Tag Archives: Historical fiction

The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2021 (29 April) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Royal Secret by Andrew TaylorIt is 1670 and the squalid and decaying court of Charles II is rife with intrigue as the unsteady Stuart crown is threatened by forces in the Netherlands and France. When Abbot, one of the agents working for the Secretary of State Lord Arlington, is found dead, his colleague James Marwood is sent to retrieve confidential papers from his home. It is clear that some are missing, not that this is an easy house to search – it is stinking with rats, poisoned and dying in agony. The trail leads Marwood to the house of Mr Fanshawe where Abbot’s wife and her child, secretive and frightened, now live, alongside the talk of the town, a lion.

Meanwhile, architect Cat Haskins has been hired to design a grand poultry house for the King’s sister in France, a project of great interest to the Dutchman Van Riebeck. Cat finds herself caught in the centre of a disturbing business, one that straddles the English Channel. Marwood can only watch on in alarm before he, too, steps into the fray.

The Royal Secret is the fifth novel to feature James Marwood and the woman who is frequently on his mind, Cat Haskins (once Lovett). You don’t need to have read the others but I would really encourage you to do so as these are among the best historical novels you could possibly read. Their depiction of Charles II’s court during the Great Fire and in the succeeding years is superb. This book does mark a new beginning of sorts because Cat is now independent again. She is working for herself as an architect and is viewed as a curiosity by the people who employ her to design elaborate houses for chickens – it’s all the rage and all rather strange. That’s even before you consider the logistics of owning a pet lion and placing him in your stables.

The plot of The Royal Secret is pleasingly complex and immerses both Marwood and Cat in a situation that endangers them both, while also threatening the security of the realm and a King who is constantly under attack by foreign powers and spies closer to hand. It all gets rather personal when Cat finds herself mixing with the wrong people and all Marwood can do is watch on anxiously. It’s a great story, brilliantly told by Andrew Taylor, and I recommend you dive in. You’ll soon catch up if you haven’t read any of the other books.

It’s the portrayal of Charles II’s court and government that I found the most riveting. It’s a hotbed of personal ambition and envy, sin and disease, corruption and a rather odd idealism surrounding the nature of the crown after years of all too recent civil war and Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Charles does make occasional charismatic appearances in this novel and in the others and they are always highlights. I absolutely love the way in which he is depicted. The men who work for him and conduct his business are far less appealing and Marwood is in the unfortunate position of being caught in the middle of most of them.

There is extra glamour in The Royal Secret thanks to some extremely enjoyable scenes set in France where Cat must wait on the pleasure of Madame, Charles II’s sister. Equally fun to read are the chapters set aboard ships. It’s hard to be refined and noble when in the grip of seasickness. Complementing these personal stories is the intrigue as secret messages move between countries and agents. There’s also a menace at work and he makes for an interesting villain.

The King’s Secret is clever, historically rich and detailed, and extremely engrossing. I can’t rave about it enough as this fabulous series gets even better. It tells a great story – compelling, tragic and thoroughly intriguing and, of course, it is deliciously steeped in the atmosphere of this secretive, diseased, decaying court of Charles II. The King’s Secret is quite possibly the best of the series, which is saying something.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court

The King’s Evil
The Last Protector

Six Tudor Queens VI: Katharine Parr – The Sixth Wife by Alison Weir

Katharine Parr by Alison WeirKatharine Parr must have thought when she buried her second husband that now she could marry for love and not for the advancement of her family but, in 1543, when Katharine caught the eye of an ailing King Henry VIII, her fate was decided and she became his sixth wife. These are dangerous times to have beliefs that stray towards Protestantism and Katharine is seen by some of that faith as a beacon of hope. That means she has enemies and they seek her ruin. Even more dangerous, perhaps, is the love that hides in her heart for a man close to the King – at the end of that path, if found out, would lie the axe.

And so we come to the sixth and final novel in Alison Weir’s ambitious and spectacularly-presented series, a series that I have read and loved for almost six years now. Where has the time gone?! It naturally ends with the last of Henry VIII’s wives – the one that survived and also, on a personal note, the one that I’m named after! Visiting her grave at Sudeley Castle is one of my earliest memories and I’ve visited it many times since. Katharine Parr is very special to me. It also means that I know a fair bit about her, which can be a hindrance when going into another novel about this fascinating and rather overlooked woman and queen.

