Tag Archives: seventeenth century

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Raven Books | 2020 (1 October) | 576p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the audiobook

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart TurtonIt is 1634 when the East India merchant ship Saardam sets sail from Batavia (Indonesia) to its home port of Amsterdam. In its dark and diseased depths it carries Sammy Pipps, a renowned and famous detective who is now a prisoner, being taken to his execution. He is accompanied by Lieutenant Arent Hayes, his bodyguard and close companion, who is determined to discover why Pipps is to die. And to do that he must play a careful game with the Governor-General of Batavia, the cruel and powerful Jan Haan, who is also aboard the Saardam, with his wife, daughter, and his mistress.

It is clear even before the ship sets sail that this will be a tormented voyage. A tongueless leper curses the Saardam from the docks, foretelling three terrible miracles. And when the ship sets sail, horrible sightings are seen, sinister whispers are heard and people begin to die. Arent fears that the ship will never reach its destination for how can it when the devil himself, Old Tom, is aboard? The only hope is Sammy Pipps.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a glorious, ingenious masterpiece – it is hard to imagine a debut novel that is more difficult to follow. But Stuart Turton has done a fine job with The Devil and the Dark Water. It is very different from its predecessor and so stands on its own terms very well. It is a more traditional novel of historical fiction, its tale is linear and it is steeped in its time of the first half of the 17th century. But it is still another clever novel. The action takes place almost entirely aboard the Saardam and on the high seas. This means heightened claustrophobia, sickness, danger but added to this is the element of something strange and supernatural haunting the ship, terrifying its crew and passengers, driving them to violence, to madness.

You can almost feel the spray of the sea on your face and the movement of the waves when you read this novel. You can strongly imagine the stench below decks, the misery of the unhappy passengers trapped below, the undercurrent of violence that menaces the women in particular, and the evil malignancy of the Governor-General. Stuart Turton is a fabulous writer and he uses his skills to great effect as we voyage across the high seas on a damned and cursed ship.

The Saardam is arguably the most central character of the novel but she has a rival in the extraordinary Arent. The author has mentioned in an interview (it follows the audiobook) that there are echoes of Holmes and Watson in the relationship between Pipps and Arent but what is interesting is that the relationship is turned on its head. Here we have the soldier, the helper, dominate, while the famous detective is forced into inaction. I’m not a fan of Sherlock Holmes (I know, I’m sorry about that) and so I’m pleased to say that the similarities didn’t influence my reading. Arent is a marvellous character and, as his past is slowly revealed to us, he fascinates more and more. His relationship with the Governor-General is truly intriguing.

My favourite character of the novel is, undoubtedly, Sara Wessel, the Governor-General’s beaten and badly-treated wife. She has heroic strength, loving and protecting her daughter Lia, determined to do what is right for those who need help even if it will result in another beating. Her courage and goodness are the light in this novel. As the Governor-General cowers and hides from the dark, Sara thrives.

Menace and foreboding shadow the voyage, and the novel, throughout. It’s a deliciously atmospheric tale. It’s dramatic and pacey, the crew is horrifying and compelling almost to a man, and it is all so beautifully described. I didn’t find it frightening but I did find it very disturbing. I listened to the audiobook, which was masterfully narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt, and I can thoroughly recommend it. Having said that, there are some gorgeous hardback special editions to be found! I settled for both.

Stuart Turton is most definitely an author to watch. I love the way in which he plays games with historical fiction. I can’t wait to see where and when he takes us next.

Other review
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

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

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.

Blood’s Campaign by Angus Donald

Zaffre | 2019 (28 November) | 361p | Review copy | Buy the book

Blood's Campaign by Angus DonaldBlood’s Campaign is the third novel to feature Captain Holcroft Blood (son of the infamous Colonel Blood who stole the Crown Jewels). The novels stand alone very well and so you don’t need to have read the others but I really think you should anyway.

Time has moved on for Holcroft and for England. James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and so Holcroft now serves another master, William of Orange, who, alongside Queen Mary (his wife and James II’s daughter), rules the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. And it is to Ireland where James II has fled, raising an army to win the throne back from William and Mary.

