Tag Archives: Historical fiction

The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (14 June) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The King's Witch by Tracy BormanWhen Lady Frances Gorges, the young daughter of one of the most noble women in the Tudor court, is brought to the bedside of Elizabeth I in March 1603 to help nurse and comfort the Queen during her dying days, she enters a nest of vipers. Robert Cecil was Elizabeth’s chief adviser and he has every intention of fulfilling the same role for the new king James and that means distancing himself from all of the old Queen’s favourites, including Frances and her family. Frances, in turn, is delighted to be sent away from James’s increasingly decadent and superstitious court to the warmth of her country home where she can learn her healing skills in peace, with no risk of interference.

But then Frances is suddenly called back to court, to serve as maid to James’s daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, and Frances finds herself caught up in a web of plots and secrets. The court is an unhappy place. James’s paranoia and hatred of Catholics, all potential conspirators in his eyes, has reached new heights, and is only matched by his fear and loathing of wise women that he’s all too determined to persecute as witches. Frances is not immune to the lure of the rich court – she even hopes for love – but this is a dangerous place, where few are what they seem, and watching them all is Cecil.

The court of James I during the early years of this unhappy king’s reign is such a fascinating time and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed its recreation more than I did in this wonderful novel. Tracy Borman is a renowned historian of the period and her learning and depth of knowledge stand her in good stead. The King’s Witch is full of all of the details and colour that you want from the best historical fiction. But it’s not overloaded with research. Tracy Borman also proves herself a fine storyteller and it’s the story that rules here but it’s undoubtedly superbly supported by a wealth of historical insight into the early 1600s.

I was a little surprised yet delighted by the direction the novel took! I think it’s the title that slightly misleads because there is far, far more to The King’s Witch than a story about ‘witches’, as these poor women were labelled, or their persecution. There is much more to Frances’ character than the expected – she is a thoroughly intriguing young woman who wants as little to do with the court as possible but is nevertheless drawn to it, not least because of her attachment to her young charge, the adorable, precocious and slightly intimidating Princess Elizabeth. Frances has cause to use her healing skills on more than one occasion but this is a novel about a young woman who is in danger of being caught out of her depth by the plots and schemes of her fellow courtiers.

Some of the most famous plotters of the day are brought to life in The King’s Witch and their stories are engrossing. Our sympathies are torn in every which way and it’s easy to sense the danger and urgency of the times. I was immersed in The King’s Witch from start to finish. Lady Frances Gorges is a fascinating, little-known figure and I love how Tracy Borman interprets her story, mixing fact with the possible, making her both likeable and complex. This is easily one of my favourite novels of the year so far.

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Wrecker by Noel O’Reilly

HQ | 2018 (12 July) | 305p | Review copy | Buy the book

Wrecker by Noel O'ReillyPorthmorvoren is a small village tucked away into the coast of western Cornwall. It’s so remote that the villagers don’t use its name. Instead they call it ‘Hereabouts’ and most of them will never leave it. In these early years of the 1800s life is hard in this poor village. Even God has abandoned it. The chapel lies ruined, its minister ran off long ago. People make money how they can and the biggest bounty comes from the sea in the form of countless ships wrecked on the rocks. The villagers are Wreckers, raiding the broken vessels, stripping the wretched remains of the ships’ lost souls. Mary Blight is no different and one night she lives to regret how she robbed a dead lady of her fine boots.

Events are set in motion, continuing with Mary’s brave rescue of a half-drowned man tied to barrels and adrift in the rough sea. His name is Gideon Stone and he is a Methodist minister from Newlyn. Mary’s methods of healing are horrifying to Gideon – and to the delicate reader – and so the minister decides he must save the people of Porthmorvoren and he will begin with Mary Blight. And then the rumours, the whispers and the plots begin to brew…

Wrecker is a beautifully written and hugely atmospheric tale of life in this impoverished village, which seems cut off from the world around it. The only way out is on foot or by boat and few take to the sea lightly. Wreckers know better than anyone how perilous the sea often is. People fear it; women are barred from it. The superstitions of the villagers run deep and they are viewed by outsiders as Godless creatures. This is such wonderfully moody storytelling. You can almost smell the salt of the sea, feel its spray. There are hints of a dialect in their speech (but not enough to make the story difficult to read). Village life is fed by jealousy, rumour, drink and deprivation.

