Tag Archives: Restoration

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

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 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

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2019 (4 April) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The King's Evil by Andrew TaylorIt is 1667 and the court of Charles II is rife with intrigue, political rivalry and scandal. The king is also without legitimate children and that isn’t helping matters as rival noble factions scramble for influence. The Duke of Clarendon is on the way out, despite being the father-in-law of the Duke of York, the king’s brother and heir. Clarendon is being bested by another of the court’s troublesome dukes, of Buckingham, and even though Buckingham has some bad form in his past (he negotiated his own personal peace with Oliver Cromwell), he knows how to entertain the fickle king. Buckingham’s star looks set to rise even higher when a corpse is found in the well in the grounds of Clarendon’s brand new monstrously lavish and enormous mansion in the heart of London. The government investigator James Marwood is sent to look into the business and to cover it up. But the identity of the dead man is going to cause Marwood all kinds of problems.

The dead man is none other than Edward Alderley, the cousin of Cat Lovett, a woman who has played a key role in Marwood’s earlier investigations. Cat had every reason to want Alderley dead and Marwood isn’t the only person to know this. And now, only hours after she threatened him, Alderley is dead and Cat is the chief suspect. Marwood has been told to prove her guilt but he, however, is intent on proving her innocence. But in Charles II’s decadent London, can anyone be truly innocent?

The King’s Evil is the third novel in Andrew Taylor’s brilliant series featuring James Marwood, the son of a traitor. Each of the novels (beginning with The Ashes of London and continuing with The Fire Court) stands alone very well but if you read them in order then you will have the added treat of following the story of Marwood and Cat from its beginning in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. What’s clear, though, is that this is a series that goes from strength to strength.

The plot of The King’s Evil is excellent and, as is usual with these novels, is as much about the court of Charles II as it is about a murder. Marwood is a fantastic creation who, as we saw in the previous novels, has suffered a great deal. He’s trapped in the middle of a political situation from which he has no way out due to his treacherous father. He’s our perfect witness to all sides of the political games being played in this glamorous and yet grotesquely ugly court. Everyone remembers the gloom and danger of the Commonwealth and the king’s time in exile, but the moral corruption of the Restoration has proved equally dismal to many. Marwood stands apart. What he can do, though, is try and do the right thing by Cat, whose past is equally stained. But there are distractions lying in wait.

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of 1660s’ London, especially the Duke of Clarendon’s extraordinary and unwise palace in Piccadilly. Andrew Taylor is so good at bringing past streets and places to life and when I read one of his books I immediately go away and do some more research on what he has revealed. It’s fascinating. The courtiers are as ugly as their king – who is a strange creature indeed – but they are mesmerising.

Having said all that, the people that we get to know the most in The King’s Evil aren’t the courtiers but those who serve them. The little slave boy Stephen is a child I won’t forget in a hurry. It’s through him that we get to learn a bit more about what it is that gives this book its extremely appropriate and effective title. There is something melodramatic about the case itself – Edward Alderley does the job of stage villain very well – but this fits so well with the theatricality of London society at this time. Everything is hidden below the wigs and glorious frocks and waistcoats. Here we see the truth and it’s certainly entertaining.

I am thoroughly enjoying this series, which does such a fine job of immersing the reader in a London that is being rebuilt after the Great Fire. It’s recognisable in some ways and very different in others. And walking through its streets, or rowing a boat along its river, are some extraordinary figures. James Marwood is an excellent main character. At times he seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders as he stands almost alone and isolated. But the way in which he clings to interest, to life in London, to his friendship with Cat and other vulnerable people, is compelling to read about. I look forward to spending more time with him.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court

