Tag Archives: Civil War

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

Simon & Schuster | 2021 (7 January) | 384p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

The Smallest Man by Frances QuinnIt is 1625 and Nat Davy isn’t like other boys. No matter how much he gets his brother to try and stretch his legs and arms he will not grow. Reality hits when Nat visits a circus and sees a tiny woman on display who tells him to run. But it’s too late. When the circus contacts Nat’s father and makes him an offer, Nat is given a year to grow a little bit older before he too will become an exhibit on display. But, before the dreaded day comes, history takes matters into its own hands. The Duke of Buckingham buys the boy as a gift for Charles I’s young bride, Queen Henrietta Maria, and, before he knows it, the terrified and very, very small boy is served up to the Queen in a pie.

Nat Davy is a fictional character based on the figure of Sir Jeffrey Hudson, the Queen’s Dwarf. He is beautifully portrayed and we see the world – at its most poor and then at its wealthiest – through his eyes. And he sees the court from a unique perspective, not least because he becomes the confidant of the young French girl who is now Queen but, at the beginning of her marriage, feels so alone and unloved. Nat and the Queen are caught in the power games of Charles I and his favourite the Duke of Buckingham and, as Nat becomes a man and stays so tiny, he is viewed as more of an oddity than ever. However, over the years, Nat gathers a group of friends around him and, as the novel continues, his size is overshadowed by his stature as a man of the court.

The novel covers the whole of Charles I’s reign and that means that it also covers the Civil War, one of my favourite periods of English history. What makes this particularly unusual is that we view the conflict from the sidelines, as the Queen tries to gather funds and men for the King’s cause. I love how we see the relationship between the King and Queen evolve as they slowly fall in love. We also see how war has impacted the English countryside as people are caught up in a war that they initially think is happening at a distance. Families and friends are divided or they come together, putting relationships above political arguments that don’t interest them. It’s fascinating.

I loved The Smallest Man. It’s beautifully written. There is a love story element that I thought went on a little too long, but I really enjoyed this unusual story. We view all sides of English life through the figure of Nat, who experiences the lows and highs of 17th-century life, including war and exile. He endures real poverty, fear and danger, as well as coping with the sadness of the young Queen. It is a wonderful story, engrossing and full of historical details. I listened to the audiobook, which is stunningly read by Alex Wingfield. His voice truly becomes that of Nat. Nat is a fabulous character, offering an original and vivid perspective on Charles I’s land, court, war and death.

The House of Lamentations by S.G. MacLean

Quercus | 2020 (9 July) | 410p | Review copy | Buy the book

The House of Lamentations by S.G. MacLeanIt is 1658 and Cromwell’s England is no longer what it was. Cromwell himself, who lives in palaces as a king in all but name, is rumoured to be dangerously ill while his regime tortures and brutally executes minor royalists for little more than unwise gossip. People are leaving the country, sick at how events have played out. But, while disenchanted Puritans head to the Americas, royalists head eastwards to Bruges where the exiled King Charles II plots with his impoverished court to reclaim his throne. And that is where we find Damian Seeker, a secret agent of Cromwell’s spymaster John Thurloe. Seeker, undercover as a carpenter, has a spy among Charles’s circle and the royalists are determined to identify who it is. Seeker hears word that a woman is being sent to sniff them out. Seeker knows that his identity would also be revealed and his fate would be sealed. But in a city full of English refugees, with both a convent and a brothel a focus for new arrivals, where is this woman to be found? The race is on to be the first to discover her identity.

The enigmatic Damian Seeker is one of my favourite figures in historical fiction and I always look forward to these books. Sadly, The House of Lamentations, the fifth in the series, is the last. This novel brings together the men and women, spies and double agents of the previous books and so, while it is a self-contained story in many ways, I would definitely recommend that you read these five books in order. The fourth novel, The Bear Pit, especially influences events here.

Knowing that The House of Lamentations is the last in the series, I went into the novel with some trepidation. The enigmatic Damian Seeker is one of my favourite figures in historical fiction and I always look forward to these books. I will miss Seeker very much. But history tells us that Cromwell’s Commonwealth didn’t last and that 1658 was a turning point in its demise. This was a dangerous time, of tension, uncertainty and cruelty. All of this is brilliantly captured by S.G. MacLean. The opening chapter leaves us in no doubt as to the brutality and unhappiness of Cromwell’s London and England in 1658. It’s a shocking opening and it feels like a relief when we’re then taken to Bruges and the shabby court of the king in exile.

