Tag Archives: seventeenth century

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

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

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

Blood’s Game by Angus Donald

Zaffre | 2017 (5 October) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Blood's Game by Angus DonaldIt is 1670 and the Blood family is still reeling from the aftereffects of the Restoration of the monarchy 10 years before. Colonel Blood unfortunately fought for the Parliamentarians and, as a result, his Irish estates were given to the Duke of Ormande while Blood and his family were consigned to eking out a living in a cottage in Shoreditch, London. Blood is not a man to let such a thing go unavenged and his drive to destroy Ormande is his consuming passion. This means that Blood sees his family little, and supports them even less.

Blood’s young son Holcroft has few options. With no pleasure to be had at home he welcomes the opportunity to become a page of the Duke of Buckingham, Ormande’s great enemy. Holcroft might be little more than a bargaining chip in his father’s games but Holcroft accidentally discovers something he excels at – decoding ciphers. Promoted to confidential clerk, Holcroft finds himself in a position to observe the court of Charles II. And what a place it is. Ruled by sin and greed, here is a place for a young man to succeed, regardless of his past. His father the Colonel, however, has plans of his own and they could get them all killed.

Blood’s Game is the first in a new series by Angus Donald, whose Robin Hood and Alan Dale books have held me enthralled for years. With that series now complete, I’ve been waiting for what would come next. And it takes us to an entirely different period of history – the 17th century of the Restoration. But, as before, the line between wickedness and goodness is blurred and finding a path between the two is no easy thing to do. As with the Robin Hood books we here follow a character who could have been left to exist happily in the sidelines – in that case it was Alan Dale and here it is Colonel Blood’s young son Holcroft.

Holcroft is a fascinating character and not at all typical. As the afterword tells us, Holcroft has Asperger’s syndrome and this makes him stand out from those around him, including those he really should be trying to impress in order to get on in life. His attention to detail, his incredible recall and his inability to jest or to lie gets him into all kinds of trouble while also giving him opportunities to shine in the service of the thoroughly unappealing Duke of Buckingham. Unfortunately for Holcroft, he finds himself in a court ruled by sin, fierce rivalries and corruption. Watching Holcroft cope with that while also learning to play its game is a big part of the novel’s enjoyment.

The title is intentionally misleading. Colonel Blood’s plotting and his most infamous sting – his famous and historically true stealing of the crown jewels – do play an important role in the book but the games that give the novel its added edge and intrigue are those played out by Holcroft Blood.

Blood’s Game is a thoroughly entertaining historical romp, packed full of some brilliantly colourful characters. And chief among them is Charles II himself – I loved Charles in this novel! This is a man intent on enjoying himself but his run ins with his famous mistress Barbara Villiers are scene stealers. Wigged scoundrels abound in this novel – the Earl of Rochester doesn’t come out of this very well – but I particularly liked its women – Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwyn and also the playwright Aphra Behn. The fact that these extraordinary men and women existed in real life make it all the more wonderful to read about them here. No quarter is given. We get them warts and all. Especially with warts.

The only downside of the novel for me is Colonel Blood. I really disliked him and did not like spending the time with him, or the whole crown jewels escapade. But I do understand that this was an important part of setting up Holcroft for Blood’s Game and future books to come in the series. I hope we’ve seen the last of him. I could also have done without some of the swearing but I know that this is a thing of mine, that I’m particularly squeamish with certain words.

Angus Donald is a favourite novelist of mine (you only have to look at my list of reviews below!). I love the way that he fills history with colour, character and adventure. He writes so well and he creates people I want to read about and spend time with. Following the Alan Dale books was never going to be easy – how could it be? They’re spectacularly good – but I think he’s done a fine job with Blood’s Game, which has all the signs of developing into a future favourite series. Holcroft Blood is such a strong character and his future is an exciting one and I can’t wait to follow it as he takes us away from the court of Charles II and onto the battlefield.

Other reviews
Holy Warrior
King’s Man
Grail Knight
The Iron Castle
The King’s Assassin
The Death of Robin Hood

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Raven Books | 2017 (5 October) | 364p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1865 and Elsie Bainbridge carries the cares of the world on her shoulders. Married just months before, her husband Robert has died and she has little choice but to head to his crumbling country estate, The Bridge, where she will give birth to their child. The villagers are hostile and the servants are suspicious and unfriendly. Fortunately, Elsie has her husband’s cousin Sarah for company. They will come to rely on each other very much in the lonely months ahead. But perhaps they are not as alone as they might think.

