The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer

Simon & Schuster | 2017 (15 June) | c.350p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Outcasts of Time by Ian MortimerIt is December 1348 and the Black Death ravages England’s terror-stricken population. God has turned His back. The bodies of men, women and children fill great death pits in the towns and cities while more corpses rot where they fell – on streets, on country roads, in their houses, in each other’s arms. Brothers John and William are travelling by foot to Exeter, a place that both know well but is especially meaningful to John, a stone mason, who carved some of the brand new cathedral’s statuary, incorporating representations of himself, his brother and his beloved wife into its carvings.

But they see the work of pestilence everywhere and know it is only a matter of time before they too are stricken. And when the inevitable happens, they seek to make peace with God in a sacred place. But instead they are made an offer: they can either return home to live out the six days remaining to them or they will experience each of those six days, 99 years apart from the one before. They would move through the centuries with all sign of the plague removed. But at the end of those six days they will face the Final Judgement.

And so begins an extraordinary journey for two men whose lives have been lived firmly within the medieval world of the mid 13th century. Men for whom God is central to their existence, just as the Earth is the centre of the universe. Both John and William fought for Edward III in France, determined if necessary to die for their beloved King. As they make the first leap – to 1477 – they realise that everything will change, that they will stand out more and more. Not just for their clothes and their accents, but also for their faith, their convictions and their morality. All of these elements of life are fickle. All of them change through the centuries as John and William experience such times as the rise of Protestantism, the English Civil War, culminating in the early 1940s. While their world expands across seas, some things remain the same. War, above all else.

The Outcasts of Time is an astonishing novel, not least because it combines a fascinating, irresistible Faustian tale with a clever scrutiny of the transition from the medieval to modern worlds as it would have affected an unexceptional everyman from the 13th century. It’s a personal story, as told through the words of John, and, as such, it is moving, heartfelt and often tragic, especially as he misses his wife and children. But it also tells the broader tale of humanity’s progress (or lack of it) through seven hundred years. The judgement on how well we have done comes from John as he struggles to make sense of it all, or at least some of it. Hanging over it all, though, is the memory of the plague and the descriptions of this are powerfully repulsive and painful to read. We all know about the Black Death and how it eliminated so many villages and devastated towns and cities but this novel reminds us of the countless human tragedies that combined to create the disaster. What John and William and others had to endure is appalling.

The novel is rich in themes but it is also packed with the most fascinating historical details, as you’d hope when considering the credentials of the author historian Ian Mortimer. I loved all the details about dress, houses, the shifting form of the city of Exeter and the changes to the use of the countryside, as well as the gradual introduction of developments in technology, the sciences, the arts. Imagine seeing trains for the first time, or a clock, or hearing a piano or Mozart, or a line from Shakespeare, seeing a movie. Or learning that man’s position to the universe and God is not what you thought. That morality can shift, even the nature of good and evil. Yet you can look into the night sky and the stars are still there. Whenever I visit a historic place I always think about the people who trod those stones before me – what did they see? What did they think? The wonder that history holds is everywhere in this novel.

The Outcasts of Time is one of those novels that I think would actually benefit from a second reading. It is so richly layered with themes that it is only when you (or at least me) reach the end that you fully realise what an achievement this book is, how much there is in it to discover. At the time of reading it, I was caught up in each of the episodes and I didn’t make all of the connections between the centuries. At the end I realised that I had missed some of the ‘clues’. This is most certainly a novel that deserves and rewards a close reading and your full attention.

The ideas in The Outcasts of Time are huge but they are also wholly accessible because they are planted in a story about two brothers who, when faced with a most terrible and frightening death, have to make a personal choice. This marvellous novel engages the heart and mind and, when finished, it’s not one you want to forget.

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

Doubleday | 2017 (15 June) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Fierce Kingdom by Gin PhillipsThere is nothing more fierce than a mother protecting her child.

The zoo is one of Lincoln’s favourite places. The four-year-old boy and his mother Joan go all the time, to play in the sandpit with his little superhero figures and watch the animals. But this one particular day, just minutes from the zoo’s closing time, they hear the sound of a gun firing. Making their way towards the zoo’s exit, Joan sees shapes on the ground. They are the bodies of the shot. She picks Lincoln up and she runs for their lives.

