Tag Archives: Historical fiction

The Dance of the Serpents by Oscar de Muriel

Orion | 2020 (20 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Dance of the Serpents by Oscar de MurielThe Dance of the Serpents is the sixth novel in the fabulous Frey and McGray series. Whereas others were more self-contained, this novel does rely on you having read previous books, especially the second (A Fever of the Blood), and so I would recommend you do that before reading this review. Suitably warned, I shall continue!

The Commission for the Elucidation of Unsolved Cases Presumably Related to the Odd and Ghostly, a subdivision of Edinburgh’s police force and hidden away in its basement, is in trouble. It’s run by English inspector Ian Frey and his boss, the Scottish and tartan clad ‘Nine Nails’ McGray and, quite apart from being an embarrassment to their superiors, they are now discovering that killing Queen Victoria’s favourite witch and medium (in a previous book presenting their cases) may well seal their fate. The Queen is after their blood, aided and abetted by her particularly unpleasant Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and his thugs. The two detectives are given an ultimatum – they must find Queen Victoria a new witch before Christmas Eve, the night when Victoria likes to communicate with Prince Albert, or they’ll be secretly executed. Unfortunately, this is only a few days away. With the help of a cursed young woman who is pursued by vengeful witches and the less than forthcoming assistance of McGray’s taumatised and silent sister, McGray and Frey undertake a pursuit of witches across England and Scotland, to distant islands and palaces. And all the time, the clock ticks.

I am such a huge fan of this series and have loved each of them. The Dance of the Serpents is no different but it is a little different from the previous books in that there isn’t a particular case to solve just a situation to correct, which puts our heroes in a great deal of danger. It also very much depends on the reader having enjoyed the previous novels, which is no difficulty whatsoever as these are addictive reads. But what makes these books so fantastic is every bit as evident here – the characters of Frey and McGray.

The personalities of our two detectives, so opposite to one another in absolutely every way, and the banter between them is brilliant and so many times I burst out laughing. The situations they find themselves in can be ridiculously weird and terrifyingly dangerous, not helped by the fact that even the supernatural wants to do them in, and we are engrossed. We’ve spent a few years with them now. We know them well but we are also well aware that there’s a lot more to learn from them. Maybe they don’t quite trust us yet. But on occasion they let down the barriers and there are glimpses of feeling, even, dare I say, friendship between the two men. That doesn’t stop McGray calling Frey names. Frey is our narrator and so his frustration and bewilderment at his partner in solving supernaturally-tinged crimes is extremely amusing.

I love the locations as well and they are particularly evocative in The Dance of the Serpents as we head across Scotland on the trail of the witches to the Orkneys – which isn’t great because Nine Nails gets seasick just walking the gangway on to a boat. I love the places which are so moodily and atmospherically described. And then there’s the other world of palaces when we find ourselves in Victoria’s extraordinary presence. What a fabulous chapter that is!

These books are always a delight and I loved The Dance of the Serpents. I really enjoy the late Victorian setting and then the blend of crime and supernatural possibilities and shivers. Oscar de Muriel writes so well. I love how he portrays his characters, male and female. They are larger than life in many ways and they’re all the more fun to read. His witches are terrifying…. just how I like them. Excellent!

Other reviews
A Fever of the Blood
A Mask of Shadows
The Loch of the Dead
The Darker Arts

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor

HarperCollins | 2020 (20 August) | 386p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel GaynorWhen the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japan’s war against China is now turned against the allies. For the children at Chefoo School, a missionary school in the Shantung Province of China, the ramifications will be devastating. Nancy Plummer is ten years old and has been left at the school for safety by her anxious missionary parents whom she hasn’t seen for years. She and her close friends, nicknamed Sprout and Mouse, have become their own family, watched over by teachers who have far more responsibility for these lonely children than they might have wanted. Teacher Elspeth Kent feels that responsibility too keenly and had been ready to leave China to remake her life in England but all her plans are forgotten when Japanese soldiers occupy the school and overturn their lives, damaging them all with negligence and brutality. Internment follows and the children and their teachers must look within themselves and to each other to find the hope and courage to survive these four years of war and imprisonment.

