Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass

The final decade of the 18th century is a time of revolution and political upheaval; in 1794, the year in which Black Drop is set, Britain is both at war with France – a country still in the grip of the Reign of Terror – and trying to negotiate a treaty with the recently independent America. Our narrator, Laurence Jago, is a London clerk working in the Foreign Office and facing the difficult task of trying to advance in his career while also hiding a secret that, if discovered, would lead to accusations of treason.

When details of Britain’s military plans are leaked to the press, suspicion falls at first on Jago – but then the blame shifts to another clerk, Will Bates, who is found to have hanged himself in his room. Was Will really the traitor or is he being used as a convenient scapegoat? Jago is sure he was innocent and that his death was actually murder rather than suicide so, with the help of his friend, the journalist William Philpott, he sets out to discover the truth.

I enjoyed this book, although it was more political thriller than murder mystery and I occasionally felt that the plot was becoming more complicated than it really needed to be; I struggled to keep track of all the characters, their roles within the government and which of them may or may not be a spy. Overall, though, it was a fascinating period to read about, with so much going on in the world at that time – not only the French Revolutionary Wars and American treaty mentioned above, but also the fight for political reform led by the British shoemaker Thomas Hardy (not to be confused with the author of the same name!) and the growing debate over slavery and abolition.

Laurence Jago is a great character and the sort of flawed hero I love. The ‘Black Drop’ of the title refers to the laudanum Jago depends upon to get through the day and to ease the fear of his secrets being discovered. As his addiction worsens, it begins to affect the way he judges people and situations and leads the reader to question whether or not everything he is telling us is completely reliable. Despite this, I liked him very much and connected with his narrative style immediately. Jago is one of several fictional characters in the novel whom we see interacting with real historical figures such as Thomas Hardy, Lord Grenville, the Foreign Secretary, and John Jay, the American envoy. I knew nothing about any of these people before reading this book; it’s always good to learn something new!

Black Drop is Leonora Nattrass’ first novel. The way this one ended made me think there could be a sequel, but if not I will be happy to read whatever she writes next.

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

Book 46/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 7 for R.I.P. XVI

Castle Barebane by Joan Aiken – #1976Club

Since reading some of Jane Aiken Hodge’s books, I’ve been interested in trying something by her sister and fellow author, Joan Aiken. Maybe it would have been more sensible to start with the classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, for which she’s most famous, but her adult novels appealed to me more and when I saw that Castle Barebane was published in 1976, I decided to read it for this week’s 1976 Club hosted by Karen and Simon. I loved it, so it turned out to be a perfect choice!

The novel is set towards the end of the 19th century and opens with Val Montgomery, a New York journalist, at a party to celebrate her engagement to Benet Allerton. The party is not an enjoyable experience for Val – she feels awkward and out of place around Benet’s wealthy, fashionable relatives and can sense their disapproval of her clothes, her family and the fact that she works for a living. When she discovers that she will be expected to give up her career once she becomes Benet’s wife, she begins to have second thoughts about the marriage.

As luck would have it, Val returns home from the party later that night to find that her half-brother Nils has just arrived from England and when she tells him that she is having doubts about Benet, he persuades her to come and stay with him in London for a while to give herself time to think. However, the next day Nils disappears, leaving a note saying he has been called back to England urgently. Val follows on another ship a few days later, but by the time she reaches London, she discovers that her brother’s house has been abandoned, there’s no sign of Nils or his Scottish wife Kirstie, and their two young children are staying with a cruel and negligent servant. Desperate to know what has happened – and wanting to find someone more suitable to care for little Pieter and Jannie before she goes home to America – Val takes the children and boards a train for Scotland and Kirstie’s old family estate.

The rest of the novel is set at Ardnacarrig, nicknamed Castle Barebane because of its derelict, neglected state. This is where the gothic elements of the story emerge, with descriptions of underground passages, dangerous rocks and treacherous quicksand and tales of at least two resident ghosts who haunt the upper floors of the house at night. Val, who is too practical to believe in ghosts, suspects that if the house is haunted at all, it is haunted by the misery and unhappiness of the people who have lived there. As we – and Val – wait for the truth behind Nils’ and Kirstie’s disappearances to be revealed, the poignant stories of other characters unfold: the elderly housekeeper Elspie and her lost lover Mungo; local doctor David Ramsay and his dying mother; and six-year-old Pieter and his little sister Jannie, who is not like other children.

