Category Archives: Jacobean

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Zaffre | 2019 (7 February) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Familiars by Stacey HallsIt is 1612 and Fleetwood Shuttleworth is mistress of Gawthorpe Hall in the northwest of England, about forty miles from Lancaster. It’s a long way from London and the whole area is viewed with suspicion by the paranoid, unhappy King James I, ever since the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Some of the rebels fled north and James is not inclined to forgive the region. But Fleetwood has other problems to keep her occupied. She is just 17 years old and her marriage to Richard is already her second. She is heavily pregnant, having given birth to three stillborn babies. This is what life is like for eligible girl children. And Fleetwood is very afraid. She has discovered a doctor’s letter to her husband which states that if his wife should fall pregnant again, neither she nor the child would survive it.

But one day Fleetwood by chance comes across a young woman and midwife, Alice Grey. Fleetwood is drawn to her and hires her. Alice is knowledgeable about natural remedies and all remark on how much better Fleetwood is doing and her belly swells with a healthy child. And then men seeking favour with their King find it by discovering a local coven of suspected witches. Alice is among the accused. Fleetwood will stop at nothing, will risk everything, to save her friend whom she believes to be her only chance of salvation. But who will listen to a young, distraught and pregnant girl whose role in life is to support her husband and give him the heir he craves?

The Familiars is one of the most enthralling and enchanting historical novels I’ve read for some time. Its beautiful cover hints at wonders within and it is right. I fell for Fleetwood the moment I met her. She’s a remarkable figure, suiting her unusual name. She could hardly be more vulnerable or isolated, despite her love for her husband and their beautiful ‘modern’ home, and yet she is so resilient. But then she has so little to lose. She believes she’s a dead woman walking.

The title suggests that here is a story of witches and their familiars and, although they do play their part, the glory of the novel is in its portrayal of the fate of a well-to-do young woman who, while no more than a child, was married off, not once but twice, and lost her babies. Her terror feels so real. Her relationship with her husband is fascinating. There are elements of it that are shocking and yet we’re left in no doubt that none of this would be unusual.

Men are all powerful and this is shown in their persecution of these women. There’s no doubt at all that some of the accusers have their own motives for their cruel actions but the feeling is strong that women, particularly poor and illiterate women, have very little value – certainly less than a hunting dog or hawk. We are right behind Fleetwood as she fights for her friend’s life, just as we wince at the physical hardships she suffers in such an advanced state of pregnancy. The real suffering here, though, is experienced by the so-called Pendle witches. It’s barbaric. Stacey Halls doesn’t dwell on it but it’s very apparent.

The Familiars is such an atmospheric novel, which is rich in place. Fleetwood and Alice are just as at home outside in the woods as they are in Gawthorpe. Fleetwood is constantly on horseback, her enormous dog Puck running at the horse’s heels. The dining room, by contrast, is the male world where men meet to impress over wine and meat. There are beautiful descriptions of indoors and outdoors. It’s captivating. There’s sometimes an ephemeral feel to it. At other times, it feels modern and timeless.

I didn’t want to put The Familiars down once I picked it up and I read it in two glorious sittings, totally caught up in Fleetwood’s world and situation. She’s left an impression on me. I’ll miss her. And just look at that gorgeous cover!

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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 King’s Witch by Tracy Borman

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (14 June) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The King's Witch by Tracy BormanWhen Lady Frances Gorges, the young daughter of one of the most noble women in the Tudor court, is brought to the bedside of Elizabeth I in March 1603 to help nurse and comfort the Queen during her dying days, she enters a nest of vipers. Robert Cecil was Elizabeth’s chief adviser and he has every intention of fulfilling the same role for the new king James and that means distancing himself from all of the old Queen’s favourites, including Frances and her family. Frances, in turn, is delighted to be sent away from James’s increasingly decadent and superstitious court to the warmth of her country home where she can learn her healing skills in peace, with no risk of interference.

