Tag Archives: seventeenth century

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

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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 (18 October) | 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.

Creating Scarcross Hall – guest post by Katherine Clements, author of The Coffin Path

The Coffin Path by Katherine ClementsThis week Headline Review publishes The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements. This beautifully written novel, set on the moors in the 1670s, is a haunting, atmospheric and deliciously creepy tale that transports the willing reader to another time and place, so vividly created by this marvellous writer. I am delighted to feature on For Winter Nights today a guest post by Katherine Clements in which she discusses the inspiration for The Coffin Path‘s ‘crumbling pile with a dubious history, Scarcross Hall.

My review of The Coffin Path.

Creating Scarcross Hall

‘It’s grander than he’d supposed, with the high chimneys and crenellated gables of an older age, mullioned windows and two jutting wings on either side of a central hall, clearly designed with more than practicality in mind – a statement of wealth and power, one man’s attempt to make his mark in this wild landscape.’

This is Scarcross Hall, the setting of my new novel The Coffin Path, as first encountered by one of the main characters, Ellis Ferreby.

When I began to plan my 17th century ghost story, I knew that the house I created would play a significant part. Set high on the desolate West Yorkshire moors, Scarcross Hall is a crumbling pile with a dubious history. The stuff of gothic cliché perhaps, but as an historical novelist with a respect for the past (and my readers) I wanted to make sure my house was historically plausible.

East Riddlesden Hall circa 1935

East Riddlesden Hall circa 1935


The Coffin Path takes place in 1674 and, for story purposes, my house needed to be at least 100 years old, preferably with a much longer history. Luckily for me, the West Yorkshire area has a distinct architectural heritage, rooted in the area’s economic past.

The pre-industrial economy was mostly farming and weaving. Sheep were farmed for wool rather than meat and through the 15th and 16th centuries the area became one of the foremost producers of Kersey – a coarse woollen cloth that was made for domestic and international markets. For some it was a hard, hand-to-mouth existence but, then as now, some people got rich. Self-styled ‘Yeomen Clothiers’ built large residencies to reflect their status at the top of local society. Known as ‘Halifax houses’, these vernacular buildings were built of the local millstone grit, with long mullioned windows and often a circular rose window above the doorway. Local gentry also built grand manor houses, ensuring the continuity of their estates by adding to older timber-framed buildings.

I went looking for examples.

Oakwell Hall

Oakwell Hall

Scarcross Hall probably owes most to Oakwell Hall in Birstal near Batley. Built in 1583 by John Batt, this manor house has been beautifully restored with 17th century interiors and was the first place I visited. It delivered inspiration in spades. In The Coffin Path readers might recognise Oakwell’s central hall with large mullioned windows and a huge stone fireplace, circled by an upper gallery that connects the first floor rooms. A bedroom, complete with large Elizabethan bed and painted fire screen, was the model for the creepy old bedchamber in Scarcross Hall.

Oakwell Hall bedchamber

Oakwell Hall bedchamber

When I found out that Oakwell has its own Civil War history (the Battle of Adwalton Moor was fought nearby in 1643), Brontë connections, (Charlotte Brontë is said to have based Fieldhead, the house in her novel Shirley, on Oakwell), and even its own ghost, I was sold. I had found a great prototype for the interior of Scarcross Hall, but what of the exterior?

Next was East Riddlesden Hall, built in 1642 by wealthy Halifax clothier James Murgatroyd. There has been a house on this spot since the 12th century, owned by various gentry families, but the house that exists today is mostly 17th century. Despite a salubrious history, the hall fell into disrepair and was uninhabitable by the early 20th century. This picture, taken in 1905, certainly has the atmosphere I was looking for.

East Riddlesden Hall, Starkie wing (now demolished)

East Riddlesden Hall, Starkie wing (now demolished)

The hall was almost demolished but was saved by locals William and John Brigg, who bought the hall in 1933 and donated it to the National Trust. Inevitably, East Riddlesden has its ghosts too: the Grey Lady, who is said to have been bricked up alive by her cuckolded husband, and the Blue Lady, who met a slightly less dramatic end by drowning in the fish pond!

East Riddlesden Hall was saved by the passion and generosity of two local men, but many other houses were not so lucky.

High Sunderland Hall is widely thought to have been the model for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. This 16th century house, built by the Sunderland family, stood on the outskirts of Halifax, on a site inhabited from the 13th century. Quite unlike the other houses I’d encountered, High Sunderland was incongruously decorated with Latin inscriptions and many grotesque statues of mythical creatures.

Emily Brontë would certainly have been familiar with the building during her time as a teacher at nearby Law Hill School. Here is Emily’s description of the Heights, which seems to match the pictures we have of High Sunderland:

Before passing the threshold I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front and especially about the principal door, above which, among the wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date 1500 …

High Sunderland Hall

High Sunderland Hall

Imagining High Sunderland as it might have been inspired several elements of my own fictional house: the bleak setting, the crenellations, the strange, atmospheric mixture of the sacred and the superstitious. Sadly, it was demolished in 1951, though judging by the photos of the house in its latter days, it may not have been the most welcoming place. Perhaps it may have looked something like this…

‘There are slates missing from the roof, cracked panes in the leads and a crumbling central chimney. A high wall lends poor protection, pocked and lichen-stained, ravaged by years of storm and gale. It has the air of a shipwreck, abandoned and disintegrating amid the great wild ocean of the moor. Even now, the dark windows seem to stare back at him, soulless, like the eyes of a destitute.’

The Coffin Path.

For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Coffin Path blog tour poster

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