I did enjoy reading the novel. Alison Weir, as a historian, clearly knows her stuff and the novels are packed with historical details of Tudor life and its setting. These are very immersive reads and they are rich with sumptuous fabrics and jewels, grand buildings, music and feasting, love and death. Katharine Parr is an attractive figure who gives her love easily. It was good to read more about her earlier life with her first two marriages, each of which is just as interesting as her third marriage to Henry. I particularly liked the section during which Katharine is married to John Latimer – the Pilgrimage of Grace makes an appearance. It is in these scenes that Katharine is most alive.

Throughout the series I have been intrigued by the author’s interpretation of the character of Henry VIII. It’s fair to say that I’m at odds with it, particularly so in this final novel. Henry is effectively exonerated of his deeds, the blood is wiped from his hands, and the blame is passed to those around him, to his victims. Henry is pitied for having to execute his young fifth wife, Kathryn Howard, for example. When Katharine Parr almost faces the same fate and is about to be arrested, it is Katharine’s fault. She doesn’t blame Henry even though it’s his signature on the warrant. We’re told about the stench and foulness of Henry’s diseased leg as well as his immense size, but Katharine is happy to share his bed and do her duty. Katharine’s considerable intellect is hinted at but I’m not sure that the novel does her justice, just as it plays down the abject fear she must have felt at marrying such a man, who had executed two of his wives and treated others, and his children, terribly.

Thomas Seymour is another problematic character for his relationship with Katharine’s step daughter, the child Princess Elizabeth. Personally, he’s one of my least favourite figures in Tudor history. Here, it’s as if Katharine doesn’t allow herself to feel too deeply. What did she really want? To have a child or to be free of marriages and be religiously and intellectually independent at a time when this was just not permitted? Katharine is a fascinating, deeply intriguing woman, who stood out during her own time – her Meditations was the first book published in England by a woman using her own name and in the English language. She played a deadly game with Henry through their marriage and it is arguable that it was his death that saved hers.

Katharine Parr is a thoroughly entertaining novel, it’s fun to read and it brings the splendour of the Tudor court to life. I will really miss these books. Each has been engrossing and, at times, tragic as well as light. For me, though, there have been two themes that have fascinated me the most – the early lives of these women before their royal marriages and the personality of the one constant of the novels, Henry VIII.

Without doubt, this is about the most beautiful series to be published in recent years. The covers and the endpapers have been truly stunning throughout. It’s a fine collection to read and own and admire. You can read my reviews of the previous five books below.

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
Six Tudor Queens V: Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen

The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

Head of Zeus | 2021 (13 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Pompeii, AD 74: Amara wasn’t always a slave and ‘Amara’ wasn’t always her name. A Greek and a doctor’s daughter, family ruin led her on this path to slavery and prostitution in the Wolf Den, Pompeii’s most notorious Lupanar, or brothel. The women who work alongside her on these stone beds in confined cells come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some know no other life, saved from rubbish heaps where they had been dumped as babies, but others, like Amara and Dido, stolen from her home in Carthage, remember their past lives and are desperate for freedom. Amara is determined to get it, but at what cost?

The Wolf Den is set at a time when Pompeii’s inhabitants had no idea of what Vesuvius, the mountain looming over the city, had in store for them. This is a novel of what life was like in Pompeii just a few years before the eruption and the result is nothing short of a triumph. I adored this novel so much. It is my favourite novel of the year so far. I regularly visit Pompeii, I know it pretty well, and this novel has transformed my view of it.

Elodie Harper populates the streets and buildings of Pompeii with real people, moving the focus away from the ruins to the bustle and noise of a vibrant, busy city, so full of life. I loved these women, the she-wolves. We follow them as they go about their lives – ‘fishing’ for clients, visiting the local bar for lunch, going to parties to ‘perform’, looking out for one another, especially in regard to the brothel keeper, their owner, searching for a way out, the rich man who will save them. We’re presented with a network of Pompeii’s slaves, both male and female – prostitutes, bar workers, shop workers, doormen, musicians and entertainers. Then there are the people who own them or exploit them, even love them, or kill them. Some of these people are known to history and we see them in The Wolf Den in a new light.

