Tag Archives: Historical fiction

Cradle by James Jackson

Zaffre | 2017 (2 November) | c.350p | Review copy | Buy the book

Cradle by James JacksonIt is 1608 and England’s first colony in the Americas is dying a little more every day. Jamestown in Virginia might be named after James I but the king has no interest in it thriving – quite the contrary. Both James and Philip, the King of Spain, view Jamestown as a threat to their hard-won peace. It’s in the interests of both that it should fail and they each have agents willing to travel all of those miles to ensure its calamitous failure. But King James’s son Henry has other plans. He is determined that Jamestown should survive, that the power of England and the influence of Protestantism should spread and prosper to the New World. What Henry needs is a man on the ground to ensure Jamestown’s continued existence – he sends Christian Hardy, a spy so lethal and dangerous that not even King James and his spymaster Robert Cecil, Hardy’s employer, can bare him to live another day.

We were first introduced to Christian Hardy in Treason, a novel that told the tale of the Gunpowder Plot and the efforts of Hardy to prevent it and of Realm, the monstrous and demonic Spanish spy, to bring it about. Both Hardy and Realm return in Cradle, their enmity as livid as ever, and they carry their blood feud to Jamestown and the Americas.

But while Hardy and Realm continue their fight, Jamestown is faced by other threats – most especially the local warring tribes of native Americans. But there is also disease and famine to face, as well as loneliness and despair. It’s all very grim indeed and, at times, it is very bloody and gruesome.

The story of Cradle has a habit of jumping forward, giving it a rather disjointed feel (for instance, a man is languishing in prison and in the next chapter he’s been restored to his liberty). This is supported by its constant movement between the settlement and the surrounding native American villages. I found the style hard to settle down into but my main issue with the novel is with its incessant violence and conflict. I realise that this is the purpose of the novel but we jump from one conflict to another, one death to another, while characters are given little time to develop. Which is a pity because I think, given the chance, I would rather like Christian Hardy.

There’s something too despicable about Realm, though, and this horror is backed up by the gruesome cruelty of the tribes. In some chapters we’re given a positive image of the local people, particularly through their women, but this is counteracted by the portrayal of predominantly cruel behaviour. I didn’t enjoy this. Some of them are turned into caricature baddies. Not that the men in Jamestown are much better. It’s all a bit unpleasant. Which is a shame, because the setting of the novel is wonderfully described. I love the frontier feel of the novel, the dangerous isolation of the settlement and the vulnerability of its inhabitants. There is almost a siege-feel to much of the novel, which can be very exciting to read.

It’s possible that I have issues with Cradle because its focus is more on violence and conflict than on character and history. It didn’t feel sufficiently set in its time for me. However, it’s certainly exciting and tense and so, if you like an action-packed historical thriller then this might well be for you.

Other review
Treason

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The Price of Freedom by Rosemary Rowe

Severn House | 2017 (31 October) | c.300p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Price of Freedom by Rosemary RoweMarcus Aurelius Septimus is one of the most powerful men in all of Roman Britannia and when he tells Libertus – pavement-maker, freedman, Roman citizen and Celtic noble – that he wants him to stand for civic office in the town of Glevum (Gloucester), Libertus has little choice but to do what his patron tells him. But Libertus’s ascendancy is jeopardised by the untimely death of Flauccus, the official responsible for raising Gloucester’s taxes. Flauccus has been found hanging, the tax money vanished, gambled away according to Flauccus’s suicide note. But Marcus isn’t too sure that the death is as straightforward as it seems, especially as if follows hot on the heels of a calamitous fire that killed several of Flauccus’ civic colleagues. Libertus is good at solving mysteries and so he is despatched by Marcus to investigate – he can also attend a wedding on Marcus’s behalf while he’s at it.

