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.

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.

The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff

This is the second book I’ve read for this week’s 1965 Club, hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. Like my first, Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Mark of the Horse Lord is described as a book for younger readers, although it doesn’t really feel like one. I have previously read two of Sutcliff’s adult books (The Rider of the White Horse and Blood and Sand) and I found this one just as beautifully written and with just as much to offer an adult reader.

The story is set during the time of the Roman Empire and our hero, the gladiator Phaedrus, is the son of a Greek wine merchant and his slave. The novel opens with Phaedrus, a slave himself, winning the Wooden Foil (and therefore his freedom from slavery) when he is victorious in a fight in the arena of Corstopitum, a town on the great wall built by Hadrian in what is now the north of England. His freedom is short-lived, however, when he is imprisoned after getting into trouble while out celebrating in the town, but this time he is rescued by a group of men who have noticed that he closely resembles their king and are hoping to persuade him to take part in a conspiracy.

Soon Phaedrus is heading north into what we now call Scotland, a land which at this time is home to both the Caledones (Picts) and the Dalriadain (Scots). The plan is for Phaedrus to impersonate Midir of the Dalriadain, who has been usurped by the Caledonian Queen Liadhan and blinded to prevent him from trying to rule. As he travels to the Antonine Wall and beyond, Phaedrus educates himself on the history and culture of his new people and comes to understand the significance of his new role as Horse Lord. But will he manage to convince everyone that he really is Midir – and who will win the upcoming battle between the Dalriads and the Caledones?

There was so much to enjoy about this book. I loved the descriptions of the Roman settlements along Hadrian’s Wall, including Corstopitum or Corbridge, as it is now known (I can recommend a visit to Corbridge Roman Town, run by English Heritage, if you’re ever in the area), and the contrast with the tribes in the north, where Roman rule hasn’t reached. I also found it fascinating to read about the differences in culture between the patriarchal Dalriads, whom Sutcliff tells us have ‘become a Sun People, worshipping a male God’ and the matriarchal Caledones who ‘had held to the earlier worship of the Great Mother’.

The plot was good enough to hold my interest to the end and made me think of other imposter stories I’ve read (such as The Great Impersonation and, in particular, The Prisoner of Zenda), but the setting, the time period and the themes it explores make it different and original. Also, without wanting to spoil anything, I thought the ending was perfect – both powerful and poignant. And yet, there was still something that prevented me from enjoying this book as much as I would have liked to. I’m not sure why, but I sometimes seem to struggle with books set in more ancient periods of history; I often don’t engage with the characters and storylines as thoroughly as I do when a book is set in slightly later periods. I’ve no idea why that should be, especially when an author writes as well as Rosemary Sutcliff does!

Katrina from Pining for the West has also reviewed The Mark of the Horse Lord for 1965 Club, if you would like to read a Scottish perspective on the book.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I am looking forward to reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel, A Brightness Long Ago, which will be published in May, but before starting that one I wanted to finally read a different book by Kay which has been on my shelf unread for a few years now. That book is Under Heaven, the first of two novels (the second is River of Stars) inspired by two different Chinese dynasties, Tang and Song.

Kay writes a type of historical fantasy where the emphasis is usually more on the historical than the fantasy. With most of his novels, I at least have a little bit of familiarity with the period on which his setting is based (Renaissance Italy, medieval Spain, the Vikings etc) but the setting of Under Heaven – a fictionalised Tang China – is one I’ve never read about before and of which I have absolutely no knowledge. That made this particular book a slightly more challenging read for me than the others I’ve read by Kay, but it has also left me wanting to know more about the real history of China during this period.

In the book, China is referred to as Kitai, with Tagur (Tibet) to the west. The novel opens with Shen Tai travelling to the battle site of Kuala Nor, where his father, an army general, once led the Kitan to victory against the enemy Taguran. Now his father is dead and Tai plans to spend the two year mourning period laying to rest the bones of the forty thousand dead, both Kitan and Taguran. It seems an impossible task, but Tai is determined to try anyway:

There were too many. It was beyond hope to ever finish this: it was a task for gods descending from the nine heavens, not for one man. But if you couldn’t do everything, did that mean you did nothing?