Hazel Gaynor is a wonderful writer and I couldn’t wait to read The Bird in the Bamboo Cage. It was everything I hoped for and more. I picked it up to read and when I put it down I was over two thirds of the way through, finishing it in one more sitting. It’s completely engrossing and compelling. It is also heartbreaking, harrowing and emotional, all the more so because it is based on a true story. And what an incredible story it is.

The characters in the novel are so beautifully portrayed, with chapters narrated by young Nancy alternating with chapters narrated by the teacher Elspeth. Each has a distinct voice and each has their own perspective on events, whether in the school or the internment camp. This structure works perfectly. Elspeth, as an adult woman, has a very different time of it, with extra fears and dangers, as well as the driving need to keep those in her care safe, her brownies and guides. Nancy and her friends use guides’ codes and rules as a way of getting through this nightmare, directing their actions, thinking of others, keeping themselves as clean as possible. But, of course, that is almost impossible as they all begin to slowly starve in the squalor and dirt of the camp. It’s a harsh awakening from childhood as these girls and boys grow into teenagers without their parents.

It’s all so powerful, particularly when we learn more about the School’s Chinese servants, who also turn up at the camp. There is brutality and cruelty, throughout, but it isn’t presented graphically. Much is left to the imagination. The focus instead is on the children and their teachers. The children dwell on their friendships and are remarkably resilient. They have hope. The teachers think back on their past, especially Elspeth who must worry for her brother who is missing in action in the European War while also recalling past loves. Elspeth’s story is particularly painful but how we grow to love her, and the children, through the author’s beautiful writing! It’s not often a book makes me cry as much as this one did.

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage is easily one of the best books I’ve read in a long time and it’s a contender for my favourite novel of 2020. I can’t praise it enough. It’s engrossing, thoroughly engaging, beautifully written, extremely hard to put down and full of life, colour and love, despite the terrible and desperate situation in which these wonderful characters are placed.

Other review
With Heather Webb – Meet Me in Monaco

The Honey and the Sting by E.C. Fremantle

Michael Joseph | 2020 (6 August) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1628 and sisters Hester, Melis and Hope must run and hide, taking with them Hester’s young son Rafe. Twelve years before Hester was raped by George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham and the favourite of James I. Rafe was the result and now Villiers wants the child, to do with nobody knows. The sisters hide at the country house of friends but they stand out – Melis is connected to nature in an intimate way, she has visions and feels an affinity with bees (as you’d expect – Melissa is Greek for bee*). She attracts suspicion. Hope is a young beauty. She attracts attention. Hester, meanwhile, must keep her son safe and hold her family together, supported by a soldier who has been sent by a relative to guard them. But this man is not who he says he is.

I am such a fan of this author’s historical fiction, whether writing as E.C. Fremantle or as Elizabeth Fremantle, and so a new novel is always a treat. I love her depiction of women of the past and their experiences in a society that is often unkind and unjust. This time the women are fictional characters but the man they have to deal with is not and George Villiers was an infamously nasty and corrupt man. His fate is well chronicled, which does reveal a little of what happens here, but I won’t make any mention of that in the review. But Villiers makes a perfect villain, although much of the menace here is provided not by him (who is largely absent) but by his henchman, Felton, a soldier whose mission is to kill the sisters and steal the boy. He is sinister and menacing and strange.

The sisters are wonderfully portrayed, especially Hester and Melis. Melis is an unusual girl and I love how she is depicted. Hester, though, is my favourite and it’s fitting that much of the novel is told in her own words, bringing us closer to her and her determination to keep her son safe. Hope is not a sensible girl and I couldn’t help becoming annoyed with her! The mystery in all this is Rafe, a character who only emerges gradually, to powerful effect. I think we need more of Rafe.

The Honey and the Sting is a beautifully written historical novel set at a time that I’m really interested in, during the days of the debauched, profligate and unpleasant Stuarts. The novel explores the effects of this society on those who are vulnerable, the women and the children, the beautiful and the innocent. Villiers exemplifies all that is rotten with the court, whereas through the sisters, especially Melis, we witness the purity of nature. It’s very well done. I’m keen to know where and when and to whom this author will take us next!

*Thanks to my Dad for the Greek reference!