It took me a while to get into this book; it was very slow at the beginning and I felt that more time was spent on Benet and his family than was necessary, considering that they don’t really feature in the story after the first few chapters. Once Val arrived in London to find her brother missing, though, it became much more compelling. Val is a great character; although I didn’t find her particularly likeable at first – and I don’t think she was intended to be – I admired her dedication to her work and desire for independence when it would have been easier to just marry Benet and conform to society’s expectations. After she breaks free from Benet it’s fascinating to watch her grow and flourish as a character while doing all she can to help the people around her, even when it seems that they don’t really want to be helped. There’s also a new romance for Val, which I liked, but we didn’t see enough of her love interest for me to feel fully invested in their relationship.

Most of the action in the book is packed into the final few chapters; there’s definitely a problem with the pacing and also a bit of needless violence which I wasn’t expecting and felt that the story would have worked just as well without. But despite the novel’s many flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – both the domestic parts and the gothic adventure parts. The atmosphere is wonderful, there’s a suitably sinister villain and I loved the remote setting (and was impressed by the Scottish dialect which seemed quite accurate, although I’m not an expert). I’m certainly planning to read more of Joan Aiken’s books and am hoping they’re all as good as this one!

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I’m also counting this book towards the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the R.I.P. XVI event!

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1976 books previously read and reviewed on my blog:

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks
Some Touch of Pity by Rhoda Edwards
The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick

When I read Carol McGrath’s The Silken Rose last year I remarked on the lack of books about Henry III and Eleanor of Provence, so I was pleased to find that they are also major characters in Elizabeth Chadwick’s new novel, A Marriage of Lions. The main focus of the story, however, is Henry’s younger half-brother, William de Valence, and his wife, Joanna de Munchensy of Swanscombe. Those of you who are avid readers of Chadwick’s novels will know that she has a particular interest in William Marshal, hero of The Greatest Knight, and that many of her recent books have featured various members of the Marshal family. This is another, as Joanna de Munchensy is one of William Marshal’s grandchildren.

The novel opens in 1238 with the eight-year-old Joanna serving as a chamber lady at the court of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence (or Alienor as Chadwick spells the name). With several older male relatives, Joanna is seen as an insignificant member of the Marshal family until a sudden change in circumstances leaves her a very wealthy young woman with lands and titles of her own. In 1247, the King’s half-brothers – the sons of his mother Isabella of Angoulême’s second marriage to Hugh of Lusignan – arrive from France to take up positions at Henry’s court. The King becomes particularly fond of his youngest half-brother, William de Valence, and rewards him with marriage to Joanna, now one of the richest heiresses in England.

Although it’s an arranged marriage, it turns out to be a very happy one – but there are many at court who are not at all pleased with the favour being shown to William and his brothers. The powerful Simon de Montfort and his wife, the King’s sister, believe that part of the Marshal inheritance belongs to them and they set out to make life as difficult for William and Joanna as they possibly can. Meanwhile Queen Eleanor becomes resentful of the influence William and the other Lusignans wield over her young son, Prince Edward, and her previously good relationship with Joanna grows tense and strained. As the atmosphere becomes more and more hostile and the King’s power begins to weaken, Simon de Montfort and his barons see their chance to seize control of the throne and suddenly William and Joanna find themselves driven away from court as the country heads towards civil war.

I always enjoy Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels and this is another great one. Although I found it a bit slow to start with – the first half of the book is devoted mainly to the early days of Joanna’s marriage to William and the domestic details of their lives together – once the tension starts to build between the different factions surrounding the throne and the events leading to the Second Barons’ War get underway, it quickly became difficult to put down. I have read about this war before but only from the points of view of de Montfort and the King and Queen, so it was interesting to see things from the Lusignan/Marshal perspective. Simon de Montfort is very much the villain here (the lack of nuance in his characterisation was one of the few things that disappointed me about this book) and there’s a sense that the Lusignans are unfairly targeted because they are ‘foreign newcomers’ and because of the preferential treatment they are believed to receive from Henry. The King himself is caught in the middle and it’s quite sad to see how weak and ineffective he eventually becomes.

I loved Joanna and William and the way their marriage is depicted. Their relationship is a close and affectionate one, based on trust and love, but the sensible, practical Joanna often finds herself frustrated by her husband’s more impulsive nature which leads him to make mistakes and damage both of their reputations at court. There’s not much information available on the real historical figures, particularly Joanna, but Chadwick’s portrayal feels convincing and believable and I enjoyed getting to know them both.

Among the secondary characters in this book, my favourite was Leonora (Eleanor) of Castile, the young wife of the future Edward I. She’s such a strong and vivid character, I wondered whether Elizabeth Chadwick might have her in mind as the subject of a future novel – and it seems that I was right, so that’s something to look forward to!

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

Book 44/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters

It’s been years since I last read an Amelia Peabody mystery and when I picked up The Mummy Case, the third in the series, I was concerned that I had left too big a gap between books. Luckily, this seems to be a series you can easily return to after a long absence as each book, at least so far, has worked as a standalone mystery.

