Category Archives: Restoration

Inquisition by David Gibbins

Headline | 2017 (28 December) | 355p | Review copy | Buy the book

Inquisition by David GibbinsIt is 258 AD and the Emperor Valerian has turned on Rome’s Christians, slaughtering them and their pope in the most imaginatively cruel ways, as entertainment for the masses. A Christian legionary runs into the fire-drenched catacombs beneath the city to retrieve his faith’s most sacred object, the Holy Grail, to save it for the future. In 1684 the famous diarist Samuel Pepys is in Tangier to oversee the handing over of Charles II’s defeated colony to the Moors. A mysterious object concealed within an ancient leather saddlebag becomes part of the negotiations. Pepys’ aim is to send it away to safety in the Caribbean, far from the attention of kings and emperors, but something terrible stands in the way – the Altamanus, a merciless element within the Inquisition, and they never lose sight of their target.

In the present day, marine archaeologist and explorer Jack Howard is diving off the Cornish coast on the wreck of a ship that he is able to identify as one of those that Pepys despatched from Tangier. It presents a tantalising glimpse into a mystery ready to be solved and it sends Jack and his diving partner Costas, as well as his daughter Rebecca, on a trail of clues that will lead them across many miles of stormy ocean seas. But every step Jack takes is one dogged by the evil that is the Altamanus and the Inquisition.

If you’re a fan of archaeological adventure then you are in for a treat with David Gibbins’ Jack Howard series. It is unbeatable. I hesitate to call the books thrillers because, although they do contain action, fights, chases and spilt blood, they go deeper than that into the history behind the mystery and their archaeological context is sound. Gibbins is a marine archaeologist himself and it shows on almost every page. These books are full of exhilarating diving sequences, infused with the excitement of discovering historical artefacts as well as the thrill of exploring this dangerous yet beautiful environment. You can learn something while reading these books, as well as being thoroughly entertained and I love them. As soon as Inquisition arrived, I read it.

Inquisition is the tenth book in the series and I don’t think it matters at all if you read this on its own. I love Jack and Costas very much so there’s definitely much to be gained from reading all of the books but I don’t think it would matter too much in which order you read them (with the exception of Pharaoh and Pyramid, which are a pair – and outstanding).

David Gibbins tells a great story and at its heart is the Inquisition, particularly in 17th-century Portugal. While most of the novel takes place during the present day, there is a significant chunk that transports us to Tangier and to Portugal. We witness the tension of the British evacuation of Tangier through the brilliantly-realised figure of Samuel Pepys – most definitely a man with one eye on his posterity (and the other well fixed on alcohol and women). I did enjoy Pepys. David Gibbins is so good at evoking the past. But the section set in Portugal during the Inquisition is far darker and deeply disturbing.

Inquisition is a shorter novel than usual and Costas has far less of a role than normal. While I would have liked much more (of pages and Costas), the focus is very much on the Inquisition and the shipwrecks that evoke so powerfully this bygone era. The mystery is almost secondary to the history and archaeology and that is something I’ve always appreciated in these novels. I love the author’s attention to the details of marine archaeology. You feel like you’re there beneath the waves with Jack and Costas and that anything could be found amongst the rotting timbers of a forgotten wreck. But in this book in particular there is great trauma – the Inquisition that gives the novel its name – and its telling is extremely moving. I will never be able to get enough of David Gibbins’ novels.

Other reviews
The Gods of Atlantis (Jack Howard 6)
Pharaoh (Jack Howard 7)
Pyramid (Jack Howard 8)
Testament (Jack Howard 9)
Total War Rome: Destroy Carthage
The Sword of Attila: Rome Total War II

Fire by L.C. Tylor

Constable | 2017 (2 November) | 295p | Review copy | Buy the book

Fire by LC TylerIt is 1666 and the Great Fire of London is ablaze. Lawyer John Grey heads out into the smoke and flames to try and help. Almost everybody is going in the other direction, escaping with what they can carry while their houses burn. Grey finds a body with somebody hunched over it who flees as Grey approaches. But the corpse is no victim of the fire. He has been stabbed.

London is looking for somebody to blame and, as the fire dies down, rumours spread of French involvement. This is the last thing the royal court of Charles II wants. The court is suspected of Catholicism. If the French did start the fire then Charles and his brother the Duke of York would be given a hefty share of the blame. And then a Frenchman, Robert Hubert, is arrested, admitting to starting the fire and also stabbing his French accomplice to death. John Grey is more than a lawyer. He is also the agent of Lord Ardlington, the Secretary of State, and Ardlington despatches Grey to discover the truth. When he interviews Hubert he finds a man barely in possession of his wits, repeating details that he has been trained to say. It’s clear that this is the work of a conspirator’s plot. And as Grey and his friend Lady Pole trace the clues deep into the smoking ruins and along London’s busy river, it becomes clear that nobody is in more danger than they are.