When Elsie sets about getting to know her new home, she and Sarah come across a locked garret. Inside they find a diary dating from the 1630s and a wooden figure that looks disturbingly familiar. It is, she learns, a Silent Companion. Soon Elsie’s nights are disturbed by strange sounds. The servants insist there’s a nest of rats hiding in the walls. Elsie isn’t so sure – it sounds like wood being worked, being moved.

Interspersed throughout this wonderfully creepy, superbly Gothic novel are extracts from the diary which take us back in time to 1635 when Anne Bainbridge was mistress of the house. At that time everyone was hugely excited because King Charles I and his Queen were intending to spend a night at The Bridge. Everything was going so well…

I love haunted house stories and The Silent Companions was a book I couldn’t wait to read. I’d been told that it was genuinely frightening and so I settled down to read it late one evening. In fact, I only read this book at night. This isn’t a book for commutes and lunchtime reads – it deserves to be read by lamplight, when every sound seems louder in the quiet night. It’s a hugely atmospheric read. The Bridge is a fine example of a rickety, old and unloved Gothic mansion. It creeks. Its wood feels alive. And in its midst are Elsie and Sarah. We fear for them.

The sections from the 1630s are every bit as engrossing as the Victorian chapters. And the characters are just as intriguing, if not more so. Told in Anne’s own words, during these sections we are immersed in the past and it’s a dangerous and fearful place indeed.

I had two very late nights with The Silent Companions. I didn’t want to put it down and I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It certainly gave me the heebie jeebies and made my spine shiver. I love that feeling! It’s dark, tragic and, at times, deliciously scary, but it never goes overboard. The emphasis here is on Elsie and Anne and what this house, so claustrophobic and dark, does to them, two centuries apart. It’s quite a tale, full of Gothic wonders. I must also say that the hardback is gorgeous inside and out.

‘Writing Cromwell’s London’ – Guest post by Antonia Senior, author of The Tyrant’s Shadow

The Tyrant's Shadow by Antonia SeniorThis week, Corvus published The Tyrant’s Shadow, Antonia Senior’s third novel and the second to be set in the troubled middle years of the 17th century. The Civil War, and Cromwell’s Commonwealth, is one of the most compelling periods in English history (Oxford, where I live, is steeped in Civil War history) and I can’t get enough of it. I am so pleased to be able to host a guest post in which Antonia Senior looks at the challenges an author faces in bringing this period, and its remarkable personalities, back to life – especially Oliver Cromwell. Many thanks to Antonia for taking the time to write such a fascinating piece.

First, here is a little about The Tyrant’s Shadow. A review will follow shortly.

A court without a kingdom, a kingdom without a king…England, 1652: since Charles I’s execution the land has remained untethered, the people longing for change. When Patience Johnson meets preacher Sidrach Simmonds, she believes her destiny is to become his wife and help him spread the Lord’s word. Simmonds sees things quite differently. Patience’s brother Will has been bestowed the job of lawyer to Oliver Cromwell. Tasked with aiding England’s most powerful man, he must try to overcome his grief after the loss of his wife. Then Sam Challoner, Will’s brother-in-law, returns unannounced after years in exile, forcing Will and Patience to question their loyalties: one to a ruler, the other, a spouse. Who do they choose to save? Themselves, their loved ones or their country…

Writing Cromwell’s London

I was raised to hate Oliver Cromwell. Hatred of Cromwell, dark mutterings about Drogheda and a bone-deep affection for the Mountains of Mourne – these the are legacies of an Irish mother. It was a dark day when, steeled with red wine and misplaced bravado, I said to my Mum: “Actually, I don’t think Oliver Cromwell was so bad. In fact, I quite like him.”

Readers, she was not tickled.

Treason's Daughter by Antonia SeniorI went looking for Cromwell the Monster in the sources when I set out to write The Tyrant’s Shadow. My first book on the period, Treason’s Daughter, followed events from 1640 until the death of Charles 1 in 1649. My second Stuart novel, The Tyrant’s Shadow, is set in London in the mid 1650s – when England’s politicians and soldiers are desperately attempting to find a solution to the King-shaped hole in the constitution.