The Mummy Case is set in 1894 and opens with married Egyptologists Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson at home in England planning their next trip to Egypt. Amelia dreams of exploring the pyramids of Dahshoor on this visit, but her hopes are shattered with the discovery that her husband has left it too late to submit their application and permission has already been granted to another archaeologist. Amelia and Emerson are offered Mazghunah instead – a barren and uninspiring site believed to be of little historical significance – and they reluctantly accept.

Despite their lack of enthusiasm, the expedition proves to be much more exciting than either of them had expected. Before they even reach their destination, they become caught up in the murder of an antiquities dealer in Cairo who is found dead in his own shop – and when they eventually arrive at Mazghunah, Amelia becomes convinced that somebody connected with the murder has followed them there. When a scrap of papyrus is stolen from their camp and an entire mummy case belonging to a visiting tourist also disappears, even Emerson has to agree that they have stumbled onto the trail of a clever and ruthless Master Criminal!

Unlike their first two mysteries (described in Crocodile on the Sandbank and The Curse of the Pharaohs), Amelia and Emerson have help in solving this one. For the first time, their young son Ramses has accompanied them on a dig and while he often proves to be more of a hindrance, getting into trouble at every opportunity, he also manages to appear at several crucial moments to save the day. Described as ‘catastrophically precocious’ by Amelia, he sounds more like a seventy-year-old professor with a speech impediment than a seven-year-old child and although I’ve been told that he improves as a character later in the series, in this book I found him extremely irritating. However, he’s clearly not meant to be taken too seriously – and to be fair, Amelia finds him irritating too:

The old woman’s cacodemonic laughter broke out again…”The wisdom of the Prophet is yours, great lady. Accept an old woman’s blessing. May you have many sons – many, many sons…”

The idea was so appalling I think I turned pale.

I enjoyed this book, despite Ramses, but I don’t think it was as strong as the previous two in the series. The plot seemed to meander all over the place and it was easy to lose sight of what the central mystery was that the characters were trying to solve. I do still love Amelia and Emerson, though – their good-natured bickering is always entertaining! It was also interesting to learn a little bit about Mazghunah and its disappointingly incomplete ‘pyramids’ and to meet the real-life archaeologist Jacques de Morgan – although seeing him only through Amelia’s eyes gives us a slightly biased impression as he is their rival and the man who is excavating the much more attractive site of Dahshoor!

I am looking forward to continuing with the fourth book in the series, Lion in the Valley.

Book 43/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 2 read for R.I.P. XVI

Daughters of War by Dinah Jefferies

After six novels set in Asia, all of which I’ve read and enjoyed, Dinah Jefferies has recently switched her focus to Europe during World War II. Last year’s The Tuscan Contessa was set in 1940s Italy; her new book, Daughters of War, is the first in a new trilogy set in wartime France.

It’s 1944 and France is occupied by the Nazis. In a cottage in the Dordogne live three sisters, all in their twenties, who are each doing their best to protect themselves and their friends and neighbours and to ensure that they all survive the war. Hélène, the eldest, took on the responsibility of caring for the other two after their father died and their mother departed for England, and as well as trying to look after her little family, she also works as a nurse alongside the village doctor. Élise is the rebellious and daring sister, the one who is determined to do whatever she can to help the Resistance, whether that is hiding weapons in the cottage grounds or intercepting and passing on messages. Finally there’s Florence, the innocent and kind-hearted dreamer, who is always happiest when she is at home, spending time in the kitchen or the garden.

As the Occupation continues and liberation still seems like a distant dream, the sisters are faced with a series of important decisions to make. Should they give shelter to Tomas, a deserter from the German army? Can they trust Jack, a British SOE soldier who arrives injured at the cottage one night, asking for help? All they can do is follow their instincts and try to find a balance between keeping themselves safe and working to regain France’s freedom. Along the way, each of the sisters has her own set of personal challenges to overcome, family secrets are exposed and the bonds between the three of them are tested. As the first in a trilogy, not everything is resolved in this book, but the foundations are laid for the characters and ideas to be developed further in the second and third novels.

The book is written from the perspectives of all three sisters; we spend a few chapters with one, then a few chapters with another. I felt the closest to Hélène, although each of the sisters is a strongly drawn character with a distinct personality of her own. Élise has potentially the most exciting storylines, but I would have liked to have read about her activities with the Resistance in more detail – they are skimmed over quite quickly and I thought this was a missed opportunity. I also found it unconvincing that the sisters are so ready to trust and confide in everyone they meet, even when it appears that someone around them might be a traitor; I would have expected them to have shown more caution.