Fire is the fourth novel in L.C. Tyler’s John Grey series and almost ten years have passed since the events of the first novel A Cruel Necessity, which was set in 1657 during the Cromwellian Commonwealth. The series, in my opinion, got off to a slow start with the first two books but in the third, The Plague Road, everything came together and the result was an exciting, well-plotted and brilliantly witty historical mystery. I’m delighted to say that Fire is every bit as good. This is fine writing and the tension and danger of the mystery is complemented by the humour of the narrative and dialogue. The novel is set during the Restoration, a time of wit and elegance, as well as sin and debauchery, and this mood is captured so well in these books. Fire made me laugh out loud more than once, something that doesn’t happen too often.

John Grey is a fascinating character with a history as convoluted as you’d expect in a society that is still picking up the pieces after the Civil War of the 1640s and the miserable Commonwealth of the 1650s. He’s in love with Lady Aminta Pole, whose background is as complicated as Grey’s, but real life – and scandal – keeps getting in the way. These two are very easy to like, although I can’t help feeling extra regard for Will, Grey’s poor clerk and servant who seems to spend much of his time as a go-between and has more sense in his head than almost everybody else in Grey’s world.

The mystery is such a good one and the setting in London’s smouldering ruins is richly evocative. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the city, its firefighters and their rather ungainly machines, river crossings and the camps that are set up to house the newly homeless and hungry. The idea that tourists flocked within mere days to look at the traditional starting place for the fire on Pudding Lane is an appealing one. This is a London crammed full of interesting personalities of all classes. This isn’t just a story about Charles II’s court. It covers all of London. And there in its middle is Grey who’s like a dog with a bone. When his teeth are dug in there’s no way he’ll let go.

Fire is a short novel – which is perhaps my only not entirely serious complaint – and it is put together perfectly. Not a word of its witty prose is wasted. I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Fire of London and it’s hard to imagine anyone immersing me in these astonishing days with more skill and wit than L.C. Tyler. I can’t wait for the next.

Other reviews
A Masterpiece of Corruption
The Plague Road

‘Rampant hedonism in the Restoration’ – Guest post by Angus Donald, author of Blood’s Game

Blood's Game by Angus DonaldLast week, Zaffre published Blood’s Game by Angus Donald. Angus is one of the finest writers of historical fiction that you can read. I loved every book of his Robin Hood series and was so sorry to see it end last year (you must read it if you haven’t already!). But Angus Donald is back and this time he takes us to another favourite period of mine – the Restoration period of the 1660s and 1670s and the extraordinary court of Charles II.

I am so thrilled to post here a guest post from Angus in which he discusses ‘Rampant hedonism in the Restoration: the politics of pleasure’. I studied this period as part of my degree (Rochester is a favourite poet of mine and I love his depiction – and that of Charles II – in Blood’s Game) and so I’m particularly grateful to Angus for taking the time to write such an in-depth, considered and fun article about such a fascinating subject as the court of King Charles II!

Before the post, here’s a little of what Blood’s Game is about.

London, Winter 1670.

Holcroft Blood has entered the employ of the Duke of Buckingham, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom after the king. It is here that his education really begins. With a gift for numbers and decoding ciphers, Holcroft soon proves invaluable to the Duke, but when he’s pushed into a betrayal he risks everything for revenge.

His father, Colonel Thomas Blood, has fallen on hard times. A man used to fighting, he lives by his wits and survives by whatever means necessary. When he’s asked to commit treason by stealing the crown jewels, he puts himself and his family in a dangerous situation – one that may end at the gallows.

As the machinations of powerful men plot to secure the country’s future, both father and son must learn what it is to survive in a more dangerous battlefield than war – the court of King Charles II.

Rampant hedonism in the Restoration: the politics of pleasure
By Angus Donald

At Edinburgh University in the late 1980s, I founded a club called the Hedonism Society or HedSoc. We met in pubs, drank a lot and . . . that was pretty much it. For obvious reasons, I don’t remember much about what we talked about. But I’ve always had an interest in pleasure, mine, of course, but also the pleasures of others. And I think it was partly this interest that drew me to write Blood’s Game, a novel set in the Restoration period, which concerns the daring attempt by Colonel Blood to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. While that is the main plot strand, the novel also explores the court of Charles II, the Merry Monarch, and his outrageous, libidinous, scandalous and frequently drunken friends and followers.

