The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2019 (4 April) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The King's Evil by Andrew TaylorIt is 1667 and the court of Charles II is rife with intrigue, political rivalry and scandal. The king is also without legitimate children and that isn’t helping matters as rival noble factions scramble for influence. The Duke of Clarendon is on the way out, despite being the father-in-law of the Duke of York, the king’s brother and heir. Clarendon is being bested by another of the court’s troublesome dukes, of Buckingham, and even though Buckingham has some bad form in his past (he negotiated his own personal peace with Oliver Cromwell), he knows how to entertain the fickle king. Buckingham’s star looks set to rise even higher when a corpse is found in the well in the grounds of Clarendon’s brand new monstrously lavish and enormous mansion in the heart of London. The government investigator James Marwood is sent to look into the business and to cover it up. But the identity of the dead man is going to cause Marwood all kinds of problems.

The dead man is none other than Edward Alderley, the cousin of Cat Lovett, a woman who has played a key role in Marwood’s earlier investigations. Cat had every reason to want Alderley dead and Marwood isn’t the only person to know this. And now, only hours after she threatened him, Alderley is dead and Cat is the chief suspect. Marwood has been told to prove her guilt but he, however, is intent on proving her innocence. But in Charles II’s decadent London, can anyone be truly innocent?

The King’s Evil is the third novel in Andrew Taylor’s brilliant series featuring James Marwood, the son of a traitor. Each of the novels (beginning with The Ashes of London and continuing with The Fire Court) stands alone very well but if you read them in order then you will have the added treat of following the story of Marwood and Cat from its beginning in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. What’s clear, though, is that this is a series that goes from strength to strength.

The plot of The King’s Evil is excellent and, as is usual with these novels, is as much about the court of Charles II as it is about a murder. Marwood is a fantastic creation who, as we saw in the previous novels, has suffered a great deal. He’s trapped in the middle of a political situation from which he has no way out due to his treacherous father. He’s our perfect witness to all sides of the political games being played in this glamorous and yet grotesquely ugly court. Everyone remembers the gloom and danger of the Commonwealth and the king’s time in exile, but the moral corruption of the Restoration has proved equally dismal to many. Marwood stands apart. What he can do, though, is try and do the right thing by Cat, whose past is equally stained. But there are distractions lying in wait.

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of 1660s’ London, especially the Duke of Clarendon’s extraordinary and unwise palace in Piccadilly. Andrew Taylor is so good at bringing past streets and places to life and when I read one of his books I immediately go away and do some more research on what he has revealed. It’s fascinating. The courtiers are as ugly as their king – who is a strange creature indeed – but they are mesmerising.

Having said all that, the people that we get to know the most in The King’s Evil aren’t the courtiers but those who serve them. The little slave boy Stephen is a child I won’t forget in a hurry. It’s through him that we get to learn a bit more about what it is that gives this book its extremely appropriate and effective title. There is something melodramatic about the case itself – Edward Alderley does the job of stage villain very well – but this fits so well with the theatricality of London society at this time. Everything is hidden below the wigs and glorious frocks and waistcoats. Here we see the truth and it’s certainly entertaining.

I am thoroughly enjoying this series, which does such a fine job of immersing the reader in a London that is being rebuilt after the Great Fire. It’s recognisable in some ways and very different in others. And walking through its streets, or rowing a boat along its river, are some extraordinary figures. James Marwood is an excellent main character. At times he seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders as he stands almost alone and isolated. But the way in which he clings to interest, to life in London, to his friendship with Cat and other vulnerable people, is compelling to read about. I look forward to spending more time with him.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court

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Dead Man’s Daughter by Roz Watkins

HQ | 2019 (4 April) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dead Man's Daughter by Roz WatkinsA ten-year old girl is caught running through the woods in the Peaks, heading towards the gorge Dead Girl’s Drop. She is in her nightdress and it’s covered in blood. She tells DI Meg Dalton that her name is Abbie and she lives in Bellhurst House, an intimidating, frightening Victorian Gothic house. It’s almost no surprise that Meg should find in a house such as this the body of a man, Abbie’s father, his throat cut. It looks like the work of an intruder but, as Meg dips deeper into this disturbing case, she learns that both Abbie and her father had heart transplants and Abbie is having nightmares which she believes are based on events in the life of her donor. Can this be connected to the murder? The truth could be more shocking than Meg could ever have suspected.

