Category Archives: Review

The Dance of the Serpents by Oscar de Muriel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Head of Zeus | 2019 | 624p | Review copy and bought copy | Listen to the book | Buy the book

Cage of Souls by Adrian TchaikovskyThe city of Shadrapar is all that is left of humanity on Earth. It’s built on the remains of countless civilisations, it contains no more than 100,000 souls. It is all there is and, because the sun is dying, soon there won’t even be that. But people have lost the ability to care. They’ve turned their backs on the past, there isn’t a future. Shadrapar is more prison than home. Once people might have regarded it as a kind of utopia, with an ideal government, but no more. Now that government consigns dissenters and free thinkers (those, for instance, who fantasise about fixing this world) to the Island, a prison set within a jungled swamp and inhabited by the real dregs of this society, including murderers, the insane, sadistic psychopaths, misfits (and that’s just the guards). It is to this dreadful place that academic Stefan Advani has been consigned. He reminds us continually that he isn’t brave, that he isn’t special in any way, but he is a true survivor and rebel. He’ll need to be. Cage of Souls is Stefan Advani’s testimony. In it he tells his story – the events that led up to his imprisonment as well as life within the Island, where nothing is more valued or more rare than a glimpse of the sky.

I am a huge fan of Adrian Tchaikovsky and his fabulous imagination, which once more carries us to a strange, dangerous and alien world, so vividly and evocatively described, filling our senses. It’s hard to imagine anyone who can conjure up strange worlds as well as this author and he outdoes even himself here. We’re not on another planet this time but instead on Earth a long way into the future. Nature has reclaimed most of the planet in this, its dying days, but it has transformed. This wouldn’t be an Adrian Tchaikovsky novel without weird and really quite frightening creatures and there are plenty of them to be found here in the swamps, rivers and jungles, and even in Shadrapar. This planet is now the home of scavengers. But there are also mutations and these fascinate and terrify Stefan in equal measure, as he becomes increasingly absorbed in the works of the famous, and now missing, ecologist Trethowan.

Cage of Souls is a testimony told in Stefan’s own words and it isn’t so much of a plotted adventure as an autobiography filled with adventures. We get to know Stefan very well indeed as he is prone to self-analysis as well as modesty. But it is the characters that he must deal with that absolutely fascinate, as well as the the locations that confine them – boats, prisons, jungles, underworlds, the city. The people are incredible. The absolutely terrifying Island Marshall isn’t easy to forget, nor are the other guards and overlords, male and female. Stefan develops a friendship with one of the guards, Peter, whose own story adds some incredible set pieces to the narrative. Other memorable figures include the repulsively horrible Transforming Man and the truly evil Gaki. I listened to the audiobook and the narrator David Thorpe does a tremendous job of bringing the voices of these people to life – I swear I shivered every time these people entered the stage. And then there are the web children and the monsters that can speak. All within the steaming, wet, claustrophobic jungle and underworld.

Cage of Souls is a substantial read – the audiobook is about 25 hours – and I found it thoroughly immersive and also obsessive. I found it so hard to pull myself away from it. You never know what’s going to happen next, because it could be anything. There are moments that are truly horrifying and so dark, especially when it’s brought home what has happened to Shadrapar. The references to past civilisations are fascinating. These are desolate lives in so many ways but Stefan finds life in himself and others, even hope through his friendships, difficult though they can be. It’s a tale of survival, it’s a history of Shadrapar, it’s a prison tale, and it’s a tale of exploration as Stefan heads deep into the jungles and must find it within himself to survive while holding on to his humanity. It’s thoroughly engrossing and gorgeously written.

Other reviews
Children of Time
Children of Ruin
The Doors of EdenWith C.B. Harvey and Malcolm Cross – Journal of the Plague Year

Eight Detectives by Alex Pavesi

Michael Joseph | 2020 (20 August) | 352p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Eight Detectives by Alex PavesiCrime fiction writer and professor of mathematics Grant McAllister is enjoying his quiet retirement on a Mediterranean island. He no longer writes and hasn’t done for thirty years. But then comes the day when ambitious editor Julia Hart turns up on his doorstep. Grant’s early work is being republished and with it a collection of short crime stories that have never been published before. The two of them must work together to prepare these stories. Grant can barely remember them, they were written so long ago, but within them, as Julia reads them to him, he discusses what these stories reveal about the craft – and mathematical modelling – of crime fiction. It’s all very fascinating but as Julia reads these stories she uncovers something unexpected in them, clues, perhaps, hinting of another crime, an unsolved murder. And so begins a battle of wits between Julia and Grant. Neither should underestimate the other.

