Category Archives: Medieval

Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick

Sphere | 2018 (1 March) | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is April 1219 and William Marshal, England’s greatest knight, is nearing the end of his long and eventful life. As he lies in his home, surrounded by his family, William sends one of his knights to his property in Wales to retrieve the silks that he brought home from pilgrimage to Jerusalem many years before. William always intended to be buried in them. And so now his thoughts drift to that adventure, to his pilgrimage which was conducted as a promise to, and in the name of, William’s master – Henry, the Young King and eldest son and heir of Henry II, who died with a stain on his soul. Only William could wipe it clean.

In 1183 William Marshal was in his prime, celebrated for his military prowess and lauded for his chivalric values – a true and great knight indeed. But he was still a landless knight, dependent on the patronage of others, especially the family of Henry II and the imprisoned queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. When the Young King makes William swear an oath to undertake the pilgrimage to Jerusalem on his behalf, to lie his cloak before Christ’s tomb, there is nothing to stop William from leaving England behind. And what an adventure it was.

Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight is one of my all time favourite novels – it is the perfect tale of a medieval knight and none were greater than William Marshal. And nobody in my opinion brings the medieval world to life in full colour like Elizabeth Chadwick. I was so pleased to hear that she was returning to William’s story. This time, though, the focus is on the three years that William spent on pilgrimage. And, apart from the fact that he went, very little is known about this period of his life, which gives Elizabeth Chadwick free rein to use her imagination drawing on her enormous insight and knowledge of the medieval period. The result is a gloriously exciting depiction of some of medieval Europe’s dangerspots, where peril lay around almost every corner and in every town, and most particularly in Constantinople and Jerusalem. The chapters set in Constantinople are such a traumatic highlight of the novel!

The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was extraordinary, alive with the most astonishing and disturbing personalities, all a gift to fiction, especially the Leper King Baldwin, Guy de Lusignan, the Patriarch and his mistress, the beautiful and charismatic Paschia de Rivieri. It’s wonderful watching William Marshal interacting with all of these people, a witness to the danger of the times, the threat of Saladin, the deception and the plotting. Marshal throws himself into the heart of it all, as you’d expect, and has experiences to last a lifetime. Much of this is speculation, but the result is a grand romance of chivalry, intrigue, violence and passion.

The relationship that I probably enjoyed the most here is that between William and his younger brother Ancel. Little is known about Ancel but Elizabeth Chadwick brings him to such life. I loved these sections. Despite their military prowess, both brothers are shown to be sensitive and refined, the model of knightly values, and so it’s extremely easy to fall in love with them. But we know how this novel must end – it’s set on William’s deathbed after all – and so there are also scenes of great tenderness between William and his wife, children and grandchildren. Expect emotion.

Elizabeth Chadwick has such a gift in the way she surrounds her reader in the past. All the little details of daily life in the Middle Ages are made solid. This is more of a romance than the other William Marshal novels. Much of it is set in an exotic, strange land so far from home and this adds an air of something that touches on fantasy. But, in my favourite sections, it is grounded with these extraordinary historical figures – the story of the Leper King is incredible and extremely distressing. His court’s political intrigue is so fascinating, made even more dangerous because we know Saladin is just waiting for his moment to seize the Holy City. It’s a great setting for William Marshal, who begins as an observer but is soon at the centre of affairs. There’s a strong sense that this is William’s last fling before he returns to England, marriage and ennoblement. He’s determined to make the most of it as he’s let off the historical leash by an author who understands inside out this best of men and the age in which he lived.

Other reviews
Lady of the English
The Summer Queen
The Winter Crown
The Autumn Throne
The Greatest Knight
The Scarlet Lion
The Time of Singing


Scourge of Wolves by David Gilman (Master of War 5)

Head of Zeus | 2018 (8 February) | 446p | Review copy | Buy the book

Scourge of Wolves by David GilmanScourge of Wolves is the fifth novel in David Gilman’s powerful and uncompromising chronicle of the Hundred Years War. If you haven’t read the others in the series, beginning with Master of War, then tread no further with this review. Much has happened to our hero Thomas Blackstone in the years since the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and so spoilers for the earlier novels are inevitable.

