Imperfect Alchemist by Naomi Miller

Mary Sidney may not be as well known as her brother Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet who wrote Astrophel and Stella, but she was a successful and accomplished author in her own right – and one of the first Englishwomen to publish under her own name. In Imperfect Alchemist, Naomi Miller brings Mary’s story to life in fictional form, beginning in 1575 when Mary is summoned to court to attend the Queen. Marriage follows a few years later to Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and although it is an arranged marriage rather than one based on love, Henry at least seems to accept his new wife’s intelligence and learning and allows her the freedom to pursue her literary interests, leading to her eventually establishing a literary circle at their home, Wilton House.

Mary’s story, which is written in the third person, alternates with a first person narrative from the perspective of another young woman, Rose Commin. Rose, a fictional character, comes from a very different background, having grown up in the countryside, the daughter of a cloth merchant and a herbalist. After her mother is put on trial for witchcraft, Rose is sent away to the safety of Wilton House, where she becomes maid to Lady Catherine Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, who encourages her to develop her talent for drawing, as well as teaching her to read and write. Sadly, Lady Catherine dies shortly after Rose’s arrival, but when Henry Herbert marries again and brings his young wife, Mary Sidney, to Wilton House, a friendship begins to form between Rose and her new mistress.

Before reading Imperfect Alchemist, I knew almost nothing about Mary Sidney. Her brother Philip has appeared in one or two books I’ve read (such as Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge and Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle) but I can’t remember ever reading anything about Mary. As well as shedding some light on her personal life, the novel explores her involvement with alchemy and medicine, her relationships with other historical figures such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson and Aemilia Lanyer, and her major literary achievements. Not only does Mary prepare and publish an edition of her brother’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, she produces new translations of the Psalms and her version of the Antony and Cleopatra story is thought to inspire Shakespeare’s famous play.

Although Mary is, on the surface, the more interesting character, I think I preferred Rose’s sections of the book – possibly because Rose narrates her chapters herself, making her easier to identify with and to warm to. However, I’ve read a few other historical novels recently that have alternated a real woman’s story with an invented one (usually a lady’s maid), and along with the ‘healer being accused of witchcraft’ theme, which also seems to be an increasingly common trend in historical fiction, I didn’t feel that this book had anything very new or different to offer. As an introduction to the life and work of Mary Sidney Herbert, though, it’s excellent and I was certainly able to learn a lot from it. This is Naomi Miller’s first novel and apparently the first in a projected series of novels about early women authors, so I’ll be interested to see who she writes about next.

Book 17/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Drowned City by KJ Maitland

I had already been drawn to The Drowned City, the first in a new series of historical mysteries set in the 17th century, before it dawned on me that KJ Maitland was Karen Maitland, an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. All the more reason to want to read it, then!

In January 1606, exactly a year after the execution of the conspirators who tried to blow up Parliament in the failed Gunpowder Plot, a towering wave sweeps up the Bristol Channel, leaving a scene of devastation. Whole families are drowned, buildings are swept away and farmland is destroyed. As the survivors try to come to terms with what has happened, rumours begin to arise. Some say the wave was summoned by witches, others that it was God’s way of taking revenge for the executions. The King’s most trusted adviser, Charles FitzAlan, fears that it’s all part of another Catholic conspiracy and decides to send someone to Bristol to investigate. Luckily, he knows just the man for the job…

That man is Daniel Pursglove, currently languishing in Newgate Prison awaiting what seems to be certain death. Daniel’s particular background and skills have brought him to FitzAlan’s attention and when he is offered his freedom in return for carrying out some investigations in Bristol, he jumps at the chance. Arriving in the city, Daniel begins his search for the missing Catholic conspirator known as Spero Pettingar, but almost immediately finds himself caught up in another mystery – a series of murders. Are they all part of the same plot or is something else going on in the flooded city?

Like Maitland’s earlier novels, this is a dark and atmospheric story with an interesting historical setting. I’ve never read anything about the Bristol Channel Floods of 1607 (or 1606; Maitland uses the old Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian), so that was something completely new for me. The descriptions of the devastated city in the aftermath of the wave are vivid and even quite eerie and almost otherworldly. It’s always refreshing to read historical novels with a setting other than London, and the flooded Bristol, in a superstitious age when natural disasters were often attributed to witchcraft or messages from heaven, was the perfect choice for this particular story.