The relationship between men and women is particularly well observed. The men live hard lives but most of the women suffer even more and usually at the hands of their men. Religion, too, is scrutinised and it’s found wanting. Mary Blight must learn that she can depend on nobody but herself and it’s a difficult lesson. She sees glimpses of other lives and possibilities of a different kind of future but this is no fairy tale. Mary is such a strong character, in direct contrast to Gideon Stone.

One thing about the novel that did surprise me is that it has very little wrecking in it and this was a bit of a disappointment, particularly considering how the book begins. But, once I accepted this, I found myself hooked by what is a pleasingly slow-moving, atmospheric tale of a beautiful place at a time when that beauty was overshadowed by the dark danger of its coast and the brutality of life on its shores. Talking of beauty, though, what a stunning hardback this is!

Memento Mori by Ruth Downie

Bloomsbury | 2018 (1 April) | 408p | Review copy | Buy the book

Memento Mori by Ruth DownieRoman citizen and former military doctor Ruso is now living a settled life on the northern fringe of the Roman empire on what is effectively a major building site – Hadrian is building his Wall – alongside his British wife Tilla. Their customs might be different but life is good especially now that they have Mara, their adopted baby daughter to worry about. But life takes a jolt when an old friend Albanus, Ruso’s former clerk, turns up exhausted after the huge effort of rushing up all of the way from Aquae Sulis (now Bath) to bring Ruso some disturbing news. The wife of Ruso’s best friend Valens has been found drowned in the sacred springs and her father has accused Valens of her murder. The governor is due to visit Aquae Sulis in just a few days and Valens will stand trial before him. There’s nothing for it. Ruso, his wife, child, his entire entourage, must head south in a hurry to prove his innocence. Hoping, of course, that he is actually innocent.

Memento Mori is the eighth novel in Ruth Downey’s hugely entertaining and, I think, really rather sophisticated Roman mystery series featuring Ruso and his independently-minded and rather flakey wife Tilla. The author does a fantastic job of bring the Roman empire to life during the 2nd century AD, especially Britannia. After Ruso’s adventures in Rome itself during the last novel Vita Brevis, I enjoyed seeing Ruso’s return to the homeland of his wife and the ancient city of Bath or Aquae Sulis, with all of its strange customs, brought to life.

At the heart of the novel is Aquae Sulis itself, a magnet for some of the strangest people of Roman Britain, straddling as it does beliefs from both ancient Britain and from the Roman Empire. Druids and Roman soldiers live side by side, with wild priestesses even forming romantic liaisons with grouchy old Roman centurions, and any problem is believed solvable with a spell or a curse. This is a great setting for a mystery and Ruth Downie does such a fine job of filling the streets, temples and baths of this well-known archaeological and historical site with living, breathing people.

I did find that the mystery itself took second place to the superb setting and to the novel’s mood. It is clear that so much research has gone into telling this story right but it’s used lightly. This is wonderful prose, laced through with wit and warmth, and it’s a joy to read. Memento Mori is one of those novels that you pick up and before you know it you’re sucked in to it, loving the way in which it’s written. There are also so many details about Roman life in Britain – religion, death, marriage, rituals, daily life, slaves, soldiers, natives and occupiers – there’s something going on in every direction.

I’m such a fan of this series. I love Ruso and I am warming to Tilla (she does have an alarming tendency to just wander off, here with a shovel) and so these are books I always look forward to. And they look so handsome! Ruth Downie writes so brilliantly and I love the Roman world as we see it through her eyes and those of her Roman doctor, Ruso.

Other reviews
Semper Fidelis
Vita Brevis

Lancelot by Giles Kristian

Bantam Press | 2018 (31 May) | 498p | Review copy | Buy the book

Lancelot by Giles KristianIt is time for the island’s people to reclaim the land once ruled by Romans. The great stone buildings, the luxurious villas now crumble, but the roads still march armies on to face their foe – the Saxons are the enemy these days. Lancelot as a boy was brought from across the sea to the Mount, off the coast of the land now known as Cornwall, and there he was taught by the lady Nimue to become a guardian, to develop the skills of a knight, to nurture a bird of prey that fought against him every moment of the day, and it was there that he met Guinevere.