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

River of Gold by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2020 (6 August) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

River of Gold by Anthony RichesIt is AD 187 and a deadly, unknown force from the mysterious land of Kush is attacking Roman settlements in the far south of Egypt. This is a wealthy region, the site of diamond mines as well as a gateway between continents for exotic goods from the east. With Egypt at its weakest in thousands of years, it is perhaps not surprising that Rome should have a rival for its riches. Emperor Commodus’s closest and most devious advisor sends Marcus Corvus, his superior Scaurus and their too few men deep into the deserts of Roman Egypt to drive the enemy back to the south. But what can so few achieve against a mighty army? Scaurus and Marcus suspect that this is one mission they are not supposed to survive.

It will only take a glance at the long list of reviews and interviews below to know how much I adore Anthony Riches’ Roman books! The Empire series is one of my favourite series of all and I always look forward to them. I was thrilled to receive River of Gold and gobbled it up. It was delicious. River of Gold is the eleventh in the series. It’s been quite a journey for Marcus and his bunch of Tungrians and Britons. Nevertheless, each of the books stands on their own well and this one particularly so. But, obviously, I would recommend that you read the whole series just so you can find out just what these men have endured. You’ll also be able to meet much loved comrades who fell along the way….

As soon as I saw that this was a book about Roman Egypt, I couldn’t wait to read it even more than normal. It’s an irresistible destination. I loved the journey of Scaurus and Marcus through Egypt, passing the pyramids, going deep into the desert, a place of legend even to the Egyptian guide and scholar who accompanies them. The people of the far, far south are feared, presumed monsters. It’s all fascinating and richly described. I was also interested in another man who accompanies them – a former centurion who is now a Christian, who suffers for his previous persecution and torture of Christians. That adds something extra to this tale of war.

The enemy, when we discover them, are a worthy foe and are intriguing in their own right, as well as being suitably menacing. I love sieges in Roman historical fiction and we have one of those here. It’s tense, exciting and backed up with the author’s attention to detail and historical and military knowledge. This is also such an interesting period of Roman history, taking us to the time of Commodus (of Gladiator fame).

I absolutely loved River of Gold, reading it in just a couple of days, which is pretty unheard of for me these days. It was such a pleasurable read and I loved being back with characters that I am so fond of and wouldn’t be without (although I do worry about them!). A reading highlight of my summer. There isn’t enough Roman historical fiction being published these days and so I am particularly grateful for the Empire series. Long may it continue!

Other reviews and features
Empire I: Wounds of Honour
Empire II: Arrows of Fury
Empire III: Fortress of Spears
Empire IV: The Leopard Sword
Empire V: The Wolf’s Gold
Empire VI: The Eagle’s Vengeance
Empire VII: The Emperor’s Knives
Empire VIII: Thunder of the Gods
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
Empire X: The Scorpion’s Strike
Betrayal: The Centurions I
Onslaught: The Centurions II
Retribution – The Centurions III
An interview for The Eagle’s Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

Six Tudor Queens V: Katheryn Howard – The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir

Headline Review | 2020 (6 August) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen by Alison WeirIn 1540 the very young Katheryn Howard, one of Anna of Kleve’s ladies, cousin to Anne Boleyn, caught the roving eye of Henry VIII and her fate was sealed.

We’ve now reached the fifth novel in this superb series by Alison Weir on Henry’s six wives and I approached it with some trepidation because this is the most tragic of stories. It’s one that is very familiar and so we know what’s coming. By spending so much time on Katheryn’s childhood – she never had the chance of adulthood, after all – Alison Weir brings the tragedy home. This child was misued and abused for most of her life and she is here so likeable, naive, foolish and adorable that there are sections of this novel that are too painful.

Katheryn Howard – The Tainted Queen portrays Katheryn’s broken home and her move into the household of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Katheryn’s grandmother. The date of Katheryn’s birth isn’t known and so we can never be entirely sure how young she was when she moved into the household but she was most likely in her early teens and there she and the other young ladies ran wild with the men of the household. Katheryn falls in love time after time with men so much older than she was, whose motives the reader can only question. Reading it, appalled at what the Duchess allowed to go on in her household, one still falls for the charm of this young girl and wishes that she had been born to a different family or in a different time.