But then Frances is suddenly called back to court, to serve as maid to James’s daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, and Frances finds herself caught up in a web of plots and secrets. The court is an unhappy place. James’s paranoia and hatred of Catholics, all potential conspirators in his eyes, has reached new heights, and is only matched by his fear and loathing of wise women that he’s all too determined to persecute as witches. Frances is not immune to the lure of the rich court – she even hopes for love – but this is a dangerous place, where few are what they seem, and watching them all is Cecil.

The court of James I during the early years of this unhappy king’s reign is such a fascinating time and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed its recreation more than I did in this wonderful novel. Tracy Borman is a renowned historian of the period and her learning and depth of knowledge stand her in good stead. The King’s Witch is full of all of the details and colour that you want from the best historical fiction. But it’s not overloaded with research. Tracy Borman also proves herself a fine storyteller and it’s the story that rules here but it’s undoubtedly superbly supported by a wealth of historical insight into the early 1600s.

I was a little surprised yet delighted by the direction the novel took! I think it’s the title that slightly misleads because there is far, far more to The King’s Witch than a story about ‘witches’, as these poor women were labelled, or their persecution. There is much more to Frances’ character than the expected – she is a thoroughly intriguing young woman who wants as little to do with the court as possible but is nevertheless drawn to it, not least because of her attachment to her young charge, the adorable, precocious and slightly intimidating Princess Elizabeth. Frances has cause to use her healing skills on more than one occasion but this is a novel about a young woman who is in danger of being caught out of her depth by the plots and schemes of her fellow courtiers.

Some of the most famous plotters of the day are brought to life in The King’s Witch and their stories are engrossing. Our sympathies are torn in every which way and it’s easy to sense the danger and urgency of the times. I was immersed in The King’s Witch from start to finish. Lady Frances Gorges is a fascinating, little-known figure and I love how Tracy Borman interprets her story, mixing fact with the possible, making her both likeable and complex. This is easily one of my favourite novels of the year so far.

The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle

Michael Joseph | 2018 (14 June) | 406p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Poison Bed by Elizabeth FremantleIt is Autumn 1615 and the court of James I is swept up in a scandal. Two of its most celebrated and glamorous members, Robert and Frances Carr, the earl and countess of Somerset, are imprisoned in the Tower of London, accused of murder, of poisoning a man who knew far too much about the King, about Robert and about Frances. As a result, his life was forfeit, and now somebody must pay. But for Frances in the Tower, imprisoned with her newborn baby and the wet nurse, this is the time for her to look back on her short and eventful life, on her upbringing among the cruelly ambitious and powerful Howard family, on her unhappy first marriage, and on her passion for the beautiful Robert Carr, himself beloved by the King.

The Poison Bed is a story with two sides if not more and, as a result, it moves back and forth between chapters dedicated to ‘Her’ and to ‘Him’. In this way we get to know both Frances and Robert, although the reader must keep their wits about them. We, after all, were not there at the time. We are merely an audience. And in James I’s court with its love of wit and drama, little should be taken at face value.

This new novel by Elizabeth Fremantle (here published with a slight change of name) marks a little bit of a change by this fine author. Her previous novels have been more conventional works of historical fiction, focused on the Tudor and Jacobean periods, and bringing to life such incredible women as Katherine Parr (Queen’s Gambit), the Grey sisters (Sisters of Treason), Penelope Devereux (Watch the Lady) and Lady Arbella Stuart (The Girl in the Glass Tower). All four are wonderful novels (I love the first two in particular) and have such a powerful, brilliantly evoked historical setting and context. In The Poison Bed, Elizabeth Fremantle picks another formidable and remarkable figure from history, Frances Carr, and gives her story a bit of a psychological twist. The book is being billed as the Jacobean Gone Girl and I can understand why the comparison is being made because it really does have the feel of that novel in several ways.

The murder at the heart of the novel and the ensuing arrest of this most glamorous couple are a perfect subject for historical fiction, not least because it reveals so much about James I’s court. His sexual relationship with Robert Carr is given a significant place here. Frances Carr’s position in the court is ambiguous and curious. So much is hidden by the threat of scandal but it certainly tantalises. Frances dominates the book in a way that James fails to dominate his court and government and it is up to the reader to make up their minds from the stories offered up by both Frances and her husband, Robert.