Pleasure was political in those debauched days. If you allowed yourself to be seen to be having fun you were making a statement about yourself, your loyalties, your politics and your religion. You were also saying most emphatically and publicly that you were not a Puritan, not a supporter of the old Cromwellian order, and that you approved of the new monarchy, and the second King Charles, wholeheartedly.

Like most things in life, context is crucial to understanding this age.

In 1660, at the age of thirty, after a long and penniless exile, Charles regained the thrones of the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. He had had a pretty miserable time abroad but the people that he was now ruling had just come out of a dark and terrible period in our history. The bloody civil wars, in which a larger proportion of the population died that in any conflict before or since, were followed by the austere Puritan rule of the Commonwealth and the dictatorship of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. During this cold interregnum period, most sports were banned, drunkenness and even swearing was punished with a fine, non-religious expressions of Christmas were stopped, many drinking establishments were closed, as were all the theatres. Women who were caught working on Sundays were put in the stocks and shamed, bright clothes were banned and sober dress was the order of the day. Make-up was scrubbed off girls’ faces by soldiers who caught them wearing it, right there and then. It is instructive to recognise that armed men stopping and humiliating women in the streets in the name of religious purity does not only happen in other parts of the world. We had our own approximation of the Taliban once.

So, when Charles returned to the throne, he wanted to show his subjects that it was now perfectly all right for people to enjoy themselves. Drinking was OK, sex was OK, fun was back in fashion. Hip hip hooray! The theatres were reopened, and there was a resurgence of bawdy, satirical plays. Public drunkenness, particularly among the aristocracy, became almost a badge of rank – and an expression of loyalty to the King. Pranks and japes abounded – a pair of well-born young men, friends of the King and members of the notorious Merry Gang, scandalised London by appearing on a balcony, completely inebriated, and pretending to sodomise each other. Poets and playwrights could openly criticise the King, his court, his morals and his mistresses. And did so enthusiastically. The chronically alcoholic poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, leader of the Merry Gang, wrote of the King: “Restless he rolls from whore to whore/ A merry monarch, scandalous and poor”.

Because Charles took his sexual pleasures seriously. He had many lovers as a young bachelor, including his nanny Mrs Wyndham, who took his virginity when he was fifteen. And after he married Catherine of Braganza, in 1662, he had at least seven mistresses, and possible as many as thirteen, who bore him a dozen children.

The role of mistress was semi-official – a whore or courtesan, or woman with whom the King had a casual encounter, would not be counted among their number – and a man who kept one was obliged to pay for her food, drink, accommodation and servants, as well as making her generous presents from time to time, perhaps when he paid her a visit. Many of the mistresses and their illegitimate children, those whose paternity the King acknowledged, received earldoms and dukedoms from the monarch and many British aristocrats today trace their ancestry back to Charles II.

The Puritans of the previous age would have turned in their graves had they known about this public and permitted acknowledgement of the extra-marital lusts of men. Because society looked to the King for guidance on how to behave, the fact that he had so many mistresses, so openly acknowledged, sent a clear message to everyone.

Adultery, forbidden by God, punished by Puritans, was now normalised.

Two of the the most famous of Charles’s mistresses – the formidable beauty Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, and the famous actress Nell Gywn – make appearances in Blood’s Game. In the period when the book is set, Barbara was about thirty and was being replaced in the royal affections by the feisty and outrageous Nell, who was ten years younger. Gwyn was an actress, and before that an “orange-seller” in the theatres, a profession which some historians take as a euphemism for prostitute. Perhaps because of her lowly origins and dubious trade, she was never ennobled by her royal lover, although her two children were.

Barbara, on the other hand, came from the aristocratic Villiers family. She gave Charles five children and, as a long-time and fecund mistress, she wielded more power at court than childless Catherine. In fact, she was known as the Uncrowned Queen and she used her position ruthlessly to enrich herself and her friends. She persuaded the King to grant her lavish titles and lands and properties – she was given Nonsuch Palace, built by Henry VIII, and the title Baroness Nonsuch, and promptly dismantled the palace and sold off the building materials to pay her gambling debts.

Gambling was another sinful pleasure, long denied, which the gentlemen and ladies of the Restoration court now engaged in with enthusiasm – sometimes to their financial ruin. Indeed, in Blood’s Game, the climax of the book is an epic game of Whist, which was just coming into fashion at the time.