One of the aspects of this series that I have enjoyed throughout is Alison Weir’s depiction of Henry VIII. He is the constant through the novels, changing before our eyes as he grows fat, old and diseased. He is so different now from the Henry of the first book, the young man who fell in love with Katherine of Aragon, and it’s been fascinating watching him evolve. The author still manages to make us feel sympathy for him, as he’s obviously suffering and at times he can be surprisingly gentle, but it is impossible to forget that this is a man who had his second wife, Katheryn’s own cousin, killed and is about to do it again, to a very young girl. It is grotesque thinking of Henry and Katheryn together. She has been conditioned not to mind it, by her past experiences and by the pressure of her unscrupulous and monstrous Howard relatives, and so that does help to get past it but it makes me pity her even more, that she doesn’t seem to think there’s any harm in it or in Henry himself. This Katheryn falls in love with Henry, which does add something different to the novel, to the story.

As a historian, Alison Weir does such a good job of enriching her novels with Tudor details. I love the descriptions of the clothes, the houses and palaces and the people in them. It’s filled with colour. This is fiction, not non-fiction, and it reads like it, flowing along and proving very hard to put down. We all have our perceptions of Henry VIII and of Katheryn and that does colour the reading, as they might be different to the author’s. It can’t be an easy task at all to tackle such a familiar subject as Henry VIII! But I think that Alison Weir has done a wonderful job of bringing Katheryn Howard to life, with a distinct voice and character, loving, charismatic and beautiful, and doomed. I did find the end difficult, unsurprisingly, but it’s a necessary part of this absorbing and utterly compelling retelling of the stories of Henry’s six wives. One more to go – Katharine Parr. I was named after her and so she’s particularly special to me. She will be in very safe hands with Alison Weir.

I must add that the cover of Katheryn Howard, just like all of the others in this stylish series, is stunning!

Other reviews
Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen
Six Tudor Queens II: Anne Boleyn, a King’s Obsession
Six Tudor Queens III: Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen
Six Tudor Queens IV: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden

Michael Joseph | 2020 (6 August) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Gates of Athens by Conn IgguldenIt is 490 BC and King Darius of Persia wants nothing more than to bring the Greek states within his empire, whether they like it or not. Athens is a very different place, with no kings but an Assembly which allows every free man a voice and a vote, deciding how the city will be run. And now it must defend itself. Athen’s most respected and admired citizens now pick up their spears and shields and march to Marathon. Among them is Xanthippus, father to a small boy called Pericles. Marathon is just the beginning of the Persian Wars. Almost ten years later the Greek states, uneasily united, march and sail into battle once more, clashing against Persian forces on sea and on land, at a place called Thermopylae. All those left behind in Athens must wait to discover their fate.

Conn Iggulden is a phenomenal writer. His historical fiction is outstanding. It doesn’t matter what period of history he writes about, he brings it to life and makes the events and people of the past real, exciting and vital. This time the author takes us to a tumultuous period in ancient history, the Persian Wars. The novel is framed by well-known and familiar battles, of Marathon and Thermopylae, but they are given fresh treatment here because Conn Iggulden takes his time to make us really care about these people while also making us fascinated by their society and culture.

We spend time in Persia and with the Persian army, and it’s a world away from Greece in so many ways. It is exotic and dangerous with an incredibly powerful fleet and army. But most of the novel is spent in Athens, particularly with Xanthippus, an honourable man, a loving family man, a hero, but he also has his flaws and must suffer the whims and political games and rivalries of the Assembly. I found this absolutely engrossing. The political system of the Assembly seems chaotic and harsh. And we’re reminded that this political ‘freedom’ was only for male citizens, who were vastly outnumbered by women, children and slaves. It all becomes even more intriguing when Sparta joins the mix and we watch Athenian and Spartan men assess each other, sum each other up, and try and find ways to work together in war against a common enemy. The tension is there throughout as Persia builds its army and navy, ready to take its vengeance on Athens.

The battle sequences are spectacular. Conn Iggulden knows his stuff and his knowledge shows throughout but he also knows how to write thrilling battle scenes. The naval battles are fantastic and so too are the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae. So much is at stake.

