The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J. Coleman

After reading Melanie Clegg’s new biography of Margaret Tudor a few weeks ago, I thought the perfect book to follow it with would be another new release, The Afterlife of King James IV: Otherworld Legends of the Scottish King, which looks at the myths and legends surrounding the death of Margaret’s husband, the king of Scotland. As I only knew the basic facts about James IV, I had no idea there was so much controversy about his death at Flodden Field in 1513, but it seems that there were many rumours and conspiracy theories that began to circulate following the battle and Keith J. Coleman discusses some of these in this book.

As penance for his involvement in the death of his father James III, James IV famously wore an iron chain around his waist and it was the fact that the body removed from Flodden did not have the chain that gave rise to the conspiracy theories. Had James switched places with another man on the battlefield? Did he escape and go into hiding? If so, why did he never return? And where is his body’s true resting place? These are just some of the questions the book explores and attempts to answer.

To understand some of the stories surrounding the king’s death, we need to consider where they originated and who might benefit from them. It’s easy to see why the Scottish people, who must have been shocked and disheartened by the scale of their defeat at Flodden, may have found comfort in the idea that somewhere, somehow, their king had survived and might one day come back to lead them again. But Coleman also looks at the situation from an English perspective and from the point of view of ambassadors from elsewhere in Europe, who may or may not have been happy to think that James was still alive.

The selection of legends are certainly interesting and varied. Some are more plausible (though still unlikely), such as the possibility that James went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or that he avoided being killed in battle only to be murdered shortly afterwards by one of his enemies, while others take us into the realms of the supernatural and stories of other worlds. The book also covers some accounts of the ghostly apparitions and prophecies that supposedly foretold the outcome of the battle and there is an examination of how the myths and legends about James compare with those about some of his predecessors such as Alexander III and Macbeth. I was also intrigued by a discussion of the short story Wandering Willie’s Tale, which appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, as that is one of the few Scott novels I have read!

Despite the fascinating subject, however, I didn’t find this book quite as enjoyable as I’d expected. The way it is structured made it difficult for me to become fully absorbed in the writing – I thought it jumped around too much from one idea or thought to another rather than being set out chronologically or in any other order that would have made sense to me. It felt repetitive and there was also less time devoted to the actual legends and folklore than I’d anticipated. It’s probably not a book I would recommend to people who are completely new to Scottish history either; it’s written in quite a scholarly style and if you have at least a little bit of familiarity with names and events I’m sure you’ll find things easier to follow. My reading of Rosemary Goring’s two novels After Flodden and Dacre’s War helped me here, I think!

Although this book was not as entertaining as it sounded, I’m pleased I’ve read it and added to my knowledge of the life – and particularly the death – of James IV.

Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer is almost always a delight to read and I found this 1956 novel, Sprig Muslin, particularly enjoyable and entertaining. Set in the Regency period she recreated so convincingly, it has all the humour, adventure and romance I expect from her work and although the plot is similar in many ways to the later Charity Girl, the two books are different enough that there’s no risk of confusing them with each other.

It’s been seven years since Sir Gareth Ludlow lost his beloved fiancée in a tragic carriage accident but he is still sure that he will never feel for another woman what he once felt for Clarissa. At the age of thirty-five, he knows he can’t put off marrying any longer so, having given up hope of falling in love again, he makes the decision to propose to his old friend, Lady Hester Theale. Things don’t go quite according to plan, however…

Stopping at an inn on the way to Hester’s estate, Sir Gareth encounters Amanda, who is ‘very nearly seventeen’ and is running away from home as part of a plot to force her grandfather into allowing her to marry the young army officer she loves. Aware of all the dangers that could befall a young lady travelling alone, Sir Gareth insists on taking Amanda with him to Brancaster Park where Hester can take care of her until he is able to discover her full name and return her safely to her family. Furious at what she calls her ‘abduction’ and determined to continue with her plans, Amanda soon escapes from Sir Gareth’s clutches and our hero sets off in pursuit. The rest of the novel follows their escapades as Amanda does her best to stay one step ahead of Gareth, often with hilarious results!