I couldn’t wait to read Eight Detectives as soon as I heard about it. I love novels that play around with the themes and tropes of genre, playing games with the characters and reader alike (thinking now of Anthony Horowitz and Stuart Turton), and so the premise of Eight Detectives is irresistible. I’m delighted to say that this is a fiendishly clever novel, a deliciously twisty mind puzzle, and it is very well written. It comprises a series of short stories, each of which are brilliant in their own right, which are then used by Julia and Grant to suit their own ends. It’s such a clever, ambitious structure that could easily have defeated an author but Alex Pavesi knows just what he’s doing.

This is one of those books that must remain a mystery beyond its appealing premise. I will say no more about its plot. But I will say that there were times when I thought I had figured out where it was going and I was always proven wrong. I’m not a reader of short stories but I really enjoyed how these tales were woven together to form a purpose. There are shocking moments, there are others that make you shiver. And there are other moments when you realise that the clues are there but you just need to know how to find them.

Eight Detectives is a fabulous piece of crime fiction in itself. It’s very Agatha Christie in some ways, which is most definitely a good thing. It then takes these stories and turns them into something else. You can almost imagine Agatha Christie enjoying the conversation. We’re not allowed too far into our two main characters’ heads. This is largely an intellectual exercise. We must go in cold, have no favourites. But it is completely compelling and engrossing. And it’s fast, as the ball is repeatedly hit back over the net. Excellent stuff! And it comes highly recommended.

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other review
With Heather Webb – Meet Me in Monaco

The Honey and the Sting by E.C. Fremantle

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

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

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

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

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

*Thanks to my Dad for the Greek reference!

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

The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tor | 2020 (20 August) | 608p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Doors of Eden by Adrian TchaikovskySome time ago girlfriends Mal and Lee headed to Bodmin Moor in search of the Birdman. They are cryptid hunters, searching for the creatures, the monsters, of myth and legend. They discover far more than they bargained for and only Mal returned. Four years later, Mal sees Lee in London. Lee is on the run, something terrible is happening. Mal pursues her determined to discover the truth but she isn’t alone. There are others on her trail. Meanwhile, physicist Kay Amal Khan is attacked in her lab and M15 agent Julian Sabreur is put in charge of the investigation. He finds himself up against agents that he can’t identify. There’s something not quite right about them. And then he discovers grainy footage of a young woman who is believed to have died on Bodmin Moor.

I am a huge fan of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s science fiction – Children of Time is one of my very favourite novels (please read it if you haven’t already!) – and so I read The Doors of Eden as soon as I could. It has a stunning cover and it’s every bit as good on the inside. It’s a substantial epic read, which is just how I like my science fiction, which perfectly suits its plot and ideas, which are magnificently ambitious and mind bending.

There is so much going on in The Doors of Eden, there are several storylines and characters to follow, as various people try and work out what is going on, find out what is broken with the world. We move between them but we also fall within the fractures of the world, where we come across incredible sights – intelligent and really rather revolting rat creatures (I imagined them as meerkats), enormous insects, bird men, Neanderthals and more. The fear that characters feel on encountering these extraordinary beings is palpable. These alternate worlds are ridiculous in some ways and absolutely chilling in others. We are regularly given extracts from Other Edens: Speculative Evolution and Intelligence by Professor Ruth Emerson (University of California), which makes it all seem plausible, backed up by the work of Dr Kay Amal Khan. It’s a fantastic weaving of fantasy, myth, science, evolution and… something else.

The novel is extremely entertaining and thrilling but it is also driven by the most wonderful characters whose feelings for one another are tenderly treated. The love affair between Mal and Lee is so beautifully portrayed. Soon they are nothing like the daft girls we meet at the beginning as they are changed forever by what they find in the mist. Kay Amal Khan is transgender and that adds another layer as this is used against her by the evil forces at work. These are people that we grow to care about.