It’s in the second half of the novel that it takes on more of a psychological thriller feel and, possibly because of that, it’s the first half that’s my favourite for it’s then that Elizabeth Fremantle builds up a vivid painting of life in the early 17th century for the very wealthy and ambitious. The Howard family is outrageous and the little child Frances is very much their pawn. I really enjoyed the depiction of James I and his circle. James isn’t a character that we meet too often in historical fiction but he certainly makes for a fascinating subject and the author does such a fine job of animating a figure that I know mostly from portraits. Robert Carr left me comparatively cold. He is completely out of his depth in James I’s government and he flounders. His devotion to Frances, though, is undoubtedly intense. There are so many richly drawn, larger than life characters in The Poison Bed. I love the way that we flit between them.

Elizabeth Fremantle writes so well. This is sparkly, witty prose, dancing between characters, between past and present. The reader is rewarded for paying attention because it can be a challenge keeping up with some of the figures in the book, not to mention their moods. Personally, I think that the story behind The Poison Bed is intriguing enough (and in such safe hands here) that the psychological thriller element wasn’t needed but it may mean that a wider readership will discover the joys of Elizabeth Fremantle’s historical fiction.

I must mention the cover of this hardback – look how beautiful it is!

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

I’m delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Poison Bed Blog Tour Card

Cradle by James Jackson

Zaffre | 2017 (2 November) | c.350p | Review copy | Buy the book

Cradle by James JacksonIt is 1608 and England’s first colony in the Americas is dying a little more every day. Jamestown in Virginia might be named after James I but the king has no interest in it thriving – quite the contrary. Both James and Philip, the King of Spain, view Jamestown as a threat to their hard-won peace. It’s in the interests of both that it should fail and they each have agents willing to travel all of those miles to ensure its calamitous failure. But King James’s son Henry has other plans. He is determined that Jamestown should survive, that the power of England and the influence of Protestantism should spread and prosper to the New World. What Henry needs is a man on the ground to ensure Jamestown’s continued existence – he sends Christian Hardy, a spy so lethal and dangerous that not even King James and his spymaster Robert Cecil, Hardy’s employer, can bare him to live another day.

We were first introduced to Christian Hardy in Treason, a novel that told the tale of the Gunpowder Plot and the efforts of Hardy to prevent it and of Realm, the monstrous and demonic Spanish spy, to bring it about. Both Hardy and Realm return in Cradle, their enmity as livid as ever, and they carry their blood feud to Jamestown and the Americas.

But while Hardy and Realm continue their fight, Jamestown is faced by other threats – most especially the local warring tribes of native Americans. But there is also disease and famine to face, as well as loneliness and despair. It’s all very grim indeed and, at times, it is very bloody and gruesome.

The story of Cradle has a habit of jumping forward, giving it a rather disjointed feel (for instance, a man is languishing in prison and in the next chapter he’s been restored to his liberty). This is supported by its constant movement between the settlement and the surrounding native American villages. I found the style hard to settle down into but my main issue with the novel is with its incessant violence and conflict. I realise that this is the purpose of the novel but we jump from one conflict to another, one death to another, while characters are given little time to develop. Which is a pity because I think, given the chance, I would rather like Christian Hardy.

There’s something too despicable about Realm, though, and this horror is backed up by the gruesome cruelty of the tribes. In some chapters we’re given a positive image of the local people, particularly through their women, but this is counteracted by the portrayal of predominantly cruel behaviour. I didn’t enjoy this. Some of them are turned into caricature baddies. Not that the men in Jamestown are much better. It’s all a bit unpleasant. Which is a shame, because the setting of the novel is wonderfully described. I love the frontier feel of the novel, the dangerous isolation of the settlement and the vulnerability of its inhabitants. There is almost a siege-feel to much of the novel, which can be very exciting to read.

It’s possible that I have issues with Cradle because its focus is more on violence and conflict than on character and history. It didn’t feel sufficiently set in its time for me. However, it’s certainly exciting and tense and so, if you like an action-packed historical thriller then this might well be for you.