Bruges is a change of scene for these novels and I really enjoyed discovering the city as it would have been in the mid-17th century. Bruges is in the control of Spain, Jesuit priests walk its streets. The city’s institutions are brought to such vivid life here – its convent, its brothel and its prison, all of which influence events. Then there is the house containing four of Charles’s supporters, not all of whom are as they seem. One of them is someone we got to know well in The Bear Pit. The reader knows this can’t end well. But there are new people to meet here, too, including the extraordinary and resiliently mysterious Sister Janet, an Englishwoman who became a nun in Bruges over fifty years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the chapters spent in her company. Nobody knows what she’s up to. The Seeker may have met his match. I’ve always liked Lady Anne in these books. There is conflict and chemistry in her relationship with Seeker and, once more, this is one of the highlights of The House of Lamentations.

There is much more to this novel than its tale of spies and plots. There is another story running through it of a young woman with a terribly scarred face. Seeker is driven to find her and learn her story, even though he knows this puts his mission in jeopardy. We, too, are desperate to know. The curious link between the convent and the brothel is also explored so brilliantly as we learn about the choices many women were forced to make. There is an undercurrent to this novel. This is a man’s world in so many ways but the novel draws on all life, male and female, and, with the exception of the tremendous Seeker, my favourite characters are its women.

The House of Lamentations is a fine finale to a superb series set during one of the most fascinating, exciting and dangerous periods in English history. I was fully immersed in its story and its setting, which is brought to life due to all of the historical detail, whether it describes town streets, buildings, clothes, furnishings or people. This is an excellent historical mystery, spy thriller and adventure which is, as always with this series, beautifully told. If you haven’t read these books then now, with the series complete, is the perfect time to do so. You will not be disappointed. I look forward to going wherever this wonderful author next takes us.

Other reviews
The Seeker
The Black Friar
Destroying Angel
The Bear Pit

The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins

Orion | 2020 (2 April) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Puritan Princess by Miranda MalinsIt is 1657 and Frances Cromwell’s life is transformed. At eighteen years old, Frances is the youngest child of Oliver Cromwell and his wife Elizabeth. Cromwell has reached the height of his powers and the kingless Commonwealth has never been stronger. Cromwell is the head of the government and now it wants Cromwell to rule the land as Lord Protector or even King. All of the family now lives in royal palaces and castles, they are bowed to, addressed as ‘Highness’ and Cromwell’s daughters have become valuable commodities in the business of state.

The Cromwell children are divided by age. Some are much older. They remember the times before their father’s rise to power and they made marriages of a different kind. The older daughters Bridget and Elizabeth were given leeway in their choice of grooms, their husbands becoming part of the family. But for Frances and her slightly elder sister Mary, there will be none of that. Which makes it all the more difficult when Frances meets the young aristocrat and courtier, Robert Rich. But, as the months pass, Oliver Cromwell faces his own challenges, not least those posed by his own family.

The 1650s is such a fascinating period of history and one of my favourites when it comes to historical fiction. I was really excited to read The Puritan Princess as soon as I heard of it. We all have our conceptions of what Cromwell was like, possibly dictated to us by a certain Richard Harris film or from history retold by the ultimately victorious and vengeful royalists, but this novel turns this upside down. Here is Oliver Cromwell the family man as well as the soldier and, particularly here, statesman. I’ve always been interested in how Cromwell became almost royal, was treated as royalty, and yet he played such a large role in the end of kingship. And here we’re shown a man who loved his family, who liked pleasant and unPuritan things, such as horse riding, plays and music. Above all, he wants what’s best for his children and that does bring him into conflict with them on more than one occasion.

There is some intriguing insight into the political and religious circumstances of the day, such as the resurgence of the Levellers, who divided the country and Cromwell’s family, and put Cromwell in real danger, leading to some exciting moments here. We’re also brought into the world of political intrigue, as important men quibbled over minor points, turning them into impassable mountains. The heart of the novel, though, belongs to Frances and it is more than anything a love story played out against a colourful, fascinating historical backdrop.