As you’d expect from Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden is a beautifully written novel. Its descriptions of places and creatures are hugely atmospheric, frightening and, when needed, humorous. This is a book to immerse oneself in fully. The language is gorgeous, the characters are varied and intriguing, the story is immensely appealing and thought-provoking, and there are moments to make you shiver and others to make you laugh. One of the top books of the year for sure.

I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Adrian’s Cage of Souls – it is fabulous.

I can heartily recommend you read David’s excellent review of The Doors of Eden over at Blue Book Balloon.

Other reviews
Children of Time
Children of Ruin
With C.B. Harvey and Malcolm Cross – Journal of the Plague Year

The Human Son by Adrian J Walker

Solaris | 2020 (ebook and audiobook: 28 April, Pb: 17 September) | 380p | Review copy and bought audiobook | Listen to it | Buy the book

The Human Son by Adrian J WalkerIt is 500 years in the future and the last human has died (in Sweden). Humanity has been replaced by the engineered species it created. The Erta were designed to restore the Earth to how it once was, to repair its environmental and ecological damage. It seemed only natural that they should also remove the human race which did all of the harm. But now that the planet is healthy once more, the Erta decide on a project. A human child will be born that will be raised by Ima, the scientist who worked to heal the skies. If the child proves worthy then the Erta will consider restoring humans to the planet. It will be a climicial experiment. No feelings will be involved. If the child falls short, it can be eliminated at any time.

This is the fantastic starting premise of The Human Son by Adrian J Walker, the author of the wonderful The End of the World Running Club. Once more the author returns to the end of the world, at least for humans, but now the story of humanity’s possible reintroduction to the world is set upon a beautifully restored planet, naturally balanced, healthy and full of life, and watched over by the extraordinary Erta. I loved this novel from start to finish, not just because it’s a fabulous story but also because of its portrayal of Ima, which is magnificent.

Ima tells her story, and that of the child, Reed, in her own words, as if she were reading it to the boy. This immediately connects us to Ima as she faithfully recounts in every detail what it was like for her to raise a human baby, child and teenager. At the beginning, Ima is clinical as she describes (this can be so funny!) the details of putting food in an infant and dealing with what comes out the other end. She also doesn’t know how to communicate with the child or whether he can be left alone or not. And then it all begins to change, as Reed is finally named and he becomes Ima’s human son, a son she would die for.

This portrayal of love, selfless and relentless, is beautifully written. I was spellbound by it and grew to love Ima deeply, as well as the Erta (and human) closest to her as we learn more about this strange society and these even stranger beings. There is much more to the Erta than we might think from the initial pages and it’s fascinating learning about their family structures, their drive for transcendence, their zeal, their science, and their memories of humans and human things. At times it is absolutely chilling. There are occasional glimpses of what it must have been like for mankind to know it was being removed from life. As you’d expect, we’re reminded through Ima’s experiment that there are aspects of a human’s character that make it a species worth resurrecting – music, drawing and so on – but it’s much more complex than that, especially when we learn more about the Erta. There is a great deal of mystery about the Erta and this drives on the pace even while we are engrossed with the gorgeous writing.

I listened to the audiobook of The Human Son and its narration by Alison O’Donnell is enchanting. I was spellbound.

I have no doubt that this will be among my top books of the year.

Other review
The End of the World Running Club

Survive by Tom Bale

Bloodhound Books | 2020 (8 June) | 442p | Review copy | Buy the book

This is the holiday of a lifetime for Sam Berry and Jody Lamb and their young children Grace and Dylan. They have scraped and saved for years to afford this luxury holiday on a fabulous Adriatic island. The north of the island is also the playground of billionaire Borko, related to local powerful politicians, whose private jet Sam had noticed when their own charter flight was coming in to land. Sam and Jody win a competition, much to the disgust and envy of their fellow (and much richer) holiday makers. The four of them are taken to Borko’s villa to join in a party full of VIPs. It all seems too good to be true. And of course it is. The holiday is about to become a nightmare and this gorgeous island is no longer paradise – it is hell on earth.