Holcroft is a man who loves his job. He is in charge of the big guns in the Royal Train of Artillery and he loves every one of them. The job, and its uniform and his curious and deadly Lorenzoni repeating rifle, define him. But in the months and days leading up to the Battle of the Boyne in 1689, Holcroft is driven by another obsession – his hatred of French spy Henri d’Erloncourt, who likewise wants his old enemy dead and will use his position as part of James II’s force to bring Holcroft to a painful end. Holcroft has never been one to obey orders and, for him, winning the Battle of the Boyne is the secondary goal. The first is to kill the spy.

Angus Donald is a fantastic writer of historical fiction. He is one of the very best writing today and I have enjoyed every one of his novels, first the utterly superb Robin Hood series and now his Holcroft Blood novels. Angus Donald has the knack of making me want to read books about historical periods or figures that haven’t really interested me before. He makes me interested in them. He did this for Robin Hood and now he’s done it for the 1680s. I’ve always been fascinated in the Restoration years but now I know that the decades that followed them are every bit as compelling, and I have Angus Donald to thank for that. This isn’t a slow moving series. The first novel, Blood’s Game, was set in Charles II’s reign in the 1670s when Holcroft was a child and his notorious father was stealing the Crown Jewels. The second novel, Blood’s Revolution, leapt forward to 1685 when Lieutenant Holcroft Blood finished his years of espionage in France to work with ordnance in James II’s artillery, a role in which Holcroft is extraordinarily gifted. Now we’re in Ireland with a new king. These are fast-moving tumultuous times and Angus Donald reflects this so well in his series.

Holcroft is such an appealing hero and an excellent creation. He’s on the autistic spectrum, which makes him dedicated and committed to his cannon, knowing just with a glance the distance and angle required for a target-hitting shot. He is single-minded, which can get him into trouble as it does here, all thanks to the evil and weasley Henri d’Elancourt. Fortunately for Holcroft, his superiors know his value and he’s given leeway but even so it’s a difficult lesson for Holcroft to learn – that he is prepared to sacrifice people he cares for in order to achieve his intent. It really is an excellent character portrayal. Holcroft is a complex and likeable man. We spend so much quality time with Holcroft that inevitably other characters play a considerably secondary role, and Henri is a baddie rather than a living and breathing man like Holcroft, but Holcroft is a joy to spend time with. This is his story.

The historical background is fascinating. This is a well-researched novel, both in terms of the historical events and in the nature of warfare at this time, which was constantly changing due to developments in war technology. Holcroft is right at the cutting edge. The battle descriptions are gripping, gory as one would expect but this is kept under control. The blurring of allegiances is interesting – Holcroft is half-Irish and here he is fighting Irishmen while many of the men on William’s side come from the continent. I always enjoy James II in these novels and here he’s on fine and odious form.

I thoroughly enjoyed Blood’s Campaign. It’s exciting, packed with fascinating warfare details (focusing on cannon gives it an extra interest) as well as insights into life as an officer at a time of revolution and war when one was still expected to keep one’s wig and stockings neat and tidy. I can’t wait to meet Holcroft again.

Other reviews
Outlaw
Holy Warrior
King’s Man
Warlord
Grail Knight
The Iron Castle
The King’s Assassin
The Death of Robin Hood
Blood’s Game
Blood’s Revolution
Guest post: Rampant hedonism in the restoration

Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster | 2019 (20 August) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, in the Sussex tidelands, when Alinor, a descendent of wise women, waits in Fairmile’s graveyard for the ghost of her abusive husband, presumed lost at sea, to appear to declare her free. But it’s not a ghost that she comes across but James, a young priest just arrived from the court of the exiled Queen. Charles I is imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, the Civil War is over. But, whereas this is a cause for relief among the villagers of the tidelands, it’s a matter of grief for the idealist priest and he is here on secret, dangerous business. It’s perilous enough in these Cromwellian days for wise women such as Alinor but James is about to make it a whole lot worse.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tidelands. I’ve loved some of Philippa Gregory’s novels very much and struggled with others. This one, set in a different period for the author and largely away from the courts of kings and queens, was a mystery to me when I first opened the pages. It captivated me instantly, right from the opening pages when we first meet the extraordinary Alinor and find ourselves in the tidelands.