The Gates of Athens isn’t just about battles and the men who fight them. Conn Iggulden doesn’t neglect the other half of society. I was really intrigued by our glimpses into the homelife of Xanthippus and his wife Agariste. While there is much that seems familiar and timeless about their relationship, there is much that is very different. Their home is strange, with slaves living in a chamber dug into the earth under the house. Xanthippus sleeps apart from his wife. Slaves are trained to kill to protect their mistress and Agariste is prepared to kill her own children if the Persians come. I found it completely fascinating.

Athens itself dominates the novel. It is more than a city, it is an entity, beloved by its founding goddess Athena, and it is also an ideal. Its laws and codes, the rights of its free men, are all religiously pursued and defended, in its courts, Assembly and on the battlefield. Conn Iggulden examines all of the various aspects of Athens, and Sparta, and shows both its strengths and its failings. Excellent!

The Gates of Athens begins a new series and I can’t wait to read more of it. Whereas Xanthippus (and Athens itself) is the central figure of this first book, it seems likely that his son Pericles will become increasingly significant and I am fascinated to read more about the origins and development of Athen’s most famous statesman. His remarkable story is in such safe hands.

Other reviews
The Blood of Gods (Emperor V)
Stormbird (Wars of the Roses I)
Trinity (Wars of the Roses II)
Bloodline (Wars of the Roses III)
Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors (Wars of the Roses IV)
Dunstan
The Falcon of Sparta

Island of Secrets by Rachel Rhys

Black Swan | 2020 (25 June) | 368p | Bought copy | Buy the book

It is 1957 and Iris Bailey, a talented amateur artist, is so bored of her life in Hemel Hempstead, living with her parents, working in the typing pool (where the male bosses grade the new girls’ looks out of ten) and being courted by dependable, reasonable Peter. Escape comes from an unlikely source. An old contact, Nell, a wealthy American socialite, asks Iris to come to Havana with her to draw at the wedding of her father, a famous Hollywood director.

It all seems too good to be true and, when Iris arrives in humid, overheated Cuba, she is overwhelmed – by the glamorous people at the wedding, their passions and secrets, the sights and sounds of this beautiful, vibrant, exotic place. It is indeed a playground for the very wealthy, and the poor are kept poor, but now there are the rumblings of rebellion from the hills. It’s a heady mix and Iris is intoxicated. But, as she sits and draws these charismatic, unusual people, she discovers that more than one of them has something to hide. And then they start to look at her with suspicion. That’s when she begins to feel afraid.

Islands of Secrets has broken new ground for me – it was my first audiobook! I’ve resisted the pull of audiobooks for some years but, in these days when it’s a little harder to get hold of new treebooks in shops and I seem to spend far too much time doing jigsaw puzzles, which, I have now discovered, are even more enjoyable if done while listening to a good book, the timing seems right. I picked my first audiobook well. I adore Rachel Rhys’ writing – it’s lyrical and beautiful – and the narrator Sara Alexander does it justice. Initially, as a novice, I found it a little difficult to keep track of who was who but I soon got used to it and I was thoroughly immersed in this atmospheric and engrossing tale.

As with all Rachel Rhys novels, the historical setting is gorgeously evoked, fully capturing what Havana must have been like for the very rich in the months leading up to the revolution. The reader can completely understand why Iris is so captivated by it and is so reluctant to return to her dull life in England (I did feel a little sorry for Hemel Hempstead – it faces an uphill struggle to compete with Havana). But even more beguiling than Havana is the wedding party that Iris is tasked with drawing. She is an outsider, almost paid help, but, although the novel is told from Iris’s perspective, we soon feel as the party does – that Iris is someone who draws out secrets, who can be confided in. She listens and finds herself caught up in their complicated, tangled relationships, and in their lives, especially in those of Nell and of the bride.

Island of Secrets is deliciously mysterious but it isn’t a mystery thriller. It’s a gorgeous literary novel of people and places, all beautifully created and evoked, transporting us across the ocean to the steamy, vibrant island of Cuba, which feels so alive and alters those who are fortunate to make it their playground. But, as this novel makes clear, there is a cost to pay. Island of Secrets is a wonderful novel, whether you read it or listen to it, and I heartily recommend it as I do anything that this fine author writes.

Other reviews
A Dangerous Crossing
Fatal Inheritance

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

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.