For me, this is one of the most fascinating moments in all of English history. We were without a King; without a settled constitution. A vacuum of power, and a violently unsettled body-politic. In all my work, I have grappled with the nature of power; how is it earned, exercised and lost. And more pertinently as a novelist, perhaps, why do people want it?

This is no new pre-occupation for a writer. In my novel, my character Will quotes Lucan’s Civil War – a masterpiece study on the men who fought for Rome, written by a poet compromised by his proximity to Nero’s toxic court. “As long as earth supports the sea and air the earth, there will be no loyalty between associates in tyranny and no power will tolerate a partner.’

This is the position in 1653: power is uneasily shared between Cromwell as head of the army, the army itself, and parliament. But the triumvirate is fatally flawed – all three partners want different things; and there is further dissent between army factions and within Parliament. There are two versions of what happened next. Version 1 has King Oliver violently seizing power as the fruition of years of scheming. Version 2 has Saint Oliver reluctantly taking charge to prevent a descent into anarchy and madness.

The answer, I think, is a tangle of the two. And it is these historical tangles that are irresistible to a novelist. In I wriggled, looking for the hints and clues, extrapolating wildly. I found not a monster, but a man who believed himself sincere, who was continually compromised by the exigencies of wielding power. A man who could be both sincere and duplicitous, violent and gentle.

I also found God. Not personally, you understand. There is nothing like a good rummage in the barmy theistic arguments of the seventeenth century to bolster your atheism. But Cromwell cannot be weighed without reference to his great and bombastic belief in God’s providence working through him.

God presents problems to the secular novelist. He is central to understanding the torments of Stuart Britain. It is too easy to be a little sneering of these ardent beliefs – which seem to us to be dancing on the head of a pin. Fighting over the unknowable. I was reminded of 6th century Constantinople – the setting for an earlier, unpublished novel. There were riots on the streets, vicious, bloody affairs whose entire catalyst was over the nature of Christ: was He both God and Human separately and simultaneously, or was He His own divine mesh of the two?

It is easy to mock the sincerity of these beliefs. Hard to understand that for our forefathers who interpreted the bible literally, these were not arcane arguments of the cloister, but questions of faith which could lead to eternal damnation in a flaming hell.

God, I think, is one of the reasons why the English Civil Wars are not a popular era for readers. Publishers find it hard to shift books on the Civil Wars, which is odd given the attractions: a murdered King, families split apart, a high blood count, stories of great courage and great betrayals.

But God muddies the waters. It is not east to know which side you are on. The old adage that the Parliamentarians were Right but Repulsive and the Royalists were Wrong but Romantic is actually pretty fair. Our 21st century souls rejoice in the Parliamentarians’ distrust of tyranny and impulse to freedom, but recoils at the peculiar joylessness of their puritanism.

And of course, the rebels ended up, anyway, with King Noll – a tyrant of sorts. But as tyrants go he was no Robespierre, no Lenin, no Mao. His Shadow was relatively benign. Unless you were an Irish catholic, I can hear my Mother muttering darkly.

Why did Cromwell want power? I did not quite find him – he is too obscured by other people’s views of his motives. I found a man who inspired great loyalty, and devotion. A man who roused fierce hatred. A man who tried – but often failed – to hold the moderate line in a world turned upside down.

Cromwell’s London is a place of subtlety and shadow – and I loved writing it for all the reasons that make the era difficult to sell. It is full of ambiguities. In The Tyrant’s Shadow, there is another Tyrant – a domestic one, rather than a political one. The obverse of tyranny is complicity with it; and I wanted to explore this idea as well. My heroine, Patience, is married to man of certainties who treats her badly. At one point, as he hits her, she thinks: “He will do as he will do. Such is the nature of tyranny. All she can do is find her pride, hiding in peculiar corners.”

