Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Almost exactly seven years after I picked up Assassin’s Apprentice, the first in Robin Hobb’s sixteen-novel Realm of the Elderlings sequence, here I am embarking on the final trilogy, Fitz and the Fool, which begins with Fool’s Assassin. Before I start to discuss this book, I should warn you that if you’re new to Robin Hobb, there may be things in my review that will spoil the earlier novels for you; before reading Fool’s Assassin, I think it’s essential to have at least read The Farseer Trilogy and The Tawny Man Trilogy as they deal with the same characters and storylines. The other books – The Liveship Traders and The Rain Wild Chronicles – add to the world-building and I would still recommend reading them in their correct places within the sequence, but it’s probably not completely necessary.

Anyway, back to Fool’s Assassin! After persevering through the four novels that make up The Rain Wild Chronicles, none of which I particularly enjoyed, it was such a relief to be back in the company of FitzChivalry Farseer; like being reacquainted with an old friend after a long absence.

The book begins with Fitz, now happily married to his beloved Molly, living on his country estate of Withywoods. Known to his servants and neighbours as the humble Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is keeping his distance from the dangers of Buckkeep Castle but his gift for the powerful magic known as the Skill still links him to his old mentor Chade and others within the castle walls. To his disappointment, there is no word at all from his dearest friend, the Fool, who departed at the end of Fool’s Fate – or is there? When a mysterious stranger attempting to bring him a message during the Winterfest celebrations is pursued from Withywoods before she can speak to him, Fitz is left wondering what the message contained. However, it is only after the arrival of another very unusual young woman called Bee that Fitz finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the intrigue that surrounds the Farseer throne and the affairs of the wider world of the Six Duchies.

Fool’s Assassin has a slower pace than some of the other books about Fitz; there is not a lot of action until almost the end, and instead we spend most of the novel with Fitz and his household at Withywoods. It’s a reflective, introspective story in which Fitz is looking back on the events of his past and trying to move forward, while enjoying his peaceful new life as a husband and father. This peaceful life doesn’t last forever, of course, so eventually there are more personal traumas for Fitz to deal with – and despite the largely domestic setting and the slowness of the plot to develop, I was never bored for a moment. As I said, most of the action in the novel occurs in the final few chapters, along with a revelation about one of the characters; I’m not sure whether this was supposed to come as a surprise to the reader, but I had guessed the truth much earlier in the novel and found it frustrating that Fitz had apparently been completely oblivious to it!

Although the previous books have been written only from Fitz’s perspective, this one introduces a second viewpoint character who, in the second half of the book, comes to dominate the story at times. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this at first and I think my personal preference would have been to continue with Fitz as the sole narrator, but I did like and sympathise with this second character and I can see the value of having someone who can offer insights that Fitz cannot and show us what is happening when Fitz is not physically there. It would have been nice to have seen more of the characters at Buckkeep, such as Kettricken and Dutiful, and certainly more of the Fool – Hobb really keeps us waiting and wondering when he will make his appearance – but I did like the way the long departed Nighteyes is able to play a role in the story, as I hadn’t expected to hear from him again.

The book ends on a huge cliffhanger and although I really need to concentrate on other books at the moment, I think it’s very likely that I will be drawn to the second novel, Fool’s Quest, very soon. One of the advantages of waiting until a whole trilogy is available instead of reading the books as they are published!

This is book 6/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

Death in Zanzibar by M M Kaye

I love M.M. Kaye’s Death In… novels, but I’ve been taking my time with the series as there are only six books and I didn’t want to finish them all too quickly. The books all stand alone as entirely separate mystery novels, but are all set in one of several fascinating locations around the world in which Kaye lived with her husband, who was in the British Army. So far, my favourite is still the first, Death in Kashmir, but this one – the fifth in the series – ties with Death in Cyprus for second place.