It is the winter of 1361 and the Hundred Years War has drawn to an unlikely and reluctant close. Or so it seems. The French King John, captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 and held hostage in England ever since, has now been ransomed and returned to Paris. But the terms of the release are harsh. France has been brought to its knees. Whole towns must be handed over to England. Many are resisting and the situation is aggravated even more by the bands of lawless routiers or mercenaries who scour the defeated land for what gold is left, fortifying towns for their own evil ends. It’s a mess. Edward III and his son the Black Prince need a man they can trust to sort it out and claim their promised towns. Who better to ask than Sir Thomas Blackstone? And Sir Thomas and his men will have to fight for every step they take.

Scourge of Wolves throws us, and Sir Thomas, immediately into the throes of action. Without the support of a standing army behind them, Thomas’s men are in trouble from the very first page. Their enemy is more desperate and cruel than ever, the walls of France’s fortified towns are more daunting than ever. Not all of Thomas’s swordsmen and archers will survive. This is hard for us. We’ve been following their adventures for several years. We’ve lost so many already. There’s a sense that it can only get worse.

The novel is full of action, there’s barely time to draw breath. There are walls to scale, skirmishes to fight, monsters to punish. And Sir Thomas is not quite sure who he can trust in these lawless days. David Gilman really knows his stuff. The novel is fully immersed in medieval warfare – in its weapons and soldiers, horses, armour, executions and injuries.There’s gore by the bucketload. Medieval war wounds are not a pretty thing and we’re given a detailed depiction of the treatment of one particularly nasty injury. David Gilman presents a fascinating portrait of these terrible times, when plague is still recurring (just to compound the woes of the poor peasantry) and war seems without end. We’re given moments with the powerful – notably the king and dauphin of France – but on the whole Scourge of Wolves keeps us firmly in the field of battle. I must admit to missing the Black Prince in this novel.

It’s undoubtedly exciting! There are many breathless scenes in which survival seems an impossibility. This is military historical fiction, the war leaves little time for anything but fighting, and so this is largely a male history with one notable and rather unpleasant exception. Scourge of Wolves is more action-based than the others, or at least that’s what it felt like to me, and so I did find myself being rushed along from one danger to the next with little time to draw breath or look around – this novel does rely on the reader knowing the characters from the previous books – but I continue to enjoy following the adventures of Sir Thomas Blackstone and his men. One of these days I hope he will find some peace but I sense those days are far off.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I do love Head of Zeus hardbacks with their ribbons!

Other reviews and features
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death (Master of War 2)
Gate of the Dead (Master of War 3) – review and interview
Viper’s Blood (Master of War 4)
An extract of Viper’s Blood
Guest post – War in the Last Horseman

Pilgrim’s War by Michael Jecks

Simon & Schuster | 2018 (8 February) | 552p | Review copy | Buy the book

Pilgrim's War by Michael JecksIt is March 1096 and the people of Sens in France gather to hear the crusading call of Peter the Hermit. The Holy City of Jerusalem is in the hands of the Saracens, the Christians within persecuted, the places and rituals of Christ forbidden. The Emperor of Constantinople and the Eastern Empire is begging for help from the west and, in return, the Pope has promised that the sins of all crusaders shall be forgiven. Among the crowds who hear the call there are many who stand up to follow it, including Sybille and her husband who sees earthly riches at the end of his pilgrimage, not heavenly ones. Likewise, brothers Odo and Fulk have their different reasons for taking the cross – Fulk sees opportunity and adventure while Odo feels the stirrings of a buried faith. And then there are the women. Jeanne and Guillemette have been treated badly, finding refuge and independence as prostitutes in a brothel. For them and the other women and children on the pilgrimage there will be particular dangers.

And still they come. Many more of all walks of life, of every age, take the cross and are faced with a journey, mostly on foot, across lands that have no idea how to deal with this flood of humanity. Knights and preachers urge them on, pressing them to fight when necessary, even when they go hungry and can hardly walk another step. There are almost as many motives as there are pilgrims but one thing is sure – not all of them will reach their goal and even fewer of them will live to return home.

Pilgrim’s War is a fabulously rich chronicle of the First Crusade, which brings the events of 1096 to life through the varied experiences of a small group of individuals. Often the strands of the stories come together as people meet, hate each other or fall in love. They’re such a wonderful mix of people and all are given their time in the spotlight. I particularly enjoyed how both male and female pilgrims are given equal footing, showing how this crusade isn’t at all how crusades are usually perceived. This one, the first, was a madly disorganised affair, mostly undertaken by ordinary men and women with their children, and this spirit of hope, of a new age, of people being on the move for the first time, is all captured so brilliantly by Michael Jecks. As is the age’s absolute dread of the Saracen and the barbarous cruelty that was carried out in the name of Christianity against anyone perceived as different.