The Illumination of Ursula Flight by Anna-Marie Crowhurst

Allen & Unwin | 2018 (3 May) | 410p | Review copy | Buy the book

In December 1664 Ursula Flight was born under inauspicious circumstances – a comet blazing a trail across the sky. Surely an ill omen. But not to Ursula. Although born to a gentry family with all of the material care that she needs, she is emotionally not supported. But her father did teach her something: a curiosity about the world and the stars above it and, helped by this, Ursula began to dream of a life so different from that lived by her distant, controlled mother. More than anything, Ursula wants to write and so she spends much of her childhood scribbling plays and acting in them with her servant and best friend Mary as well as her siblings and other children. Ursula has dreams of becoming a playwright but her background is against her and, while still a young girl of just fifteen, she is married off to the much older Lord Tyringham. The life of Lady Tyringham has little to do with the life Ursula lives in her dreams.

The Illumination of Ursula Flight is a beautifully glittery tale of Ursula Flight’s determined efforts to escape her destiny and forge one of her own, all set against the glamorous backdrop of the decadent Restoration court of Charles II and his mistresses. Initially, the newly married Ursula spends most of her time in the countryside, protected by her husband, an imprisonment indeed. But when she finally arrives in court, she shines. But perhaps the most enjoyable part of all of this, for this reader, is the way in which Ursula copes with her life away from all she loves – the novel includes extracts from all manner of Ursula’s scribblings, including scenes from plays, notes on how she spends a day, letters, journal entries and so much more, all presented in a font so evocative of the late 17th century.

This is very much Ursula’s novel. She narrates it, she fills it with her writings and, as a result, it sparkles with her personality. She has so much to give, despite what she must endure. She wants independence and to be a writer, but she also wants to be in love, and the scenes in which she must consummate her marriage with her curiously awful husband are, by contrast with much of the rest of the novel, painful to read and a reminder of how horrific such a marriage can be. Aside from the fact that Ursula must endure his fumblings, she is at risk of being emotionally crushed. And matters aren’t helped when she does find somebody to love. There are so many pitfalls lying in wait for young attractive women of means.

The pages of The Illumination of Ursula Flight fly through the fingers. Ursula herself is an absolute delight and there are other people we meet along the way who also grab our attention, notably Lord Tyringham’s unappealing sister. There’s a real sadness in the descriptions of Ursula’s mother. I felt for her. Her entire married life has been spent pregnant, usually with tragic results. No wonder Ursula wishes for a different future.

I really enjoyed the depiction of Charles II’s court and also this London with its theatres, actors and hangers on. It comes to life so colourfully, aided by the extracts from plays. These are larger than life personalities and Ursula fits right in. I must admit that I found the novel slightly frothier than I was expecting. This is a very light and fast read but it is also entertaining and often witty and playful, enlivened by its interesting and effective format. I enjoyed my time with Ursula Flight and wished her every success with her dreams and hopes, while feeling for her during her times of distress. She epitomises the times in which she lived and I can imagine her in her glorious gowns with arranged hair and flattering face patches. Her beauty is certainly reflected in the absolutely stunning cover of the novel and in its use of fonts. It all combines to present such a pleasurable read.

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2018 (5 April) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

The Great Fire of London has left much of the city in soot-drenched ruin, with many of its inhabitants displaced and eager to rebuild. Greedy landlords are quick to take advantage. Now is the time to knock down the tenements and rebuild modern housing for the rich. But the tenants are fighting back. The battleground is the Fire Court, the place in which judges decide London’s future. There is a great deal of money at stake and murder ensues. James Marwood’s father is one of the first to die, falling under the wheels of a cart, but not before this old and unwell man told his son how, during one of his nighttime rambles, he had come across the body of a murdered woman lying in one of the rooms of the Fire Court.