Death in Zanzibar was originally published in 1959 as The House of Shade. The novel begins with Dany Ashton on her way to Zanzibar to stay with her mother Lorraine and stepfather, Tyson Frost, at Tyson’s home Kivulimi, known as the ‘House of Shade’. Before leaving London, she visits Tyson’s solicitor, Mr Honeywood, to collect a document her stepfather has asked her to bring out to Zanzibar for him. The next day, she reads in the newspaper that Mr Honeywood was murdered just after she left his office and the police have found a handkerchief at the murder scene with her initials on it. Determined that nothing will stop her from visiting Zanzibar, Dany decides to say nothing and continue with her journey – until she discovers that someone has broken into her hotel room and stolen her passport.

Staying in the same hotel is Lashmer Holden, an American publisher whose father is a close friend of Tyson’s. Lash is also on his way to Kivulimi on business and when he hears Dany’s story, he comes up with a plan to get her to Zanzibar and to throw the police off her trail. The only problem is, Lash is drunk (his fiancée has just broken off their engagement) and when he sobers up, halfway across Africa, he is horrified to learn what he and Dany have done.

I won’t go into the plot in any more detail, but there are more murders, a mysterious old mansion, family secrets, disguises and forged letters – all the elements of an entertaining and atmospheric read. I have seen a lot of comparisons of Kaye’s crime novels with Agatha Christie’s and I do agree, to a certain extent – this one did remind me at times of books like Murder in Mesopotamia or They Came to Baghdad – but I think, with their blend of suspense, romance, beautiful young heroines and evocative settings, a better comparison would be with Mary Stewart’s novels. Kaye’s books are darker than Stewart’s, though; they always seem to involve several scenes with the heroine hearing noises in the night and coming across intruders in the dark which are genuinely quite creepy and sinister!

I think this is probably the first book I’ve ever read set in Zanzibar, so I enjoyed the parts describing the island: the colours, smells and sounds, the politics and the people – and lots of interesting little facts, such as a mention of spikes on old wooden doors which had been put there to repel elephant attacks. However, about half of the book actually takes place during the journey, on planes, in airports, and in hotels; Zanzibar is less important to the story than the settings of some of the other books. The mystery itself is an excellent one with lots of suspects, several of whom I suspected at various points in the novel – but not the right one! I liked the romantic aspect of the story too and although I would have preferred Dany to have been slightly less naive and innocent, I had to remind myself that she had just left school the year before and had led a sheltered life.

I still need to read Death in the Andamans, but I’m particularly looking forward to reading Kaye’s historical novel Trade Wind, which is also set in Zanzibar during the time of one of Tyson Frost’s ancestors.

This is book 5/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021.

Red Adam’s Lady by Grace Ingram

Although Red Adam’s Lady was first published in 1973, I wasn’t aware of it until a few years ago when it was reissued by Chicago Review Press as part of their Rediscovered Classics series. This edition has a foreword by Elizabeth Chadwick, one of my favourite authors of medieval fiction, and knowing that she rates this book highly was enough to make me want to try it myself.

Julitta de Montrigord is taking shelter from the rain in an alehouse one evening when she is abducted by the drunken Red Adam de Lorismond, the new lord of Brentborough, who carries her off to his castle and into his bedchamber. She manages to defend her virtue by hitting him over the head with a stool and tying him to a bedpost, but is horrified when, in the morning, he insists on making amends by marrying her. Julitta can think of nothing worse – even being sent to a convent seems preferable to her – but her uncle and guardian sees his chance to form an importance alliance with Brentborough and she is eventually left with no option but to agree to the marriage.

Despite the efforts of Julitta’s new husband to redeem himself, she is determined that this will remain a marriage in name only. Meanwhile she has plenty of other distractions; after all, as Red Adam’s Lady she now has a castle to look after and servants to manage – including the jealous chatelaine, Constance, who seems set on making Julitta’s life as difficult as possible.

This vivid and detailed depiction of 12th century castle life is one of the things I particularly enjoyed about this novel. There’s nothing glamorous or fairytale-like about Brentborough Castle; when Julitta first arrives, she discovers that her new home is dirty, neglected and has been badly managed during the lifetime of the previous lord, Adam’s uncle, and it’s fascinating to see how she goes about setting things in order. Away from the domestic setting, we learn a little bit of what is going on elsewhere in the country, with Henry II’s son, the Young King, preparing to rebel against him and England’s nobility facing a choice between one side or the other. Julitta’s uncle and his friends are supporters of the Young King, but Red Adam’s loyalty to Henry II makes him a traitor in their eyes.