When I read The Devil’s Dice, Roz Watkins’ debut novel and our introduction to Meg Dalton, I knew that this was the beginning of something special and Dead Man’s Daughter is every bit as good. I love everything about these books so it’s not easy knowing where to start but a good place might be with Roz Watkins’ writing, which is fabulous. The author writes with such confidence, naturalness and wit that the characters and their world seems entirely believable and it makes the reader want to be involved. There are lines here that made me laugh out loud. Meg is our narrator and she’s a lovely person. She’s self-deprecating, very funny and she’s so caring and engaged with the world around her.

Meg Dalton is a triumph and the poor woman has much to contend with here in the rather unpleasant shape of her sergeant, Craig. This man is just not as capable as Meg, or indeed anyone else, and he hates the fact and, as a result, also hates Meg. The rest of Meg’s team, such as Jai, returns and they give Meg all the support she needs but, with Craig, they have an awful lot to put up with. Hard as it is for them, it’s very entertaining for us. I really enjoyed this non-relationship. Meg deserves a medal… Meg’s past isn’t about to go away and it haunts her here, but not in a way that dominates her character or the novel. But there is one aspect of her private life that is deeply moving and plays a significant role here and I love the way in which Roz Watkins handles it with such deep care. How could you not love Meg Dalton?

The story is fantastic. This is a perfect and genuine whodunnit in my opinion. There are plenty of red herrings and there is also that sense of something otherworldly and strange. There’s a feeling that anything might be possible and so the reader should just sit back and enjoy it. We are in an expert’s hands here.

I cannot praise Dead Man’s Daughter enough. I loved every page of it. I love the setting in the Peak District, always a favourite location of mine. I love the characters and I was completely immersed in the mystery. Above all else, I adore Meg Dalton. She knows how to make me laugh and she knows how to bring me to the edge of my seat. I really hope this series runs and runs because it is definitely one of the best and Meg Dalton is right up there with my favourites along with Roberta Steele, Logan McRae, Marnie Rome, Tony McLean, Kim Stone, Ruth Galloway, Kate Daniels and Ben Cooper. This is an exclusive club and Meg Dalton definitely belongs in it. I can’t wait for book three.

Other review
The Devil’s Dice

I’m delighted to kick off the Blog Tour with my review. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

Dead Man's Daughter blog tour

The Neighbour by Fiona Cummins

Macmillan | 2019 (4 April) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Neighbour by FIona CumminsWhen the Lockwoods move into 25 The Avenue one hot summer it’s not long before they regret it. Not long at all. It’s barely hours before The Avenue is disturbed by the arrival of the police. The serial killer nicknamed The Doll Keeper has claimed another victim, found right next to The Avenue, and this one is of particular significance to the detectives investigating the case. The arrival of the new family is a welcome distraction to their neighbours who have had a great deal to contend with. But this is a street full of twitching curtains, binoculars and cameras, inquisitive eyes. Is there anybody who lives in The Avenue without something to hide? The Lockwoods are about to get a lesson in life in The Avenue.

The Neighbour is without doubt one of the most atmospherically menacing and sinister novels that I’ve read in quite some time. In fact, quite possibly since I read Fiona Cummins’ other fantastic books, Rattle and The Collector. Here is an author who not only writes and plots brilliantly, but she also knows how to get under our skin and into our brains, until the reader is left a shivering wreck. I read The Neighbour at night by lamplight. I read other things in the daytime. The Neighbour is a book that belongs to the night.

I don’t want to give anything away about the plot because it is so rewardingly complex, with one thing leading to another, and the slightest thing might spoil it. It’s best to go into The Neighbour cold. It won’t be long before you’re sucked into its mood and you’re engrossed by the author’s storytelling powers.

The characters are many and they are each so vividly painted. The interactions between them are drawn so beautifully. Everyone sparks off somebody else. Everybody watches or is watched – or both. The Lockwoods have to find their place and it’s so hard to look away.