The Plague Road by L.C. Tyler

The Plague Road | L.C. Tyler | 2016, Pb 2017 | Constable | 310p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Plague Road by L.C. TylerIt is 1665 and London is at the mercy of the Plague. Swathes of the city have become no go areas, many of the houses sealed with a cross on the door, a warden keeping watch for any who dare risk an escape from a house that has been damned by disease. But, despite the increasing death toll, life is still not regarded as completely cheap and when it is noticed that one of the corpses thrown into a plague pit has a knife sticking out of his back justice must be seen to be done. It is possible that this enthusiasm might have been encouraged by the fact that the man was known to have been carrying a secret letter, now missing, from the Duke of York (the King’s brother) to the French Ambassador. Nonetheless, John Grey, lawyer and sometime agent for Lord Arlington, the Secretary of State, is given the case to solve. What did the letter say? Who has it now? What on earth was the Duke of York up to? No doubt the dead man matters to someone, somewhere, but never mind that, where is the letter?!

Several years have passed since the events depicted in A Masterpiece of Corruption. Back then, Cromwell was in power and Grey was forced into the unenviable role of double agent. Life is simpler now after the Restoration even if political or religious beliefs must continue to stay secret. Republicans, such as Grey, have been re-accommodated into public life. But it is early days. People still fear another outbreak of civil war and the Duke of York’s behaviour isn’t helping matters. Neither, for that matter, is the Plague.

The Plague Road might be the next novel in the John Grey series by L.C. Tyler but it stands very well alone. It continues the unconventional relationship between Grey and the royalist Lady Aminta Pole but otherwise, in many ways, this novel begins things afresh. And it is populated by some fascinating characters, especially Samuel Pepys, the glamorous Lady Castlemaine and the rather extraordinary Father Horncastle who does more than anyone to stir up trouble during these pages.

In my opinion, The Plague Road is a big step up from its predecessor. I found A Masterpiece of Corruption over complicated and a little dry in places. I had no such issues with The Plague Road. This novel is wonderfully plotted and structured, the pace maintained throughout, and it is deliciously witty. It’s a dark story at times, which is all to the good, but it is enlightened by John Grey’s fabulous turn of phrase, particularly when he has to deal with people who bore him. I chortled regularly while reading The Plague Road, not something I expected to say about a book immersed in Plague, murder and conspiracies.

I couldn’t read The Plague Road fast enough, it is such an engrossing novel, immersed in its period. Its descriptions of the Plague and its pitiable victims are grim but I couldn’t look away, and just as horrifying are the scenes which demonstrate the impact of the Plague on communities around London and in the countryside. During the novel Grey must travel to Salisbury, a journey that in these times is almost impossibly difficult and dangerous to complete. And yet the fear is totally understandable, if ugly, and it’s captured so well here.

I felt that I got to know John Grey and Aminta Pole much better in The Plague Road and I grew to like them very much indeed. This series has come into its own and I’m most definitely looking forward to more as L.C. Tyler escorts us through these most troublesome and fascinating years in England’s history.

Other review
A Masterpiece of Corruption

Treason by James Jackson

Treason | James Jackson | 2016 (6 October) | Zaffre | 300p | Review copy | Buy the book

Treason by James JacksonElizabeth I is not long dead. James I, a Protestant, wears the crown and his throne is not yet steady. As far as Spain is concerned, it is still at war with England and surely now is the time for a true Catholic to seize the throne. James has inherited his chief statesman Lord Cecil, his ‘Beagle’, from Elizabeth, rewarding his cunning with an Earldom. A master of intelligence, Cecil has deployed his agents to seek out Catholic plots against the king. One agent in particular, Christian Hardy, is ready, waiting for his great enemy, the appallingly brutal ‘Realm’, to make his move. But in the background a network of Catholics stirs. Secrecy is paramount but one among them is revealed to us as the explosives expert – Guido or Guy Fawkes. It is Guy Fawkes who will light the wick.

Many of us, at least on this side of the pond, remember, remember the 5th of November when Guy (or Guido) Fawkes attempted to blow up James I and his ministers at the state opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605. With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that the Gunpowder Plot, audacious in the extreme, was doomed to failure from the outset but, during those paranoid days, so soon after the death of Elizabeth I, Catholics and Protestants were more suspicious of each other than ever. The Protestant King was very possibly quite sure that a plot would get him in the end, while the Pope and Spanish King could be confident that their agents and priests, hidden away in the country manors of England’s surviving Catholic aristocrats, would perform fearlessly their ultimate duty for God.