There’s also a mystery aspect to the novel, with Julitta and Red Adam trying to find out what really happened to the former lord’s pregnant wife, who was believed to have been murdered although no proof was ever found. When another young man claiming to be the true heir to Brentborough appears on the scene, it becomes more important than ever that the truth is uncovered at last.

As for the romantic element of the story, I think a romance that begins with the hero trying to rape the heroine is always going to be problematic from a modern point of view, though probably not so much in the 1970s when it was written. In this case, it seems so out of character for Adam that the whole opening scene felt to me a little bit contrived, as a way of getting Julitta into the castle and setting up the rest of the story. Apart from that, I thought the characters felt like believable and convincing 12th century people rather than present day people in medieval costume and there was none of the annoying anachronistic language I sometimes come across in the historical fiction being published today.

Grace Ingram’s other novels, Gilded Spurs and several that she wrote under the name of Doris Sutcliffe Adams, all still seem to be out of print. It would be nice if a publisher could give more of them the same treatment as Red Adam’s Lady and make them available to new readers.

Book 32/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 4/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell is an author I’ve never read but have been meaning to try for a long time, so when I put my list together for this year’s 20 Books of Summer I decided to include High Rising. Originally published in 1933, this is the first of her Barsetshire novels, a series of twenty-nine books set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire which was created by Anthony Trollope in the 19th century. I loved Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, so I hoped for a similar experience with Thirkell’s.

The book begins with novelist Laura Morland, a widow with four sons, collecting her youngest, Tony, from school and bringing him home to the village of High Rising for Christmas. High Rising, together with nearby Low Rising, is the sort of small 1930s middle-class community in which everyone knows everyone else’s business and where the arrival of a newcomer causes a great deal of gossip and excitement. The newcomer in this case is Miss Una Grey, who has come to work as a secretary for Laura’s friend and fellow author George Knox. It seems that Miss Grey – or the Incubus as Laura calls her – has set her sights on marrying George and will do whatever it takes to get her wish. As well as trying to save George from the clutches of the Incubus, Laura spots the seeds of a romance between her publisher, Adrian Coates, and George’s daughter Sibyl, and decides to do what she can to push them together.

There’s not really much more to the plot than that, but what makes this book worth reading is not the plot but the characters and the interactions between them. Although some of the characters, such as Adrian and Sibyl, seemed to lack depth, others interested me much more – for example, Anne Todd, Laura’s secretary, who is trying to make a living through typing manuscripts while caring for her invalid mother. It took me a while to warm to Laura herself, but eventually I became quite fond of her; I can’t say the same for Tony, whom I found unbearably irritating with his incessant talk about his toy trains, which carriages and engines he should buy next and the model railway he wants to build in the garden. To be fair, though, I think there are a lot of children like Tony and he was probably the most convincing character in the book!

I couldn’t quite manage to love this book, but I enjoyed it overall. It does have some of the problems common to novels of this period, such as attitudes to race and class, and I also felt that it didn’t have a lot of substance, but otherwise it was a quick, light, entertaining read at a time when that was just what I needed. I don’t think I want to start the next book, Wild Strawberries, immediately, but I’m sure I will read it at some point.

Book 3/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

This is also book 20/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

The Last Daughter by Nicola Cornick

I have read several of Nicola Cornick’s time slip novels over the last few years and enjoyed some much more than others, but I think her new one, The Last Daughter, is her best so far. It probably helped that the historical storyline is set during one of my favourite periods of history, the Wars of the Roses, but the modern day narrative interested me too, which isn’t always the case!

Beginning in the present day, we meet Serena Warren, a young woman who is still struggling to come to terms with the disappearance of her twin sister, Caitlin, eleven years earlier – an event so traumatic, she has blocked out all memory of it. Serena is staying with an aunt in California when she receives the news she has been dreading: Caitlin’s body has been found during an archaeological dig close to their grandparents’ old home in Oxfordshire, which stands near the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Determined to uncover the truth, Serena returns to England and finds that once she is back in the place where Caitlin vanished all those years ago, she begins to regain her memories.