Of course, it might start off with dreams of glory and victory but soon the reality hits and it’s fascinating watching these people transform. The stories of Odo and Fulk are particularly powerful. There’s a real agony in watching what happens. And there’s also tragedy. The stresses and anxieties of this extraordinary, unprecedented pilgrimage kept me gripped.

I thoroughly enjoyed the mix of action and romance. Pilgrim’s War is in many ways a sweeping historical epic. Many lives move through its pages, each with their own dreams, and the structure of the novel dramatically moves backwards and forwards between them. There are some great battle scenes, including my favourite – sieges! – and these are complemented by the quiet moments of friendship and love. As the novel (and the pilgrimage) moves on we meet new people, this time from the East, although not necessarily originating there – I really liked the character of Alwyn.

Pilgrim’s War is the beginning of a new series, which is such good news because when I finished it I was so ready for more. It’s a substantial novel but I gobbled it up in only a couple of days. It moves around so quickly, there’s so much to look at, and the historical setting is wonderfully described and evoked. The movement from the known to the exotic is especially well done. The First Crusade was a disastrous affair for many – and catastrophic for many that they encountered along the way – and this novel gives us a good idea why and it makes for glorious reading. Pilgrim’s War is the first novel by Michael Jecks that I’ve read which is plain daft because he’s clearly a fantastic storyteller. I can’t wait to see where this series and its pilgrims take us next.

Other post
Guest post – The origins of the Vintener Trilogy by Michael Jecks

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Allen & Unwin | 2017 (2 November) | 547p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Hours by Minette WaltersIt is August 1348 and the pestilence has arrived in Dorsetshire. Sir Richard of Develish has ridden to the demesne of Bradmayne with a cart of treasure – the dowry for his daughter Lady Eleanor whom he wishes to see wed to young Peter of Bradmayne. But Peter is the first to be stricken with the Black Death and others soon follow. Sir Richard returns home to Develish but his wife, the Lady Anne, won’t let him or his men in. For this could be the saving of their lives. The manor is sealed within its moated banks, the surfs all brought inside, their fields abandoned. Lady Anne turns society on its head by bringing forward Thaddeus Thurkell, a slave, as her steward. Confined and with limited food, trouble is inevitable but its source is not what one would expect.

In these times of limited travel and communication, the quarantined inhabitants of Develish have no idea what disease this is that is sweeping the land. They don’t know how far it has travelled or when it will end – if it even will. Is it God’s punishment? But when they look to their priest, no comfort can be found there. Sooner or later they must look beyond the moat for nourishment, for salvation.

I have read and loved every one of Minette Walter’s novels and I was thrilled to learn that not only was a new book on the way, after a sizeable length of time, but that it would also be historical fiction. And what a period Minette Walters has picked – the Black Death of 1348. But she doesn’t look at it from the point of view of the important and all-seeing, instead we view these terrible weeks from the perspective of one small community that can have no idea what is going on a mere five miles from their manor. This is a fine story, a worthy subject for Minette Walters’ talents, and I was engrossed immediately.

These are remarkable people, all the more so because the majority of them are serfs or slaves, people usually ignored by history and fiction. Lady Anne is the foundation on which their lives are built but it’s the serfs who must face the biggest questions of the Middle Ages – why has God cursed us? how do we survive when we’ve sworn an oath to own nothing? what is our fate after the Black Death, should we survive it? will the pestilence give us our freedom? The person who contradicts all attempts of the peasants to examine their condition is Lady Eleanor and she is relentless in her medieval righteousness. Bridging the two worlds are Thaddeus and Lady Anne and the two of them have the power to change others. Watching them do so, whether it’s through the skill of literacy or the experience of travel, is fascinating and completely absorbing. Overshadowing them all though is the legacy of Sir Richard. This might be a tale of the medieval period but it is alive and vivid with real people.