I think the Heyer novels that take place on the road, like this one and The Corinthian, are particularly fun to read. There’s never a dull moment during Amanda and Gareth’s journey and they meet a selection of colourful characters along the way, including Hester’s lecherous uncle, Fabian Theale, the aspiring poet Hildebrande Ross and farmer’s boy Joe Ninfield. As for the main characters, I really liked Sir Gareth who, although he’s not one of my personal favourites, is everything you could want in a Heyer hero, and I also loved the contrast between the book’s two heroines. Amanda is a bit silly, admittedly, but she kept me amused with her imaginative stories and inventions and the way she stumbles from one scrape to another, while I warmed to Hester more and more as the novel progressed and an inner strength was revealed beneath her quiet, gentle exterior.

Now I’m looking forward to my next Heyer; I just need to decide which it will be!

The Alchemist of Lost Souls by Mary Lawrence

The Alchemist of Lost Souls is the fourth book in a series of historical mysteries set in Tudor England and featuring the character of Bianca Goddard, an alchemist’s daughter. Not having read any of the previous novels, I wondered whether I would be at a disadvantage in starting with this one, but that wasn’t really a problem. Although it would have been nice to have been more familiar with the backgrounds of the characters and to have followed them from the beginning, this novel works as a standalone mystery and it was easy enough to understand what was happening without any prior knowledge.

The story takes place in London in the spring of 1544 and opens with Bianca’s father, the alchemist Albern Goddard, discovering a new element – a stone which gives off a brilliant light and which has properties that are both powerful and dangerous. Before he has time to explore the potential of this new substance, it is stolen from him and the suspected thief is found dead in a street near the Dim Dragon Inn with a glowing green vapour rising from her mouth. Albern asks for his daughter’s help and soon Bianca is investigating both the theft and the murder, as well as looking for any trace that may remain of her father’s precious element.

This is an entertaining mystery and a more complex one than it appeared to be at first, with a range of suspects including alchemists, apothecaries, chandlers – and even Bianca’s mother, Malva Goddard. I didn’t manage to guess the solution correctly, but I was happy just to watch Bianca try to unravel it all. Bianca is a very likeable character; she is intelligent and independent, but her behaviour is usually believable enough in the context of being a sixteenth century woman. Like her father, she is interested in science, but her gender means she cannot be an alchemist so instead she works as a herbalist, making remedies for common ailments in her ‘room of Medicinals and Physickes’.

Bianca’s relationship with her husband, John, is one area where I felt I may have missed out by not reading the previous books in the series. In this book he, like the other men from Southwark, has been called up to fight in Henry VIII’s army (as a pikeman after failing to impress with his archery skills) and faces being sent away from home to deal with the threats from Scotland and France. With Bianca pregnant with their first child, a separation at this time is obviously going to be particularly difficult for them both, but I think I would have found their storyline more emotional if I had known both characters better and had seen how their relationship developed.

Apart from Henry VIII’s military endeavours, which are kept mainly in the background of the novel, the story concentrates very much on fictional characters and fictional events, but I could see that Mary Lawrence was making an effort to capture the atmosphere of Tudor England and the details of how people may have lived and worked at that time. The focus is on ordinary, working class Londoners rather than the royalty and nobility, which gives the story a gritty feel and a sense of reality, despite the more fantastical elements of the plot (not just the alchemy but also the mysterious character of the Rat Man, whose role I’m not sure I fully understood). I also appreciated the author’s attempts to use vocabulary appropriate to the period and although some of the slang didn’t feel quite right to me, it did add colour to the writing and there is a glossary at the back of the book if you need to look up any unfamiliar words.

It was nice to meet Bianca Goddard and now I’m wondering if there will be more books in the series.

Thanks to Mary Lawrence and Kensington Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Doll: Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier

This week Ali is hosting a Daphne du Maurier Reading Week and as du Maurier is one of my favourite authors, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to read one of the few remaining books of hers that I still haven’t read. As I’ve enjoyed some of du Maurier’s short story collections in the past, I decided to read The Doll, her book of ‘lost short stories’, most of which were written very early in her writing career (mainly between 1926 and 1932) but not published until more recently. My expectations for this book weren’t too high as I thought there might be a reason why these particular stories had been forgotten for so long, but actually I was pleasantly surprised by it. Although some of the stories in the collection feel too short and incomplete, there are some great ones amongst them too.

As is often the case when you read an author’s early work, it’s possible to see the seeds of du Maurier’s later work being planted and future themes and ideas being experimented with. The title story, The Doll, written when the author was twenty years old, follows a man who falls in love with a violinist by the name of Rebecca. As his love turns into obsession, he discovers that he has a rival in the form of a life-sized doll called Julio. This is a dark and creepy story and the name of the character makes it difficult not to think of du Maurier’s most famous novel Rebecca (especially as there are some similarities between the two Rebeccas).