Although there a few real historical characters in the book, notably Robert Cecil, most are fictional. Daniel Pursglove, the central character in this and presumably the rest of the series, intrigued me as we know so little about him at first. What is his background? How did he come to be a prisoner? What are the special talents that make him so suitable for this task? As the story unfolds, so does our understanding of Daniel and gradually some of our questions are answered. I’m sure we’ll be learning more about him in future books.

Where this book was less successful, in my opinion, was with the mystery element; once Daniel arrives in Bristol the plot takes off in so many different directions I kept forgetting what his original purpose was in going there. Had it been shorter and more tightly focused, I think I would have enjoyed it much more; instead, I found myself struggling to keep track of what was happening at times. Still, this is a promising start to a new series and I’m definitely interested in reading the second book.

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

Book 16/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins

As someone who reads a lot of historical fiction, it’s always nice to come across books featuring historical figures I’ve never read about before. The Puritan Princess, Miranda Malins’ debut novel, tells the story of Frances Cromwell, youngest daughter of Oliver Cromwell. Despite the title, Frances never actually became a princess, but the book covers the period from 1657 to 1658 when this looked as though it could be a possibility.

Following years of civil war and the execution of King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell has been named Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland…but for some of his supporters, this is not enough. In 1657, Parliament offers him the crown, leaving Cromwell facing a dilemma. On the one hand, accepting might bring about stability, which is what Parliament hopes, but on the other, having recently been involved in abolishing the monarchy, he is reluctant to become monarch himself. History tells us that he will eventually turn the offer down, but while it is under consideration Frances wonders what his decision will mean for her and what implications it could have for her marriage. Frances is in love with the young courtier Robert Rich, whose father supported the opposite side in the recent civil war; they already face difficulties in persuading Cromwell to allow them to marry and any change in Frances’ status could make it even less likely.

As well as her relationship with Robert, the relationships Frances has with her sisters also form an important part of the story. Her eldest sisters, Bridget and Elizabeth are much older; they reached adulthood before their father rose to power and can remember a different way of life; Mary, though, is only a year older than Frances and the two are very close, to the extent that Mary is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness for her sister’s sake. Less attention is given to Cromwell’s sons, but they do appear in the novel now and then – Richard, who will succeed his father as Lord Protector, and Henry, who is Lord Deputy of Ireland.

Oliver Cromwell himself is shown in a much more positive light than usual. Seen through his daughter’s eyes, he is depicted as a loving father and husband, fond of art, music and hunting – very different from the image most people have of the strict Puritan opposed to all forms of enjoyment. However, although it’s good to see a different side of Cromwell, because the story is narrated by Frances and she is clearly biased in favour of her father, I don’t think it’s a very balanced portrayal.

I found the first half of the book slightly slow and repetitive as it is mainly concerned with whether or not Frances will marry Robert Rich and whether or not Cromwell will accept the crown, but I’m glad I kept going as the plot does become more gripping later on. I previously knew very little about the final years of Cromwell’s Protectorate and, as I’ve said, I had never read about Frances until now, so I do feel that I’ve learned something new from The Puritan Princess and I’m already looking forward to Miranda Malins’ next book.

Book 15/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Prophet by Martine Bailey

When I finished reading Martine Bailey’s The Almanack last year I didn’t know there was going to be a sequel and didn’t expect one, so it was a nice surprise to come across The Prophet and to reacquaint myself with characters I hadn’t thought I would meet again. This book does work as a standalone, though, so if you haven’t read The Almanack yet, don’t worry!

The story begins in 1753, on Old May Day – eleven days were ‘lost’ the year before when Britain changed over from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar – and Tabitha De Vallory and her husband Nat have decided to ride into the forest to see the giant Mondrem Oak which has been decorated for the occasion. Tabitha also has a special reason of her own for wanting to visit the oak; she is pregnant and wants to ask the tree spirit for a safe childbirth. However, she and Nat are unprepared for what they actually find beneath the tree – the dead body of a young woman, brutally murdered.