Their situation is diabolical. The descriptions of the plague and the reactions of men and women to it are powerful and shocking. The land has gone silent but for the sound of weeping. While some try to work out what the cause might be, others are overwhelmed. We can’t forget that these are very different times to our own. The Black Death might make no distinction between the classes but feudalism certainly does. And the descriptions of villages, hovels, inns, abandoned sheep, stricken manors and empty, rutted roads are every bit as striking and memorable as the scenes of plague.

The Last Hours paints a wonderful portrait of one small section of medieval England and it is populated by so many interesting and distinct people facing the worst time of their lives, of their age. And yet the Black Death was the catalyst for such change as well as uncertainty, religious questioning and tragedy. All of this is captured so brilliantly by Minette Walters in a medieval apocalyptic tale that is beautifully-written, atmospheric and always gripping.

‘The origins of The Vintener Trilogy’ – guest post by Michael Jecks

Last week, Simon and Schuster published Blood of the Innocents, the final part of Michael Jecks’ Vintener Trilogy, a series of books that takes us back in time to that most troublesome of centuries – the 14th – and the Hundred Years War. To celebrate the publication, I’m delighted to host a fascinating in-depth guest post from the author. In it, Michael looks at the origins of the trilogy, its historical inspiration and its growth into a series that is now complete.

Blood of the Innocents by Michael JecksFirst, a little of what Blood of the Innocents is about

France, 1356: Ten years have passed since the battle of Crecy, and the English fighters are still abroad, laying siege to cities, towns and even small villages. Meanwhile the Prince of Wales raids across France to draw King John into a battle for sovereignty.

Berenger Fripper, having lost everything to the plague, is now captain of a company of mercenaries, but treachery and deceit dog him when his travels with the company lead him to Uzerche. And then his path crosses that of Prince Edward and his men as they embark on their latest chevauchée to bring death and disaster to the King of France’s subjects.

Enlisted as Vintener under Sir John de Sully, Berenger finds himself drawn into a new struggle. Can the English defeat the much larger French army, or will they find themselves finally overcome when their weary feet bring them at last to the field of battle near Poitiers…

The origins of The Vintener Trilogy

It was a surprise four years ago when my new editor at Simon and Schuster suggested I should consider a change of direction.

Until then I had been a cheerful writer of crime thrillers which happened to be set in the far-distant past – during the reign of King Edward II and his deplorable friend Sir Hugh le Despenser (and if all you know about those two was that Edward died in a particularly nasty manner in Berkley Castle, and that they were gay, then you need to read my books and prepare for a minor revisionist shock).

But no, my new editor wanted me to stop writing my Templar series, which had reached thirty-two titles at that stage, and consider a violent war series.

‘I thought you might have some ideas,’ she said, looking at me hopefully.

‘Medieval?’ I guessed. I knew she liked blood and stabbing weapons.

She smiled and nodded.

‘Um,’ I said.

Because starting out with a new concept is always tough. There are no rules, no existing plot-lines and characters – not even the outline of a landscape. Everything is open. Some people say that sitting down with a blank sheet of paper is terrifying when they are about to embark on a new novel; well, after thirty-two titles in a series in which I knew the landscape, history, people, legal issues, and already had a bank of seven or more different potential murders, I was happy to write more in that line. It was much harder to start from scratch.

And yet …

There was a period I had always wanted to cover: the Hundred Years War.

Fields of Glory by Michael JecksMany years ago – I’m guessing 1978 – I was a member of a mail order bookseller which specialised in history and warfare. One month there was a book with a wonderful write-up. It was The Hundred Years War, written by Desmond Seward. It gave only a brief introduction to the war, which is hardly surprising bearing in mind it covered so many events, but I was engaged by the colourful characters, from Sir Walter Manny, Lord John Talbot, Sir John Fastolf, the Duke of Bedford, to the Kings of both countries. Later I read Jonathan Sumption’s books for more detail, yet Seward’s book was so vividly written, the author so obviously enthusiastic about his subject, that I was gripped.

I would write about the Hundred Years War, then, but that was little help. When you are confronted with a new project, you have a series of difficult questions to answer: how should it be written, and from whose perspectives? Should it be a story about the rich and famous, about Kings and their avarice, or a tale about the scruffy fellows at the bottom of society? And which period of the war should I cover?

I wasn’t overly keen on Agincourt, since so many others have marched behind that banner – in fact I rather liked the idea of starting with Sluys, or one of the chevauchees launched by King Edward III, but then I had a stroke of luck.