Fierce Kingdom takes place over a period of just three hours. During those hours, Joan’s focus is entirely on saving her son. As they cling to each other, nothing else matters. We spend much of the novel following Joan’s thoughts as she works through each problem – how to keep Lincoln quiet, how to feed him, how not to be seen, how to escape the gunmen, how to survive. Joan is consumed by her fears and this brings up all manner of thoughts about her past, her preoccupations with death and loss, her love for her husband and child, her transition from independent woman to fiercely protective mother and wife.

We don’t just spend time with Joan, there are brief chapters that we spend with others, such as the teenage girl who works in the zoo restaurant, a school teacher and, chillingly, one of the gunmen, Robby, whose confused thoughts chart his progression from schoolboy to murderer.

This is a thoroughly exciting novel and extremely fast to read as Joan and Lincoln literally race around the zoo. The tension is maintained throughout and the fear feels very real.

I did have a couple of minor issues. Firstly, I was expecting a lot more to do with the zoo animals and they actually feature very little. The novel is set in the US and the schoolteacher reflects on the high number of her students who have committed murder, rape and armed robbery (a few are on Death Row). This distanced me from the events of the novel as it made me feel that this is being presented as an unsurprising event. If it had been in a European zoo, I may have shared more of the tension because it would have seemed extraordinary. Lastly, Joan makes a couple of decisions that puzzled me (why did she throw away a phone that she only needed to turn off?). But all of this is quibbling as Fierce Kingdom is undoubtedly a very entertaining and fast action thriller with an original figure at its heart – a woman who will do absolutely anything to save the life of her child.

The Seventh Commandment by Tom Fox

Headline | 2017 (15 June for the ebook; 5 October for the Pb) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Seventh Commandment by Tom FoxAngelina Calla is one of those rare things – an expert in the ancient Mesopotamian language of Akkadian. But finding a job in such a rarified field isn’t easy and so Angelina spends her days as a tour guide in Rome. Ben Verdyx, on the other hand, has a job that Angelina craves. He works in the Vatican archives and has access to their most secret and valuable documents and objects. Little connects these two beyond a shared love of history, until the day when gunmen pursue them separately through Rome’s streets. Against all odds, the two are saved thanks to agents of the Vatican Swiss Guard who also want Angelina and Ben in their control, albeit alive.

Angelina and Ben are in demand on all sides. A new Akkadian text has just been discovered. It is an astonishing find. And its text reveals a series of prophecies. The first one has already come true – the death of the person who uncovers it – but more are imminent, threatening the very heart and soul of Rome. Angelina and Ben must uncover the truth about the text before it is too late. And then Rome’s mighty river, the Tiber, runs red…

We’re told that the author Tom Fox is an expert in the history of the Christian Church, an interest which has already been put to good use in his 2015 enigmatic religious thriller Dominus. Although The Seventh Commandment is also set in Rome and is again focused around the Vatican, the two thrillers aren’t connected and so you can enjoy them both in whichever order you please.

As with Dominus, the thriller revolves around a mystery that goes to the heart of the Catholic Church, although its ramifications extend beyond the Vatican and across the city of Rome. This time the mystery focuses on a series of prophecies which the Charismatic Catholic Church in particular is adamant will come true in the next few days revealing the presence of God in our midst. But it’s clear to us all from the beginning of the novel that it’s unlikely God is working alone without human help as a series of astonishing calamities stun the people of Rome.

Although this is less of a religious mystery than Dominus, once again I loved the strong sense of place that Tom Fox evokes. This isn’t the Vatican of Dan Brown. It’s much more business-like and more ‘normal’, despite its wealth. It’s rich but it isn’t sinister. And the baddie’s motivation is also down to earth, albeit elaborate. The beauty and the charisma comes from Rome’s stunning churches and its glorious history, which surrounds this novel and fills it with atmosphere. Tom Fox clearly has a strong love and appreciation for history and, as someone who shares this completely, I love how this influences The Seventh Commandment. The Rome setting is a real bonus.