I did like Frances, who tries to reconcile herself to this new royal life, wanting to carry out household tasks herself, and not being able to. She and her mother and sisters are a tight group, almost bewildered by what has happened to them. Frances loves deeply but this is not a love that will flow smoothly and so there are upsets along the way and there are moments which are truly upsetting, for Frances and for the reader. I think that my favourite character, though, is Mary, who is prepared to make such a sacrifice so that her younger sister would be happy. Oliver’s admiration for his children, especially Mary, is evident.

Miranda Malins writes very well and there are some wonderful descriptive scenes of life in London during these times. I enjoyed the scenes in which the sisters go hawking, experiencing the privileges of true princesses. History tells us what will happen to Cromwell but it’s so good to see what happened to the other, lesser known members of his family, especially his youngest daughters. This is one of those books which inspired me to do some research afterwards. I love it when historical fiction does that.

Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster | 2019 (20 August) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, in the Sussex tidelands, when Alinor, a descendent of wise women, waits in Fairmile’s graveyard for the ghost of her abusive husband, presumed lost at sea, to appear to declare her free. But it’s not a ghost that she comes across but James, a young priest just arrived from the court of the exiled Queen. Charles I is imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, the Civil War is over. But, whereas this is a cause for relief among the villagers of the tidelands, it’s a matter of grief for the idealist priest and he is here on secret, dangerous business. It’s perilous enough in these Cromwellian days for wise women such as Alinor but James is about to make it a whole lot worse.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tidelands. I’ve loved some of Philippa Gregory’s novels very much and struggled with others. This one, set in a different period for the author and largely away from the courts of kings and queens, was a mystery to me when I first opened the pages. It captivated me instantly, right from the opening pages when we first meet the extraordinary Alinor and find ourselves in the tidelands.

Philippa Gregory is to be applauded for her depiction of the tidelands of Sussex and of the daily lives of the people, largely poverty-stricken, who endure it and have to scrape a living from this most inhospitable and yet hauntingly beautiful environment. This is a place of disease, hunger, jealousy and superstition, of mud floors, scraps of clothing, and endless terrible toil in someone else’s fields or out on the water or in the mud. It feels timeless and you can feel it all around you. It pulls you in.

This lovely, descriptive prose is full of historical details about daily life. The scenes describing the harvest are completely engrossing, as women line up to walk the harvested field and glean it clean. Alinor is such a fascinating character. She’s beautiful but quiet, abused but staggeringly strong, both physically and mentally. With two fatherless children to care for and provide for, Alinor has to be strong. And we are astonished to see how her day of toil is divided, with one hard physical job following another.

So the contrast with the priest and his world is immense. Alinor’s brother hates the King. He proudly fought against him and would do so again. The reality of civil war has hit this remote community. But James does not see the King in this way and it’s in James’s company that we’re taken into the captivity of Charles I. It’s easy to feel the fury of the populace for an arrogant man such as this, who caused such blood to be shed. But we also witness him as a figurehead, as God’s annointed. James learns conflict as he finds himself newly rooted in the reality of life in the tidelands, lived on the land, at sea and in the mud.

James is a particularly intriguing character, trying to bridge two worlds, two ideologies. He is most definitely not the romantic hero that you’d expect from the novel’s opening. This is one of the many reasons why I loved this novel. There are surprises but life is also squarely embedded in the mud, in the sea and in the land, not in palaces.

As the book’s description suggests, we’re placed in a society in which suspected witches are discovered, tortured, drowned and killed. I’m pleased to say that this storyline, so overdone now in my opinion, isn’t as prevalent as I’d feared. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the novel’s ending (or Alinor’s daughter’s decisions) but what mattered to me is the journey that takes us to this point – the slow meander through these people’s lives, interspersed with glittering moments in the presence of a delusional king.

I believe that Tidelands is the first of a new series, The Fairmile. This is such good news. If its succeeding novels are half as good as its first then we are in for such a treat.