And so all I can do is urge you to turn down the lights and curl up with quite possibly the most atmospheric tale of murder we will encounter in 2019. This isn’t about blood or gore, although you’ll certainly encounter scenes that may make your skin crawl, it’s about a mood and a place, and those cursed to live there. It is excellent.

Other reviews
Rattle
The Collector

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Head of Zeus | 2019 (4 April) | 359p | Review copy | Buy the book

Wakenhyrst by Michelle PaverIt is 1966 and Maud Stearne has lived a reclusive life for over fifty years, living alone but for her cook in Wake’s End, her large house in the tiny hamlet of Wakenhyrst in the Suffolk fens. The outside world has left Maud in peace for many of those years but now that might be about to change, thanks to the recent discovery of her father’s remarkable paintings. These portray a tortured mind, reminding the world what happened sixty years before during the Edwardian period. Maud’s father murdered somebody in a terrible fashion and Maud was the only witness. She’s never talked about it, or indeed talked about much, to anybody since. But now, in need of funds to restore this dilapidated, rotting house, Maud is prepared to reveal the horrible truth, to disclose the contents of her father’s journals, to wake up the demons.

Michelle Paver is a master of historical horror. Both Dark Matter and Thin Air, ghostly tales set in the 1930s, are must-reads and I couldn’t wait to read Wakenhyrst. This time, we travel back to the Edwardian period and, whereas before we were taken to the Arctic Winter and then into the Himalayas, we now find ourselves in the Suffolk fens, a remote swampland, disconnected from the rest of England. It is another of those places in which anything can happen, hidden from the outside world, and where superstition and fear of the dark can conquer reason.

The novel is book-ended by the 1960s but otherwise events take place in the first years of the 20th century and is divided between Maud’s own story and extracts from her father Edmund’s journal. It’s a structure that works so well as the personality of Edmund, and of Maud, develops before us. The contrast between Edmund’s words and his view of himself with the way in which Maud sees him and history judges him is striking. Wakenhyrst is, in fact, not so much of a horror tale, although it describes horrible things, but a psychological thriller set in a time and place when the unexpected or the unusual could be blamed on demons, witches and spirits that lurk in the fens. Edmund Stearne, an intellectual (in his eyes) with a fascination for medieval superstition, is an easy victim. There’s also another voice in the novel which adds to its mood, that of a medieval mystic, with whom Edmund becomes obsessed.

But alongside the horror of what Edmund perceives in the fens around him, that fills his house with a smell he hates as well as creatures that wriggle and scurry, there is Maud’s own nightmare and that has resulted from the reality of life in a remote house with a father such as Edmund Stearne. The themes resonate. The fate of unhappy wives doomed to bear child upon child, never given a rest by their lecherous, foul husbands, the disrespect and lack of care given to girl-children who are left uneducated and little more than servants. Then there are the servants themselves, especially the young women who become prey. Maud lives in a house of monsters very different from those that haunt Edmund and it’s to Maud’s story that we’re drawn. And we’re aware that so much of it would be typical through so much of history. Michelle Paver tells a compelling story and Maud is its worthy heroine.

I loved the sense of place that is created in Wakenhyrst. The fens are a character in their own right. Some hate them and others love them and almost become part of them. The descriptions are beautiful and the characters who live within them are brilliantly brought to life, dialect and all. Maud very much belongs to the fens and I loved the way in which her relationship to it, as well as to its animals and people, is portrayed. I visit the fens frequently myself, it’s a place I love to be, and I really enjoyed their place in this wonderful novel.

In Wakenhyrst, Michelle Paver has moved away from ghostly tales and instead placed us firmly in the Gothic. This book is steeped in atmosphere as well as the stench and slime of the fen itself, a place barely touched by the outside world, and it is beautifully written and deliciously, gorgeously creepy.

Other reviews
Dark Matter
Thin Air

With this review, I’m delighted to start off the Blog Tour to celebrate the publication of Wakenhyrst on 4 April. Please take a look at the poster below for other stops on the tour.