As with most mystery thrillers, you’ve got to be prepared to accept and believe the unexpected and the unlikely, and some characters are more developed than others. I did find some parts of the novel a little wordy and, while Angelina isn’t as three-dimensional as I’d have hoped, I really liked the villain of the piece, and there is also something unusual and curious about Ben. With The Seventh Commandment, Tom Fox has produced another fine mystery thriller that is both well-written and as intriguing as it is exciting, and its Rome setting is excellent. I look forward to the next!

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The Honeymoon by Tina Seskis

Penguin | 2017 (1 June) | 391p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Honeymoon by Tina SeskisIt took quite a while for Jemma to persuade her boyfriend that he should finally make a decision to commit to her – that they should tie the knot and begin a new life together, putting their past behind them. And now Jemma is in the Maldives, staying in a beautiful luxurious resort, with the sea just a few steps away, on the dream honeymoon that she has planned for years. If only the man she married just a week ago hadn’t vanished off the face of the earth a few days into their holiday, leaving her to walk alone the beaches and island trails for hour upon hour searching for him. The police are now involved and it seems like the whole island is looking for him, while, back at home, the media has already caught the scent of a story too good to miss – the honeymoon paradise that has become a hell.

And that is as much as you’re going to hear from me about the plot because The Honeymoon is one of those psychological thrillers that relies on you not knowing what to expect next to make you keep turning those pages. They certainly fly through the fingers. The Honeymoon is a very fast read. I just had to know what happened to Jemma’s husband. But what also pulled me in is its dream holiday setting. There is such a holiday mood to this novel, with its beaches, pools, swimming, bars as well as the rich and beautiful who flock to these islands for their honeymoons – possibly more than once. This luxury contrasts very well with the misery of Jemma’s situation which casts such a pall over the resort.

The novel moves between the present and the past, with a mix of present and past tense, first and third person narratives. While I did find this rather clunkily done at times, it definitely powers the mystery on as well as letting us find out more about Jemma – from her own point of view or from the perspective of others. I never warmed to her. She thrives in her role of Unreliable Narrator. I felt conditioned not to believe a word she says. And, as the story developed, she increasingly irritated me. Having said that, I didn’t like many of the other characters in this book either, although there were a couple I’d liked to have seen more of.

The Honeymoon is a book proud of its twists and one or two did catch me out, even though I was on heightened twist awareness alert. But they didn’t make me go WOW so much as groan. Overall, though, I think that The Honeymoon is a fast, light, rather pretty and, ultimately, daft psychological thriller that would do very well indeed for a quick beach read. It would certainly be an appropriate place in which to read it, just be sure to keep one eye on your holiday companion.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Borough Press | 2017 (15 June) | 752p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rise and Fall of DODO by Neal Stephenson and Nicole GallandMelisande Stokes is a lecturer in ancient and classical languages at Harvard University when she is offered a curious job by government secret agency operative Tristan Lyons. It’s likely that Mel would have taken the job anyway thanks to her patronising, arrogant and irritating boss, but it turns out to be simply perfect. Mel is given a number of ancient and more recent documents to translate as part of a test. The texts come from all six continents and from every era and they all attest to one thing – that magic is real. Or rather magic used to be real. The documents also reveal that magic died in the summer of 1851, killed by the Great Exhibition of London.

Mel’s job, should she choose to accept it, is to join a top secret government project, D.O.D.O., otherwise known as the Department of Diachronic Operations. It has one mission – to develop a device that will allow its operatives to travel back in time to save magic and alter history. After all, what government wouldn’t want to have magic at its beck and call? Unfortunately, meddling with the past can have a rather adverse and unpredictable effect on the present, especially when so much depends on MUONs – Multiple-Universe Operations Navigators, better known to you and me as witches.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is quite simply spectacular. It’s almost impossible to describe or to pin down. There’s a distinct science fiction feel to bits of it – it is, after all, a novel about time travel and the descriptions of how it works are both sciencey and deliciously unfathomable. That is indeed the point. This classified government agency likes to blind us by science at the same time as confounding us with acronyms. But the science is powered by magic which is also powered by science. There is a rational scientific explanation for everything. I think. Or maybe there isn’t. I’m not sure the witches care very much.