Other reviews
The Taming of the Queen
Three Sisters, Three Queens
The Last Tudor

The Bear Pit by S.G. MacLean

Quercus | 2019 (11 July) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bear Pit by SG MacLean

It is 1656, the war is long over and Oliver Cromwell’s grip on England is tight. But despite Cromwell’s new title of ‘Highness’ and even though he now lives in palaces emptied of their royal owners, his government is all too aware that their Commonwealth could crumble if anything should happen to their Lord Protector. And Charles II’s court in exile knows it. Captain Damian Seeker is back in London on a mission to protect Cromwell from assassins. And he knows that three of them at least are now in London.

But Seeker is preoccupied. He’s holding together his own network of untrustworthy spies, led by his former royalist prisoner Sir Thomas Faithly, when he and Faithly discover the remains of a man, torn apart by a bear. Cromwell has banned bear baiting and had all of the bears killed. One has clearly got away. Faithly tracks the bear, while Seeker goes after the dead man’s identity. It leads him on a perilous journey across London, from its grand houses to its Southwark stews and Lambeth marshes. At its heart lies a man who will stop at nothing to restore the monarchy.

The Bear Pit is the fourth novel in S.G. MacLean’s series featuring that most enigmatic, troubled and flawed of men, Damian Seeker. He is both hero and anti-hero. He is ruled by his code of honour but at times it is prejudiced, while his scarred face and body reminds us of his violent past, in war and in times of peace. He is a killer but he is also now a father and the two fight within him. He serves Cromwell faithfully and is prepared to die for him but we are all too aware that Cromwell may well not deserve this loyalty. We can approve, like Seeker, of some of Cromwell’s new laws, such as those banning bear baiting, and Seeker welcomes the new codes of morality and modesty, but we know, as he must too, that people don’t change. They just go underground. And it’s down there that Seeker must descend.

The plotting is fantastic. It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale of spies and murder, full of surprises and twists as people shift their position in these uncertain times. There’s a host of fascinating characters, some innocent, many not, and they live in a brilliantly described London, with its prisons, dark lanes, inns and bear pits. I love the little details – the descriptions of buildings and clothing, the moments we spend with famous historical figures. And there are people here we care for even though our own loyalties are tested by both sides. This isn’t black and white and demonstrates how divided and damaged England was by those years of royal neglect, war and then the Commonwealth.

The 1650s were such a fascinating and critical period in British history and the Seeker novels bring these years to life with such drama and colour. There’s violence and gore (how could there not be with a bear on the loose?!), there’s passion and tenderness. And there are so many lies. Although this is the fourth novel, The Bear Pit stands alone very well but I do recommend you read them all. Damian Seeker is one of my very favourite figures in historical fiction and historical crime. He lights up the page and demands our attention even when he follows a darker path.

Other reviews
The Seeker
The Black Friar
Destroying Angel

Destroying Angel by S.G. MacLean

Quercus | 2018, Pb 2019 | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Destroying Angel by SG MacLeanIt is 1655 and Captain Damian Seeker must leave London to conduct Cromwell’s business in the north of England. He is despatched to York to prepare the way for the rule of the Major-Generals with their new stringent anti-Royalist laws. Routine business takes Seeker to the small village of Faithly but he finds a village in turmoil, its priest accused of popery and its leading families united in their hatred of one another. The village is only waiting for the arrival of the trier or judge before their priest is put to trial for his supposed crimes. But while they wait, Seeker attends a dinner at the home of the village’s Commissioner Matthew Pullen, and during the meal a young girl dies an unnatural death. As if all this isn’t enough for Seeker to deal with, the trier then arrives and the ground falls away beneath his feet and it all becomes very personal indeed.

Destroying Angel is the third novel in S.G. MacLean’s fine Seeker series. I have been longing to read this book! The first novel, The Seeker, sealed this series’ place as one of my favourites, and I can’t see any sign of that changing. The Civil War and Commonwealth years are fascinating to me and S.G. MacLean has done a brilliant job of bringing the unhappy Cromwellian era of the 1650s to life. And it doesn’t hurt that Damian Seeker is one of the most enigmatic and charismatic figures in historical fiction. He exerts such a dominating presence in these books. I have most certainly fallen for him.