Photo by Kate Atherton, 2019

When I visited the Lupanar (in the evening, when most visitors had left and I had the place to myself), I was shocked by it, with those little cells with their stone beds, the cramped little corridor with its toilet. The Wolf Den portrays the cruel and brutal life that these women (and boys) lived, with the darkness and abuse of the night contrasting with the business and chatter of the day. We’re given glimpses of fabulous villas, with their cool pools, fine wines and food, and libraries. Amara wants that.

The Wolf Den isn’t salacious, it isn’t erotic. Instead, it is a fascinating portrayal of these women’s lives, so full of misery and abuse but with such fight and resilience. It is a romance of sorts but this isn’t romance as we would know it. The women are all so different in the ways that they have responded to their situation, with the reader’s deepest emotional response perhaps going to those who are mothers. There is so much sadness and pain. Elodie Harper tells their stories with such emotional insight and warmth. But there is also a toughness and a sharpness as well as wit as some of the women, such as Amara, try to work the system and is a leader of sorts. She is an incredible character.

We know what looms over Pompeii and the fate in store for it. For much, if not all, of the novel, the reader can forget about that. Our attention is on AD 74 and not on AD 79, such is the power of the storytelling, but that fate is there and I really hope the author returns to Pompeii to continue its story and that of its she-wolves.

The Wolf Den is utterly engrossing and immersive. I will never see Pompeii with the same eyes again. I can’t wait to go back, more than ever now, and, when I do, I will take time to imagine the city’s slaves going about their masters’ business, walking those streets, inhabiting those buildings. This is a serious contender for my book of 2021. I don’t often return to novels but I’m looking forward to re-reading The Wolf Den when the beautiful hardback is published this week. Simply fabulous.

Nightshade by E.S. Thomson

Constable | 2021 (15 April) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nightshade by ES ThomsonIt is 1851 and apothecary Jem Flockhart, with the help of close friend Will Quartermaine, decides to restore her physic garden. The project is intended as a distraction, a relaxation, for Will who is recuperating after serious illness. The garden was originally designed by Jem’s late mother, Catherine Underhill, a woman who was every bit as fascinated by poisons and medicinal plants as Jem. But Jem and Will’s digging disturbs the past when they uncover the remains of a body buried years before, clearly murdered, under a bush of deadly nightshade. Jem feels compelled to investigate, little knowing that these actions will ignite a new series of murders with each victim found with deadly nightshade berries in their mouths and each connected to the garden. Jem finds herself on a painfully personal journey as she descends into a world of poisons, exotic plants, memories, murder and madness.

It’s hard to believe that Nightshade is the fifth Jem Flockhart novel. I’ve read and loved these books from the beginning and this one is, I think, my favourite. You can read it without having read the others but I think in many ways it represents the fulfilment of the past. Jem’s character – a girl brought up as a boy and now living and working as a man – is fully evolved, we’ve witnessed the events that have shadowed her recent years, the murders of friends and colleagues, the establishment of her role as apothecary, part of a medical community, and an investigator of murder – it’s now time to learn more about her mysterious mother who died when Jem was an infant. Jem doesn’t like people getting too close to her past and to herself. Her gender is her biggest secret. But, in this case, there is nowhere to hide.

The captivating story mixes with the past as we read extracts from the journal kept by Catherine Underhill as she undertook a botanical expedition to India alongside some extraordinary women, completely out of step with society’s expectations for their gender. Once they are away from England, they leave that corseted world behind and enter another place, which is exotic, intoxicating. This is brilliantly evoked by E.S. Thomson and it complements perfectly Jem’s London, which is also heady with poisons, poverty, dirt, depravity, a place in which people can drive themselves mad. There are some incredible scenes where Jem and Will encounter the insane, secrets locked away within. The cast of characters in this novel are fabulous – each is fascinating and most are disturbing, even frightening.

Victorian London is vividly portrayed. The novel (and series) is full of historical medical and botanical knowledge. The book is enriched by its detail. At the heart of all of this, though, is Jem, who seems lost, vulnerable and at risk. There is only so much protection Will can provide. I urge you to read this superb series, with its ingenious tales of murder and murderers, and get to know Jem, one of my very favourite figures in historical fiction.