I’m not a reader of fantasy or anything to do with magic normally but this novel absolutely enchanted me, in the same way that The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter has done. It presents an incredible and seductive mingling of science and fantasy, of alternate universes, broken futures, impossible conundrums and, my favourite, the temporal paradox. All of this on top of some brilliantly visualised journeys into the past, especially late Elizabethan London and 13th-century Constantinople. These are places teeming with the most fascinating and intriguing personalities, notably the witches but there are also lots of others, and it’s particularly fun watching them deal with an unfamiliar future or past.

The missions into the past are fantastically complicated! This is not surprising considering the tangled knot of D.O.D.O. bureaucracy and it all adds up to a wonderfully elaborate and varied bunch of plots as different people pursue their different goals and get into all kinds of trouble. This adds drama and, now and again, tragedy but it also adds a great deal of humour. The humour of The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is lightly done, often the result of the absolute absurdity of a situation or the preposterousness of trying to impose officialdom on potential chaos. There is also a lesson to be learned – don’t underestimate people from the past. They might not know how to operate a mobile phone but they – and I include Vikings in this – are not stupid.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is over 740 pages long but not once did this feel like too much. On the contrary, it quite often felt like too little! There is so much going on. There is so much potential for more to go on. I loved the characters, especially Erszebet. And it is all written absolutely beautifully and in the most intriguing manner. It’s told in a multitude of ways – journal entries, letters, emails, government documents, memos – and they work together brilliantly. At the end is a very handy glossary of acronyms (as defined by POOJAC – the Policy on Official Jargon and Acronym Coinage). As for the premise of this fabulous, clever, witty book, it is ingenious and only equalled by its execution. Neal Stephenson’s previous novel Seveneves was one of my top reads of 2015. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (or TRAFODODO) will do at least as well in my 2017 list. Do not miss it!

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The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

Harvill Secker | 2017 (15 June) | 374p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lying Game by Ruth WareIsa is at home looking after her six-month-old baby daughter Freya when she receives a text message from Kate, a school friend that she hasn’t seen for years. ‘I need you’ it says. The message doesn’t just go to Isa but also to the two other members of their school clique – Fatima and Thea. There is a bond between these four women that lives on despite their very different lives and if Kate needs their help then the other three will rush to her. They could hardly do anything else. They share a terrible secret, a shared lie, and it looks as if it is about to be revealed.

Isa, Fatima and Thea hurry to Kate’s home in an old mill on the coast which is slowly sinking into the sea. The nearest village, Salten, as well as their old school, lie a few miles inland. It’s a beautiful and remote spot, vulnerable to the encroaching sea, shifting sands and stormy skies. It’s the sort of place where you can forget the rest of the world. But not for much longer. It’s pounding on Kate’s door.

The Lying Game focuses on the friendship between these four woman in a way that reminded me of the author’s earlier novel In a Dark, Dark Wood. As with that novel, the atmosphere of place and isolation and the danger that these things can hide is a strong force throughout. The mystery is a moody one. It rumbles on in the background and it affects the interaction of the four women with the villagers and, in Isa’s case in particular, with their families at home.

But the emphasis throughout is on our narrator, Isa, a woman who is consumed by her instinct to love and protect her baby. It drives everything about her. Isa is the only one to whom we become close, witnessing her family life and her marital grumbles. Thea, Fatima and Kate remain unknowable. But these are people who played the Lying Game at school. It makes it difficult for us to know the truth.

The mystery isn’t a big surprise when it unravels. It doesn’t have the intrigue and twists that I enjoyed so much in The Woman in Cabin 10. It feels very subservient to the focus, which is on the relationship between these four women. Yet, as mentioned, we only really get to know Isa. Apart from this, I had a couple of other issues with the novel – I couldn’t understand the reason for the great bond between these women, all these years after their one year together at school. I couldn’t feel a closeness between them and most of the characters are too skindeep. The other issue is that Isa’s complete focus on her baby dominates her character absolutely. It’s understandable but it isolates her from the dramatic movement of the novel. And, to be pernickity, there is also a continuity error involving Thea’s hair.