James Jackson’s Treason presents the tangled web of months of intrigue and treachery that led up to 5 November. The narrative flits between our cast, the proceedings laid out before our eyes like a play on a stage. William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson feature, playing minor parts, observing from the wings almost like a chorus as one conspirator meets another, meets another and so on. There are multiple strands of plot at play here – there is the Gunpowder Plot, there is the counter plot and then there is the blood curdling, black vendetta between Hardy and Realm. Occasionally James I and his Beagle pop in to take a look at how affairs are proceeding, the two of them forming an unlikely pair, and then there are others who think they can influence the game and, more often than not, pay a terrible price for their amateur schemes. Plans are pulled together in country estates but London draws them in, even the King can’t stay away from his capital forever.

The Jacobean period isn’t one I know well at all, outside of its theatres and playwrights, and so I was fascinated to read my first novel on the Gunpowder Plot, a subject in which I’ve always been interested. The focus here is very much on the nitty gritty of the plots and, as I mentioned, there’s more than one of them. It’s a complicated picture and its tension is increased by the way in which the narrative moves back and forth between the protagonists. It’s immediate, exciting, and very dark.

The presumably fictional battle between Hardy and Realm is grim and even overshadows the historical Gunpowder Plot. I saw neither Hardy or Realm as a hero, certainly not Realm who’s as nasty a piece of work as any I’ve met in historical fiction, but I also found little to like in Christian Hardy. You can see why he is as he is but the damage done to him has made him impossible to like. Women are used as pawns by both Hardy and Realm. These two men are cold to the heart and locked in a battle that one senses cannot end well.

Treason is such a well-written book, its complicated plot kept tightly under control, the dialogue intriguing. The Gunpowder Plot itself is covered in such fascinating, meticulous detail and I lapped this part of the novel up, enjoying in particular the two characters who radiate some charm in this dark world of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, Adam Hardy and the Princess Elizabeth, but I still wouldn’t trust either of them as far as I could throw them.

There are touches of real beauty and poignancy in James Jackson’s prose – so much is at stake here – but I must admit to finding the novel relentlessly grim, the majority of its characters too difficult to care for. The biggest issue is history itself – we all know how the Gunpowder Plot ended and the move towards that conclusion is inevitable (inevitably). That aspect of the novel is offset, though, by the feud between Hardy and Realm, a storyline that refuses to be predictable. But, despite the gloom and the inevitability of the Gunpowder Plot, Treason is a compelling read and extremely difficult to put down.

The Black Friar by S.G. MacLean

The Black Friar | S.G. MacLean | 2016, Pb 2017 | Quercus | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Black Friar by S.G. MacLeanIt is 1655 and Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, faces a direct threat from the Fifth Monarchists – believers who once fought alongside Cromwell against the King but, now that Cromwell has adopted almost regal status, want Cromwell removed, too. There can be no king but Christ. But the Commonwealth has more trouble on its hands than just militant Puritans. Royalists continue to plot to return the King in Exile to these shores and have become organised enough to create a new organisation of Royalist activists, the Sealed Knot. A threat can come from any direction. And when one of Cromwell’s agents is found dead, wearing a black friar’s habit, entombed while still alive within the ruins of London’s black friars monastery, Cromwell turns to his most feared agent, the inscrutable and charismatic Captain Damian Seeker.

The Black Friar follows hot on the heels of the first book in this new series by S.G. MacLean, The Seeker, and stands alone well as a complete and distinct mystery in its own right. Having said that, if you have read The Seeker then you will enjoy all the more re-meeting some of that first novel’s wonderful cast of characters (not all of them human). Damian Seeker’s character develops through these two books and that, I think, is one of the big draws of this series – I have fallen for the Seeker – and so I would suggest you read the earlier book first as I have just done (the review’s here).

S.G. MacLean has given us another excellent and complex mystery to enjoy. This one has even more strands than the last and the Seeker has a team of agents helping – and sometimes hindering – his investigations as one puzzle soon becomes two. It’s particularly enjoyable that two of these agents are well known to history – Samuel Pepys and Andrew Marvell. I loved the interaction of fiction with history during this, the most fascinating of times. The Seeker moves through it all almost like a tall, black-cloaked raven. There is something sinister and undoubtedly attractive about this man. He as good as wears a mask, all London turns away when he rides past on his great horse, he is feared by every side, but occasionally here the mask slips and I think my heart might have been stolen, just a little.