Other reviews
Beloved Poison
Dark Asylum
The Blood

Surgeons’ Hall

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline Winspear

Allison & Busby | 2021 (23 March) | 350p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline WinspearThe Consequences of Fear is the 16th novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s much loved and wonderful series featuring Maisie Dobbs, a well-to-do investigator and secret agent in London before and during World War Two. You don’t need to have read all or any of the series to enjoy this latest addition to it (it would even serve as a good introduction) but, if you have, you’ll be as emotionally invested in Maisie as I am and that will add a certain special something to your appreciation of it. I haven’t read them all yet. I’ve read the last few and a couple of the earlier ones and I can thoroughly recommend them and I’m looking forward to catching up with the others. Maisie is definitely a person worth knowing, as is her very dependable and invaluable assistant Billy.

It is October 1941 and bombs continue to fall on London. It is a scarred and pitted city, full of deserted or destroyed buildings. The war effort is everything with many trying to do their bit, while others try and hold things together, still remembering the horrors of the Great War. When young Freddie Hackett, a runner who carries government messages across London, witnesses a murder in a doorway, nobody believes him. But Maisie Dobbs does.

Maisie does everything she can to help Freddie and his family, in tandem with the overstretched police, while continuing in her other job working with a secret government department to train men and women to go undercover in occupied France to work with the Resistance. The burden of this role is almost overpowering for Maisie and is due to become even more so. Maisie is soon to learn that the secrets of the last war remain as dangerous as ever while the current war is reaching a critical stage.

This is a fantastic series and I read The Consequences of Fear as soon as I could. I’m so glad I did as I think this novel could well be my favourite. It feels like a significant book in the series. Maisie’s family life seems to be settling down, causing her to re-evaluate her life and the significance of her friendships. Maisie’s friends play an important role in the novel, as do women in general. She might work for and with men but Maisie is well aware of how special these women are – women who parachute into France to work for the Resistance as radio operators (a role with an average life span of only six weeks), women spies, army drivers, mothers, daughters, friends. I love this circle that surrounds Maisie.

But we can’t forget Billy, Maisie’s assistant, who is completely wonderful. Maisie is, not to put too fine a point on it, posh. She has money to spare and there’s a philanthropic side to her. There’s a formality to her dealings with those who work for her, even if she is very happy to get her hands dirty. Billy can’t really be called a friend but I think Maisie would certainly regard him as family. The two of them together follow their case across London and I love the detail of this – the pubs they visit to question landlords, the deserted houses, the trains, the dark streets, the river. There is a deeply poignant scene near the beginning with the river. This is a city under attack, people are suffering. While it brings out the best in some, it certainly doesn’t in others. Freddie, just a child, bears the weight of this.

I loved spending time with Maisie again. I hoped for the best for her throughout and I worried with her when she felt responsible for the women being sent into France. I enjoy how she mixes with hard-drinking government men and stressed detectives. She straddles male and female wartime experiences. Above all else, Maisie and Billy are immensely likeable, as are Maisie’s friends and family. I can’t wait to see them all again.

Other review
The American Agent

The Drowned City by K.J. Maitland

Headline | 2021 (1 April) | 448p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

The Drowned City by KH MaitlandIt is 1606 and Bristol has been devastated by a catastrophic tidal wave. Many are dead, lost, orphaned or homeless. It’s a year after the Gunpowder Plot and James I and his adviser Robert Cecil are overcome with paranoia and fear. While Cecil worries about plotters, James is concerned about witches. Daniel Pursglove, who has special talents, is despatched to Bristol with two missions – to find the escaped Catholic conspirator Spero Pettingar, who is believed to be in Bristol, and to find out whether the terrible flood was an act of God or the work of witches.

Daniel finds a city wrecked by the flood, its citizens tested to their limit, susceptible to rumours of witchcraft, desperate to find somebody to blame. It’s not long before there are lynchings, Jesuit plots, and then Daniel discovers there is a murderer at work.

Karen Maitland writes beautifully about the people of the past and their lives and beliefs, especially in the medieval countryside. Now, writing under a slightly different name, she turns her attention to the early 17th century and a time that was more modern and knowable in some ways but was still alive with suspicion, fuelled to a large degree by the witch-hating James I. The starting point is compelling – the true story of the wave that destroyed much of Bristol – and here she puts it in a context of religious turmoil, persecution, conspiracy and suspicion.

The result is a richly evocative and atmospheric novel, gorgeously written, with attention given to the details of daily life as well as the devastation of the flood. This is a population that has been traumatised and we feel that keenly. We meet men, women and children in dire straits, including a young boy who must survive as best as he can, homeless and still hoping that he can find his family, that they won’t be lost to the sea. He is one of the survivors and they can be ruthless.