Philippa Gregory is to be applauded for her depiction of the tidelands of Sussex and of the daily lives of the people, largely poverty-stricken, who endure it and have to scrape a living from this most inhospitable and yet hauntingly beautiful environment. This is a place of disease, hunger, jealousy and superstition, of mud floors, scraps of clothing, and endless terrible toil in someone else’s fields or out on the water or in the mud. It feels timeless and you can feel it all around you. It pulls you in.

This lovely, descriptive prose is full of historical details about daily life. The scenes describing the harvest are completely engrossing, as women line up to walk the harvested field and glean it clean. Alinor is such a fascinating character. She’s beautiful but quiet, abused but staggeringly strong, both physically and mentally. With two fatherless children to care for and provide for, Alinor has to be strong. And we are astonished to see how her day of toil is divided, with one hard physical job following another.

So the contrast with the priest and his world is immense. Alinor’s brother hates the King. He proudly fought against him and would do so again. The reality of civil war has hit this remote community. But James does not see the King in this way and it’s in James’s company that we’re taken into the captivity of Charles I. It’s easy to feel the fury of the populace for an arrogant man such as this, who caused such blood to be shed. But we also witness him as a figurehead, as God’s annointed. James learns conflict as he finds himself newly rooted in the reality of life in the tidelands, lived on the land, at sea and in the mud.

James is a particularly intriguing character, trying to bridge two worlds, two ideologies. He is most definitely not the romantic hero that you’d expect from the novel’s opening. This is one of the many reasons why I loved this novel. There are surprises but life is also squarely embedded in the mud, in the sea and in the land, not in palaces.

As the book’s description suggests, we’re placed in a society in which suspected witches are discovered, tortured, drowned and killed. I’m pleased to say that this storyline, so overdone now in my opinion, isn’t as prevalent as I’d feared. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the novel’s ending (or Alinor’s daughter’s decisions) but what mattered to me is the journey that takes us to this point – the slow meander through these people’s lives, interspersed with glittering moments in the presence of a delusional king.

I believe that Tidelands is the first of a new series, The Fairmile. This is such good news. If its succeeding novels are half as good as its first then we are in for such a treat.

Other reviews
The Taming of the Queen
Three Sisters, Three Queens
The Last Tudor

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 Familiars by Stacey Halls

Zaffre | 2019 (7 February) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Familiars by Stacey HallsIt is 1612 and Fleetwood Shuttleworth is mistress of Gawthorpe Hall in the northwest of England, about forty miles from Lancaster. It’s a long way from London and the whole area is viewed with suspicion by the paranoid, unhappy King James I, ever since the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Some of the rebels fled north and James is not inclined to forgive the region. But Fleetwood has other problems to keep her occupied. She is just 17 years old and her marriage to Richard is already her second. She is heavily pregnant, having given birth to three stillborn babies. This is what life is like for eligible girl children. And Fleetwood is very afraid. She has discovered a doctor’s letter to her husband which states that if his wife should fall pregnant again, neither she nor the child would survive it.

But one day Fleetwood by chance comes across a young woman and midwife, Alice Grey. Fleetwood is drawn to her and hires her. Alice is knowledgeable about natural remedies and all remark on how much better Fleetwood is doing and her belly swells with a healthy child. And then men seeking favour with their King find it by discovering a local coven of suspected witches. Alice is among the accused. Fleetwood will stop at nothing, will risk everything, to save her friend whom she believes to be her only chance of salvation. But who will listen to a young, distraught and pregnant girl whose role in life is to support her husband and give him the heir he craves?