The story of Lancelot is a familiar one but it’s difficult to think of any author more gifted to retell his story than Giles Kristian, one of the most lyrical and poetic writers of historical fiction that you can read today. All of the story of Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur – surely the most famous love triangle of myth and literature – can be found in these pages and, even though we know the outcome, it is given new life in Giles Kristian’s Lancelot.

The story is told from Lancelot’s point of view, from his earliest years and through disaster, grief and pain, through to his time on the Mount, where he first learned the meaning of rivalry and vengeance while learning the skills that would make him the greatest, most noble knight of King Arthur’s court. Arthur’s story is also given prominence. His rise to power through competition, war and cunning. The way he drew men to his side. The seeds of disaster that he sewed.

Lancelot is a story of war, the fight to become the king of kings in this newly abandoned land, but it also tells the tale of love, jealousy and desolation. Guinevere is a marvellous character in her own right, a warrior, fiercely independent and yet inevitably a pawn as all young noble girls would be, but also a beacon of inspiration.

Giles Kristian writes so beautifully. He brings these post-Roman years so vividly to life. I love the way in which the recent Roman past haunts this landscape. There is myth here, there is the Druid Merlin, and we’re reminded of many of the famous Arthurian legends, such as Excalibur, but Giles Kristian evokes a time rooted in history and in the land around us even now. I must admit that I’m not a fan of modern retellings of the Arthurian legend (possibly because I studied medieval Arthurian literature for my degree and loved it very much indeed) and so this isn’t a subject I find easy to read. But this is a Giles Kristian novel. I trust him and will always read everything he writes. His writing comes closest to the feeling, mood and beauty of the Old and Middle English verse that I love so much. It also feels much more like historical fiction than fantasy.

There is power here, deep expression and enormous feeling. I cried and cried as the story ended in the only way it could. If you haven’t read any of Giles Kristian’s novels before, do read this and then make sure that you read his stunning Viking series, Raven.

Other reviews
God of Vengeance (Rise of Sigurd 1)
Winter’s Fire (Rise of Sigurd 2)
Wings of the Storm (Rise of Sigurd 3)
Raven: Blood Eye; Raven: Sons of Thunder; Raven: Odin’s Wolves
The Terror: a short story
The Bleeding Land
Brothers’ Fury
With Wilbur Smith – Golden Lion

The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle

Michael Joseph | 2018 (14 June) | 406p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Poison Bed by Elizabeth FremantleIt is Autumn 1615 and the court of James I is swept up in a scandal. Two of its most celebrated and glamorous members, Robert and Frances Carr, the earl and countess of Somerset, are imprisoned in the Tower of London, accused of murder, of poisoning a man who knew far too much about the King, about Robert and about Frances. As a result, his life was forfeit, and now somebody must pay. But for Frances in the Tower, imprisoned with her newborn baby and the wet nurse, this is the time for her to look back on her short and eventful life, on her upbringing among the cruelly ambitious and powerful Howard family, on her unhappy first marriage, and on her passion for the beautiful Robert Carr, himself beloved by the King.

The Poison Bed is a story with two sides if not more and, as a result, it moves back and forth between chapters dedicated to ‘Her’ and to ‘Him’. In this way we get to know both Frances and Robert, although the reader must keep their wits about them. We, after all, were not there at the time. We are merely an audience. And in James I’s court with its love of wit and drama, little should be taken at face value.

This new novel by Elizabeth Fremantle (here published with a slight change of name) marks a little bit of a change by this fine author. Her previous novels have been more conventional works of historical fiction, focused on the Tudor and Jacobean periods, and bringing to life such incredible women as Katherine Parr (Queen’s Gambit), the Grey sisters (Sisters of Treason), Penelope Devereux (Watch the Lady) and Lady Arbella Stuart (The Girl in the Glass Tower). All four are wonderful novels (I love the first two in particular) and have such a powerful, brilliantly evoked historical setting and context. In The Poison Bed, Elizabeth Fremantle picks another formidable and remarkable figure from history, Frances Carr, and gives her story a bit of a psychological twist. The book is being billed as the Jacobean Gone Girl and I can understand why the comparison is being made because it really does have the feel of that novel in several ways.