In the fifteenth century, our narrator is Anne FitzHugh, a niece of the powerful Earl of Warwick. Anne is only five years old when a marriage is arranged for her with eight-year-old Francis Lovell, a ward of Edward IV. Her new husband grows up to become a close friend and supporter of Edward’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III), and he and Anne are drawn into all the conflict and intrigue surrounding Richard’s rise to the throne – including the mystery surrounding the fate of Richard’s two nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

These two narratives are linked in a very intriguing way; I can’t say too much as it would risk spoiling the story, but it involves both a ghost story based on the famous legend of the Mistletoe Bride and the theft of a mysterious relic known as the Lovell Lodestar. Although, as with all time slip novels, there are some elements of the supernatural here, I thought everything felt reasonably convincing in the context of the story and all the different threads of the plot tie together perfectly in the end.

I liked both protagonists, Serena and Anne (and I would love to have Serena’s job, researching and arranging ‘bespoke historical tours’). Serena’s story is probably the more complex; not only is she investigating her sister’s disappearance, she is also trying to uncover the secrets of her family history with the help of her grandfather, who is suffering from dementia. I was surprised to see Lizzie Kingdom, a character from Nicola Cornick’s previous book, make an appearance as an old friend of Serena’s, and I was wary of this at first as the book featuring Lizzie, The Forgotten Sister, is my least favourite novel by Cornick. However, Lizzie fits into this particular story very well and as both books are set in Oxfordshire, it’s believable enough that she and Serena could have known each other.

I also enjoyed reading about Anne and Francis Lovell, who are usually just minor characters in the background of Richard III’s story. Their marriage is portrayed as a loving one, despite it being arranged for them as children, but not without its challenges and its ups and downs. The solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is fascinating and certainly not one I’ve come across before, although I can’t say any more about it than that!

I’m looking forward to Nicola Cornick’s next book and hoping it will be as interesting and entertaining as this one!

Thanks to HQ for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

Book 31/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 2/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

This month, for Read Christie 2021, the theme is ‘a story featuring a garden’ and the suggested title is Nemesis, a late Miss Marple mystery published in 1971.

Nemesis is an unusual Marple novel because for the first half of the book it’s not really clear what the mystery is that she’s trying to solve. All we do know is that Mr Rafiel, a rich man whom Miss Marple met previously in A Caribbean Mystery (which I haven’t read), has died, leaving her a large sum of money in his will on the condition that she must agree to investigate a crime for him. The only problem is, he doesn’t tell her what sort of crime it is or what she will need to do – only that he remembers her flair for justice and her nickname ‘Nemesis’.

Intrigued by Mr Rafiel’s request and tempted by the money, Miss Marple decides to accept the mission – and promptly receives an invitation to join a tour of Britain’s historic houses and gardens. During the tour she gradually uncovers the details of a crime committed several years earlier and discovers at last what Mr Rafiel wants her to do.

I don’t really want to say much more about the plot of this particular Christie novel because I think part of the fun is in wondering what the mystery is going to be and which of the people Miss Marple meets on the tour are going to be involved in it. Once the crime is revealed and she is able to start her investigations, it becomes more of a conventional mystery novel and I don’t think it’s as strong as some of the other Marples. Several of the clues seemed very obvious and I was able to solve some of it (although not all of it).

I was pleased to find that Miss Marple is present in the story from the beginning all the way through to the end; I’ve often complained that she appears too briefly, so it was nice to spend an entire novel with her this time. I loved the way she uses her apparent absent-mindedness, frailty and ‘twittering’ to fool the people around her into thinking she is a harmless, silly old woman, while all the time her brain is working away, storing information, making observations and staying one step ahead of everyone else. I should warn you, though, that she does express some disturbing views on the subject of rape – views that, unfortunately, a lot of people still hold today. Apart from that, this is an entertaining, if not particularly outstanding, Marple novel and it looks as though I’ll be reading another one soon as July’s selection is Murder at the Vicarage.