The Familiars is one of the most enthralling and enchanting historical novels I’ve read for some time. Its beautiful cover hints at wonders within and it is right. I fell for Fleetwood the moment I met her. She’s a remarkable figure, suiting her unusual name. She could hardly be more vulnerable or isolated, despite her love for her husband and their beautiful ‘modern’ home, and yet she is so resilient. But then she has so little to lose. She believes she’s a dead woman walking.

The title suggests that here is a story of witches and their familiars and, although they do play their part, the glory of the novel is in its portrayal of the fate of a well-to-do young woman who, while no more than a child, was married off, not once but twice, and lost her babies. Her terror feels so real. Her relationship with her husband is fascinating. There are elements of it that are shocking and yet we’re left in no doubt that none of this would be unusual.

Men are all powerful and this is shown in their persecution of these women. There’s no doubt at all that some of the accusers have their own motives for their cruel actions but the feeling is strong that women, particularly poor and illiterate women, have very little value – certainly less than a hunting dog or hawk. We are right behind Fleetwood as she fights for her friend’s life, just as we wince at the physical hardships she suffers in such an advanced state of pregnancy. The real suffering here, though, is experienced by the so-called Pendle witches. It’s barbaric. Stacey Halls doesn’t dwell on it but it’s very apparent.

The Familiars is such an atmospheric novel, which is rich in place. Fleetwood and Alice are just as at home outside in the woods as they are in Gawthorpe. Fleetwood is constantly on horseback, her enormous dog Puck running at the horse’s heels. The dining room, by contrast, is the male world where men meet to impress over wine and meat. There are beautiful descriptions of indoors and outdoors. It’s captivating. There’s sometimes an ephemeral feel to it. At other times, it feels modern and timeless.

I didn’t want to put The Familiars down once I picked it up and I read it in two glorious sittings, totally caught up in Fleetwood’s world and situation. She’s left an impression on me. I’ll miss her. And just look at that gorgeous cover!

Blood’s Revolution by Angus Donald

Zaffre | 2018, Pb 2019 | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Blood's Revolution by Angus DonaldIt is 1685 and Lieutenant Holcroft Blood, son of the infamous Crown Jewels-stealing Captain Blood, has returned to England after years in France as a reluctant spy. It’s now his job to look after (for his rather unpleasant commanding officers) the army’s Royal Train of Artillery, its cannon and other large guns, and he couldn’t enjoy his job more. He can calculate to the inch the position of a cannon to hit its target, however small. Holcroft’s skills are in more need than ever because rebellion has come to England. The Duke of Monmouth is determined to seize the throne from his Catholic and unpopular uncle King James II and now the armies must meet and kill each other at the Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset.

And so begins Blood’s Revolution, the second novel in a series begun last year with Blood’s Game. Although this new book is a follow up, to all intents and purposes it marks a new phase of Holcroft’s life and can be read as a standalone. It’s almost fifteen years since the events of Blood’s Game, when the teenage Holcroft, a page, became ensnared in the intrigue of Charles II’s decadent court. Our hero is now in his early thirties, he’s an impressive man to look at physically and he’s gained a great deal of respect for his courage and military skill. Holcroft, somewhere on the autism spectrum, is even more intriguing than he was before. He can wind people up the wrong way. He can be difficult. He knows that and he tries to not take everything so literally, but people are drawn to him, including his old and closest friend Jack Churchill (later Lord Marlborough).

Blood’s Revolution thrills from the outset. Its opening pages set on the battlefield set the pace for the rest of the novel and it doesn’t let up even though the story continues through several years as the events leading up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 are brought to life. This is a period of history that I know relatively little and it well deserves this excellent novel. So soon after the Civil War, the country is once more on the verge of war, a King again in danger of being removed. Holcroft’s role puts him in the midst of the action and it had me gripped, from the horrific execution of Monmouth through to James’s frantic attempts to hang on to power.

There is another side to Blood’s Revolution as well and it’s just as exciting. An evil French villain, the master spy Narrey, has followed Holcroft back from France and he is determined to exact his terrible revenge. Narrey has another mission as well and it’s compelling stuff. Angus Donald is to be congratulated for fitting in so much entertaining plot! It all works and connects brilliantly well. And did I mention there’s a spot of romance? Of course, it involves Holcroft so it might not be your conventional romance.