The woman’s death has coincided with the arrival of a group of people who are on their way to America to start a new life in Pennsylvania and have set up camp in the forest before continuing their journey to the coast. Led by a charismatic young preacher known as Baptist Gunn, the group deny all knowledge of the murder, but are they telling the truth? Could the dead woman be linked to Gunn’s prophecy predicting the coming of a second messiah on Midsummer’s Day?

I enjoyed being back in Netherlea, the Cheshire village in and around which these books are set. It’s a small community steeped in tradition and folklore, where people’s lives are still ruled by ancient superstitions and rituals, making them suspicious of things that are new and unfamiliar – the perfect setting in which a religious cult like Baptist Gunn’s can take root and develop. The conflict between new and old is also explored through the themes of pregnancy and childbirth as Tabitha looks forward to the arrival of her baby with both excitement and anxiety.

The mystery element of the novel is also interesting; both Tabitha and Nat have a personal connection to the dead woman which makes it even more important for them to find out what happened to her. In addition to the prophet Gunn, there are several other suspects and some of the revelations towards the end of the book surprised me! As well as trying to solve the mystery, Tabitha is trying to put her past behind her and adjust to a new way of life as the lady of Bold Hall, with all the changes in status her marriage has brought her.

Of the two books, I think I preferred The Almanack, mainly because I loved the little riddles at the start of every chapter which aren’t included in this one, but The Prophet was still an enjoyable, if unsettling, read.

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

Book 14/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

I loved this! I’ve never read Kate Quinn before, although she has been recommended to me several times, so I’m pleased that my first experience of her work has been such a good one. The Rose Code wasn’t a perfect book, but the few flaws that I noted were quickly outweighed by the gripping plot, strong characters and interesting historical setting.

The story takes place in and around Bletchley Park, the English country house which became the home of Britain’s World War II codebreakers, and follows three of the young women who work there. Two of them, Osla Kendall and Mab Churt, meet on the train in 1940 as they travel to Bletchley Park, unsure as to what their new jobs will involve but determined to do their best to help the war effort. Osla, a beautiful, wealthy young socialite, is desperate to prove that she is more than just a ‘silly debutante’; the outspoken and fiercely independent Mab is a working class girl from the East End of London who, having escaped from a life of poverty, wants to make a better future for herself. At Bletchley Park, both will find the opportunities they need to change their lives – and so does a third young woman, Beth Finch. Beth has grown up under the thumb of her domineering mother and looks set to remain a spinster all her life, but when Osla and Mab notice her special gift for crosswords and puzzles, they encourage her to overcome her shyness and join them at Bletchley.

Although most of the novel is set during the war years, we occasionally jump forward in time to 1947. On the eve of the royal wedding between Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, two of the three Bletchley Park women have received a summons for help from the third, who has been confined to an asylum. However, the friendship between the three of them broke down before the war ended and the two women who are free aren’t sure if they really want to help the one who is imprisoned. What happened to destroy their friendship? Was there really a traitor within Bletchley Park? And will the mysterious Rose Code ever be solved?

The Rose Code is a long novel, but was quicker to read than I’d expected because I became so engrossed in the stories of Osla, Mab and Beth. Their work at Bletchley Park is fascinating to read about, particularly Beth’s as a cryptanalyst, working with the legendary Dilly Knox. Although it all sounds very complicated – and I’m pleased the Allies didn’t have to rely on me to break the Enigma codes – Kate Quinn does a good job of explaining how the various machines were used and what the different decryption methods involved. She also explores the psychological impact of carrying out such highly confidential work; all of the codebreakers sign up to the Official Secrets Act and are banned from discussing their work with friends and family or even with people from different departments within Bletchley Park itself. This raises the interesting question of whether it’s ever acceptable to break your oath of secrecy – and if not, what sort of strain will that put on your relationships with other people?

Several real historical figures appear in The Rose Code. I have already mentioned Dilly Knox, but we also briefly meet Alan Turing, Winston Churchill…and Prince Philip, who is romantically involved with Osla before his marriage to Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen). This isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem, as Kate Quinn apparently based the character of Osla Kendall on the real life Osla Benning, who really was a Canadian debutante who worked at Bletchley Park and was Prince Philip’s girlfriend – but I don’t personally feel comfortable reading fictional portrayals of people who are still alive and this whole storyline felt unnecessary to me. I couldn’t imagine the real Philip saying some of the things he says in the book either; in fact, although I did appreciate the author’s attempts to use the slang of the time, the language in general didn’t always feel quite right to me – and there are a few annoying references to England when it should be Britain.