And so Libertus sets off an adventure that will take him along the uncomfortable roads of southwestern Britannia where any step could see him fall foul of bandits, bears or wolves – to the small town of Uudum and beyond, via flea-infested inns, barracks of cross soldiers and, unfortunately, other murder scenes, one of which is guarded by unruly goats. Carefully wrapped away in his toga, though, Liberts has his pass from Marcus, instructing others to treat him as they would the emperor himself. Not everyone does…

The Price of Freedom is the seventeenth Libertus series by Rosemary Rowe. I’ve read every one of these books over the last twenty years and my admiration and love for them has only increased over the years. In fact, I have no hesitation in declaring The Price of Freedom my favourite of them all and I read most of it in one glorious sitting.

Rosemary Rowe excels in recreating the lives of (mostly) ordinary Romans and the towns, villages, roundhouses, slave quarters, villas in which they lived. Libertus is a fantastic character. He’s middle-aged, happily married (at last), with an adopted son, living in his roundhouse close to Glevum where he has a shop for his successful mosaic business. Born a Celtic chieftain, he was captured and sold into slavery when young but now he is a respected citizen and, although he has no choice but to do the bidding of his patron, the powerful Marcus, at some level and to some degree, Marcus is Libertus’s friend. Libertus bridges the Roman and Celtic worlds perfectly and he’s a canny observer of people. He’s our eyes, ears and narrator and he describes perfectly the events that befall him and the mysteries that he solves, often at some considerable personal cost. Libertus can never forget that he was once sold in a slave auction. That’s not something to which he would ever wish to return.

Slavery is a big theme of The Price of Freedom, as the title suggests, and I love the way in which it’s handled. It’s done lightly and, as a result, the horror of it strikes home. Slaves are discarded and sold on a whim, new ones are bought and ‘broken in’ and even (for some land slaves) their hair is sold as a crop each year. Rosemary Rowe also looks at the life a young woman, effectively sold into marriage by her father, and then there is a young soldier, living so far from home, at the extreme edge of an empire that is in almost every way cold to him. The fact that Libertus can care so deeply for such people (he wraps the soldier in his arms when he is distraught) is a sign of his deep empathy and sympathy. I like him immensely. That he’s not your typical hero-type makes him all the more interesting.

The story in The Price of Freedom is brilliant! The plot is very carefully put together and complements perfectly the instructive element of Rosemary Rowe’s fiction. When we enter the small enclosed town of Uudum it really tallied with my concept of small Roman towns from my years of excavating them (also in Gloucestershire, where this novel is set). It all feels so real. The little details feel right, in the towns and also in the descriptions of travel. But all the glorious details never hinder the mystery which is such a good one.

If you’ve never read a Libertus mystery then I certainly suggest you give them a go. They can be read in any order as each stands alone well but the first is The Germanicus Mosaic. They’re set towards the end of the 2nd century AD when the various crises affecting Rome still manage to reach this distant edge of empire. Libertus, though, reminds us of Britannia’s Celtic past and his commentary on Rome and its ways – while trying to emerge unscathed from one case after another – is a joy to read. If you want to immerse yourself in Roman Britain, then look no further.

Other reviews
Dark Omens
The Fateful Day
The Ides of June

‘Rampant hedonism in the Restoration’ – Guest post by Angus Donald, author of Blood’s Game

Blood's Game by Angus DonaldLast week, Zaffre published Blood’s Game by Angus Donald. Angus is one of the finest writers of historical fiction that you can read. I loved every book of his Robin Hood series and was so sorry to see it end last year (you must read it if you haven’t already!). But Angus Donald is back and this time he takes us to another favourite period of mine – the Restoration period of the 1660s and 1670s and the extraordinary court of Charles II.

I am so thrilled to post here a guest post from Angus in which he discusses ‘Rampant hedonism in the Restoration: the politics of pleasure’. I studied this period as part of my degree (Rochester is a favourite poet of mine and I love his depiction – and that of Charles II – in Blood’s Game) and so I’m particularly grateful to Angus for taking the time to write such an in-depth, considered and fun article about such a fascinating subject as the court of King Charles II!

Before the post, here’s a little of what Blood’s Game is about.

London, Winter 1670.

Holcroft Blood has entered the employ of the Duke of Buckingham, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom after the king. It is here that his education really begins. With a gift for numbers and decoding ciphers, Holcroft soon proves invaluable to the Duke, but when he’s pushed into a betrayal he risks everything for revenge.

His father, Colonel Thomas Blood, has fallen on hard times. A man used to fighting, he lives by his wits and survives by whatever means necessary. When he’s asked to commit treason by stealing the crown jewels, he puts himself and his family in a dangerous situation – one that may end at the gallows.

As the machinations of powerful men plot to secure the country’s future, both father and son must learn what it is to survive in a more dangerous battlefield than war – the court of King Charles II.

Rampant hedonism in the Restoration: the politics of pleasure
By Angus Donald

At Edinburgh University in the late 1980s, I founded a club called the Hedonism Society or HedSoc. We met in pubs, drank a lot and . . . that was pretty much it. For obvious reasons, I don’t remember much about what we talked about. But I’ve always had an interest in pleasure, mine, of course, but also the pleasures of others. And I think it was partly this interest that drew me to write Blood’s Game, a novel set in the Restoration period, which concerns the daring attempt by Colonel Blood to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. While that is the main plot strand, the novel also explores the court of Charles II, the Merry Monarch, and his outrageous, libidinous, scandalous and frequently drunken friends and followers.

Pleasure was political in those debauched days. If you allowed yourself to be seen to be having fun you were making a statement about yourself, your loyalties, your politics and your religion. You were also saying most emphatically and publicly that you were not a Puritan, not a supporter of the old Cromwellian order, and that you approved of the new monarchy, and the second King Charles, wholeheartedly.

Like most things in life, context is crucial to understanding this age.

In 1660, at the age of thirty, after a long and penniless exile, Charles regained the thrones of the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. He had had a pretty miserable time abroad but the people that he was now ruling had just come out of a dark and terrible period in our history. The bloody civil wars, in which a larger proportion of the population died that in any conflict before or since, were followed by the austere Puritan rule of the Commonwealth and the dictatorship of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. During this cold interregnum period, most sports were banned, drunkenness and even swearing was punished with a fine, non-religious expressions of Christmas were stopped, many drinking establishments were closed, as were all the theatres. Women who were caught working on Sundays were put in the stocks and shamed, bright clothes were banned and sober dress was the order of the day. Make-up was scrubbed off girls’ faces by soldiers who caught them wearing it, right there and then. It is instructive to recognise that armed men stopping and humiliating women in the streets in the name of religious purity does not only happen in other parts of the world. We had our own approximation of the Taliban once.

So, when Charles returned to the throne, he wanted to show his subjects that it was now perfectly all right for people to enjoy themselves. Drinking was OK, sex was OK, fun was back in fashion. Hip hip hooray! The theatres were reopened, and there was a resurgence of bawdy, satirical plays. Public drunkenness, particularly among the aristocracy, became almost a badge of rank – and an expression of loyalty to the King. Pranks and japes abounded – a pair of well-born young men, friends of the King and members of the notorious Merry Gang, scandalised London by appearing on a balcony, completely inebriated, and pretending to sodomise each other. Poets and playwrights could openly criticise the King, his court, his morals and his mistresses. And did so enthusiastically. The chronically alcoholic poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, leader of the Merry Gang, wrote of the King: “Restless he rolls from whore to whore/ A merry monarch, scandalous and poor”.

Because Charles took his sexual pleasures seriously. He had many lovers as a young bachelor, including his nanny Mrs Wyndham, who took his virginity when he was fifteen. And after he married Catherine of Braganza, in 1662, he had at least seven mistresses, and possible as many as thirteen, who bore him a dozen children.

The role of mistress was semi-official – a whore or courtesan, or woman with whom the King had a casual encounter, would not be counted among their number – and a man who kept one was obliged to pay for her food, drink, accommodation and servants, as well as making her generous presents from time to time, perhaps when he paid her a visit. Many of the mistresses and their illegitimate children, those whose paternity the King acknowledged, received earldoms and dukedoms from the monarch and many British aristocrats today trace their ancestry back to Charles II.

The Puritans of the previous age would have turned in their graves had they known about this public and permitted acknowledgement of the extra-marital lusts of men. Because society looked to the King for guidance on how to behave, the fact that he had so many mistresses, so openly acknowledged, sent a clear message to everyone.

Adultery, forbidden by God, punished by Puritans, was now normalised.

Two of the the most famous of Charles’s mistresses – the formidable beauty Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, and the famous actress Nell Gywn – make appearances in Blood’s Game. In the period when the book is set, Barbara was about thirty and was being replaced in the royal affections by the feisty and outrageous Nell, who was ten years younger. Gwyn was an actress, and before that an “orange-seller” in the theatres, a profession which some historians take as a euphemism for prostitute. Perhaps because of her lowly origins and dubious trade, she was never ennobled by her royal lover, although her two children were.

Barbara, on the other hand, came from the aristocratic Villiers family. She gave Charles five children and, as a long-time and fecund mistress, she wielded more power at court than childless Catherine. In fact, she was known as the Uncrowned Queen and she used her position ruthlessly to enrich herself and her friends. She persuaded the King to grant her lavish titles and lands and properties – she was given Nonsuch Palace, built by Henry VIII, and the title Baroness Nonsuch, and promptly dismantled the palace and sold off the building materials to pay her gambling debts.

Gambling was another sinful pleasure, long denied, which the gentlemen and ladies of the Restoration court now engaged in with enthusiasm – sometimes to their financial ruin. Indeed, in Blood’s Game, the climax of the book is an epic game of Whist, which was just coming into fashion at the time.

Women as well as men adopted the hedonistic credo of the era. Barbara Villiers was an enthusiastic, if not entirely successful gambler. At one point she was obliged to “borrow” tens of thousands of pounds from the Privy Purse to settle her debts, but when this was discovered by officials, such was her sway over the King that the debt was immediately written off by her indulgent royal lover.

When Charles’s interest in her began to wane, she was not above finding other gentlemen friends to pleasure her. She became the lover of Jack Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, when he was a handsome and penniless young officer at court. She bore Churchill a daughter and tried, unsuccessfully, to claim she was the King’s.

Charles was not exactly delighted that his long-time lover, a woman he had given so much to, had taken a younger man to her bed – Barbara had also given Churchill a gift of £5,000, money she had received from the King, which infuriated Charles – but he was perfectly gentlemanly about the situation. He was, after all, beginning his own new relationship with Nell Gwyn at the time. There is a (probably apocryphal) tale, which I have included in Blood’s Game, that a servant was paid £100 by the Duke of Buckingham to inform His Grace when Churchill and Villiers would next be enjoying a tryst. The mischief-making Duke then persuaded the King to visit Barbara at the same time. The story goes that when the King arrived at her apartments unexpectedly, the naked Churchill had to hide in a cupboard, and was swiftly discovered there by the cuckolded Merry Monarch.

Apparently, the King saw the funny side, and forgave his young rival. He said: “You are a rascal, sir, but I forgive you because you do it to get your [daily] bread.”

A stinging insult – he basically called Churchill a man-whore – followed by forgiveness. And all the while keeping his sense of humour. That’s a class act.

It is little stories like this and many, many others, that made writing Blood’s Game such a sinful pleasure. I can only hope that you find reading it as hedonistic.

Links
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My review
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Blood’s Game by Angus Donald

Zaffre | 2017 (5 October) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Blood's Game by Angus DonaldIt is 1670 and the Blood family is still reeling from the aftereffects of the Restoration of the monarchy 10 years before. Colonel Blood unfortunately fought for the Parliamentarians and, as a result, his Irish estates were given to the Duke of Ormande while Blood and his family were consigned to eking out a living in a cottage in Shoreditch, London. Blood is not a man to let such a thing go unavenged and his drive to destroy Ormande is his consuming passion. This means that Blood sees his family little, and supports them even less.

Blood’s young son Holcroft has few options. With no pleasure to be had at home he welcomes the opportunity to become a page of the Duke of Buckingham, Ormande’s great enemy. Holcroft might be little more than a bargaining chip in his father’s games but Holcroft accidentally discovers something he excels at – decoding ciphers. Promoted to confidential clerk, Holcroft finds himself in a position to observe the court of Charles II. And what a place it is. Ruled by sin and greed, here is a place for a young man to succeed, regardless of his past. His father the Colonel, however, has plans of his own and they could get them all killed.

Blood’s Game is the first in a new series by Angus Donald, whose Robin Hood and Alan Dale books have held me enthralled for years. With that series now complete, I’ve been waiting for what would come next. And it takes us to an entirely different period of history – the 17th century of the Restoration. But, as before, the line between wickedness and goodness is blurred and finding a path between the two is no easy thing to do. As with the Robin Hood books we here follow a character who could have been left to exist happily in the sidelines – in that case it was Alan Dale and here it is Colonel Blood’s young son Holcroft.

Holcroft is a fascinating character and not at all typical. As the afterword tells us, Holcroft has Asperger’s syndrome and this makes him stand out from those around him, including those he really should be trying to impress in order to get on in life. His attention to detail, his incredible recall and his inability to jest or to lie gets him into all kinds of trouble while also giving him opportunities to shine in the service of the thoroughly unappealing Duke of Buckingham. Unfortunately for Holcroft, he finds himself in a court ruled by sin, fierce rivalries and corruption. Watching Holcroft cope with that while also learning to play its game is a big part of the novel’s enjoyment.

The title is intentionally misleading. Colonel Blood’s plotting and his most infamous sting – his famous and historically true stealing of the crown jewels – do play an important role in the book but the games that give the novel its added edge and intrigue are those played out by Holcroft Blood.

Blood’s Game is a thoroughly entertaining historical romp, packed full of some brilliantly colourful characters. And chief among them is Charles II himself – I loved Charles in this novel! This is a man intent on enjoying himself but his run ins with his famous mistress Barbara Villiers are scene stealers. Wigged scoundrels abound in this novel – the Earl of Rochester doesn’t come out of this very well – but I particularly liked its women – Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwyn and also the playwright Aphra Behn. The fact that these extraordinary men and women existed in real life make it all the more wonderful to read about them here. No quarter is given. We get them warts and all. Especially with warts.

The only downside of the novel for me is Colonel Blood. I really disliked him and did not like spending the time with him, or the whole crown jewels escapade. But I do understand that this was an important part of setting up Holcroft for Blood’s Game and future books to come in the series. I hope we’ve seen the last of him. I could also have done without some of the swearing but I know that this is a thing of mine, that I’m particularly squeamish with certain words.

Angus Donald is a favourite novelist of mine (you only have to look at my list of reviews below!). I love the way that he fills history with colour, character and adventure. He writes so well and he creates people I want to read about and spend time with. Following the Alan Dale books was never going to be easy – how could it be? They’re spectacularly good – but I think he’s done a fine job with Blood’s Game, which has all the signs of developing into a future favourite series. Holcroft Blood is such a strong character and his future is an exciting one and I can’t wait to follow it as he takes us away from the court of Charles II and onto the battlefield.

Other reviews
Outlaw
Holy Warrior
King’s Man
Warlord
Grail Knight
The Iron Castle
The King’s Assassin
The Death of Robin Hood

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Raven Books | 2017 (5 October) | 364p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1865 and Elsie Bainbridge carries the cares of the world on her shoulders. Married just months before, her husband Robert has died and she has little choice but to head to his crumbling country estate, The Bridge, where she will give birth to their child. The villagers are hostile and the servants are suspicious and unfriendly. Fortunately, Elsie has her husband’s cousin Sarah for company. They will come to rely on each other very much in the lonely months ahead. But perhaps they are not as alone as they might think.

When Elsie sets about getting to know her new home, she and Sarah come across a locked garret. Inside they find a diary dating from the 1630s and a wooden figure that looks disturbingly familiar. It is, she learns, a Silent Companion. Soon Elsie’s nights are disturbed by strange sounds. The servants insist there’s a nest of rats hiding in the walls. Elsie isn’t so sure – it sounds like wood being worked, being moved.