James Marwood is clerk to Joseph Williamson, a prominent official in the court of Charles II. Marwood’s role is to investigate, ideally to prove wrongdoing is being committed by Williamson’s rivals at court. But Marwood becomes dangerously obsessed with following the distorted, rambling memories of his dead father, the thread that will lead him to the murderer lurking at the heart of the Fire Court. But this is no straightforward mystery. Many are ensnared within it, caught up in its false leads, including young Cat Lovett, a woman that Marwood once rescued and now lives as Jane Hakesby, a servant of her distant cousin, the architect Simon Hakesby. Never have architects been as busy as they are now. But the rebuilding is being done at the cost of great misery and worry to many. All levels of London’s society are implicated in one fashion or another. James Marwood will have to risk everthing he has to unravel the truth.

The Fire Court follows on from The Ashes of London, a novel set during the Great Fire itself. Now we are dealing with the aftermath, in all of its shapes and forms. If you haven’t read The Ashes of London, then you’ll still enjoy The Fire Court as a stand alone novel but you’ll have missed out on the history of Marwood and Cat. These are marvellous characters, dancing around each other, and it’s wonderful to meet them again. Cat’s predicament continues, her position is still unsafe, whereas Marwood still has to deal with the inconvenience and uncertainty of working for two masters at war with one another. It’s time for James Marwood to make some difficult decisions.

The case at the heart of The Fire Court is pleasingly complex, with a succession of fascinating and memorable suspects and victims walking through the burnt remains of the city. We meet men and women from all walks of life but the novel is particularly intriguing in its depiction of women, many of whom are vulnerable whatever their social rank and wealth. Jemima, Lady Limbury, really stood out for me, as did the horrifying household in which she endures.

Andrew Taylor is so good at setting a scene, whether it’s outside in London’s blackened streets, or inside its houses and courts. All are richly and vividly described. I love the mix of colour and vitality set against the black and grey of poverty and soot. We learn to feel much more for James Marwood in this second book. Even his master Williamson begins, we suspect, to value his worth and his sacrifice. Marwood is a quiet hero and he displays true courage in this novel. He brought me to the edge of my seat and I really worried for him.

This is such a great series. The Civil War continues to haunt people and events. Both Marwood and Cat have much to atone for in the eyes of the court as they pay for the sins of their fathers. This adds a fascinating level of potential intrigue. In The Fire Court we’re only given brief glimpses of the royal court but its influence spreads far and Marwood cannot escape its plots. I particularly enjoyed learning here about how London began to rebuild in the weeks after the fire. Fire continues as a theme in this novel. It’s never far away.

In my opinion, The Fire Court is even better than its excellent predecessor. Its characters are fully developed and its portrait of 1660s’ London and society makes for an immersive read. One senses that the road ahead for Marwood and Cat is far from straight and I can’t wait to see where it takes them as well as witness how London is transformed through these post-fire months.

Other review
The Ashes of London

The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

Headline Review | 2018 (8 February) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Coffin Path by Katherine ClementsIt is 1674 and the earliest signs of spring are creeping across the frozen Yorkshire moors. A ewe is labouring to give birth to the first lamb of the season but it’s in need of help from Mercy Booth who farms the hills and slopes for her elderly father. Scarcross Hall is their home and Mercy is never more alive than when she strides across the moors. But this year all is not well. Her father is increasingly unwell, his behaviour erratic, and little things are going missing from the house, most notably three ancient coins. And now, when the mist comes in, Mercy feels a malignance in it that she’s never felt before. But she refuses to be frightened. Especially now when the farming year is coming back to life. With the lambing season about to begin, followed by the summer’s harvest, men are returning to Scarcross once more to help with the annual labour. But with them comes a stranger looking for work and nothing will ever be the same again.

The Civil War and the years that followed it is one of my favourite periods for historical fiction and few authors bring it to life with such atmosphere and feeling as Katherine Clements. She also finds an unusual perspective, focusing on the overlooked role of women in such male domains as war (The Crimson Ribbon) and highway robbery (The Silvered Heart). In The Coffin Path, Katherine Clements portrays another woman who has to live independently in a male world (farming and stewardship), coming to terms with the suspicion and abuse that this independence arouses in a superstitious society. We have been removed in this novel from the centre of political or social affairs. We’re now in a remote and challenging, albeit beautiful, part of England where some of the old ways survive. The coffin path, the ancient path along which coffins are carried from the moors down to the church, passes by the White Ladies, a prehistoric stone circle that continues to exert an influence on those who behold it. Nature is harsh up here on the moors. Life struggles. Death is common – and it might not always be the end.