Yet, while I didn’t enjoy The Lying Game as much as I loved The Woman in Cabin 10, it is an extremely atmospheric and compelling read. I read most of it in one sitting. It hooked me. The setting is marvellous. I loved the descriptions of it, the walks across the marshes, the gradual decay of the mill. There is something about Ruth Ware’s writing that pulls me in – it is quite beautiful – and I’ll most definitely be there for her next novel.

Other review
The Woman in Cabin 10

Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo

HarperCollins | 2017 (15 June) | 356p | Review copy | Buy the book

Seven Days in May by Kim IzzoDespite their enormous wealth and beauty, New York socialite sisters Brooke and Sydney Sinclair share little in common. Parentless, they are free to explore their interests. Sydney is a suffragette who wants to use her wealth for good, supporting causes she cares for, such as birth control and abortion – controversial for a rich young woman in 1915. Brooke, on the other hand, is about to have the wedding of the year (in her opinion). She is to marry Edward Thorpe-Tracey, the future Lord Northbrook and one of those impoverished English aristocrats in need of a rich American heiress. Edward has arrived in New York to escort Brooke and Sydney back to England for the wedding and, in Brooke’s case, a new life. War in Europe seems a long way away, despite Edward’s imminent departure for the trenches in France, but, as the Lusitania sets sail to Britain in May 1915 amid warnings of German U-Boats hungrily patrolling the Atlantic and Irish Sea, war suddenly seems much more real to Brooke and Sidney.

The glamour of the chapters aboard the Lusitania are contrasted by the story of Isabel Nelson, a young woman who has escaped a scandal in Oxford to redeem herself fighting the war in the mysterious Room 40 of the British Admiralty in London. It is here that Isabel finds she has a gift for codes and ciphers and soon becomes an integral part of what is largely a male team. Much that is secret passes through Isabel’s hands but most alarming of all are the messages that indicate that the U-Boats have caught the scent of the Lusitania.

Seven Days in May is a glamorous novel, full of the rich colours and romance of its day – at least for those who are rich, far from war and have the time and money to sail across the Atlantic in the most luxurious of ships and cabins for a week of dinner parties, cocktails and promenades. But thanks to Sydney’s rebellious ways, we’re also given glimpses of life below decks, in the Lusitania‘s less salubrious but nevertheless still smart quarters for third class passengers. Confined to the ship for a week or more, gossip is everything, new friends are made, lovers even, and lives can be changed. We meet people, both fictional and historical, and a vivid picture of life aboard the Lusitania is created. But it is all overshadowed because the reader knows what happened to the ship.

I am such a big fan of novels set on ships, particularly during the glorious days of the great liners. I love the manners and the etiquette, the contrast between the luxury of the upper decks and those below, between passengers and crew, between old and new worlds. However, there is an air of predictability to Seven Days in May that goes beyond the well-known event of the Lusitania‘s sinking, which is anticipated throughout the book. It isn’t difficult to work out at all how the love triangle aboard the ship will play out. Similarly, Isabel’s story has little depth. She’s purely there to build tension. Although it must be said that this is a device that works very well.

The anticipated sinking takes its time, and I must admit that by that point I was very ready for something to happen, also welcoming an escape from the Brooke, Sydney and Edward situation, even though I liked all three characters. Edward is particularly interesting and I would have liked to have spent more time with him when he was less concerned about his marriage. The sinking added the drama the novel was waiting for and I was engrossed in those chapters. I also really appreciated the historical background to the sinking and to the suggested policy of the war office towards civilian vessels risking the Atlantic. It’s for this that I read Seven Days of May – as soon as it arrived, that’s how interested I am in the subject – and it gave me much to think about and a desire to find out more about the ship, which has been overshadowed by the Titanic tragedy three years before.

Seven Days in May is a light and entertaining read, largely romance with a dramatic conclusion. That’s what I was expecting and, as a result, I enjoyed being swept away on the high yet dangerous seas for a day or two. I must also add that this is a beautiful paperback and this most definitely added to what was a very pleasant reading experience.