The Happy Valley also foreshadows Rebecca in some ways and involves a woman who has recurring dreams of a house in a place she calls the Happy Valley. With its ghostly undertones and supernatural twist, this was one of the stories that particularly impressed me. It also has the strong sense of place and beautiful descriptive writing I associate with du Maurier’s work, as does another of the stories – East Wind – in which the wind changes direction and blows a boat full of sailors ashore on a remote island. The arrival of the newcomers brings a great deal of excitement to the isolated island community, but temptation and evil have also come in with the tide and will leave their mark when the wind changes again.

It was almost as if there were no such place, as if the island were a dream, a phantom creation of a sailor’s brain, something rising out of the sea at midnight as a challenge to reality, then vanishing in surf and mist to be forgotten, to be half-consciously remembered years later, flickering for a bewildered second in a dusty brain as a dead thought. Yet to the people of St Hilda’s the island was reality, the ships that came and went were their phantoms.

Another story that stood out for me was Tame Cat, a disturbing tale of an innocent young girl referred to only as Baby who returns home from a long absence in France and is reunited with her mother and the man she calls Uncle John. Baby has always thought of Uncle John as being like a tame cat, but now that she is growing up and becoming a woman she finds that his position in the family is not quite as she’d always assumed.

Some of the topics that seem to come up again and again throughout this collection are young couples falling in and out of love and husbands and wives growing disillusioned with their marriages. Sometimes du Maurier treats this in a humorous way, such as in Frustration, where a newly married couple embark on their honeymoon and everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and Week-End, where another couple go away for the weekend believing themselves to be madly in love, but gradually discover that they don’t even like each other – something which comes as a relief when they realise they won’t have to speak to each other using ridiculous baby talk anymore! Other stories are more poignant; I loved Nothing Hurts for Long, a sad story about a woman preparing to welcome her husband home after three months in Germany. When a friend tells her about the disintegration of her own marriage, she is sympathetic but convinced that the same thing couldn’t possibly happen to her…

She went and stood before the looking-glass. Perhaps he would creep in suddenly and stand behind her, and put his hands on her shoulders, and lean his face against hers.

She closed her eyes. Darling! Was that a taxi? No – nothing. ‘This wasn’t how I imagined it at all,’ she thought.

There are thirteen stories in the collection so I’m not going to discuss all of them here, but there were only one or two that I didn’t like very much. The overall quality is not as good as some of the other du Maurier collections I’ve read, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, The Birds and Other Stories or The Breaking Point: Short Stories, and I don’t think I would recommend this book as a starting point for readers who are new to du Maurier’s work, but if you’re already a fan I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

Over the last few years, I’ve read and loved Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, Liveship Traders Trilogy and Tawny Man Trilogy, but I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading Dragon Keeper, the first in her four-book Rain Wild Chronicles series. Although I found the dragon storylines in the earlier trilogies quite enjoyable, I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to read a series in which the dragons would be the main focus – and also, after coming to the end of the Tawny Man books, I just wanted to continue Fitz’s story rather than have to get used to a whole new set of characters. It was tempting to go straight to Hobb’s final and most recent trilogy, Fitz and the Fool, but I knew I should keep reading in order of publication as the books do all form part of one larger sequence and it’s possible that things could happen in the Rain Wild series that I need to know before returning to Fitz.

Anyway, Dragon Keeper picks up the story that was set into motion at the end of the Liveship Traders. Guided by the dragon Tintaglia, a group of sea serpents have made the long journey up the Rain Wild River to the shores of Cassarick, where they have formed the cocoons where they will await their transformation into dragons. When the day of the hatching finally arrives, the people of the Rain Wilds – among them eleven-year-old Thymara and her father – gather round to witness this historic moment: the moment that will mark the return of dragons to the world for the first time in generations.

The dragons that emerge from the cocoons, however, are weak and malformed due to the inappropriate conditions they had lived in as serpents and the difficult circumstances surrounding their cocooning process. These creatures are unlikely ever to fly like their ancestors and can barely even manage to feed themselves. It seems that their only hope of survival is to make their way to Kelsingra, the ancient city of the Elderlings, but if they are to get there safely they will need some human help. Thymara, born with claws and scales – a more extreme example of the mutations that affect many of the Rain Wild people – is chosen to be part of a team of dragon keepers who will escort the dragons to their legendary homeland.