Other review
Treason

Treason by James Jackson

Treason | James Jackson | 2016 (6 October) | Zaffre | 300p | Review copy | Buy the book

Treason by James JacksonElizabeth I is not long dead. James I, a Protestant, wears the crown and his throne is not yet steady. As far as Spain is concerned, it is still at war with England and surely now is the time for a true Catholic to seize the throne. James has inherited his chief statesman Lord Cecil, his ‘Beagle’, from Elizabeth, rewarding his cunning with an Earldom. A master of intelligence, Cecil has deployed his agents to seek out Catholic plots against the king. One agent in particular, Christian Hardy, is ready, waiting for his great enemy, the appallingly brutal ‘Realm’, to make his move. But in the background a network of Catholics stirs. Secrecy is paramount but one among them is revealed to us as the explosives expert – Guido or Guy Fawkes. It is Guy Fawkes who will light the wick.

Many of us, at least on this side of the pond, remember, remember the 5th of November when Guy (or Guido) Fawkes attempted to blow up James I and his ministers at the state opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605. With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that the Gunpowder Plot, audacious in the extreme, was doomed to failure from the outset but, during those paranoid days, so soon after the death of Elizabeth I, Catholics and Protestants were more suspicious of each other than ever. The Protestant King was very possibly quite sure that a plot would get him in the end, while the Pope and Spanish King could be confident that their agents and priests, hidden away in the country manors of England’s surviving Catholic aristocrats, would perform fearlessly their ultimate duty for God.

James Jackson’s Treason presents the tangled web of months of intrigue and treachery that led up to 5 November. The narrative flits between our cast, the proceedings laid out before our eyes like a play on a stage. William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson feature, playing minor parts, observing from the wings almost like a chorus as one conspirator meets another, meets another and so on. There are multiple strands of plot at play here – there is the Gunpowder Plot, there is the counter plot and then there is the blood curdling, black vendetta between Hardy and Realm. Occasionally James I and his Beagle pop in to take a look at how affairs are proceeding, the two of them forming an unlikely pair, and then there are others who think they can influence the game and, more often than not, pay a terrible price for their amateur schemes. Plans are pulled together in country estates but London draws them in, even the King can’t stay away from his capital forever.

The Jacobean period isn’t one I know well at all, outside of its theatres and playwrights, and so I was fascinated to read my first novel on the Gunpowder Plot, a subject in which I’ve always been interested. The focus here is very much on the nitty gritty of the plots and, as I mentioned, there’s more than one of them. It’s a complicated picture and its tension is increased by the way in which the narrative moves back and forth between the protagonists. It’s immediate, exciting, and very dark.

The presumably fictional battle between Hardy and Realm is grim and even overshadows the historical Gunpowder Plot. I saw neither Hardy or Realm as a hero, certainly not Realm who’s as nasty a piece of work as any I’ve met in historical fiction, but I also found little to like in Christian Hardy. You can see why he is as he is but the damage done to him has made him impossible to like. Women are used as pawns by both Hardy and Realm. These two men are cold to the heart and locked in a battle that one senses cannot end well.

Treason is such a well-written book, its complicated plot kept tightly under control, the dialogue intriguing. The Gunpowder Plot itself is covered in such fascinating, meticulous detail and I lapped this part of the novel up, enjoying in particular the two characters who radiate some charm in this dark world of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, Adam Hardy and the Princess Elizabeth, but I still wouldn’t trust either of them as far as I could throw them.

There are touches of real beauty and poignancy in James Jackson’s prose – so much is at stake here – but I must admit to finding the novel relentlessly grim, the majority of its characters too difficult to care for. The biggest issue is history itself – we all know how the Gunpowder Plot ended and the move towards that conclusion is inevitable (inevitably). That aspect of the novel is offset, though, by the feud between Hardy and Realm, a storyline that refuses to be predictable. But, despite the gloom and the inevitability of the Gunpowder Plot, Treason is a compelling read and extremely difficult to put down.