Daniel is an outsider who wanders through the city’s streets, suspected by many and a witness to some terrible things. There are some devastating scenes in The Drowned City as people find witches in ordinary places and treat them brutally. Daniel is there to uncover secrets, without knowing what those secrets are. He is caught in the middle of something that he can hardly understand but it constantly reminds him of a past he is trying to forget.

The Drowned City is beautifully written, with an emphasis on atmosphere, on Bristol and its people during this period of turmoil and persecution rather than on the plot, which meanders considerably. I did find this a little frustrating on occasion but it is certainly engrossing and involving. I loved the scenes featuring King James – especially the memorable scene when he visits the Tower of London to see his lion. This is fabulous! I’ve read a fair few novels featuring James over the years and this James is excellent (and fortunately long dead)!

Other reviews (writing as Karen Maitland)
The Vanishing Witch
The Raven’s Head

A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 (1 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey DavisThe festival of Saturnalia is rapidly approaching and this year Flavia Albia and her aedile husband Tiberius know that it needs to be extra special due to the two young boys now in their care. But the best laid plans and all of that soon go awry when it becomes clear that a gang of hoodlums is messing around with Rome’s lucrative nut market. When matters turn nasty, Tiberius is forced to investigate while Albia has her own hands full with another matter. A woman has thrown her husband out and wants to know exactly what he’s been up to. It seems like such a simple case, just something to pass the time. Albia couldn’t be any more wrong. And that’s before their pet sheep (called Sheep) is stolen and its head dumped on their welcome mat. Meanwhile, Rome carries on regardless, carrying out practical jokes, decorating their houses, tolerating cheekiness from their slaves, and passing out drunk in doorways.

I have been reading Lindsey Davis’s Roman mysteries for more years than I care to mention – first the Falco books and now those that focus on Falco’s adopted daughter rescued from Britannia. In this now soundly established second series, Domitian’s Rome is brought to life due to the author’s masterful way in backing up her wonderful, engaging stories and characters with all of those fascinating historical details. Lindsey Davis knows her stuff and it enriches these novels every bit as much as her humour. A Comedy of Terrors is the ninth volume of the series (how can it be that many already?) and you can enjoy it with or without knowledge of its predecessors. If you love Marcus Didius Falco – as if anyone doesn’t – then you’ll be pleased to see that he pops in. Saturnalia is a family festival after all.

Flavia Albia, as normal, is our narrator and what a wonderfully witty and entertaining companion she is. It’s clear that sometimes what she says hides what she really feels – such as her relationship with her husband (now on the right track again after the lightning incident, I’m relieved to report), her worries for the two little boys in her care, her responsibility for her household, and her memories of her terrible former life. There is an undercurrent of darkness, should you look for it.

A Comedy of Terrors is, perhaps, a more playful read than others in the series. This might be because the author wants to cheer both herself and her readers up. It worked, at least for me. At its heart is Saturnalia, the festival that has links with Christmas. I know little bits and pieces about the festival but this fabulous novel explores it thoroughly, immersing us in its chaos and fun, while also highlighting its downsides – the streets were far from safe for women and perhaps there is a cruelty behind some of the japes. As usual in these novels, we are reminded of the place of women in this society and the complete and utter barbarity of slavery, as well as the brevity of life for many. No wonder everyone looked forward to Saturnalia and the reversal of roles, with the slave playing king.

The story is a good one, with several strands which are slowly developed. There is so much of interest happening outside the cases. Everything you wanted to know about the Roman nut business or pie making business can be found in this book. It is all pulled together satisfactorily, and rather amazingly, and I think that the last third is particularly fantastic. I felt like applauding at the end.

Lindsey Davis is so good at placing us in the streets (and high-rise tenements) of late 1st-century AD Rome. There is so much to look at. I love her characters and Flavia Albia has now established herself as a worthy successor to Falco – Falco would, no doubt, have it no other way. I look forward to this series every year and A Comedy of Terrors shows so well exactly why that is.