Mystery and intrigue in the seventeenth century

Looking at the historical fiction I have read so far this year, it seems that the 17th century is displacing the Tudor, Victorian and early 20th century periods as the most common historical setting for my reading. Here are my thoughts on two more 17th century novels I’ve read recently, both of them historical mysteries.

The Wrecking Storm is the second book in Michael Ward’s Thomas Tallant series, following the adventures of a London spice merchant’s son in pre-civil war England. You could read this book without having read the first one, Rags of Time, but if you do read them in order you’ll have a better understanding of the background of the characters, their relationships and the political situation in England at that time.

The novel opens in 1641 with the murder of two Jesuit priests, one of whom was known to have been in hiding in a building close to the Tallant warehouse on the banks of the River Thames. Thomas Tallant’s friends, Member of Parliament Sir Barty Hopkins and Robert Petty of the Merchant Adventurers, ask for Tom’s help in catching the culprit, but before investigations have progressed very far, Tom finds that his own family has become the next target. Joining forces again with another friend, Elizabeth Seymour, Tom must find out who is responsible before the family business is ruined or one of the Tallants is killed.

I enjoyed the mystery element of the book and was surprised when the truth was revealed as I’d had no idea who was behind the attacks on the Tallant family! It was nice to see Elizabeth play such a big part in the investigations; her intelligence, puzzle-solving skills and interest in science and mathematics make her a better detective than Tom himself and her observations and suggestions prove invaluable to the solving of the mystery. I was particularly intrigued by her encounters with Lucy, Countess of Carlisle, a real historical figure who was also involved in political conspiracies during the civil war (and who I’ve discovered may have been the inspiration for Milady in The Three Musketeers).

As with the first book, the historical context was as interesting as the mystery. The story unfolds during the sitting of the Long Parliament, the execution of the Earl of Strafford and Charles I’s attempt to arrest five Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. The conflict between King and Parliament is mirrored by the turmoil on the streets of London where opposing political and religious groups and unruly mobs of apprentices are creating a dangerous and unsettling atmosphere.

The Wrecking Storm is a short, fast-paced read; I think I slightly preferred the longer Rags of Time, but both books are entertaining and I hope to meet Tom and Elizabeth again soon.

The Protector by SJ Deas is a sequel to The Royalist, which I read several years ago and enjoyed. This second book was published in 2015 and there have been no more in the series since, which is disappointing but it seems the author has moved on to other things.

Anyway, The Protector continues the story of William Falkland, a former Royalist soldier who has reluctantly found himself in the service of Oliver Cromwell. It’s 1646, the First Civil War is over (the Second will begin within two years), and Henry Warbeck, Cromwell’s man, has again approached Falkland to ask for his assistance with another investigation. Anne Agar, sister of John Milton, the epic poet and writer of political pamphlets, has disappeared and Cromwell believes she has been abducted by Royalists in an attempt to convert the pro-Parliamentarian Milton to their cause.

Falkland is less than enthusiastic about taking on this mission; after four years of war he no longer feels any strong allegiance to either side and just wants to go home to his wife and children. However, that’s easier said than done, as he returns to find his house abandoned and his family missing, with no idea where they have gone or why they have left. Hoping that Cromwell will help him to locate his own family in return for tracking down Anne, Falkland sets out on her trail – but the biggest obstacle in his way turns out to be Milton himself, who takes an instant dislike to Falkland and is unwilling to cooperate.

As well as being an interesting and compelling mystery novel, The Protector is also quite a sad and poignant portrayal of the human cost of war, with families left divided, destroyed and separated once the fighting ends. William Falkland is a sympathetic and tragic hero as, lost and lonely, he begins the hunt for Anne Agar while despairing of ever finding his own beloved Caro. I was pleased to see him team up again with Kate Cain (whom we first met in The Royalist), but at the same time I was glad that Deas doesn’t push them into a romance, leaving us in no doubt that William is still devoted to Caro and the children and will continue his search unless and until there is no hope left. I enjoyed this book nearly as much as the first one and would love to know what the future holds for William Falkland, but sadly it looks as though we’re not going to find out.

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Have you read either of these books – or any other good historical mysteries set in the 17th century?

Books 29 and 30/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.