And there’s not really much more to the plot than that. There’s a sense that, with this first in the series, Hobb is setting things up for the three that will follow and the story is just beginning to get started when the book comes to an end. I liked it enough to want to continue, but it is certainly my least favourite of Hobb’s books so far. Maybe because so many of the dragon keepers are children (they are seen as more dispensable, not having families who rely on them), it felt almost as though this book was aimed at younger readers than the others.

There were several characters who intrigued me, though, and I’ll look forward to seeing how their storylines develop in the next book. One of these is Alise Kincarron, a young woman from Bingtown who looks destined for spinsterhood before entering into a loveless marriage with a local trader, Hest Finbok. The dragons hold a special fascination for Alise and the chance to accompany them on the journey to Kelsingra is both a dream come true and a way to escape from her husband. Hest has no interest in the dragons himself, so asks Alise’s childhood friend Sedric to chaperone her – but we, the reader, know something about Sedric that Alise doesn’t and that makes us think of him more as a villain than a friend.

As a setting, I prefer the Six Duchies of the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, but I did enjoy the descriptions in this book of Trehaug, the city built in the treetops above the Rain Wild River. We did visit Trehaug and the Rain Wilds at several points throughout the Liveship Traders trilogy, but they lose some of their mysterious aura in this book as we learn much more about them and the people who live there. In case you’re wondering, we do meet some of the Liveship characters again (I was particularly pleased to see Paragon) but their appearances are very brief and the focus is definitely on Thymara, Alise and the other new characters. And the dragons, of course! Part of the story is told from the perspective of Sintara, a blue dragon who is not quite as weak and stunted as some of the others, and it was interesting to see things from her point of view now and then.

Although I couldn’t quite love this book, I did find it a relatively quick and easy read, in comparison to some of Hobb’s others which are usually much longer and more emotionally demanding. I’ll continue the series soon with the second book, Dragon Haven.

Cashelmara by Susan Howatch (re-read)

After re-reading Susan Howatch’s Penmarric last year, I decided to continue with a re-read of her 1974 novel, Cashelmara. I remembered this one as my least favourite of the three big historical novels I read by Howatch, so I was interested to see whether I still felt the same way about it now.

Cashelmara, like Penmarric (and The Wheel of Fortune, which I will also be re-reading soon), retells Plantagenet history in a more recent setting. Here we see Edward I, Edward II and Edward III of England recreated as Edward de Salis, his son Patrick and grandson Ned, a fictional 19th century family. No knowledge of the historical characters is necessary but it does add another layer of interest if you can spot the parallels.

The novel opens in 1859 with Edward de Salis, a widower with several adult children, visiting cousins in New York and returning to England with a new bride – the much younger Marguerite. Edward is keen to introduce his wife to his daughters, but they prove to be disappointingly hostile to Marguerite, who is only a few years older than they are. It is only Patrick, his son and heir, who makes her feel welcome and wanted, but Marguerite senses a tension between father and son that she doesn’t quite understand.

After Edward’s death, Patrick inherits his father’s lands and title, and as his story unfolds we start to see why his relationship with Edward had been so strained. Marguerite is pleased when he marries her niece, Sarah, but it soon becomes clear that it is not going to be a happy marriage. Patrick’s fortune is quickly lost through gambling and poor financial decisions and the two are forced to move to Cashelmara, the de Salis estate in Ireland. It is here that Sarah gets to know Patrick’s beloved friend Derry Stranahan and discovers that she is destined to always take second place in her husband’s affections…

At this point, if you do know the history on which this book is based, you’ve probably guessed that Sarah represents Isabella, Edward II’s queen, and Derry the king’s favourite, Piers Gaveston. Later in the novel you will also meet characters who correspond to Isabella’s lover Roger Mortimer, to Edward II’s other favourite Hugh Despenser, and to Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainault. If you don’t know the history, though, don’t worry because the story of the de Salis family can still be followed and enjoyed even if you’re completely unaware of the similarities with their 14th century counterparts.

