The Honey and the Sting by EC Fremantle

After 2018’s The Poison Bed, a Jacobean thriller based on a real life murder scandal, EC Fremantle has returned to the same period – the early seventeenth century – with another historical thriller, this time one which is only partly inspired by a true story.

Hester, Melis and Hope are three sisters who live together in a cottage in Iffley, Oxfordshire. With no male relative in the household, apart from Hester’s little boy Rafe, their living arrangements are unusual for the time – not quite respectable, some would say. Yet all three women have their reasons for avoiding outsiders and keeping themselves to themselves. Hester’s secret is perhaps the most scandalous: the father of her son is George Villiers, the powerful Duke of Buckingham and the King’s favourite. The beautiful, eccentric Melis experiences visions and premonitions which have an unsettling habit of coming true. And Hope’s African heritage makes her stand out from the other girls in Iffley, while also making her the target of unwelcome attention from men.

When we first meet the sisters, they are leading quiet lives at Orchard Cottage, filling their days with cooking, gardening, needlework and tending the bees in their hives. This will all change when George Villiers decides that the time has come to claim his son – something Hester refuses to contemplate as the Duke had cruelly cast her aside and left her to raise Rafe alone. In order to keep Rafe out of his hands, the three women are forced to go on the run, fleeing to an isolated house in the woods. But even here it seems there’s no guarantee of safety and they must decide who can and cannot be trusted.

Hester and her sisters are fictional, but their story is entwined with a sequence of real historical events involving George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. I won’t say too much here, but if you know anything about Buckingham then as soon as a certain character appears in the novel you will be able to guess what is ultimately going to happen. Knowing this didn’t spoil the story for me, though; I found this particular character and the motivations for their actions very intriguing and their inclusion made the book much more compelling than it would otherwise have been.

The novel is written in present tense, never my favourite but I didn’t find it as annoying as I often do because it somehow suited the pace of the story and gave it a sense of urgency and danger. Some of the chapters are told from Hester’s perspective and these are written in the first person, but others are from Hope’s perspective, in the third person. I didn’t really understand the reason for this and would have preferred one style or the other. We don’t hear from Melis at all, only seeing her through the eyes of the other characters, but this is quite effective and adds to the aura of mystery that surrounds her. I think she was probably the sister I found most interesting; Hester and Hope both frustrated me with the number of poor decisions they made!

The only other thing that bothered me slightly was the way Hester refers to Buckingham throughout the novel as ‘George’. I felt that, as she had been a servant in Buckingham’s household when he seduced her, she would have spoken of him as ‘the Duke’ or ‘Buckingham’ or ‘His Grace’. A servant calling a nobleman by his first name in the seventeenth century just didn’t seem right to me, but maybe I’m just being pedantic. Overall, this was an enjoyable novel, even if it wasn’t one of my favourites by Fremantle.

Thanks to Penguin Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

This is book 10/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

15 thoughts on “The Honey and the Sting by EC Fremantle

  1. whatmeread says:

    Although this sounds interesting, I wasn’t that thrilled with The Poison Bed. You have piqued my curiosity with your comments about Buckingham. I guess I don’t know enough about this particular holder of the title to know what’s coming.

    • Helen says:

      This is a very different kind of story from The Poison Bed so maybe you would like this one more. I only knew about Buckingham because he was an important character in another book I’ve read.

  2. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I think Hester’s overfamiliarity around Buckingham by refering to him as George would annoy me too, even if they did have a child together. The jumping around between tenses for perspective sounds a bit odd too. There seems to be an idea that messing around with tenses automatically makes a work seem more literary, but I’m not convinced.

  3. Jane says:

    I haven’t read any of these books but they sound interesting and fun. I agree with you about George though, that doesn’t ring true and would spoil a good read for me!

  4. jessicabookworm says:

    Helen, I am pleased to hear that overall you enjoyed this, even if it is not your favourite of Fremantle’s work. I do remember finding the tense and person change in narration in The Poison Bed a little hard to get into at first, but it did pay off later in the book. So I am still looking forward to reading my copy of this. 🙂

  5. Con says:

    I am unfamiliar with this author but both books sound appealing. I will buy the earlier one for my mother. She is not as irked by the present tense as I am. I put up with it in the Elly Griffiths books and in Amor Towles’ books but I think it is pretentious and especially inappropriate in historical fiction. I haven’t read the new Hilary Mantel yet but I know she is also guilty of it.

    • Helen says:

      The present tense nearly always irritates me, but it’s becoming hard to avoid. I don’t mind it too much in Hilary Mantel’s books and a few others, but I usually find it distracting and, as you say, often quite pretentious.

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