Wakenhyrst blog tour banner

A Capitol Death by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (4 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Capitol Death by Lindsey DavisIt is AD 89 and the Emperor Domitian is on his way back to Rome and the city is thrown into chaos! Domitian has negotiated two enemies into defeat and he intends to enter the city in triumph, actually with a Double Triumph. Never mind that he hasn’t captured any barbarians to parade behind his gilded chariot, to garotte ceremoniously. There are plenty of actors who can dress up for the day. It’s more than one’s life is worth to mutter against the ridiculousness. Best just to get on with it. But then a man is thrown off Rome’s infamous Tarpeian Rock and unfortunately it turns out that he’s the official in charge of transportation for the Triumph. Nothing must be allowed to spoil the Emperor’s big day and so Rome’s aediles are given the job of investigating. Luckily, one of them, Faustus, is married to Flavia Albia, arguably Rome’s best private investigator, now that her father Marcus Didius Falco has retired.

A Capitol Death is the seventh novel to feature Flavia Albia, Falco’s adopted daughter from Britannia. I always look forward to this series. There’s something comforting about returning to Lindsey Davis’s Rome. The historical detail is meticulous and the writing is always witty and entertaining as Albia undertakes one of her exhausting investigations. There’s a lot of walking to do as Albia has to tread from one side of Rome to another, time after time, on the trail of a killer. This time there is the added fun of an excursion from Rome to the coast to look at the unpleasantly smelly business of making purple dye, another Triumph essential.

The mystery is, as usual, full of red herrings and surprises, as Albia enters the world of Triumph preparation, where everybody knows everyone else. It turns out that not a soul liked the murdered man and so the number of suspects increases with every interview Albia conducts. While the mystery is rather slow moving and, in the second half of the book, a little confusing, at least to this reader, this is more than compensated for by the absolutely fascinating depiction of the preparation for a Triumph.

In historical fiction, we’re used to seeing Triumphs depicted from the point of view of those being celebrated. But here we go backstage and behind the scenes, into the enormous buildings where floats are prepared, costumes are made, and actors are made ready. We’re also shown the religious aspect of the Triumph with plenty of time spent in Rome’s most sacred spaces – the Temples of Jupiter and Juno. Once more, it’s the men who look after these places that get the attention. My favourite is Feliculus, the old man who looks after the sacred geese, birds that fans of Falco will be very familiar with.

Flavia Albia is a wonderful heroine and narrator. Her background – orphaned and penniless in Britannia – makes her sympathetic to others in a similar situation. Strays are always gathered. It also makes her feel like an outsider and an observer. Perhaps this is one reason why she’s such a good investigator. Her relationship with her husband Faustus is so poignant and tender, if hidden a little behind the banter. Faustus is recovering from his wedding day lightning strike, although I am glad to report that he’s much better now (thank heavens). Falco and Helena continue to get the odd mention, which makes me very happy indeed.

The star of A Capitol Death is undoubtedly Rome itself. The years are bridged and we’re placed right into the heart of 1st-century Imperial Rome. I love the way in which familiar ruins are rebuilt and streets are filled with life and business. There is also something rather intriguingly modern about Albia. This continues to be such an excellent series and each one is such a highlight of my reading year.

Other reviews
Enemies at Home
Deadly Election
The Graveyard of the Hesperides
The Third Nero
Pandora’s Boy
Vesuvius by Night

The Passengers by John Marrs

Ebury/Del Ray | 2019 (ebook: 1 April; Pb: 30 May) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book: Kindle; Pb

The Passengers by John MarrsOne morning a number of individuals think nothing of the journeys they’re about to undertake. They each get into their cars and set off. None of them will get to their destination. Each of the cars is fully automated, without steering wheels or controls, the driver is no longer a driver. He or she is just a passenger driven by an AI. Having control of the radio or tv screen is about the only power that the passengers have, but these people are about to lose even that. A few minutes into the journey they hear a voice and it tells them something that some of them believe must be a hoax – or even a reality TV show game. Their journey will take two and a half hours and at the end of that time, they will probably be dead. And it will all be filmed and projected into TVs and social media streams across the land. Viewers will be asked to make a choice.

Meanwhile, watching on is Libby. Libby is the civilian member of a curious jury that meets to decide who is liable in the event of an accident involving driverless cars. Is it the fault of the victim or the car? But their heated discussions are interrupted by the display of the drama playing out in front of an increasingly large and opinionated audience. As Libby and everyone else meets the helpless, panicked passenger, Libby realises with a shock that one of them looks very familiar to her indeed.