If you love books, you tend to recommend them to others, and lend your copies. Often they don’t come back. One book I was very annoyed to lose was “Quartered Safe Out Here”, by George MacDonald Fraser. It was the story of his experiences during the Burma campaign. He fought under General Slim, stopping the Japanese and crushing them. A great warrior, Slim was an inspirational leader who had joined as an ordinary soldier in 1914, fought through the hell of Gallipoli, and rose through the ranks purely on the basis of his own merit and courage. The ordinary troops adored him: GM Fraser said, “he had the head of a general with the heart of a private soldier.”

“Quartered Safe Out Here” is the best war memoir I have read. MacDonald Fraser wrote about his platoon, Nine Section. Suddenly I had a vision of a vintaine of men, archers marching across France, rarely knowing what each day would bring, trudging ever onwards, cold, wet and bored – their hunger and thirst interspersed with flashes of pillage and drunkenness – and occasional bouts of terror. I could look at the motivations of each soldier, his background, his reasons for exchanging hearth and home and comfort for the dangerous life of a medieval soldier.

I loved it!

So I selected a group of men. I had a rich palette to choose from: Falstaffian characters, ruffians, the semi-sorcerers of the gunpowder-makers and gunners, and then, of course, the deplorable mercenary types. And as soon as I started I realised that my main issue would be writing this rag-tag group of men so that modern readers could identify with them.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a firm believer that the society that gave us Boccaccio and Chaucer was not so dissimilar to our modern version. People have not changed radically in outlook or behaviour, but murder is more frowned upon in the present age. The idea of depicting an army on the rampage, slaughtering all within reach, raping women and behaving with abhorrent disregard for others – and depicting them as sympathetic characters or heroes? That would be tough.

If I have a rule as a historical writer, it is that I will not lie. I could not ignore the baser acts of the English in France. I wanted to show them. For that I hit on the idea of writing from the perspective of a French woman dragged into the fighting, who wanted only to escape. Bringing her into the story balanced it, allowing me to look at the war from the point of view of those affected by it. We are used to pictures of refugees trudging their way across the countryside trying to find safety. The Second World War had many images of peasants with overfilled carts; the Vietnam War, the Bosnian War, the Russian attacks on Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, the wars in Iraq and Syria all have their victims. I wanted to show that none of this is new. History repeats itself.

There was one thing I was determined to do with this first novel, and that was to exclude the King and his top advisers. I wanted this to be a story of ordinary soldiers. However, there was one aspect I had to look at.

Historians tend to fall into one of two categories: those who believe Edward had no intention of fighting a major battle – he was a terrorist bringing a wave of brutality to the French countryside, and did all he could to evade the French when he realised they were hurrying to catch him; or those who say that he had a deliberate war plan – that he force-marched his men to Paris to torment the French into joining battle, and led the French to the field he had chosen many years before: Crécy.

I had to try to show how Edward III was thinking.

My immediate thought was to pick a servant who could listen with brazen impudence to what his superiors were planning, but that didn’t quite hack it for me. A cheeky servant is rather a cliché nowadays, and I didn’t think that a man who spent his time obviously listening in to the King’s war-planning meetings would have a good life-expectancy. I had to think up a new character.

Blood on the Sand by Michael JecksI didn’t get my man until I recalled a grave in Crediton’s Church of the Holy Cross and The Mother of Him Who Hung Thereon. Up at the far right-hand side behind the altar there is a tomb dedicated to a Sir John de Sully. He was a knight of that period. He fought in his first battle, possibly, at Bannockburn in 1316. After that he had a starring role in almost every major battle of the 1300s, rising to become one of the Black Prince’s most trusted men, still fighting with his Prince in 1367, when he would have been in his 80s (I assume more in an advisory capacity than as a warrior). He was so famous and respected that he became one of the early knights of the Order of the Garter, and died greatly honoured at the age of about 106. Yes, that isn’t a typo.

With Sir John I had a character whom I could use to great effect as a link between my vintaine force of archers and the main plans and issues of the English King on the march. My archers would be a vintaine serving under him in this book, and he would give the perspective of the commanders without actually being a part of them. Through him my archers would get their view of the campaign and planning.

I had my men, I had their commander, and now I was leaning towards the march to Crécy for my book. That would make a good climax. Job done, I thought.