Scarcross Hall is Mercy’s home and she loves it but it is the perfect setting for a haunted tale. It was once grand but has now fallen into disrepair, its larger rooms difficult to heat. Its walls and floorboards creak. It’s not a silent house and its history holds secrets.

I love a historical spooky tale and The Coffin’s Path is one of the most atmospheric and chilling that I’ve read. This is mostly due to Katherine Clements’ beautiful, rich and elegant prose but it has also much to do with the spirit of its setting on the moors which is so perfectly painted. It is both stunning and frightening and the author captures this so well, and personifies these conflicting moods in the character of Mercy Booth. Mercy couldn’t fit better into the landscape and the fact that she’s so hard to frighten – if she hears a noise in another room she’ll fling the door open, or stare out of the shutters into the dark night – makes her a more unusual figure in a ghostly tale.

The story is split between Mercy’s perspective and that of the stranger. They dance around each other. They complement one another and add another level to the novel. There are some wonderful characters here, quite apart from Mercy and the stranger, and my favourites were the boy Sam and his mother. We are also taken from the wild world of the moors into the so-called civilised places of the church and local town but what we see there is every bit as superstitious and threatening as the worst of weathers that fall and freeze on the moors.

I read Most of The Coffin Path late at night, perfect for its chilling and creepy mood. There’s something otherworldly about the moors (and I was reminded of Wuthering Heights) and Katherine Clements captures it so well while also providing such a fascinating depiction of rural society and beliefs in the 1670s.

Other reviews
The Crimson Ribbon
The Silvered Heart

Traitor by David Hingley

Allison & Busby | 2018 (18 January) | 382p | Review copy | Buy the book

Traitor by David HingleyIt is May 1665 and Mercia Blackwood, with her child Daniel and manservant Nicholas, is at last returning home to England and London after her adventures in America. Surely now she has done enough to win back the favour of Charles II, the King who executed her father for treason, and all that he has promised. But after weeks at sea, her reception home could hardly be worse. It seems that he will demand more from her.

England is at war with the Dutch. The King, and his mistress Lady Castlemaine, believe that there is a spy at court, spilling secrets to the enemy, stolen straight from the King’s War Council. It is believed that the spy is named Virgo and she is thought to be one of the women in closest association with members of the Council. Who better to hunt the spy out than Mercia? She is, after all, herself adored by one of the Council, Sir William Calde. Mercia’s investigations will take her into the heart of the glorious yet debauched royal court. She will also witness the lives of those who serve the powerful, as servants and, sometimes, as little more than pets.

Traitor is the third novel by David Hingley to feature Mercia Blackwood. At the time of writing this, I have read Birthright, the first, but have yet to read Puritan, the second of the series which moved Mercia from London to America on another mission for the King. The fact that I have yet to read Puritan did nothing to harm my enjoyment of Traitor but it certainly made me want to go back and read it. The fact that I didn’t at the time was because the story had moved from London and King Charles – who is such an appealing element of these books – to the New World. But now I’d like to find out what went on. In this third book we are squarely back in London.

The portrayal of Charles II’s court is full of colour. It also reeks with sin. So soon after the Civil War, with England at war once more, there’s a strong sense of the fragility and vulnerability of Charles II’s reign, especially as his children, though many in number, are all illegitimate. There’s hardly a man at court without a mistress, as well as a wife. It leads to complications. And having to unravel it all is Mercia.

I like Mercia. She’s independent and courageous, doing all she can to get what she needs in what is most definitely a man’s world. Women at court are expected to be mere adornments although one suspects that the women are more influential than their men might suppose. But the emphasis is on Mercia’s mission and drive rather than on her character and so she isn’t especially three-dimensional. But, as I say, I do like her.