If I had to find fault, I’d be struggling, but I did have a little dissatisfaction for the way in which one particular lady, with a rather unusual voice, is treated. It felt a little unkind and I felt sorry for her. But that’s it. Otherwise, Blood’s Revolution is a corking historical adventure and I enjoyed it as much as I did Angus Donald’s glorious Robin Hood and Alan Dale novels (one of the best historical series ever written, in my opinion). I had a few minor issues with Blood’s Game but they all disappeared with Blood’s Revolution. I liked that Holcroft is now older and removed from the court. Now he’s in the big bad world and he has to take it on as an adult and a soldier, in his own unique way.

Blood’s Revolution is set during such a fascinating and dangerous period of history when people such as Holcroft and Jack Churchill had to make some terrible decisions and live with the consequences. And when there’s a rabid foreign spy after your head, it doesn’t make things any easier. This is such a fun, thrilling novel and I cannot wait to see what’s next for Holcroft Blood. As you can see from the long list of reviews below, I love Angus DOnald’s novels and Blood’s Revolution is a fine example of why that is.

Other reviews
Outlaw
Holy Warrior
King’s Man
Warlord
Grail Knight
The Iron Castle
The King’s Assassin
The Death of Robin Hood
Blood’s Game
Guest post: Rampant hedonism in the restoration

Destroying Angel by S.G. MacLean

Quercus | 2018, Pb 2019 | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Destroying Angel by SG MacLeanIt is 1655 and Captain Damian Seeker must leave London to conduct Cromwell’s business in the north of England. He is despatched to York to prepare the way for the rule of the Major-Generals with their new stringent anti-Royalist laws. Routine business takes Seeker to the small village of Faithly but he finds a village in turmoil, its priest accused of popery and its leading families united in their hatred of one another. The village is only waiting for the arrival of the trier or judge before their priest is put to trial for his supposed crimes. But while they wait, Seeker attends a dinner at the home of the village’s Commissioner Matthew Pullen, and during the meal a young girl dies an unnatural death. As if all this isn’t enough for Seeker to deal with, the trier then arrives and the ground falls away beneath his feet and it all becomes very personal indeed.

Destroying Angel is the third novel in S.G. MacLean’s fine Seeker series. I have been longing to read this book! The first novel, The Seeker, sealed this series’ place as one of my favourites, and I can’t see any sign of that changing. The Civil War and Commonwealth years are fascinating to me and S.G. MacLean has done a brilliant job of bringing the unhappy Cromwellian era of the 1650s to life. And it doesn’t hurt that Damian Seeker is one of the most enigmatic and charismatic figures in historical fiction. He exerts such a dominating presence in these books. I have most certainly fallen for him.

The Yorkshire setting is brilliantly evoked. It feels distant from London and the events of recent years but those turbulent times have troubled it, just as they have everywhere else. The Parliamentarian cause that fought and won the Civil War is now divided. The Levellers are viewed with great suspicion and are persecuted. Some people are regarded as turncoats, Royalists who switched sides when the outcome seemed certain, while families are split down the middle. And then there’s the near-hysterical hunt for so-called witches. All of this unhappiness affects the small village of Faithly and Captain Seeker is thrown into the midst of it, trying to do the right thing while serving a man hated by many.

I really enjoyed this, especially the first half, with its fine historical detail and moody atmosphere, helped along here with the wonderful location. The countryside and village life form the perfect backdrop. There are so many details of 17th-century daily life and I particularly liked the domestic scenes.

Destroying Angel has a fantastic plot. It’s complex and gripping. I really enjoyed its tangled threads, especially because one is so personal to Seeker. We see a new side to the man here, a caring side, although he does his best to hide it.

Destroying Angel is a crime novel but the mystery element is placed so well within a believable and richly-created historical setting, which is all the more fascinating because it takes place away from the more familiar London. This high quality, deliciously moody series continues to deliver. I long for more.

Other reviews
The Seeker
The Black Friar

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.