Still, even the Philip storyline didn’t stop me from enjoying this book because the rest of it was so interesting and compelling. There was even one scene that made me cry and I think that’s always a sign that the author has done something right! I’m sure I will be reading more books by Kate Quinn.

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

Book 13/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Mini-reviews: Ashes; A Net for Small Fishes; The Lost Diary of Venice

Although I usually devote an entire post on my blog to every book I read, sometimes I find that I have very little to say. That’s not always necessarily a reflection on the quality of the book or how much I enjoyed it, but more an inability to put into words my thoughts about a particular book and an awareness that if I don’t just write something soon I will never get round to reviewing it at all! Three of my recent reads fall into that category, so here are a few paragraphs about each of them:

The first is Ashes by Christopher de Vinck, a novel set in Belgium during World War II. Simone Lyon, the daughter of a major general in the Belgian army, meets Hava Daniels while volunteering with the Red Cross in 1939 and despite their different backgrounds – Hava’s family are Jews from Poland – the two become close friends. In those innocent days at the beginning of the war, the girls believe their country will remain safe and neutral, untouched by the horrors starting to sweep across the rest of Europe. Less than a year later, Brussels is under German occupation and Hava and Simone become caught up in everything they’d hoped to avoid.

I found this a moving portrayal of friendship and loyalty, although I struggled to believe that Simone and Hava were really supposed to be eighteen years old as they felt a lot younger than that to me – in fact, I thought the whole story and the way in which it was written felt more like YA fiction than adult. Not a problem, but not what I’d expected! It was interesting to read about the Holocaust from a Belgian perspective and the quotes from politicians, news articles and Nazi propaganda which begin every chapter help to put everything into historical context, but the story was not quite as harrowing as books on this topic usually are. Maybe that was due to the pacing, as a lot more time is spent on building up Hava and Simone’s friendship than on describing the events that follow the Nazi invasion. Overall, this was a worthwhile read, but just didn’t have the sort of depth I prefer in a novel.

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago is set much earlier, in Jacobean England, and tells the story of the real life Thomas Overbury Scandal from the perspective of Anne Turner, one of the people involved in the crime. Anne, the wife of a London physician, is also a businesswoman in her own right, holding the patent for yellow starch for collars and ruffs. Early in the novel, she becomes dresser and companion to Frances Howard, the young Countess of Essex – and when Frances falls in love with Robert Carr, the king’s favourite, it is Anne to whom she turns for help. Frances wants to marry Robert, but his friend Sir Thomas Overbury stands in their way; if only she and Anne could somehow get rid of him!

I think I would probably have enjoyed this book more if I hadn’t already read several other versions of the Overbury story, most recently EC Fremantle’s The Poison Bed and Rafael Sabatini’s The Minion. Being familiar with the story in advance took away the suspense and what was left wasn’t really enough to hold my attention. The choice of Anne as narrator, while interesting from the point of view of showing us how an ordinary citizen of the time might have viewed royalty and courtiers, took us further from the action, often leaving a sense that all the excitement was happening elsewhere. I also found Anne’s habit of referring to Frances as ‘Frankie’ very irritating as I didn’t think that name was in common use in the early 17th century. This book just wasn’t for me, but most of the other reviews I’ve seen are much more positive than mine! I do like the title, which is a reference to ‘small fishes’ being caught in the net of justice while the larger fish swim away.

The Lost Diary of Venice by Margaux DeRoux is a dual timeline novel; the present day narrative follows Rose, an expert in book restoration from Connecticut, and the historical one is set in Renaissance Italy. The connection between the two comes when William, an artist, brings a 16th century manuscript into Rose’s bookshop. Rose quickly discovers that the document is a palimpsest, where one set of words has been written over another which has been scraped away. On the surface it is a treatise on art by the great Italian painter Giovanni Lomazzo, but it’s the hidden diary entries and sketches underneath that really intrigue Rose and William.