To acknowledge his efforts, the Empress of Tagur, once a Kitan princess, promises him two hundred and fifty magnificent Sardian horses as a reward – but Tai is not as delighted as you might expect him to be at receiving such a lavish gift. As he knows, ‘You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.’ Imagine the danger a man could be in who possesses not just four or five but two hundred and fifty of these legendary animals! This is a life-changing moment for Tai and on his return journey to the imperial capital of Xinan he finds that he has become the centre of attention, with various factions at court all vying to take possession of the horses for themselves. These include An Li, a powerful military leader; Wen Zhou, the Prime Minister; and Wen Jian, the ‘Precious Consort’ of the elderly Emperor Taizu.

In a parallel storyline, Tai’s sister Li-Mei is being sent north beyond the Long Wall to Bogü (possibly Mongolia) where she is to marry the son of the Bogü leader. Marriage to a barbarian is not what Li-Mei had in mind for herself, but a chance to escape this fate comes when she is rescued by the mysterious Meshag, who takes her across the steppes on a journey as eventful and dangerous as Tai’s.

Kay’s female characters are always strong and interesting and I enjoyed following Li-Mei’s story as much as Tai’s. I’ve already mentioned Wen Jian, the emperor’s consort, who is a match for any of the men when it comes to manoeuvring her way through court politics, but my favourite of the women in the novel is Wei Song, the Kanlin warrior who is sent to protect Tai and takes her duties very seriously, even if it means putting her own life at risk. Of the male characters, apart from Tai himself, I particularly liked Bytsan sri Nespo, his Taguran friend who brings him the message about the Sardian horses, and Sima Zian, the famous poet who accompanies him to Xinan and becomes one of the few men he can trust.

Poetry runs through the novel, as does superstition, myth, legend and political intrigue – but there are only one or two small elements that you could really describe as fantasy (mainly at the beginning, with the ghosts of Kuala Nor – ‘outside in all seasons, moonlit nights and dark, as soon as the sun went down’). Most of the other Guy Gavriel Kay novels I’ve read are set in a world with one white moon and one blue, but the world of Under Heaven has only one (he makes a point of telling us that the poet Sima Zian has often dreamed of having another moon to write about). I’m curious to know why he decided to set this one in a different world to the others, especially as we were back to the two moons again in his most recent book, Children of Earth and Sky.

I will have to find out more about the Tang Dynasty and the An Shi Rebellion, but I’m also looking forward to reading River of Stars which is set four hundred years later, during the Song Dynasty. First, though, on to A Brightness Long Ago!

Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

Casanova and the Faceless Woman is the first in a series of historical mysteries by French author Olivier Barde-Cabuçon, set in pre-Revolutionary France. There are currently seven books in the series but this one, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, is the first to appear in English. When I was offered a copy for review by Pushkin Vertigo I was immediately intrigued because although I read a lot of historical mysteries I don’t think I’ve read any set in this particular period.

It’s 1759 and Louis XV is on the throne of France. He is not a popular king – unrest is growing amongst those who feel they have been oppressed under his reign and his rumoured liaisons with innocent young girls have not helped his reputation either – and there are several different factions plotting to overthrow or discredit him. Not long before our story begins, Louis had been the target of an assassination attempt and narrowly avoided being stabbed to death thanks to the quick actions of the Chevalier de Volnay. As a reward for his bravery, Volnay has been given the title of Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, responsible for investigating particularly unusual crimes on the king’s behalf.

One such crime occurs when a young woman is found dead in a dark Paris courtyard with the skin torn away from her face. On arriving at the scene, Volnay removes a sealed letter from the corpse intending to examine it later, but it seems that someone – perhaps several people – have seen him do it. Over the days that follow, as Volnay sets about trying to identify the woman and hunt down her killer, he himself is hunted by those who want to retrieve the letter and will stop at nothing to get it back.

Volnay interested me from the beginning because he is such a mysterious character. We are told very little about him at first, with the secrets of his tragic and eventful past being revealed very gradually as the story progresses. He seems very alone in the world, his only companions being a monk (with whom he forms a fascinating crime-solving partnership) and a tame magpie. There is a sense that he is not somebody who finds it easy to love or to trust others, and so, when he enters into a relationship with the beautiful Chiara D’Ancilla, we worry that he is going to get hurt – especially as his rival in love is the legendary Casanova.