Women as well as men adopted the hedonistic credo of the era. Barbara Villiers was an enthusiastic, if not entirely successful gambler. At one point she was obliged to “borrow” tens of thousands of pounds from the Privy Purse to settle her debts, but when this was discovered by officials, such was her sway over the King that the debt was immediately written off by her indulgent royal lover.

When Charles’s interest in her began to wane, she was not above finding other gentlemen friends to pleasure her. She became the lover of Jack Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, when he was a handsome and penniless young officer at court. She bore Churchill a daughter and tried, unsuccessfully, to claim she was the King’s.

Charles was not exactly delighted that his long-time lover, a woman he had given so much to, had taken a younger man to her bed – Barbara had also given Churchill a gift of £5,000, money she had received from the King, which infuriated Charles – but he was perfectly gentlemanly about the situation. He was, after all, beginning his own new relationship with Nell Gwyn at the time. There is a (probably apocryphal) tale, which I have included in Blood’s Game, that a servant was paid £100 by the Duke of Buckingham to inform His Grace when Churchill and Villiers would next be enjoying a tryst. The mischief-making Duke then persuaded the King to visit Barbara at the same time. The story goes that when the King arrived at her apartments unexpectedly, the naked Churchill had to hide in a cupboard, and was swiftly discovered there by the cuckolded Merry Monarch.

Apparently, the King saw the funny side, and forgave his young rival. He said: “You are a rascal, sir, but I forgive you because you do it to get your [daily] bread.”

A stinging insult – he basically called Churchill a man-whore – followed by forgiveness. And all the while keeping his sense of humour. That’s a class act.

It is little stories like this and many, many others, that made writing Blood’s Game such a sinful pleasure. I can only hope that you find reading it as hedonistic.

Links
Buy Blood’s Game
My review
Follow Angus Donald on Twitter

Blood’s Game by Angus Donald

Zaffre | 2017 (5 October) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Blood's Game by Angus DonaldIt is 1670 and the Blood family is still reeling from the aftereffects of the Restoration of the monarchy 10 years before. Colonel Blood unfortunately fought for the Parliamentarians and, as a result, his Irish estates were given to the Duke of Ormande while Blood and his family were consigned to eking out a living in a cottage in Shoreditch, London. Blood is not a man to let such a thing go unavenged and his drive to destroy Ormande is his consuming passion. This means that Blood sees his family little, and supports them even less.

Blood’s young son Holcroft has few options. With no pleasure to be had at home he welcomes the opportunity to become a page of the Duke of Buckingham, Ormande’s great enemy. Holcroft might be little more than a bargaining chip in his father’s games but Holcroft accidentally discovers something he excels at – decoding ciphers. Promoted to confidential clerk, Holcroft finds himself in a position to observe the court of Charles II. And what a place it is. Ruled by sin and greed, here is a place for a young man to succeed, regardless of his past. His father the Colonel, however, has plans of his own and they could get them all killed.

Blood’s Game is the first in a new series by Angus Donald, whose Robin Hood and Alan Dale books have held me enthralled for years. With that series now complete, I’ve been waiting for what would come next. And it takes us to an entirely different period of history – the 17th century of the Restoration. But, as before, the line between wickedness and goodness is blurred and finding a path between the two is no easy thing to do. As with the Robin Hood books we here follow a character who could have been left to exist happily in the sidelines – in that case it was Alan Dale and here it is Colonel Blood’s young son Holcroft.

Holcroft is a fascinating character and not at all typical. As the afterword tells us, Holcroft has Asperger’s syndrome and this makes him stand out from those around him, including those he really should be trying to impress in order to get on in life. His attention to detail, his incredible recall and his inability to jest or to lie gets him into all kinds of trouble while also giving him opportunities to shine in the service of the thoroughly unappealing Duke of Buckingham. Unfortunately for Holcroft, he finds himself in a court ruled by sin, fierce rivalries and corruption. Watching Holcroft cope with that while also learning to play its game is a big part of the novel’s enjoyment.

The title is intentionally misleading. Colonel Blood’s plotting and his most infamous sting – his famous and historically true stealing of the crown jewels – do play an important role in the book but the games that give the novel its added edge and intrigue are those played out by Holcroft Blood.