The Yorkshire setting is brilliantly evoked. It feels distant from London and the events of recent years but those turbulent times have troubled it, just as they have everywhere else. The Parliamentarian cause that fought and won the Civil War is now divided. The Levellers are viewed with great suspicion and are persecuted. Some people are regarded as turncoats, Royalists who switched sides when the outcome seemed certain, while families are split down the middle. And then there’s the near-hysterical hunt for so-called witches. All of this unhappiness affects the small village of Faithly and Captain Seeker is thrown into the midst of it, trying to do the right thing while serving a man hated by many.

I really enjoyed this, especially the first half, with its fine historical detail and moody atmosphere, helped along here with the wonderful location. The countryside and village life form the perfect backdrop. There are so many details of 17th-century daily life and I particularly liked the domestic scenes.

Destroying Angel has a fantastic plot. It’s complex and gripping. I really enjoyed its tangled threads, especially because one is so personal to Seeker. We see a new side to the man here, a caring side, although he does his best to hide it.

Destroying Angel is a crime novel but the mystery element is placed so well within a believable and richly-created historical setting, which is all the more fascinating because it takes place away from the more familiar London. This high quality, deliciously moody series continues to deliver. I long for more.

Other reviews
The Seeker
The Black Friar

‘Writing Cromwell’s London’ – Guest post by Antonia Senior, author of The Tyrant’s Shadow

The Tyrant's Shadow by Antonia SeniorThis week, Corvus published The Tyrant’s Shadow, Antonia Senior’s third novel and the second to be set in the troubled middle years of the 17th century. The Civil War, and Cromwell’s Commonwealth, is one of the most compelling periods in English history (Oxford, where I live, is steeped in Civil War history) and I can’t get enough of it. I am so pleased to be able to host a guest post in which Antonia Senior looks at the challenges an author faces in bringing this period, and its remarkable personalities, back to life – especially Oliver Cromwell. Many thanks to Antonia for taking the time to write such a fascinating piece.

First, here is a little about The Tyrant’s Shadow. A review will follow shortly.

A court without a kingdom, a kingdom without a king…England, 1652: since Charles I’s execution the land has remained untethered, the people longing for change. When Patience Johnson meets preacher Sidrach Simmonds, she believes her destiny is to become his wife and help him spread the Lord’s word. Simmonds sees things quite differently. Patience’s brother Will has been bestowed the job of lawyer to Oliver Cromwell. Tasked with aiding England’s most powerful man, he must try to overcome his grief after the loss of his wife. Then Sam Challoner, Will’s brother-in-law, returns unannounced after years in exile, forcing Will and Patience to question their loyalties: one to a ruler, the other, a spouse. Who do they choose to save? Themselves, their loved ones or their country…

Writing Cromwell’s London

I was raised to hate Oliver Cromwell. Hatred of Cromwell, dark mutterings about Drogheda and a bone-deep affection for the Mountains of Mourne – these the are legacies of an Irish mother. It was a dark day when, steeled with red wine and misplaced bravado, I said to my Mum: “Actually, I don’t think Oliver Cromwell was so bad. In fact, I quite like him.”

Readers, she was not tickled.

Treason's Daughter by Antonia SeniorI went looking for Cromwell the Monster in the sources when I set out to write The Tyrant’s Shadow. My first book on the period, Treason’s Daughter, followed events from 1640 until the death of Charles 1 in 1649. My second Stuart novel, The Tyrant’s Shadow, is set in London in the mid 1650s – when England’s politicians and soldiers are desperately attempting to find a solution to the King-shaped hole in the constitution.

For me, this is one of the most fascinating moments in all of English history. We were without a King; without a settled constitution. A vacuum of power, and a violently unsettled body-politic. In all my work, I have grappled with the nature of power; how is it earned, exercised and lost. And more pertinently as a novelist, perhaps, why do people want it?

This is no new pre-occupation for a writer. In my novel, my character Will quotes Lucan’s Civil War – a masterpiece study on the men who fought for Rome, written by a poet compromised by his proximity to Nero’s toxic court. “As long as earth supports the sea and air the earth, there will be no loyalty between associates in tyranny and no power will tolerate a partner.’