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 Grove of the Caesars

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

HarperCollins | 2021 (18 March) | 656p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rose Code by Kate QuinnWhen war is declared in September 1939, glamorous debutante Osla Kendall can’t get back to England from Montreal fast enough to help with the war effort. After a few exhausting weeks building Hurricanes, Osla is headhunted for her language skills and finds herself in Bletchley Park alongside Mab Churt, a working class girl who can type better than anyone. The two of them lodge with Mrs Finch, a ghastly woman whose daughter, the quiet and withdrawn Beth, has an extraordinary gift for solving puzzles. The three of them are soon at home in Bletchley Park, a place where genius and madness co-exist and whose inhabitants will go to astonishing lengths to break life-saving codes. But there is still time for Osla to dance the night away with her beau, Prince Philip of Greece, when he’s home on leave from the navy.

After the war, while she waits for her prince to marry another woman, Osla receives a message from her past. The three friends are no longer close, on the contrary, and one of them is in an asylum. The three must work together once more to fight another threat. The clues to it can be found in their time together at Bletchley Park, a time of secrets, friendships and war.

I knew that I wanted to read The Rose Code the moment I heard about it. I really enjoyed Lady of the Eternal City (which couldn’t be more different!) and so I knew that the story of the women who worked at Bletchley Park, alongside their more famous male counterparts, would be in safe hands. I absolutely loved it!

Our three heroines are drawn from different classes and backgrounds, with Osla hailing from the very heights of society, and yet all three have to face the very real challenges of leading independent, working lives at a time when society viewed such women with suspicion. War changes society and it undoubtedly gave women such as these a new lease of freedom. But it’s at such a cost, as can be seen by our tantalising glimpses of the secretive work going on in these mysterious huts to prevent U-boat attacks and quicken the end to war. But it’s outside those huts that the novel really comes alive as the three women get to know one another and embark on their own adventures – love affairs, marriage, fighting back, friendships with such fascinating and charismatic men. We know from the premise and the sections of the novel that are set a few years later in the days leading up to the marriage of Prince Philip and the Princess Elizabeth that there is darkness and treachery in their future and the reader never loses their desire to find out exactly what happens.

The atmosphere of puzzles and secrecy mixes here with a mood of grabbing what fun one can in a world where everything could be ended by a bomb, or where a loved one can be lost on a ship at sea, a victim of the U-boats that the de-coders are trying to stop. Osla in particular is full of life and I loved spending time with her, especially when she’s with the gallant Prince Philip. We know, of course, that this is a doomed love but it adds such a fun dash of romance to the novel, not to mention a delicious morsel of royal intrigue. The scenes set after the war in the Yorkshire asylum are distressing and disturbing and means that for much of the novel we wonder what on earth could have gone so wrong with these friends.

Kate Quinn writes so well and is wonderful at creating women who feel so real and genuine, even if they are highly unusual. The prose is compelling, the dialogue witty, and the story is fabulous. Bletchley Park isn’t an uncommon setting for a novel these days but it’s certainly viewed from a fresh perspective here – I loved the account of Churchill’s visit! The Rose Code is not a short book but it is a pleasure to read from start to finish.

Other review
Lady of the Eternal City

Cathedral by Ben Hopkins

Europa Editions | 2021 ( 21 January) | 619p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Cathedral by Ben Hopkins

In 1229 Rettich and his brother Emmerich arrive, penniless, in the (fictional) German city of Hagenburg. Rettich has a talent – he can build with stone, sculpt it – and Hagenburg would be the perfect place to settle with its cathedral under construction. But first Rettich must buy his freedom from the Bishop because in this time and in this place people are rarely born free. The cathedral is constructed with the soaring ambition of Eugenius von Zabern, the Bishop’s treasurer. It is designed by Achim von Esinbach, an architect who has visions. He loves Odile, a daughter of a family of mystics. The city is protected by Manfred, a soldier who learns that business has more to offer and marries Grete, a weaver. Funds for all come from the city’s Jews. Everyone is connected, joined together against attack from outside, but, for some, the enemy is within the town’s walls, represented by those who are different – mystics, Jews, women, the poor – to be feared and destroyed in the shadow of the cathedral.

Cathedral is a beautifully written and ambitious novel that on one level chronicles the construction of the cathedral in the Germany city of Hagenburg but, on another, presents the lives of Hagenburg’s people through the 13th century, a time of unrest, war, river piracy, heresy and suspicion. Several generations of people pass through the story, although some characters remain central to the life of the city. We meet the masons, the merchants, the local churchmen and nobles, the mystics, the soldiers, the Jews, their wives and children, their husbands and lovers. This is a novel full of life, a snapshot of a particular place at a particular time in medieval Europe. It is indeed engrossing.