Blood’s Game is a thoroughly entertaining historical romp, packed full of some brilliantly colourful characters. And chief among them is Charles II himself – I loved Charles in this novel! This is a man intent on enjoying himself but his run ins with his famous mistress Barbara Villiers are scene stealers. Wigged scoundrels abound in this novel – the Earl of Rochester doesn’t come out of this very well – but I particularly liked its women – Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwyn and also the playwright Aphra Behn. The fact that these extraordinary men and women existed in real life make it all the more wonderful to read about them here. No quarter is given. We get them warts and all. Especially with warts.

The only downside of the novel for me is Colonel Blood. I really disliked him and did not like spending the time with him, or the whole crown jewels escapade. But I do understand that this was an important part of setting up Holcroft for Blood’s Game and future books to come in the series. I hope we’ve seen the last of him. I could also have done without some of the swearing but I know that this is a thing of mine, that I’m particularly squeamish with certain words.

Angus Donald is a favourite novelist of mine (you only have to look at my list of reviews below!). I love the way that he fills history with colour, character and adventure. He writes so well and he creates people I want to read about and spend time with. Following the Alan Dale books was never going to be easy – how could it be? They’re spectacularly good – but I think he’s done a fine job with Blood’s Game, which has all the signs of developing into a future favourite series. Holcroft Blood is such a strong character and his future is an exciting one and I can’t wait to follow it as he takes us away from the court of Charles II and onto the battlefield.

Other reviews
Outlaw
Holy Warrior
King’s Man
Warlord
Grail Knight
The Iron Castle
The King’s Assassin
The Death of Robin Hood

The Plague Road by L.C. Tyler

The Plague Road | L.C. Tyler | 2016, Pb 2017 | Constable | 310p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Plague Road by L.C. TylerIt is 1665 and London is at the mercy of the Plague. Swathes of the city have become no go areas, many of the houses sealed with a cross on the door, a warden keeping watch for any who dare risk an escape from a house that has been damned by disease. But, despite the increasing death toll, life is still not regarded as completely cheap and when it is noticed that one of the corpses thrown into a plague pit has a knife sticking out of his back justice must be seen to be done. It is possible that this enthusiasm might have been encouraged by the fact that the man was known to have been carrying a secret letter, now missing, from the Duke of York (the King’s brother) to the French Ambassador. Nonetheless, John Grey, lawyer and sometime agent for Lord Arlington, the Secretary of State, is given the case to solve. What did the letter say? Who has it now? What on earth was the Duke of York up to? No doubt the dead man matters to someone, somewhere, but never mind that, where is the letter?!

Several years have passed since the events depicted in A Masterpiece of Corruption. Back then, Cromwell was in power and Grey was forced into the unenviable role of double agent. Life is simpler now after the Restoration even if political or religious beliefs must continue to stay secret. Republicans, such as Grey, have been re-accommodated into public life. But it is early days. People still fear another outbreak of civil war and the Duke of York’s behaviour isn’t helping matters. Neither, for that matter, is the Plague.

The Plague Road might be the next novel in the John Grey series by L.C. Tyler but it stands very well alone. It continues the unconventional relationship between Grey and the royalist Lady Aminta Pole but otherwise, in many ways, this novel begins things afresh. And it is populated by some fascinating characters, especially Samuel Pepys, the glamorous Lady Castlemaine and the rather extraordinary Father Horncastle who does more than anyone to stir up trouble during these pages.

In my opinion, The Plague Road is a big step up from its predecessor. I found A Masterpiece of Corruption over complicated and a little dry in places. I had no such issues with The Plague Road. This novel is wonderfully plotted and structured, the pace maintained throughout, and it is deliciously witty. It’s a dark story at times, which is all to the good, but it is enlightened by John Grey’s fabulous turn of phrase, particularly when he has to deal with people who bore him. I chortled regularly while reading The Plague Road, not something I expected to say about a book immersed in Plague, murder and conspiracies.

I couldn’t read The Plague Road fast enough, it is such an engrossing novel, immersed in its period. Its descriptions of the Plague and its pitiable victims are grim but I couldn’t look away, and just as horrifying are the scenes which demonstrate the impact of the Plague on communities around London and in the countryside. During the novel Grey must travel to Salisbury, a journey that in these times is almost impossibly difficult and dangerous to complete. And yet the fear is totally understandable, if ugly, and it’s captured so well here.

I felt that I got to know John Grey and Aminta Pole much better in The Plague Road and I grew to like them very much indeed. This series has come into its own and I’m most definitely looking forward to more as L.C. Tyler escorts us through these most troublesome and fascinating years in England’s history.

Other review
A Masterpiece of Corruption