I loved the premise of Survive and I’m delighted to say that it fully delivers on its promise, so much so that I read the novel in two sittings. This is unheard of for me in these strange times so I can only conclude that the novel gave me just what I needed – a thoroughly exciting adventure, an intriguing mix of heroes and villains, a fabulous holiday location and a plot that is so tense and exhilarating that I couldn’t wait to see how it would turn out.

We are lulled into a false sense of security by the novel’s gentle and evocative opening chapters. We are immersed in this resort and fully sympathise with Sam for buying a holiday that he can barely afford. We learn more about Sam and Jody, the extremely young parents, their difficult relationship, largely because they have been together since they were children. Equal time is give to their kids, Grace and Dylan. I loved reading about the resort, the other guests, the hotel rep and so on, and knowing that everything was about to combust raised the tension. I did find the end of this section, when the family arrive at the villa for the bash, a little slow – by this point I was so ready for the adventure to start – but then it all takes off and from that moment on I couldn’t stop reading it.

There’s something of The Hunger Games about the ordeal which the family must face and also in its set up. It works so well, especially because of its setting on an island which is an ideal holiday location. The dream becomes a nightmare and this is so effective, putting me off white sandy beached islands for some time. The action and drama is incredibly tense and thrilling but along with the thrills comes insight into the family’s characters. This nightmare becomes a catalyst for change, not least because neither Sam or Jody believes that they’ll survive. It’s time to take stock and re-evaluate their lives and relationships even if it is too late.

Our feelings towards Sam are conflicted but we do nothing but root for him once the nightmare begins. It’s so painful reading about the fear that takes hold of the children’s minds. It is Jody, though, who shines out of the pages as she comes into her own. I’ll say nothing more about what happens to the family as you need to feel the tension and terror of it for yourself.

Survive is the perfect holiday read whether you’re on a luxurious exotic island yourself or, as is more likely the case these days, at home. It’s probably safer at home, Tom Bale puts us in no doubt of that. Tom Bale writes so well, driving the action along, keeping us and the poor hapless family squirming at what befalls them while we urge them on. If you want a fast, exciting holiday thriller to immerse yourself in then look no further than Survive.

The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard

Corvus | 2020 (6 August) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan HowardWhen the serial killer known as The Nothing Man attacked the Black family, 12-year-old Eve was the only survivor. Her life was changed forever by the terrible events of that one night. There were no more murders to follow but Eve never stopped wanting to reveal the identity of the man who destroyed her family. Years later she publishes her true crime memoir, The Nothing Man, the result of her own investigations to track down the killer. Security guard Jim Doyle is reading the book. He has a vested interest in it. He is the Nothing Man and he knows that Eve is very close and she will not stop. He realises his biggest mistake was not killing her all those years ago. It’s time to put that right.

I do enjoy Catherine Ryan Howard’s psychological thrillers very much and it came as no surprise that The Nothing Man is every bit as good as its predecessors The Liar’s Girl and Distress Signals. Once again we have a stand alone thriller that is very much character driven while still maintaining pace, chills and tension.

I love the style of it. Much of the novel is Eve Black’s true crime memoir, right down to its acknowledgements. It’s extremely clever and it’s a great way for us to get inside Eve’s head and understand what’s happened to her and to the other victims. It’s also fascinating as a piece of fictional true crime. This mixes with the chapters spent with Jim Doyle, which I particularly enjoyed. Eve always remains a little aloof from us as we only know her from her memoir and what she chooses to reveal about herself, but we’re given full access to Jim Doyle’s mind and what an unpleasant place it is. It’s good to watch him squirm as he reads the book. What I also found intriguing is that this is also a portrait of a retired serial killer, raising all sorts of interesting questions about the nature of such people and why they might stop and why they might do it in the first place. It really is one of the most fascinating depictions of a serial killer that I’ve read.

As you’d expect from this excellent author, The Nothing Man is very well-written and compelling. It’s surprising, original and very entertaining. The portrayal of Jim Doyle especially stands out while Eve Black’s pursuit of a killer is engrossing. Which reminds me I must read Rewind very soon!

Other reviews
The Liar’s Girl
Distress Signals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews
Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen
Six Tudor Queens II: Anne Boleyn, a King’s Obsession
Six Tudor Queens III: Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen
Six Tudor Queens IV: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets