Tag Archives: Historical fiction

Lionheart by Ben Kane

Orion | 2020 (28 May) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1179 and Henry II rages war against Ireland’s kings. Ferdia, more usually known as Rufus, is a young Irish nobleman who is now a hostage to secure the good behaviour of his family. Rufus is taken to Striguil Castle (now known as Chepstow) where he is put in the charge of the powerful de Clare family. As the years pass, Rufus becomes ever more distant from his homeland, tormented by a brute of a knight and distracted by his own desire to become a squire to a great lord. When Rufus saves the life of Henry’s son, the charismatic warrior Richard, Rufus’s life is changed forever and dictated by new loyalties and new battles to fight. This is an uneasy time. As the King’s health declines, his sons turn against one another in a scramble for power and land. Rufus has his part to play in a struggle that will divide the land and put a family at war with itself.

Ben Kane is known to many of us as a fine writer of Roman historical fiction and so it came as a surprise to me to learn that he was turning his attention to that other favourite historical period of mine – the late 12th century and the reigns of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, two of the most mesmerising figures in English history. Lionheart, the beginning of a new trilogy, tells the story of Richard through the fictional character of Rufus, whose own story is every bit as action-packed and dangerous as Richard’s.

Above all else, Lionheart is an adventure and it’s a thoroughly exciting one as we follow Rufus through his early, horrendous months as a hostage and his personal struggle against the cruel Robert FitzAldelm to his time in the service and retinue of Richard, then the Duke of Aquitaine. It’s told in the first person and this places us in the heart of the action and there is plenty of it, in England and on the continent where Richard must contend with not only his own brothers and their allies but also with the King of France. If there’s one person that seems to attract trouble even more than Rufus, it’s Richard, a man born to skirmish, besiege and battle.

But there’s more to the novel than fighting. We’re also taken inside castles where courtliness guides behaviour and squires pursue love, or something much less refined as they make their beds in the great hall. Rufus is a fickle lover, demonstrating how the ideal of chivalry and courtesy, exemplified by the greatest knight, William Marshal (who, I’m thrilled to say, plays a role here), wasn’t the reality for most. I enjoyed the moments spent inside castles just as much as I did those spent outside.

As usual, Ben Kane writes very well and the pages fly through the fingers. The story of Richard I is a familiar one but there is so much to it and it deserves another retelling, especially by an author who is clearly deeply immersed in the period and perhaps relishing the shift from Rome. Lionheart reads as if it was fun to write and this definitely rubs off on the appreciative reader. Historical fiction provides escapism during these difficult and strange times and Lionheart fits the bill perfectly.

And if you haven’t read any of Ben’s Roman historical fiction yet (and why not?!), take a look at the reviews below. My favourites are the Spartacus books and the Eagles trilogy.

Other reviews
Hannibal: Enemy of Rome
Hannibal: Fields of Blood
Hannibal: Clouds of War
Spartacus
Spartacus: Rebellion
Eagles at War
Hunting the Eagles
Eagles in the Storm
Clash of Empires
(and others) A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii

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.

The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2020 (2 April) | 399p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey DavisThe Groves of the Caesars is the eighth novel in Lindsey Davis’s now well-established Roman crime fiction series featuring Flavia Albia, the daughter of Marcus Didius Falco who, I’m sure, needs no introduction! Flavia took over the family trade of private detection once Falco retired (to focus on his auction business). The lack of status accorded to women in Rome means that Flavia might have trouble getting cases but she gets by very well indeed, partly because of her father’s reputation, partly because her husband is an official (who should really be investigating these cases himself but prefers to concentrate on his building company, especially since he was struck by lightning on his wedding day) and partly because Albia just seems to attract trouble. Each of these novels stands alone very well indeed although it is a great pleasure to read them all as they come out each year and long may they continue to do so!

Albia’s husband Tiberius has had to leave Rome to see his sister who is believed to be on her deathbed. It’s a terrible time for the whole family. Albia stays behind to look after the business but her mind is with her husband. Distraction comes from one of the building sites. The old grotto in the Grove of the Caesars, a park bequeathed to the city by Caesar and now rundown and home to the shifty and the criminal, is being turned into a grand nymphaeum or holy grotto as part of a plan to hopefully rejuvenate the place. The workmen dig up a large number of scroll fragments, each covered in, it transpires, scribbles from some long forgotten philosophers, just the sort of thing that might do well at auction.

But very shortly Albia is distracted from her distraction by something horrendous. A powerful man celebrated a big birthday in the grove and during it his wife went off for a peaceful walk. She didn’t return. She was horribly murdered. The same night two boys in Albia’s service who should have been at the grotto, also disappear. This makes the case Albia’s business and, in her husband’s absence, she works with local officials to solve a murder that soon appears to be the work of a monster who has been slaying women in the grove for years. How can Albia possibly stop The Pest?

I am such a fan of the Flavia Albia books, just as I am of the Falco books, and I look forward to each addition to the series. The Grove of the Caesars is excellent. Once more Lindsey Davis uses her considerable skill as a writer and as someone who knows an awful lot about the city of Rome during the 1st century AD to bring the place to life at this time – in its appearance and in its society. Albia always walks a great deal around the city. Through her eyes we see the streets, monuments, parks and river crossings vividly brought to life. It is such a wonderful way of immersing the reader in the past.

Albia is an excellent character in her own right, especially now that she has fully emerged from her father’s shadow. The story is told from her perspective and her narration is witty, warm and sharp. Listening to her, you would think that she cares about nothing but if you really listen to her you would see that she cares enormously and her detective work is one way in which she can escape the worry she feels for her husband and for others, in this case, the two children gifted to her family as some sort of joke by Domitian following the Emperor’s Black Banquet. This feast was a deadly affair and, although Albia discusses it humorously, it’s perfectly clear how horrific this event was and how fortunate her husband and her uncles survived it. What they’ve been left with are these two poor boys and their story is a powerfully upsetting one. Lindsey Davis is so good at this – using humour to disperse the horror and then throwing in something truly upsetting and disturbing.

One of the main crimes of the novel, that of the woman in the grove, is appalling and I did question if its horror is too extreme for the book, too incongruous. I’m still in two minds about that one but there is no doubt that there is a monster loose in Caesar’s grove. The novel’s story is a particularly strong one in the series and it develops in some interesting ways as we get to know the men who work in the gardens. Lindsey Davis is so good at filling her novels with the ordinary men and women of Rome, especially workmen, bar owners, musicians, prostitutes and so on. In this case we have gardeners. And book collectors! The story of the scrolls does provide such a welcome and frequent tonic to the darker side of the novel.

Talking of darkness, it shouldn’t be forgotten why Albia’s husband is absent – because his sister is expected to die in childbirth. Once more, Lindsey Davis reminds us that the people of Rome faced more dangers than those posed by their mad emperor. Married women died every day having children.

The Grove of the Caesars is undoubtedly one of the very best in this excellent series that both entertains and informs. Lindsey Davis is a marvellous writer – the dialogue is always such a joy to read. The Falco books are classics but in Flavia Albia Falco may well have met his match. He would be very proud, I think. And then he would try and stop her ever leaving the house again.

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

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2020 (2 April) | 417p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Protector by Andrew TaylorThe Last Protector is the fourth novel in Andrew Taylor’s fine series that portrays the intrigue, decadence and fragility of Charles II’s Restoration court in the years beginning with and following the Great Fire of London. This is most definitely a series and so, although you could read it on its own and enjoy it, you really need to read these books in order, to follow the course of events and to understand the relationship between government agent and lawyer James Marwood and Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is 1668 and the honeymoon period following the restoration of Charles II and the monarchy is most definitely over. The King’s court is a hotbed for dissent, rivalry, licentiousness, cuckoldry and rebellion. Unfortunately for James Marwood, son of a traitor and now a lawyer and government agent, he’s once more thrown into the deadly heart of it. He is sent to spy on a duel between the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Shrewsbury and, unluckily, Marwood is spotted by Buckingham’s men. The duel was ostensibly due to Buckingham having an affair with Lady Shrewsbury but Marwood, and his boss Lord Arlington, the Secretary of State, knows that it goes far deeper than that. Buckingham is plotting against the King.

Events grow ever more dangerous when Cat, now uneasily married to her elderly employer architect Mr Hakesby, is greeted by an old acquaintance. Elizabeth Cromwell, the granddaughter of none other than Oliver Cromwell is in town and with her is her father, Richard Cromwell, the last Protector. He is a man with a price on his head and someone that Buckingham wants in his power. Both Marwood and Cat are caught in a web of treachery and sedition and the stakes couldn’t be higher, or their lives more expendable.

I do enjoy this series. There are plenty of reasons for this but, as I read The Last Protector, I was reminded once more at just how skilfully Andrew Taylor can evoke the past. Just the right amount of detail is used to bring 17th-century London to life, with its busy river, its Tudor warren of alleys, apartments, brothels, inns and palaces, where the poor and the rich seem almost to live on top of one another, except for those oases of grand houses and gardens on the Strand. This book is full of the colour, smells, stench, misery and grandeur of London life at this time. As in previous novels, we’re reminded of how the most vulnerable suffer. In The Last Protector it’s the turn of the young prostitutes and the strange man who scrapes clean the royal sewers.

The characters are always interesting and I do enjoy the glimpses we’re given of Charles II. He’s devious and decadent and he’s also entertaining – as we see here with his little spaniels – but he is more canny of what’s going on than some might think. In this novel we meet the Cromwells and it’s an intriguing portrait of Richard Cromwell, the man who grew up in a palace and now must live abroad, secretly and quietly.

The heart of the novel rests with Marwood and Cat. The paths of the two don’t cross quite as much as in previous novels but, when they are together, the tension is as strong as ever, with the added complication of Mr Hakesby. We’ve seen the relationship of Mr Hakesby and Cat change over the years and now we see the old man in yet another light. What really stands out in this novel are the portrayals of the put upon and the abused, the prostitutes and Ferrus, the mazer-scourer’s labourer, the poor, damaged man who clears out the court’s excrement. As you can imagine, there is an awful lot of it.

The Last Protector tells an excellent story. It’s thrilling and also clever. There are moments when I was on the edge of my seat. Most of all, though, I just thoroughly enjoyed being transported to this other time and place where there is so much to see around every corner. This is an excellent series, now fully established, and I look forward to the next.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court
The King’s Evil

Liberation by Imogen Kealey

Sphere | 2020 (26 March) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Liberation by Imogen KealeyIt is 1943 and Australian Nancy Wake is ready to celebrate her marriage, in Marseilles, to Henri Fiocca, a wonderful, cultured and successful businessman. But Henri and some other guests know that Nancy is not all that she seems, that, after years of living in countries occupied by the Nazis, she is determined to kill as many of them as she can. For Nancy Wake is known by the Germans as the White Mouse, for her ability to sneak in and out where she shouldn’t, causing the maximum amount of disruption and chaos she can. There is a high price on her head.

With the marriage ceremony barely over, Nancy is again at work, delivering allied airmen to safety in the most dangerous of circumstances. But the Gestapo are becoming suspicious, particularly Major Böhm, who hauls in Henri for questioning. Nancy must flee but she is determined to return to France to continue the fight as a leader of the Maquis, which she does as a captain in the SOE. But Major Böhm will not rest in his hunt for the mouse.

If ever there was a life lived that is suitable for novelisation, it’s the life of Nancy Wake. Knowing that she really existed and that she endured all that she did, that she achieved what she did, very much in a man’s world, makes Liberation all the more irresistible. It also helps that one of the co-authors is Imogen Robertson, who is such a fine writer of historical fiction. And so I couldn’t wait to read this. Like many of us, I’m sure, I’m finding it hard to settle with a book but I found this story particularly appealing. It was good to read about a woman who overcame everything in her fight for her cause, so that life could be restored.

Nancy Wake is an extraordinary character, in fiction most certainly and one can imagine that the real Nancy might see herself here in this portrayal. She dominates the novel as we see events almost entirely from her point of view. We are always in the room with her, or in the camp in the mountains, or hiding in plain sight in a cafe, or in a town square witnessing an atrocity, or drinking with her friends, the men who would kill and die for her, and often do. Nancy is a charismatic figure but she’s also damaged, tormented by her fears for her husband and enraged by the existence of Major Böhm. She is driven by vengeance and fury, but there is self-knowledge, too. But throughout it all we know that she is a force for good. There are glimpses of kindness and warmth, and at times we feel we must weep for the sheer effort that Nancy Wake puts into every day of her life as a leader of the Resistance.

There are other characters to enjoy here, too, especially Nancy’s radioman Denden. I loved the depiction of the community of fighters camped out in the forests and mountains, ruthless but also increasingly in awe of their woman captain. They’re mostly a tight band, each with a distinct voice. But one other character who stands out is Major Böhm, the very opposite of goodness. Major Böhm is a monster. Some of the scenes with him are utterly chilling, reinforcing our solidarity with Nancy Wake, showing us brutally why she is ready to risk absolutely everything to stop him and all of the other monsters. There is so much tension, so much fear. This is not a book to put down easily.

The authors certainly know how to write intense action scenes. There are pages here that had me on the edge of my seat. It’s all very visual, very real, and we see the action unfold moment by moment. I’m not going to describe any of this. You must read it for yourself!

Liberation is a truly excellent novel, succeeding both as a wartime thriller and as a portrayal of a most astonishing and admirable woman whose life would have been so different if she had been allowed to live with the man she loved in peace. The novel also reminds us that bad times do pass, a message that I hang on to. Liberation has proved a fine companion to me over recent days and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Other review
The Paris Winter

Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

William Morrow | 2019 | 358p | Gift | Buy the book

Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbIn May 1955 Grace Kelly attends her first Cannes Film Festival on the French riviera. With the paparazzi hot on her trail, she takes shelter in the parfumerie of Sophie Duval. Sophie has inherited her perfume business from her father but it is a struggle to keep it afloat, and there are some who wish to buy her land, where her flowers grow and her scents are created. And there is a wealthy male friend in her life who wishes to be much more than a friend, to take her from this life. But Sophie is determined to succeed and when Grace Kelly enters her shop and falls for her perfumes, she has hope that her business can survive and that she can create her own perfumes, which will tempt a Hollywood princess.

James Henderson is a press photographer and he is on the trail of stars. When he follows Grace Kelly through the streets of Cannes, he encounters Sophie Duval and realises his life is about to change. He is there to witness the first and arranged meeting of Grace Kelly with Prince Rainier of Monaco. It seems unspectacular, uneventful to James but history is about to show James just how wrong he can be. As the preparations for the marriage of the year get underway, Sophie and James will find themselves drawn closer and closer to each other. But will their love story have the same happy ending?

I am a huge fan of Hazel Gaynor. She writes beautifully, as anyone who’s read The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter will attest, and I was drawn so strongly to Meet Me in Monaco. I have become such a reader of historical romance or ‘women’s fiction’, especially when it’s set during the 20th century and features real women that I have an interest in. Here we’re given Grace Kelly and she is captivating. Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb bring this charismatic and slightly mysterious, perhaps unknowable figure to life and I loved watching her experience Cannes and the other wonderful locations of this novel. It is fascinating to see the origins of her relationship with Rainier but I also loved all of the descriptions of Grace, her clothes, her style and her manner.

There is more to this lovely novel than Grace Kelly. At its heart is the growing romance between Sophie and James. These are very different people, one a French parfumer and the other an English newspaper photographer but there is more to both than initially meets the eye and it’s wonderful getting to know them. I enjoyed learning about Sophie’s perfume business and her relationships with her mother and father but I think James, or Jim, is my favourite character. We explore his background, his family and his friendships as well as his past. I think he’s a fantastic character.

Meet Me in Monaco is a gorgeous novel. It is filled with the glamour of Cannes and Hollywood in the 1950s, it has the intrigue of Grace Kelly’s rushed and curious romance, and it tells the involving story of Sophie and James. The pages are filled with the warmth and sunshine of the Mediterranean. I read the novel in just one day. It’s a light, enchanting read and the pages flit through the fingers.

The Deep by Alma Katsu

Bantam Press | 2020 (5 March) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Deep by Alma KatsuIt is 1916 and Annie Hebbley has just joined the ship Britannic as a nurse. This enormous ship, a sister ship to Titanic, has been drafted into war service, ferrying the injured and dying from the battlefields of southern Europe back home to Britain. This marks the start of a new life for Annie and it’s one she’s lucky to have, for Annie was a maid aboard Titanic. It was a miracle that she survived but she’s spent the time since in an asylum. But now she has hope of recovery even if it means she must return to the sea and the sea is something that both calls to Annie and terrifies her.

In a story that moves between 1912 and 1916, life aboard both grand ships is brought to life, especially on the Titanic as Annie waits upon and almost befriends some of the most famous and glamorous passengers of the Titanic, including Madeleine Astor, the scandalously young and pregnant bride of one of the richest men in America, as well as Mark Fletcher, his wife and baby, whom Annie is especially drawn to. But all is not as it seems and the mood darkens, the further the ship sails across the black, cold waters of the Atlantic. Strange things are seen, voices heard. Annie is plagued by demons on a voyage that is doomed and, as she sets sail on Britannic, she knows that they follow her still.

I am such a big fan of Alma Katsu’s The Hunger and so I couldn’t wait to read The Deep, even more so when I learned it was set aboard (and overboard) two tragic ships, Titanic and Britannic. The fate of both ships is well known and it provides the perfect subject for historical horror. It’s extremely hard to resist.

Much of the novel focuses on the doomed voyage of the Titanic and I absolutely adored the sections set aboard this ship. It’s brought to life with the most exquisite descriptions of life on board, especially for those rich enough to sail in first class. We spend time with several of the passengers, learning about their lives, fears, hopes and secrets. This is a voyage to a new life in some cases. It’s a symbolic passage for several, including Annie. The future looks wide open and optimistic as they sail to the promised land. But that’s not reckoning on the malignant and horrifying entity that haunts this ship and the people on it.

The Deep is a glamorous novel, not surprisingly because it features so many glamorous people, but it is a horror novel and there are moments in it when it does frighten. I didn’t find its horror as believable or as frightening as in The Hunger, there’s something not quite right about its reveal in my opinion, but, nevertheless, it’s a wonderfully written book and it does a brilliant job of recreating the experiences of those aboard the Titanic. The sinking scenes are fantastically done. I was glued to the page.

I think Alma Katsu is such an interesting writer and I love the ways in which she combines history with horror. The descriptions are so richly evocative of place and time and the mood is so intensely charged with atmosphere, dread and tension. I just can’t get enough of books such as this and so I long for the next.

Other review
The Hunger