The murder at the heart of the novel and the ensuing arrest of this most glamorous couple are a perfect subject for historical fiction, not least because it reveals so much about James I’s court. His sexual relationship with Robert Carr is given a significant place here. Frances Carr’s position in the court is ambiguous and curious. So much is hidden by the threat of scandal but it certainly tantalises. Frances dominates the book in a way that James fails to dominate his court and government and it is up to the reader to make up their minds from the stories offered up by both Frances and her husband, Robert.

It’s in the second half of the novel that it takes on more of a psychological thriller feel and, possibly because of that, it’s the first half that’s my favourite for it’s then that Elizabeth Fremantle builds up a vivid painting of life in the early 17th century for the very wealthy and ambitious. The Howard family is outrageous and the little child Frances is very much their pawn. I really enjoyed the depiction of James I and his circle. James isn’t a character that we meet too often in historical fiction but he certainly makes for a fascinating subject and the author does such a fine job of animating a figure that I know mostly from portraits. Robert Carr left me comparatively cold. He is completely out of his depth in James I’s government and he flounders. His devotion to Frances, though, is undoubtedly intense. There are so many richly drawn, larger than life characters in The Poison Bed. I love the way that we flit between them.

Elizabeth Fremantle writes so well. This is sparkly, witty prose, dancing between characters, between past and present. The reader is rewarded for paying attention because it can be a challenge keeping up with some of the figures in the book, not to mention their moods. Personally, I think that the story behind The Poison Bed is intriguing enough (and in such safe hands here) that the psychological thriller element wasn’t needed but it may mean that a wider readership will discover the joys of Elizabeth Fremantle’s historical fiction.

I must mention the cover of this hardback – look how beautiful it is!

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

I’m delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Poison Bed Blog Tour Card

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Doubleday | 2018 (14 June) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

It is 1928 and Matilda Simpkin finds a small wooden club in a cupboard and with it comes a stream of memories that carry her back to the early years of the century when Mattie fought alongside her comrades for the suffrage of women. Matilda’s past is extraordinary – her deep-rooted unease around the police is easily explained by the abuse she witnessed and suffered at their hands as a suffragette. She keeps the medals which commemorate each protest, each imprisonment, each force feeding. But the fight was in the past. Mattie is lost and she is without purpose. But when she meets by chance a fellow suffragette she discovers that her old friend has been caught up in the flame of the growing movement of fascism. Suddenly Mattie discovers a new battle to fight – the need to educate girls and women of all ages and classes so that they can vote with awareness and knowledge. So that fascism will be defeated.

We first met Mattie in Crooked Heart, an exquisitely warm novel that took us to the last days of Mattie’s life during the Second World War, a life that helped to shape that novel’s young hero Noel. In that novel, Mattie played a relatively minor role but it was an unforgettable one. How good it is that now, several years later, we can enjoy Mattie’s company again, this time during her middle years when yet again her theories about education, the establishment and individual responsibility will have such an impact on the young people around her.

As Mattie sets up her band of Amazons (young women from all walks of life) on Hampstead Heath, in direct opposition to a fascist organisation of marching uniformed boys and girls, we become caught up in the hopes and aspirations of another generation of women. Women who, thanks to Mattie and others like her, will be able to have the vote, will be able to have dreams and possibly even fulfil them. We are introduced to a number of such memorable girls and women who are all inspired by Mattie. We pop into their lives and they are all so different and so utterly enchanting.

I fell in love with so many people in Old Baggage, not least of whom is Mattie herself. Lissa Evans writes so beautifully and takes us deep into Mattie’s thoughts and worries, her passions and her love, her self-doubt, and, most poignantly of all, the great losses she suffered during the First World War. The war ended ten years before but its legacy scars those who survived it. None of this is laboured – Lissa Evans presents it all with such skill and empathy, everything blended perfectly into the whole. The result is Matilda Simpkin, a woman who deserves and wins our love, for her heroism and her flaws. She is remarkable.

There are others I fell for here as well. Mattie’s companion Florrie (known as The Flea) is so beautifully and delicately drawn – she continues to carry out work for the poor, selflessly and at great personal cost. There are others we meet just briefly but their impressions last much longer. I loved poor Aileen especially. But the tragedy and sadness works so effectively because it is often masked by wit and humour, warmth and care.