But as I planned and outlined my story, it became clear that there was more for me to look at. For example, when the battle of Crécy was done, the English marched on. Edward was determined to take a port to facilitate further incursions into France and chose Calais to be his bridgehead. He would take it and hold it for England. Clearly the capture of Calais would have to become a sequel to the first book about Crécy. And again, after Calais, there was the horror of the Black Death, and the subsequent return to battle that ended in the battle of Poitiers.

So my book would have to become a trilogy, and a trilogy more about a small group of men and how they coped with life in the army, but later on, how they coped with the most appalling tragedy Europe has coped with – the plague.

There are always a lot of problems when writing, such as the difficulty of knowing when to stop researching and start writing. I have always firmly believed that it’s essential to visit a place before trying to write about it. One thing I always try to do is paint a specific area, because by analysing a scene as a painter, I find myself looking more carefully at individual features of the landscape.

I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Poitiers on holiday in 1315 while planning Blood of the Innocents, and there I found the main battlefield and memorial, which was very touching – it’s dedicated to the fallen of the French, Gascon and English armies. I took a lot of photos all about the area, and planted it firmly in my mind by making a few sketches.

The trilogy is a strong story of how war affects victors and victims, the soldiers, but also the refugees. I don’t gloss over the way that the English treated their enemies or the local populace. It wouldn’t be fair to do so. But I try to give a feel for how the English thought, felt, and reacted which is, I hope, fair. At the end of the day, it’s up to the readers to give their opinion – so, I hope you enjoy the books, and hopefully that they inspire you to find out more about this astonishing period of English and French history.

Happy reading!

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Michael’s website

Kingmaker: Kingdom Come by Toby Clements

Century | 2017 (24 August) | 441p | Review copy | Buy the book

Kingdom Come by Toby ClementsKingdom Come is the fourth and final novel in Toby Clements’ superb chronicle of the Wars of the Roses. The series, Kingmaker, focuses on the years between 1460 and 1471, from the Battle of Towton to the Battle of Tewkesbury, years that transformed England while tearing it apart. Kingdom Come completes the story of Thomas and Katherine and so you’d be well advised to read the series as intended, from the beginning starting with Winter Pilgrims. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure and that you don’t mind hearing about things that have happened before on Thomas and Katherine’s journey.

The year is 1470 and all is going well for Thomas and Katherine Everingham. Their son Rufus thrives and another is on the way. Their manor, Marton Hall in Lincolnshire, prospers, expanding even, providing a home, not only for Thomas and his family but also for the men and women who have endured with them through years of war and restlessness. There are so few left. With Edward IV on the throne and the old King Henry VI in the Tower, the country seems to be at peace at last. But, of course, it isn’t. It just seems like that on the surface. The Earl of Warwick, once such a close ally of Edward IV, is plotting against him, attracting to him men that Edward believes he can trust. They’re waiting for the perfect moment to set the trap and, unfortunately for Thomas, it’s he who discovers the plot and it’s Thomas who has to brave Edward’s wrath by revealing it.

But that’s not all. The manuscript that has been both the curse and blessing of Thomas and Katherine’s life for so long continues to threaten their very lives. Thomas’s secrets are about to be revealed. There is only one thing they can do. They must run. But the time will come when the call to arms will be heard once more and Thomas and Katherine won’t be found lacking as the armies gather for an almighty battle on the outskirts of Tewkesbury.

I have followed the Kingmaker series since it began and, without doubt, it is one of the finest historical series around. It’s successful for so many reasons, not least of which is the private and constant story of Thomas and Katherine Everingham. They have endured so much and deserve even more but it’s never easy and in this final book they must suffer again. This might be a series about war but Katherine is no less important than her soldier husband. War affects them both equally and her perspective matters just as much. This is refreshing, to say the least, in a novel about medieval warfare. There are scenes in Kingdom Come which are so painful to read. Life is far from easy and death, betrayal, illness and hunger come all too frequently. We care deeply for these two and, by the time of this fourth book, we cannot wait to see what happens to them in the end. But we know this is no fairytale. Happing endings are not guaranteed.

Katherine’s character is particularly fascinating, not least for her medical skills. Toby Clements always makes sure that each novel has at least one scene in which Katherine is up to her eyeballs (or at least her elbows) in blood, gore and disinfecting urine. Once read these scenes cannot be forgotten. You might even want to read them with your eyes shut – they’re most certainly gruesome and…. thorough. Kingdom Come is no different. I must admit that I anticipate these scenes and rather enjoy them but perhaps I shouldn’t admit to that!