Giacomo Casanova is one of several real historical figures who have important roles to play in the novel; others include Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, and the Comte de Saint-Germain, the alchemist, sorcerer and musician who has fascinated me since I first met him in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I don’t think Casanova has appeared in any other novels I’ve read, although his career as writer, adventurer, gambler and, most famously, seducer of women, makes him an ideal subject for historical fiction. His character is well developed and convincing here and Barde-Cabuçon explores events from his past in order to explain his present behaviour, but I could never quite warm to him because my sympathies were with Volnay from the start. While Casanova seems to treat his romance with Chiara – and his involvement with the stolen letter and all the intrigue surrounding it – as a game, for Volnay these things are literally a matter of life and death.

I’m not sure whether Louis was really as disgusting and depraved as he is depicted in the novel but his reign certainly wasn’t seen as very successful and I think the author does a good job of conveying the mood in France in the years leading up to the Revolution and the discontent of the people with the king and the aristocracy. However, as a mystery novel, I thought the plot felt a bit more complicated than it really needed to be and the action moved between one set of characters and another too quickly, so that there were times when I struggled to hold on to all the different threads of the story. I also found the ending unnecessarily dramatic with one twist too many – although I had been intrigued by some of the revelations near the end, which left me wanting to read the next book in the series. I hope it’s going to be available in English soon too as I would love to see more of the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

In the author’s note that opens The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Sara Collins remembers reading books like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre on the small Caribbean island where she grew up and asking the questions: “Why couldn’t a Jamaican former slave be the star of her own gothic romance? Why couldn’t she be complicated, ambiguous, complex? Why had no one like that ever had a love story like those?’ Frannie Langton is Collins’ attempt to redress the balance and give that Jamaican former slave her very own story in which to star.

The novel opens in 1826 with Frannie – or the ‘Mulatta Murderess’, as she has become known – awaiting trial at London’s Old Bailey for the murders of her employers, George and Marguerite Benham. Frannie, who had been a maid in the Benham household, had been found lying in bed, covered in blood, beside Marguerite’s dead body. She has no idea how she came to be there and is sure she couldn’t possibly have killed her beloved mistress, yet all the evidence suggests that she is guilty. While she waits for her fate to be decided, Frannie looks back on her life and recalls the sequence of events that have led her to this point.

Frannie remembers her childhood, growing up on the Langtons’ sugar plantation in Jamaica (ironically called ‘Paradise’) and describes the circumstances that meant she received an education that would usually be denied to a slave. Later, when Mr Langton returns to England, he takes Frannie with him and she looks forward to new experiences and new opportunities. On their arrival in London, however, she is handed over to the Benhams to become a servant in their home and finds that life is not much better here than it was on the plantation. The one bright spot in her life is her relationship with ‘Madame’ (Mrs Benham), but as we already know from the opening chapter of the book, that relationship will end in tragedy.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is Sara Collins’ first novel and I’m sure it’s going to be a big success for her. It has been given a beautiful front cover, which stands out even amongst the many other beautiful covers that are around at the moment and the book has already been getting lots of very positive reviews since its publication last week. I didn’t love it as much as most other people seem to have done, but that’s probably because it wasn’t really what I’d expected. I thought the crime element would have been a more important part of the story, but the murder and the trial are confined mainly to the final few chapters, and I’m not sure I would agree with the description of the book as a gothic novel either, although I suppose it would depend on what you consider gothic to mean.

I did find Frannie an interesting and engaging heroine with a strong narrative voice and although there were some parts of her story that I felt I’d read many times before (bearing in mind that I do read a lot of historical novels set in the 19th century), Frannie’s background and unusual circumstances mean that we are seeing things from a slightly different angle. Having one white parent and one black, Frannie never really fits in with the other slaves on the plantation – especially when she is given an education and an enviable position as house slave – but she knows she will never be accepted by most white people either. As you can imagine, she experiences a lot of cruelty and prejudice in her life and this is quite a sad story at times – and also quite disturbing, particularly the descriptions of the ‘scientific experiments’ and research carried out by Frannie’s two masters, Langton and Benham.

Sara Collins writes beautifully and I was struck by sentences like “A man writes to separate himself from the common history. A woman writes to try to join it…” and “A good scientist merely searches for the answer to the question posed, but the one whose name history will record reaches for the questions no one has even thought to ask”. And of course, as a fellow book lover, I appreciated Frannie’s love of literature and her determination to read all the books she could get her hands on. But was Frannie really responsible for the deaths of George and Marguerite Benham? You will need to read her confessions to find out…

Thanks to Penguin/Viking Books for providing a review copy of The Confessions of Frannie Langton and for inviting me to take part in their blog tour.