This is the position in 1653: power is uneasily shared between Cromwell as head of the army, the army itself, and parliament. But the triumvirate is fatally flawed – all three partners want different things; and there is further dissent between army factions and within Parliament. There are two versions of what happened next. Version 1 has King Oliver violently seizing power as the fruition of years of scheming. Version 2 has Saint Oliver reluctantly taking charge to prevent a descent into anarchy and madness.

The answer, I think, is a tangle of the two. And it is these historical tangles that are irresistible to a novelist. In I wriggled, looking for the hints and clues, extrapolating wildly. I found not a monster, but a man who believed himself sincere, who was continually compromised by the exigencies of wielding power. A man who could be both sincere and duplicitous, violent and gentle.

I also found God. Not personally, you understand. There is nothing like a good rummage in the barmy theistic arguments of the seventeenth century to bolster your atheism. But Cromwell cannot be weighed without reference to his great and bombastic belief in God’s providence working through him.

God presents problems to the secular novelist. He is central to understanding the torments of Stuart Britain. It is too easy to be a little sneering of these ardent beliefs – which seem to us to be dancing on the head of a pin. Fighting over the unknowable. I was reminded of 6th century Constantinople – the setting for an earlier, unpublished novel. There were riots on the streets, vicious, bloody affairs whose entire catalyst was over the nature of Christ: was He both God and Human separately and simultaneously, or was He His own divine mesh of the two?

It is easy to mock the sincerity of these beliefs. Hard to understand that for our forefathers who interpreted the bible literally, these were not arcane arguments of the cloister, but questions of faith which could lead to eternal damnation in a flaming hell.

God, I think, is one of the reasons why the English Civil Wars are not a popular era for readers. Publishers find it hard to shift books on the Civil Wars, which is odd given the attractions: a murdered King, families split apart, a high blood count, stories of great courage and great betrayals.

But God muddies the waters. It is not east to know which side you are on. The old adage that the Parliamentarians were Right but Repulsive and the Royalists were Wrong but Romantic is actually pretty fair. Our 21st century souls rejoice in the Parliamentarians’ distrust of tyranny and impulse to freedom, but recoils at the peculiar joylessness of their puritanism.

And of course, the rebels ended up, anyway, with King Noll – a tyrant of sorts. But as tyrants go he was no Robespierre, no Lenin, no Mao. His Shadow was relatively benign. Unless you were an Irish catholic, I can hear my Mother muttering darkly.

Why did Cromwell want power? I did not quite find him – he is too obscured by other people’s views of his motives. I found a man who inspired great loyalty, and devotion. A man who roused fierce hatred. A man who tried – but often failed – to hold the moderate line in a world turned upside down.

Cromwell’s London is a place of subtlety and shadow – and I loved writing it for all the reasons that make the era difficult to sell. It is full of ambiguities. In The Tyrant’s Shadow, there is another Tyrant – a domestic one, rather than a political one. The obverse of tyranny is complicity with it; and I wanted to explore this idea as well. My heroine, Patience, is married to man of certainties who treats her badly. At one point, as he hits her, she thinks: “He will do as he will do. Such is the nature of tyranny. All she can do is find her pride, hiding in peculiar corners.”

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Viking | 2017 (2 March) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth UnderdownIt is 1645 and England is torn apart by Civil War. But young woman Alice Hopkins has her own private suffering to endure. Alice’s husband Joseph has died unexpectedly and violently, leaving her alone in London, struggling with grief and poverty. When she discovers that she is pregnant, Alice realises she has little choice. She must return home to the small town of Manningtree in Essex and seek refuge in the house of her young brother, Matthew. They haven’t spoken for years but Alice hopes that she might find a welcome there, especially since their mother, just like her husband, is also so recently in her grave.

Mannigtree is not as Alice left it. The town is divided by superstition and fear, ruled over by a few rich and powerful men, led – Alice is surprised to discover – by none other than Matthew. Their mission is to seek out witches and, wherever they look they are bound to find guilt, for how could an elderly widow not confess to devil worship when tormented by the cruel methods of the witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins?