Interspersed throughout this wonderfully creepy, superbly Gothic novel are extracts from the diary which take us back in time to 1635 when Anne Bainbridge was mistress of the house. At that time everyone was hugely excited because King Charles I and his Queen were intending to spend a night at The Bridge. Everything was going so well…

I love haunted house stories and The Silent Companions was a book I couldn’t wait to read. I’d been told that it was genuinely frightening and so I settled down to read it late one evening. In fact, I only read this book at night. This isn’t a book for commutes and lunchtime reads – it deserves to be read by lamplight, when every sound seems louder in the quiet night. It’s a hugely atmospheric read. The Bridge is a fine example of a rickety, old and unloved Gothic mansion. It creeks. Its wood feels alive. And in its midst are Elsie and Sarah. We fear for them.

The sections from the 1630s are every bit as engrossing as the Victorian chapters. And the characters are just as intriguing, if not more so. Told in Anne’s own words, during these sections we are immersed in the past and it’s a dangerous and fearful place indeed.

I had two very late nights with The Silent Companions. I didn’t want to put it down and I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It certainly gave me the heebie jeebies and made my spine shiver. I love that feeling! It’s dark, tragic and, at times, deliciously scary, but it never goes overboard. The emphasis here is on Elsie and Anne and what this house, so claustrophobic and dark, does to them, two centuries apart. It’s quite a tale, full of Gothic wonders. I must also say that the hardback is gorgeous inside and out.

The Zealot’s Bones by D.M. Mark

Mulholland Books | 2017 (21 September) | 247p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Zealot's Bones by DM MarkIt is 1849 and Canadian Diligence Matheson has arrived in Hull to search for the bones of the apostle Simon the Zealot, believed to have been buried somewhere in Lincolnshire following his execution by the Romans in their fort at Caistor. With Matheson as bodyguard and companion is Meshach Stone, a former soldier who is tortured by his experiences of war in Afghanistan. Both men find themselves in another hell on Earth. The city of Hull is gripped by an outbreak of cholera that is wiping out almost whole families and streets, leaving behind the wails and torment of the bereft. Stone has hopes of finding redemption in Hull but instead he finds dead the woman he so wanted to love. There are so many dead but this woman’s death was not through cholera – she was murdered. And she is not the only one. Driven almost mad by his need for vengeance, Stone must hunt down the murderer in a city where Death roams freely and hell awaits around every dark corner.

David Mark is familiar to many as the author of the McAvoy contemporary police detective series but in The Zealot’s Bones he picks up the reins of a historical murder mystery for the first time – and I am so glad he did. The Zealot’s Bones is nothing short of brilliant and is one of the finest historical novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year.

The writing is superb. This is a dark, gruesome and twisted tale and through it walk the damned and the afflicted. And David Mark brings both the locations and characters to life with the most gorgeously vivid prose. The dialogue is wonderful and often extremely witty as we know well that what a character says need not be at all what he or she means. This is an age of manners and etiquette and sometimes not even murder is allowed to interfere with that. When one memorably odious character meets Matheson and Stone, he utters ‘I… extend the hand of welcome, even if I would rather chew it off’ and this sums up the hypocrisy of this impoverished, plague-ridden and cruel Victorian world. It also made me chuckle.

Stone is a fabulous creation. In many ways he believes that he is as evil as the monster he hunts and his body is as scarred as he believes his soul must also be. We’re taken deep into his troubled mind and it isn’t always a gentle place to be but there is a kindness about Stone, a willingness to change his life, that makes his experiences here all the more painful and meaningful to read about. His relationship with the rather lovely and charming Diligence Matheson is tender and enjoyable. I loved Diligence’s quest for the Zealot’s bones. He’s so easily distracted but he too has something to prove.

