a fascinating period in Roman history and it’s brought alive here. We have the personal relationship between Marcia and Commodus and those closest to them, but then there is also the political turmoil of the period, reinforced by disaster, and these two sides to Commodus’ story are brought together by Simon Turney in such thoroughly absorbing style. I can’t wait to find out which emperor will be the next to receive the Turney treatment!

By the way, Commodus is a beautiful hardback, complete with maps and family trees.

Other reviews and features
Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul
Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae
Writing historical locations – a guest post
Caligula