It’s often the case that when a novel is set in two time periods, I like one much more than the other; with this novel, however, I didn’t find either of them very compelling. The book is well written, with some beautiful descriptions of Venice in the historical sections, but I didn’t feel any emotional connection to any of the characters. Rose’s relationship with the married William didn’t interest me and I was unmoved by Giovanni’s romance with the courtesan Chiara too (although I did have some sympathy for Giovanni as he discovered that he was losing his sight, a terrible thing for an artist to have to come to terms with). I also loved the glimpses we are given of the political situation in Venice at that time, the conflict between the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire, and the events taking place in Cyprus ahead of the Battle of Lepanto. I wished more time had been spent on all of this, as every time I started to become gripped by what was happening, the chapter ended and we switched back to the modern day story. This is not a book I can say I particularly enjoyed, but I’m pleased I was at least able to learn something from it.

Have you read any of these? If so, let me know what you thought.

Book 10, 11 and 12/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Soul Thief by Cecelia Holland

Cecelia Holland is an American historical novelist who has been writing since the 1960s and whose books cover a huge range of different time periods and geographical settings. To give an example of the variety of her work, I have previously read three of her novels and one was set in Borgia-ruled Rome, one in medieval England and one in 16th century Hungary! The Soul Thief, the first in a six-volume series published between 2002 and 2010, takes us back to Ireland in the 10th century, beginning on the eve of a Viking raid…

Corban Loosestrife has argued with his father and, having been threatened with banishment, has gone off to sleep outdoors in the hope that he will be forgiven the next day. However, when the sun rises in the morning and he heads back home, he finds the family farm burning to the ground, his parents’ dead bodies amongst the ruins and no sign at all of his twin sister, Mav. Making his way to the Viking settlement at Dubh Linn (Dublin), Corban learns that Mav may have been transported across the sea to Jorvik with the other healthy young women to be sold as slaves. Determined to do whatever is necessary to bring her home, Corban sets out on his sister’s trail – a trail that will take him first to Jorvik and then further afield to the Danish trading post of Hedeby.

I know from my earlier experience of Cecelia Holland’s novels that her ‘heroes’ are usually not particularly heroic – and in fact are often very unlikeable. Corban is easier to like than, for example, János Rákossy or Fulk, Earl of Stafford, but he is also another imperfect character. He makes mistakes, he lacks courage at times, and he is often easily distracted from his quest. There’s a lot of scope for character development, yet I felt that there was very little in this book; maybe as this is only the first of six novels we will see Corban grow and change as a person later in the series, although at this point I’m not sure whether I will be continuing. I enjoyed parts of Corban’s story, but this novel had neither the depth nor the level of emotional engagement I prefer and I don’t think I really liked it enough to want to commit to another five books.

I did find Mav’s story intriguing: after being captured during the Viking raid, she falls into the hands of the mysterious Lady of Hedeby, a sort of witch or sorceress who decides to use Mav’s psychic connection with her twin Corban for her own purposes. With this storyline, the novel begins to cross from straight historical fiction into the realms of historical fantasy – although the supernatural elements are really quite subtle and not fully explained (again, maybe this is developed further later in the series). Mav and the Lady interested me much more than Corban did and I would have preferred to have had more of the novel devoted to them.

My knowledge of this period of history is very limited, so I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of anything that is described in the book. The focus is mainly on the fictional characters, but Corban does cross paths with some of the historical figures of the time, particularly in Jorvik (York), where he is drawn into the court of the Viking king, Eric Bloodaxe, and his wife, Gunnhild. Meanwhile, the Lady of Hedeby plots and schemes with another king, Harald Bluetooth (yes, the one Bluetooth technology is named after). I didn’t feel that I learned a lot about these historical men and women, although they have important roles in the plot, but as this is very much Corban’s story – the series is called The Life and Times of Corban Loosestrife – it’s understandable that he is given most of the attention.

As I’ve said, I’m probably not going to read the second Corban book, but I will continue to read Cecelia Holland’s standalone novels. So far I have read Rákossy, Hammer for Princes and City of God, and am looking forward to reading more.

Book 9/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.