Old Baggage is one of those fabulous books that reaches the heart, that makes the reader laugh and cry, sometimes on the same page. Writing this beautiful doesn’t come along every day and I cherished it. I can only hope that we meet Mattie once again, perhaps going even further back in time to those Suffragette years. There’s so much I want Mattie to tell us about her life! But if this is goodbye, I’ll not forget Matilda Simpkin.

Old Baggage is a timely commemoration of the bravery and sacrifice of suffragettes and suffragists but it also takes a look at what happened next, once these extraordinary women were reabsorbed into society during the aftermath of the First World War. It presents a beautiful portrait of Mattie, Florrie and their comrades while also celebrating the role of women as a whole, for whom there was and still is so much to do.

Other review
Crooked Heart

The Encircling Sea by Adrian Goldsworthy

Head of Zeus | 2018 (1 June) | 370p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Encircling Sea by Adrian GoldsworthyIt is about 100 AD, Trajan is on the throne far away in Rome, and centurion Flavius Ferox is doing his best to keep the peace along the empire’s northernmost fringe. Ferox is perfect for the job, bridging both worlds. Born a prince of the Silures tribe of southern Britannia, he is now a well-respected Roman officer, albeit one who likes to keep his head down, avoiding the attention of the rich, powerful and political. But Ferox is not going to have things his own way.

Time might have passed since the recent deadly Druid threat, but more rebels are again making their presence felt, irritating their Roman occupiers. It’s bad timing. Rome wants to impress the kings of Hibernia (Ireland), who are currently competing for the role of chief king. A meeting is about to take place on the British coast and the forces of Vindolanda and its neighbouring forts will be in attendance. Ferox will be there playing a crucial role. And he’s worried.

The Encircling Sea is the second novel by Adrian Goldsworthy to feature Ferox, looking at life on the northern fringes of empire, a couple of decades before Hadrian built his Wall across this landscape. Vindolanda is already a large and busy fort, and it’s Ferox’s job to move regularly between the forts, settling disputes, looking out for trouble, keeping it peaceful. It pays to have read the earlier novel Vindolanda first because then you’ll have more of an idea of his complicated relationship with Cerialis, the Batavi prefect in charge of Vindolanda, and, most particularly, his beautiful wife Sulpicia Lepidina. But, if this is the first novel you read of the Vindolanda seres, you’ll have no trouble picking up the story’s threads.

The Encircling Sea presents a whole new and self-contained adventure, this time featuring the strange dark men who come at night in their boats from the sea. They appear to be targeting certain individuals in their raids but it’s not easy for Ferox and his second-in-command, the Brigantian Vindex, to work out the purpose of the attacks. But what is clear is that these pirates will use deadly force to achieve their goals. A lot of people are going to die. Very nastily.

As before, The Encircling Sea resonates with the insight and knowledge of its author, the historian Adrian Goldsworthy. This is supported by the extraordinary archaeological discoveries that have been made at Vindolanda over the years. Many of the people in this novel were real. They walked those excavated streets and lived in those buildings, now uncovered. They are named in tablets and it’s likely that even their shoes have been found. It’s evocative for sure and Adrian Goldsworthy captures all of that.

This is a novel in which, for me, the historical setting wins first place over its story. The author undoubtedly brings the border to life, especially for its soldiers and their wives, but the plot does fall rather flat and a little laboured in my opinion. It never becomes as exciting as it could be, nor as engaging. I enjoyed the repartee between Ferox and Crispinus and I really liked Crispinus, their young and witty commander, but they are let down a little by some of the dialogue, especially when words such as ‘humping’ or ‘humped’ are used in place of the more expected curses. This isn’t done as much as in the first novel, thank heavens, but it still stands out. It all feels a little strained, and restrained. I did, though, appreciate the historical notes at the end.

Adrian Goldsworthy undoubtedly knows his stuff and I love seeing the archaeological remains of Vindolanda brought to life in his pages. And that is undoubtedly the main strength of The Encircling Sea. I must also mention that this is another beautiful hardback from Head of Zeus.

Other review
Vindolanda