The novel is divided into six sections, each one with a different narrator – Edward, Marguerite, Patrick, Sarah, Maxwell Drummond and Ned. I can’t really say that I liked any of the characters (apart from maybe Marguerite), but they are all complex, interesting, multi-faceted human beings each with their own positive and negative qualities. As with Penmarric, the shifting perspectives are very effective, because characters who had seemed unpleasant and unappealing when seen through the eyes of others suddenly become much more sympathetic when they get the opportunity to tell their side of the story. Sarah, in particular, is forced to go through some terrible ordeals during her marriage to Patrick; there are some dark moments in each of the six narratives, but Sarah’s story is surely the darkest and bleakest of them all.

Howatch’s choice of 19th century Ireland as the setting for the novel is perfect as there are plenty of historical events and issues which she can use to move the plot forward while continuing to mirror the Plantagenet storyline. The effects of famine and poverty, the campaign for Home Rule under Charles Stewart Parnell, the civil unrest surrounding the evictions of tenants, and the lives of Irish immigrants in America are all woven into the story. Cashelmara is a fascinating novel on many levels and I enjoyed my re-read, but I did find it very slow in places and for a while in the middle it seemed to go on forever. I never really became so immersed in the story that I couldn’t put it down. I do remember loving The Wheel of Fortune much more and I’m looking forward to reading that one again too, hopefully in the near future.

Margaret Tudor by Melanie Clegg

Henry VIII’s sister Margaret is one of the lesser known Tudors and doesn’t usually get a lot of attention either in fiction or non-fiction, yet she was important historically as both an English princess and a queen of Scotland. This very enjoyable new biography by Melanie Clegg takes us through the whole of Margaret’s life from her birth in 1489 to her death in 1541, throwing some light on her childhood, her time as queen and her unhappy second and third marriages.

As the eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Margaret had the sort of privileged childhood you would expect – perhaps more so than usual because Henry, not yet secure on his recently claimed throne, wanted to do everything he could to increase the rank and status of the new Tudor dynasty. Margaret grew up well aware of her own importance and value to her father in his efforts to arrange marriages for his children and form alliances with other royal families. In 1503, at the age of thirteen, Margaret was married to the thirty-year-old James IV of Scotland and made the long journey north while still in mourning for her mother, who had died earlier that year. It must have been a daunting experience for such a young girl, but James, despite already having several mistresses and illegitimate children, treated her with respect and kindness and helped her to settle into life in her new country.

Margaret was still just in her twenties when James was killed fighting the English at the battle of Flodden in 1513, leaving her to rule as regent for their young son who was crowned James V. She did not remain a widow for long, however, and soon married again, this time to a husband of her own choice, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, a move which angered the rest of the Scottish nobility and resulted in her losing the regency. The remainder of Margaret’s life was marked by political turmoil and personal tragedy – including the death of her younger son, divorce from Angus and an equally unhappy and unsuccessful third marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Methven.

I thoroughly enjoyed this biography. It is written in a clear and easy to read style and although it may not be academic enough for some readers (sources are just listed at the back of the book, for example, rather than being directly referenced in the text) for the general reader this is a good introduction to Margaret Tudor’s life and to this period of Scottish and English history. Melanie Clegg’s portrayal of Margaret feels quite fair and balanced, so that the reader feels some sympathy for her while also being aware of her flaws. There are parallels with the life of her granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots (James V’s daughter), who also made some poor decisions when it came to choosing husbands!

Clegg shows how, in Margaret’s first few years in Scotland she has little interest in politics and government, but as time goes by she begins to grow in knowledge and experience. She is often torn between her adopted country and the country of her birth and does everything she can to bring about peace between Scotland and England, not always successfully. It can’t have been easy being the sister of a man like Henry VIII, after all (though maybe slightly preferable to being his wife). She should have been able to rely on him for support, especially after James is killed at Flodden, but instead he tries to make his own plans for Margaret and her children, aimed at uniting the two countries under one crown. Of course, this is what would eventually happen anyway, if not quite in the way Henry had hoped, through the marriage between Margaret’s granddaughter Mary Queen of Scots and grandson, Lord Darnley (son of Margaret’s daughter, Margaret Douglas) which resulted in the birth of the future James VI of Scotland and I of England.

I particularly enjoyed the second half of the book, which deals with the rivalries between the various factions of Scottish noblemen, the conflict between Margaret and the Duke of Albany (the next nearest in line to the throne) and her escape to England. The earlier chapters, although less dramatic, are interesting too and I loved the way James IV was portrayed. Staying in this fascinating period of history, I am looking forward to reading another new non-fiction book I have waiting on my TBR, The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J Coleman.

Thanks to Pen and Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.