Alice finds herself caught in the middle of a situation almost impossible to escape. She loves her brother, she wants to heal him from whatever pain has changed him, but above all else she wants to help these women, particularly as Matthew searches closer and closer to home for his victims. And it is Alice’s story, told in her own words, that we hear in The Witchfinder’s Sister and it is an engrossing one. It is as if Alice has been thrown back into a distorted version of her past – she is reunited with friends and enemies that she knew as a girl, she relives memories of her time with her mother, father and brother, of her early days with her now dead husband, she wanders through familiar houses, rooms and streets. She must deal with grief, as well as the worry of carrying a fatherless child, but above all else she cannot escape the fear of Matthew. And there are moments in this novel when I felt afraid, too.

Matthew is a fascinating, dark character. Beth Underdown constructs his character perfectly from his weaknesses, failings and superstitions. He appears truly menacing and evil. But the author widens her picture to take a broader look at society during these troubled, lawless times in the mid 16th century and shows how dangerous a weapon power can be when placed in the hands of a weak man. Because it isn’t just Matthew Hopkins at fault here. And too many of the women we meet here have difficult lives, while some face tragic ends.

I thoroughly enjoyed the portrait of rural life in England’s eastern counties during the 1640s. There are plenty of the incidental details that I love in historical fiction, particularly here in regards to housekeeping, including clothing, furniture and possessions. But there is also an appealing timelessness and strangeness about The Witchfinder’s Sister‘s setting, which seems so cut off from the rest of England, including from the Civil War. Events here are not normal, even for the period, and we should be shocked by what happened. And this is, of course, based on a true story. Matthew Hopkins was a monster and through Alice’s eyes we see the devil revealed.

It’s not often that I read a book in one day, barely moving an inch, but that’s what happened with The Witchfinder’s Sister. This is a beautifully written, stunning debut novel from Beth Underdown, combining historical fiction with psychological thriller – the result is compelling and thrilling. Don’t miss it!

The Seeker by S.G. MacLean

The Seeker | S.G. MacLean | 2015, Pb 2016 | Quercus | 421p (inc. 19p of extras) | Review copy | Buy the book

The Seeker by S.G. MacLeanLittle is known about Damian Seeker but just a look from him is enough to make the innocent tremble with guilt. Above average height, a black cloak trailing behind, and a rimmed hat reinforced by a helmet, this formidable, secretive man is Seeker by name and Seeker by nature.

The year is 1654 and the Commonwealth is well established with Oliver Cromwell at its head. But, with Charles Stuart biding his time on the Continent, waiting for the right moment to reclaim his father’s crown, this is the age of spies. And they are rife, on both sides. Captain Damian Seeker, once a soldier like almost every other Englishman in this age, works for John Thurloe, Cromwell’s master of intelligence, who has recently been fed some information about a possible Royalist plot brewing in one of London’s popular new coffee houses. The rumour coincides with the murder of John Winter, one of Cromwell’s most favoured officers, housed with his wife in an apartment in the Palace at Whitehall. And it is there, on his doorstep, that John Winter is found dead with Elias Ellingworth, a well-known critic of Cromwell, standing over his bloody corpse, a knife in his hand.

But, although Ellingworth seems doomed to a traitor’s death, Seeker is not convinced that all is at it seems, an opinion that is supported by events at the coffee house that evening. Seeker will stop at nothing in his determination to keep the wrong man from the gallows. Woe betide anyone who tries to deceive the Seeker.

The mid-17th century is, with no doubt at all, one of the most fascinating periods of English history and, at the moment, I can’t get enough of it. The Commonwealth, nestled between the Civil War and the Restoration, tantalises. There hasn’t been a period of history like it before or since and my interest in reading this Commonwealth mystery was sparked even further when I visited Cromwell’s house in Ely a couple of weeks ago. I loved The Seeker‘s depiction of Cromwell at the centre of his court, surrounded by royal furnishings and belongings, as powerful as any king. The historical background is wonderful – music, theatre, coffee houses, pamphlets, gatherings. All of these pleasures seem just about to be hanging on in the Commonwealth, just as some Royalists are being allowed to live on quietly. But all of this tolerance is skin deep in this world of secrets, spies, executions and murders.