This is a novel about life but it also, not surprisingly considering the period in which it is set, about death. Death takes many forms in a place where life is short but sometimes it can be absolutely shocking and there are scenes here involving the Church’s crusade against the mysticism of the Cathars that are horrifying in their cruelty and hypocrisy. There are also moments of brutality, ambition that soars and then is crushed due to the nature of this world and society.

Ben Hopkins does such an astonishing job of revealing medieval European life by focusing on specific examples, drawn from across society, religions and wealth, gender and status. The mutual relationship between the classes is essential but it is also fragile and vulnerable to assault. This is a city in which pirates and bandits flourish, and not all of them are as they first appear.

Cathedral is an engrossing and compelling novel, especially during the first two thirds of the book when I felt heartily involved with the characters. I did find it a dark and troubling read (this is not an ‘easy’ period of history) but it is a memorable one. It’s difficult to imagine a more convincing portrayal of life and death in 13th-century Europe.

Daughters of Night by Laura-Shepherd Robinson

Mantle | 2021 (18 February) | 592p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

It is 1782 in London and Caroline (Caro) Corsham desperately waits for her husband Captain Harry Corsham to return from France where he has been for too many weeks. Caro amuses herself in the meantime by visits to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and it is there that she horrifyingly comes across a friend, Lady Lucia, an Italian aristocrat, who has been attacked and dies in Caro’s arms. There are more shocks to come. Caro discovers that Lucia wasn’t Italian or an aristocrat, she was a prostitute known as Lucy Loveless. The police have no interest in hunting for the killer of such a woman and so Caro takes it upon herself to avenge this young woman, hiring thief taker Peregrine Child to lead the investigation. But what a world it is that Caro and Child discover as they become immersed in a London society that values paintings and classical sculptures far more than it does the women it craves.

Daughters of Night is one of my most anticipated novels on 2021 and how could it not be when it follows the superb debut Blood & Sugar? My impatience hasn’t been helped by the repeated delays in publication date due to You Know What. But now it is here and it is every bit as marvellous, and as clever, as its predecessor. There is a link – Caro is the wife of our previous main character Harry (who is largely in the wings for this novel) – but otherwise Daughters of Night stands alone very well. But I also think that the two novels complement each other brilliantly.

In Blood & Sugar Laura Shepherd-Robinson tackled the monster that is Slavery, focusing on the men and women, free and enslaved, of Deptford. In Daughters of Night, the author turns to the place of women in a Georgian society that believes itself cultured, refined and well-educated, largely thanks to its immersion in the classical past and its looted works of art. Caro is an unusual woman (you’ll have to read the novel to find out exactly why) and is largely at the mercy of her brothers while her husband is absent. She seems independent but we see how untrue that is as the novel continues. But while Caro is the main character she isn’t the only woman who matters very much in Daughters of Night. We follow the story of Pamela, a young girl who falls into prostitution and has her real name taken from her. Pamela’s very interesting. She regards prostitution as an escape from her previous life and she grabs what chances she can. She’s not always likable, far from it, but we care for her. And then there’s the powerful story of Lucy Loveless. We also meet wives and daughters and lovers of other men. There are so many secrets, so many lies and, for some, so little love.

Daughters of Night is a complex novel in some ways, while being always accessible and engrossing. It has many layers and it’s Caro and Child who unravel them. I loved the role of art in the book, how a famous artist would use a prostitute as his model for a goddess. These women are both muse and prey. There is so much artifice and hypocrisy. We see the men in the studio, in their clubs, in brothels, in their drawing rooms, with their creditors and in their hunting fields. It is through the character of Child that we’re given deeper access into this world.

It’s an involving story with a wealth of characters moving through the pages. I listened to the audiobook, which is marvellously narrated by Lucy Scott (well known for her depiction of Charlotte Lucas in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice) who brings these people to life, both female and male. But, whatever the format you choose (and it is a gorgeous hardback!), it’s engrossing and full of historical details that place the reader firmly in Georgian London, a place both gorgeous and squalid, with its (male) predilection for classical culture, for collecting women and for controlling them, even owning them.

Laura Shepherd-Robinson writes so beautifully and her characters are astonishingly varied and real. It’s a long book and I’m glad of it. I can’t wait for more. An early contender for my top book of 2021.

Other review
Blood & Sugar