I particularly enjoyed the elements of the story that took me out of the oversweet court and into the stench of London’s poorest streets and also onto the ships preparing for battle against the Dutch. The fact that this novel is set in 1665 made me expect the Great Plague and, although it does make a cameo appearance, this is very much about the war with the Dutch. I know very little about this, or about the ships that fought it, and so I found this really interesting. There’s another ogre that raises its head in Traitor and this is slavery. These sections were, for me, the best of the book.

I think it’s quite likely that Charles II isn’t quite done with Mercia Blackwood yet and so I’m intrigued to see what will happen to her next, should David Hingley continue her story. This is one of my very favourite periods in British history to read about so I certainly hope he does.

Other review
Birthright

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the Blog Tour. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

Traitor blog tour banner

Inquisition by David Gibbins

Headline | 2017 (28 December) | 355p | Review copy | Buy the book

Inquisition by David GibbinsIt is 258 AD and the Emperor Valerian has turned on Rome’s Christians, slaughtering them and their pope in the most imaginatively cruel ways, as entertainment for the masses. A Christian legionary runs into the fire-drenched catacombs beneath the city to retrieve his faith’s most sacred object, the Holy Grail, to save it for the future. In 1684 the famous diarist Samuel Pepys is in Tangier to oversee the handing over of Charles II’s defeated colony to the Moors. A mysterious object concealed within an ancient leather saddlebag becomes part of the negotiations. Pepys’ aim is to send it away to safety in the Caribbean, far from the attention of kings and emperors, but something terrible stands in the way – the Altamanus, a merciless element within the Inquisition, and they never lose sight of their target.

In the present day, marine archaeologist and explorer Jack Howard is diving off the Cornish coast on the wreck of a ship that he is able to identify as one of those that Pepys despatched from Tangier. It presents a tantalising glimpse into a mystery ready to be solved and it sends Jack and his diving partner Costas, as well as his daughter Rebecca, on a trail of clues that will lead them across many miles of stormy ocean seas. But every step Jack takes is one dogged by the evil that is the Altamanus and the Inquisition.

If you’re a fan of archaeological adventure then you are in for a treat with David Gibbins’ Jack Howard series. It is unbeatable. I hesitate to call the books thrillers because, although they do contain action, fights, chases and spilt blood, they go deeper than that into the history behind the mystery and their archaeological context is sound. Gibbins is a marine archaeologist himself and it shows on almost every page. These books are full of exhilarating diving sequences, infused with the excitement of discovering historical artefacts as well as the thrill of exploring this dangerous yet beautiful environment. You can learn something while reading these books, as well as being thoroughly entertained and I love them. As soon as Inquisition arrived, I read it.

Inquisition is the tenth book in the series and I don’t think it matters at all if you read this on its own. I love Jack and Costas very much so there’s definitely much to be gained from reading all of the books but I don’t think it would matter too much in which order you read them (with the exception of Pharaoh and Pyramid, which are a pair – and outstanding).

David Gibbins tells a great story and at its heart is the Inquisition, particularly in 17th-century Portugal. While most of the novel takes place during the present day, there is a significant chunk that transports us to Tangier and to Portugal. We witness the tension of the British evacuation of Tangier through the brilliantly-realised figure of Samuel Pepys – most definitely a man with one eye on his posterity (and the other well fixed on alcohol and women). I did enjoy Pepys. David Gibbins is so good at evoking the past. But the section set in Portugal during the Inquisition is far darker and deeply disturbing.