The character of Damian Seeker is fantastic. He’s enigmatic and sinister but there’s something about him that is deeply appealing. He seems incorruptible. But his past is a mystery along with so many parts of his personality. And that is one of the things that I really enjoyed about this book – the surprises. Characters constantly reveal unexpected sides to them. Nothing and no-one is to be accepted on face value and, while that is exactly the problem facing Seeker, it is also a big reason for the book’s appeal. The clues are there but I did a great job of missing them, loving how the novel developed in so many unexpected ways.

S.G. MacLean’s writing is distinctive and memorable. I found parts of it quite beautiful, complementing perfectly the power of Seeker’s personality and strength of will. The plot is a corker and its historical setting unusual and richly painted. I am so glad that I now have the next novel to read, The Black Friar. This is a series with legs.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

The Ashes of London | Andrew Taylor | 2016, Pb 2017 | HarperCollins | 482p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ashes of London by Andrew TaylorOn 4 September 1666 London had been burning for two days, the progress of the flames unstoppable, the rainless hot days unrelenting. And now the unimaginable is happening. The great cathedral of St Paul’s, which has dominated London for centuries, is on fire and all that the shocked inhabitants can do is stand and watch. But there is even more to the loss. As the roof falls and the floor collapses the treasures in the vault, books and papers hidden away for safe keeping from the fire, go up in flames. James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer and now a government agent with a great deal to prove, is among the witnesses. When a boy runs towards the cathedral, it’s only Marwood’s quick thinking that saves his life. As he wraps his cloak around the boy, Marwood is given a shock. The boy is no boy but a young woman and she tears away into the crowd, taking Marwood’s cloak with her.

A body is found in the smouldering remains of the cathedral, killed not by fire but a knife, his thumbs tied behind his back. Marwood has to wonder if there’s a connection between the corpse and the mysterious young woman. Fortunately, or other wise, Marwood’s master at the Palace of Whitehall, Williamson, tasks Marwood with discovering the body’s identity.

The Ashes of London gives us the story of Marwood’s investigation, in Marwood’s own words, but it isn’t the only tale. Half of the novel focuses on Cat, a young woman with dreams of designing a new London with grand buildings and regal avenues, but who, in reality, must deal with being the poor ward of her rich uncle Master Alderley and all that this entails. It isn’t long before Cat is on the run for her life, taking us with her across a London devastated by fire.

This is a novel that builds slowly following its hugely striking and evocative opening chapter set outside the burning St Paul’s. For a short while I found it a little hard to follow all the threads and keep track of the names. But this is because London has become a place in which almost everyone has something to hide. The legacy of the Civil War, Cromwell’s rule and, most particularly, the execution of Charles I and his son’s determined pursuit of his killers, divides families. Both Marwood and Cat must pay the consequences for the actions of their fathers. Once this becomes clearer, The Ashes of London becomes a thoroughly immersive read. There are so many layers of feeling here. The similarities between Cat and Marwood are striking, although the fact that Cat is a woman makes all the difference to her story. Marwood is able to work for a living. There are few options open to Cat. But she is no passive victim. There are moments when she made my jaw drop with her ferocity and determination. I really liked Cat.

Andrew Taylor’s portrait of this poor, suffering London is brilliantly done and we move around the city freely. Equally well done is the dark mood that overhangs the novel. This is not just the result of the murder hunt but also because of the weight of the past. This is not a city at peace, despite the glory of the Restoration, and the fire is almost a physical reflection of the city’s inner torment, endured by people such as Marwood and Cat. And at times there is something of the melodramatic and gothic about the novel’s events, notably in its fantastic final section. My one complaint is that occasionally I was thrown out of the book by phrases being repeated on the same page. But this is a very minor point.

The Ashes of London is such an enjoyable, elegant novel, richly evocative of the time and place. There is hope to confront the despair of the past, represented by London’s rebuild. It’s so good to see characters such as Christopher Wren come and go. The mystery is a really good one but I also liked the way in which Andrew Taylor slowly delves into the lives of his characters, revealing more and more as the novel goes on. It’s a fascinating investigation into an extraordinary time in English history. The Civil War and the Restoration are among my favourite periods of history and this book made me think about them in a whole way. It also made me wonder about what the fire itself would have been like for such a large proportion of London’s population. I love it when historical fiction makes me want to explore further, on foot as well as through books, and The Ashes of London did just that.