I thoroughly enjoy S.G. MacLean’s recreation of London during the Commonwealth. What a strange period this is, with its reminders of past pleasures, such as the theatres, which are now forbidden. But these novels aren’t quick to judge. Neither Royalist nor Puritan is upheld as the ideal, crimes are committed on both sides and sometimes there are other criminals who rise above politics and religion and are purely evil. Unravelling all of this isn’t easy and, despite the help of code-breakers, Damian Seeker has much to unpick.

The characterisation is as strong as the historical setting. Quite apart from Damian Seeker, who is one of the most appealing heroes I’ve come across in quite some time, there are a host of other characters on both sides of the political divide who grab our attention. There are far too many to mention and they are key to the pleasure that this novel provides. And not all are men, either, or adults. We’re presented with a community in turmoil just as the agents who investigate the mysteries are likewise complex in their relationships with one another and to the Seeker.

I have grown well and truly attached to the Seeker series. The Commonwealth is such an intriguing time, overlooked by both the Civil War and the Restoration that sandwich it, and here it is paid full service by S.G. MacLean, a fine writer with a terrific grasp of history and character. Damian Seeker is a fantastic creation. Long may he continue.

Other review
The Seeker

The Seeker by S.G. MacLean

The Seeker | S.G. MacLean | 2015, Pb 2016 | Quercus | 421p (inc. 19p of extras) | Review copy | Buy the book

The Seeker by S.G. MacLeanLittle is known about Damian Seeker but just a look from him is enough to make the innocent tremble with guilt. Above average height, a black cloak trailing behind, and a rimmed hat reinforced by a helmet, this formidable, secretive man is Seeker by name and Seeker by nature.

The year is 1654 and the Commonwealth is well established with Oliver Cromwell at its head. But, with Charles Stuart biding his time on the Continent, waiting for the right moment to reclaim his father’s crown, this is the age of spies. And they are rife, on both sides. Captain Damian Seeker, once a soldier like almost every other Englishman in this age, works for John Thurloe, Cromwell’s master of intelligence, who has recently been fed some information about a possible Royalist plot brewing in one of London’s popular new coffee houses. The rumour coincides with the murder of John Winter, one of Cromwell’s most favoured officers, housed with his wife in an apartment in the Palace at Whitehall. And it is there, on his doorstep, that John Winter is found dead with Elias Ellingworth, a well-known critic of Cromwell, standing over his bloody corpse, a knife in his hand.

But, although Ellingworth seems doomed to a traitor’s death, Seeker is not convinced that all is at it seems, an opinion that is supported by events at the coffee house that evening. Seeker will stop at nothing in his determination to keep the wrong man from the gallows. Woe betide anyone who tries to deceive the Seeker.

The mid-17th century is, with no doubt at all, one of the most fascinating periods of English history and, at the moment, I can’t get enough of it. The Commonwealth, nestled between the Civil War and the Restoration, tantalises. There hasn’t been a period of history like it before or since and my interest in reading this Commonwealth mystery was sparked even further when I visited Cromwell’s house in Ely a couple of weeks ago. I loved The Seeker‘s depiction of Cromwell at the centre of his court, surrounded by royal furnishings and belongings, as powerful as any king. The historical background is wonderful – music, theatre, coffee houses, pamphlets, gatherings. All of these pleasures seem just about to be hanging on in the Commonwealth, just as some Royalists are being allowed to live on quietly. But all of this tolerance is skin deep in this world of secrets, spies, executions and murders.

The character of Damian Seeker is fantastic. He’s enigmatic and sinister but there’s something about him that is deeply appealing. He seems incorruptible. But his past is a mystery along with so many parts of his personality. And that is one of the things that I really enjoyed about this book – the surprises. Characters constantly reveal unexpected sides to them. Nothing and no-one is to be accepted on face value and, while that is exactly the problem facing Seeker, it is also a big reason for the book’s appeal. The clues are there but I did a great job of missing them, loving how the novel developed in so many unexpected ways.

S.G. MacLean’s writing is distinctive and memorable. I found parts of it quite beautiful, complementing perfectly the power of Seeker’s personality and strength of will. The plot is a corker and its historical setting unusual and richly painted. I am so glad that I now have the next novel to read, The Black Friar. This is a series with legs.