Inquisition is a shorter novel than usual and Costas has far less of a role than normal. While I would have liked much more (of pages and Costas), the focus is very much on the Inquisition and the shipwrecks that evoke so powerfully this bygone era. The mystery is almost secondary to the history and archaeology and that is something I’ve always appreciated in these novels. I love the author’s attention to the details of marine archaeology. You feel like you’re there beneath the waves with Jack and Costas and that anything could be found amongst the rotting timbers of a forgotten wreck. But in this book in particular there is great trauma – the Inquisition that gives the novel its name – and its telling is extremely moving. I will never be able to get enough of David Gibbins’ novels.

Other reviews
The Gods of Atlantis (Jack Howard 6)
Pharaoh (Jack Howard 7)
Pyramid (Jack Howard 8)
Testament (Jack Howard 9)
Total War Rome: Destroy Carthage
The Sword of Attila: Rome Total War II

Fire by L.C. Tylor

Constable | 2017 (2 November) | 295p | Review copy | Buy the book

Fire by LC TylerIt is 1666 and the Great Fire of London is ablaze. Lawyer John Grey heads out into the smoke and flames to try and help. Almost everybody is going in the other direction, escaping with what they can carry while their houses burn. Grey finds a body with somebody hunched over it who flees as Grey approaches. But the corpse is no victim of the fire. He has been stabbed.

London is looking for somebody to blame and, as the fire dies down, rumours spread of French involvement. This is the last thing the royal court of Charles II wants. The court is suspected of Catholicism. If the French did start the fire then Charles and his brother the Duke of York would be given a hefty share of the blame. And then a Frenchman, Robert Hubert, is arrested, admitting to starting the fire and also stabbing his French accomplice to death. John Grey is more than a lawyer. He is also the agent of Lord Ardlington, the Secretary of State, and Ardlington despatches Grey to discover the truth. When he interviews Hubert he finds a man barely in possession of his wits, repeating details that he has been trained to say. It’s clear that this is the work of a conspirator’s plot. And as Grey and his friend Lady Pole trace the clues deep into the smoking ruins and along London’s busy river, it becomes clear that nobody is in more danger than they are.

Fire is the fourth novel in L.C. Tyler’s John Grey series and almost ten years have passed since the events of the first novel A Cruel Necessity, which was set in 1657 during the Cromwellian Commonwealth. The series, in my opinion, got off to a slow start with the first two books but in the third, The Plague Road, everything came together and the result was an exciting, well-plotted and brilliantly witty historical mystery. I’m delighted to say that Fire is every bit as good. This is fine writing and the tension and danger of the mystery is complemented by the humour of the narrative and dialogue. The novel is set during the Restoration, a time of wit and elegance, as well as sin and debauchery, and this mood is captured so well in these books. Fire made me laugh out loud more than once, something that doesn’t happen too often.

John Grey is a fascinating character with a history as convoluted as you’d expect in a society that is still picking up the pieces after the Civil War of the 1640s and the miserable Commonwealth of the 1650s. He’s in love with Lady Aminta Pole, whose background is as complicated as Grey’s, but real life – and scandal – keeps getting in the way. These two are very easy to like, although I can’t help feeling extra regard for Will, Grey’s poor clerk and servant who seems to spend much of his time as a go-between and has more sense in his head than almost everybody else in Grey’s world.

The mystery is such a good one and the setting in London’s smouldering ruins is richly evocative. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the city, its firefighters and their rather ungainly machines, river crossings and the camps that are set up to house the newly homeless and hungry. The idea that tourists flocked within mere days to look at the traditional starting place for the fire on Pudding Lane is an appealing one. This is a London crammed full of interesting personalities of all classes. This isn’t just a story about Charles II’s court. It covers all of London. And there in its middle is Grey who’s like a dog with a bone. When his teeth are dug in there’s no way he’ll let go.

Fire is a short novel – which is perhaps my only not entirely serious complaint – and it is put together perfectly. Not a word of its witty prose is wasted. I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Fire of London and it’s hard to imagine anyone immersing me in these astonishing days with more skill and wit than L.C. Tyler. I can’t wait for the next.

Other reviews
A Masterpiece of Corruption
The Plague Road