The Passengers is a book that I had to read the moment I was fortunate enough to obtain an advance copy. The premise is, undeniably, a little ridiculous but it is absolutely riveting! Set in the near future, this is a world in which social media is king and when people have got more time to spend on it due to the luxury of being driven around in cars by AI systems. There are sinister connotations to both of these concepts and John Marrs explores them to the full and I was hanging onto every single word.

The passengers are a fascinating and varied bunch, including a young pregnant woman, a suicidal man, an ageing movie and TV star, an unhappily married couple (each in their separate cars), a refugee, a woman escaping an abusive husband, an old soldier, and so on. It’s up to the public, and Libby’s jury, to save them, and social media will be shown at its very worst as it uses preconceptions about colour, gender, morality, religion, age to condemn the innocent – or the guilty. It is so gripping! We see the world at its worst.

One of the (many) things that kept me so hooked on the book is the author’s incredible talent for ending many of the chapters with such a shocking revelation or cliff hanger that at times I was utterly gobsmacked! I even had to mute a squeal when I was reading an especially jawdropping moment on the bus. But these moments aren’t rare. They happen time after time and I was left in utter awe of their creator’s skill.

I’m quite good at identifying the villain in thrillers and crime novels but The Passengers kept me in complete and happy ignorance until the very end. That is such a treat in itself. But this was more than equalled by the brilliant storytelling, the tension that is maintained from the very first page, the shocks that jolted me upright at regular and yet unexpected intervals, and the sheer entertainment of enjoying a sensational, slightly preposterous, story, made so real and thrilling. If you want a fun read, look no further!

Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds

Tor | 2019 (19 March) | 176p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Permafrost by Alastair ReynoldsThe year is 2080. The Earth is not as we know it. The Scouring has changed it beyond all recognition. This recent environmental disaster has removed every last hope for the future of life on Earth. Except for one. Scientists have discovered a means to travel back in time. Their aim is to go back to the 2020s, before the Scouring, to search for seeds which, it is hoped, will be able to save the planet. Gathered in the Arctic circle, this community of potential time travellers needs just one new member to help bring their experiment to success – 71-year-old teacher Valentina Lidova, the daughter of a genius in the paradox of time travel.

Alastair Reynolds is such a favourite author of mine and I was thrilled to learn of Permafrost, a novella which tackles two irresistible themes – time travel and an apocalyptic environmental disaster. Add to that a Russian feel and Arctic setting and I couldn’t wait to read it. As a novella of under 200 pages, it wasn’t a long read but it was packed full. As is almost always the case with a novella, though, it left me wanting more.

I’m not going to go into the plot of Permafrost any further because it is densely crammed into the pages, resulting in a compelling and multi-layered read. What it did give me are moments that made my stomach lurch. Those moments when you realise that something has happened that is so extraordinary that it takes the breath away. When characters have made a connection that resonates with so much emotion and you sit and wonder at what you’ve just read. Alastair Reynolds is a master of jaw-dropping moments and it’s not a surprise to find one or two here.

I really enjoyed having the older protagonist, Valentina. It isn’t often that you read a science fiction novel, or any novel, with a main character such as this. And she isn’t made to feel old and decrepit either, thankfully. The focus is on her experience, wisdom and empathy, not to mention her courage and resilience. It was good to spend time with her.

I’m not the biggest reader of novellas, although I do make exceptions for science fiction, because I’m such a reader of brickbooks! I like to spend time immersed in these worlds. Nevertheless, as with Alastair Reynolds’ ingenious short stories, Permafrost is an excellent read, full of big ideas as well as thrills and action. I can’t help wishing it were longer but what we have is thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking and full of surprises.

Other reviews
Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon’s Children 1)
On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children 2)
Poseidon’s Wake (Poseidon’s Children 3)
Revelation Space
Redemption Ark
Absolution Gap
Pushing Ice
Slow Bullets
With Stephen Baxter – The Medusa Chronicles
Beyond the Aquila Rift
Revenger
Elysium Fire