The surrounding characters are so wonderful and it’s good to keep returning to old friends, although they are now much reduced in number – and even in body. John Stumps is an extraordinary personality and Toby Clements portrays him beautifully. But we still miss some of the figures from the earlier novels. Kingdom Come contains an intriguing look at Edward IV while in exile. There is so much more to Edward in these days of trial and punishment. The quality of the author’s writing and historical insight and imagination means that it really does feel like we’re there. Toby Clements also excels with his use of present tense. I’m not always a fan of present tense, especially in historical fiction, but it really works here.

As always with this series, Kingdom Come is such an exciting and dramatic novel that grips the reader tightly. I must admit to having grown wearisome of the manuscript, which has haunted these books from the beginning. I sensed that the author may have been feeling the same way. It was good to see the back of that. This series has moved so far ahead of conventional devices, such as secret manuscripts and lost memories that occasionally popped up in the earlier books.

Kingdom Come is powerful and vigorous historical fiction, combining the horror and brutal energy of the battlefield with the more intimate drama of a family on the run and surviving as best that they can. All set within the vividly realised setting of the 15th century, a place where no one in their right mind would wish to be but how glorious it is to read about it. I don’t know where Toby Clements will take us next now that Kingmaker is done but I do know I’ll be there every step of the way.

Other reviews
Winter Pilgrims
Broken Faith
Divided Souls

Court of Lions by Jane Johnson

Head of Zeus | 2017 (6 July) | 397p | Review copy | Buy the book

Court of Lions by Jane JohnsonKate Fordham has left her old life, and much that she loves, behind her, driven from her home by brutal circumstances that have left her scarred and living under a new name in the beautiful city of Granada in Spain. Kate works in a bar in the city but her heart is most at home in Granada’s Alhambra, the palace of the Moors, with its stunning architecture and luxurious gardens. One day while visiting the site, Kate discovers in one of the walls a screwed up piece of very old paper marked with words written in no known language. And a door into the Alhambra’s past opens before us.

It is the late 15th century and the last act of the Sultans’ rule in Granada and southern Spain is about to play out. Prince Abu Abdullah Mohammed stands on the verge of the throne. The prince’s father, the Sultan, is unpopular, his cruel uncle hated even more, but the Sultan seals his fate when he puts his Sultana, the prince’s mother, aside in favour of Isobel de Solis, his beautiful Spanish war captive. But war within the family almost pales beside the threat from outside Granada. Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain are resolute in their determination to drive the Moors from Spain once and for all and they will show no mercy. But safe within the defensive walls of the Alhambra, the young prince shows another side. His closest friend is a child called Blessings. Blessings was sold from a desert tribe of North Africa to be the prince’s companion. Blessings finds the unexpected: painful unrequited love for the prince known and loved as Momo. Their story will play out against the drama of Granada’s last stand.

Court of Lions is such an enticing read! It’s a beautiful looking book with that fine hallmark of a Head of Zeus hardback – a ribbon – and just looking at it made me want to read it. I’m so glad I did. Jane Johnson richly evokes the last days of what must have seemed an Eden on Earth, the Alhambra, and brings it alive in colour, scents and fountain waters, though the involving story of Mumo and Blessings. The descriptions of the Alhambra are gorgeous, reminding us how hard it must have been for its Moorish inhabitants to give it up. This is a novel about war, though, and there are plenty of action-packed scenes as Mumo and his family fight each other for supremacy before Isabella and Ferdinand exert their own cruel influence. But the most wonderful parts of Court of Lions are those which take us within the walls of the Alhambra.

The novel moves backwards and forwards between the later years of the 15th century and the present day in which Kate struggles to escape and then confront her past. I enjoyed Kate’s story, particularly her interaction with the modern inhabitants of Granada, a city in which cultural differences still exist. But the heart of the novel, and the source of its greatest pleasure, is in the chapters which carry us back into history. Kate has little connection with this past beyond a sensitivity to the Alhambra’s history – this isn’t a timeslip novel – instead we’re given a sympathetic, atmospheric and elegant portrait of the Alhambra and its people through the centuries, focusing on characters past and present who capture our imagination wonderfully.

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of Court of Lions by Head of Zeus on 6 July. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.
Court of Lions blog tour poster