There are some fantastic characters in The Zealot’s Bones, whether they’re good or evil. The ratcatcher is quite a scene stealer and there are other intriguing men and women who make brief but colourful cameos. The murders are horrendous, their victims utterly pitiful and the murderer an abomination. This is gruesome stuff and I found it impossible to tear my eyes away. And all is set against the most perfectly described backdrops of a city devastated by death and mourning and a wonderfully creepy country house, likewise caught in the grip of something dreadful and disturbing. Increasing the mood are Stone’s haunted memories and dreams of his experiences in Afghanistan. It’s all mesmerising and every line of fine prose does its job to hook the reader in and keep them there.

I hope so much that Meshach Stone returns. If he does, that book will go straight to the top of my reading pile with no shadow of doubt.

Other reviews
Dead Pretty

Munich by Robert Harris

Hutchinson | 2017 (21 September) | 342p | Review book | Buy the bookMunich by Robert Harris

It is September 1938 and Europe hovers on the brink of war. Hitler is just hours from invading Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has achieved the almost impossible – a last-minute conference in Munich with Hitler and Mussolini. Behind the scenes, diplomats, politicians and spies step up their work. Germany is not as behind their leader as he might think. The stakes are high but there are conspirators high in the German ranks who need to manipulate events to suit their own dangerous agenda.

Hugh Legate is one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries. His knowledge of German makes him invaluable in these delicate negotiations. Paul Hartmann is a German diplomat and one of the anti-Hitler conspirators. These two men were close friends at Oxford University years before. They might not have seen each for years but they trust one another, a fact that will be exploited. It is imperative to many that both men are among the entourages brought together in Munich. And so, as Chamberlain labours to achieve ‘peace in our time’, he has no idea what else is going on behind the scenes. But how far are Legate and Hartmann prepared to go?

With Munich, Robert Harris proves yet again, as if more proof were needed, that he is one of the finest writers of historical and contemporary thrillers you can read, if not the very best. The ingenious Conclave was my favourite novel of last year, Dictator (completing Harris’s superb series about Cicero) was one of my top three books of 2015, and Pompeii is, I think, my favourite historical novel of all time. These are impressive credentials and yet Robert Harris never fails to amaze me with the breadth of his novels’ subjects and the sheer quality of their execution.

As before, with Munich Harris doesn’t go for the obvious. Instead of focusing on 1939 and the actual outbreak of war he takes us to the previous year and into the painfully tense conference room of Munich, via Chamberlain’s flight from London and Hitler’s train journey from Berlin. This is reminiscent of the worried claustrophobia of Conclave – the idea that something is going on behind closed doors that will affect the whole world and yet, for the moment, is utterly secret and confined. There is a ritual to the drama. It’s quietly spoken. There is etiquette. And yet this is all skin deep, as we are reminded by the unwelcome presence in Munich of the despised Czechoslovakian representatives. The brutality of the Nazi regime lurks in dark corners and it oppresses the mood.

Munich is exquisitely written. The prose perfectly paints the London offices, the train, the plane, the Munich conference hotel. We watch the people move through them, men and women, in possession of secrets, weighed down by their responsibilities. This is particularly evident in Legate and Hartmann, who have to make some serious decisions about everything that matters to them, especially Hartmann, but it also shows in Neville Chamberlain. Harris provides a fascinating reinterpretation of Chamberlain’s character. It looks kindly on him. The stress is clearly shattering the man. Chamberlain remembers World War I. He has to do everything to avoid a repeat, even accept Hitler’s lies.

Munich is a relatively short novel and not a page of it is wasted. History tells us how all this was to turn out but this in no way damages the impact of the book, which is increasingly tense and dramatic as you realise how differently events could have unfolded. It also reminds us of history’s warning – and relevance – to the present day. There is a play-like feel to the novel’s structure as we move from room to room, or from vehicle to vehicle. Its dialogue is of paramount importance. Every uttered word must be studied for its hidden intention – the world’s future is at stake.

With no doubt at all, Munich will feature in my top ten list of the year and will be a contender for my favourite novel of 2017. It is a privilege and joy to read a new novel by Robert Harris. I’ve loved everything he’s written and I have no doubt that I will continue to do so. His novels are impeccable.

Other reviews
An Officer and a Spy
Dictator
Conclave