Those are the negatives, but there were also plenty of positives; I particularly loved the descriptions of the beautiful countryside and villages of the Périgord Noir, the region of France where the story is set. I’m sure I’ll be reading the other two books in the trilogy, whenever they are available.

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

Book 42/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Six Tudor Queens: Katharine Parr, the Sixth Wife by Alison Weir

This is the final book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series retelling, in fictional form, the stories of the wives of Henry VIII. Katharine Parr, the subject of this sixth novel, has never interested me as much as some of the other wives, yet this book has turned out to be my favourite of the series, not just for what we learn about Katharine herself, but also for the depiction of the political and religious situation in England during the later stages of Henry’s reign.

I have read other novels about Katharine Parr, such as Elizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit and Philippa Gregory’s The Taming of the Queen (interestingly, every author seems to choose a different spelling of her name!), but none of them go into as much depth and concentrate almost solely on her time as Henry’s wife and her relationship with Thomas Seymour. This book starts at the beginning, with Katharine’s childhood, and then takes us through her entire life, devoting plenty of time to her earlier two marriages, first to the young Edward Burgh and then to John Neville, Lord Latimer. I particularly enjoyed the section of the book where Katharine is married to Latimer; although it’s not a passionate romance, Katharine comes to love and trust her husband and they have a happy nine years together despite the religious turmoil going on around them (the uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace takes place during this period and provides one of the most exciting episodes in the novel).

Although Lord Latimer remains faithful to the Catholic Church, Katharine becomes a supporter of religious reform. When Latimer dies in 1543 and the King, having recently had his fifth wife beheaded, asks her to marry him, Katharine reluctantly accepts, knowing that turning down his proposal would be very unwise and hoping that her influence at court can further the cause of the reformers. Over time she becomes quite fond of Henry, engaging in lively debates with him on the subject of religion, but there is always an undercurrent of danger and Katharine knows that if she is to avoid the fate of her predecessors, she can’t allow her sympathies for the new Protestant religion to become too obvious. Somehow, Katharine manages to survive and outlive the King, free at last to marry Thomas Seymour, the man she really loves…but their time together is tragically short and marred by Seymour’s inappropriate behaviour with the young Princess Elizabeth.

I loved reading about Katharine’s life before she became Queen, as so much of this was new to me – and unlike the book on Anne of Cleves, where Weir admits that she invented a lot of Anne’s story, this one seems to be more grounded in historical fact. Once the novel moves on to her marriages to Henry VIII and Thomas Seymour, I was on more familiar ground and found these sections slightly less interesting to read – particularly as I have never liked Thomas Seymour and wished I could reach into the pages of the book and stop Katharine from marrying him!

Something that has intrigued me throughout this series is the way in which Alison Weir has chosen to portray Henry VIII. She shows him in a much more positive light than usual, to the point where she almost seems to be absolving him of any responsibility for his actions, putting the blame on the people around him instead – Thomas Cromwell, Bishop Gardiner, even some of his victims such as poor Katheryn Howard. On the one hand, it’s interesting to see a more nuanced depiction of Henry, but on the other I’m not convinced that his wives would all have viewed him as favourably as these books suggest!

Katharine Parr herself is portrayed as an intelligent, well-educated and compassionate woman; her previous marriages and experience of life have given her a maturity and common sense that some of Henry’s other wives lacked. She makes an effort to befriend her stepchildren and plays an important part in persuading Henry to restore his daughters Elizabeth and Mary to the line of succession. She gains the King’s trust and is named regent while he is away on a military campaign, as well as becoming the first queen to have books published in English under her own name. Katharine’s life is maybe not as dramatic as some of the other wives’, but because I liked her so much I was able to become fully invested in her story.

Now that this series has come to an end, Alison Weir is moving further back in time with her next novel to tell the story of Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York, in The Last White Rose.

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

Book 41/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

After reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls a few years ago, I wasn’t really expecting a sequel, but here it is: The Women of Troy. I’m sure if you wanted to you could read this one as a standalone, but I would recommend reading both as this is a direct continuation of the first. Together, the two novels tell the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath.

The Silence of the Girls was based on the events of Homer’s Iliad; this second novel is set after the fall of Troy, when the victorious Greek invaders are stranded on the shore, waiting for the winds to change so that their ships can sail home. Trapped there with them are the Trojan women they have taken captive, some of whom were once queens and princesses but are now treated as slaves. Among them is Briseis, who had been taken by the great Greek warrior Achilles as a war prize and then married off to his friend Alcimus after Achilles’ death.

As in the previous novel, Briseis is our main narrator, but there are also some chapters written from other perspectives: Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, desperate to prove himself as great as his father, and Calchas, a priest and prophet. One of my criticisms of The Silence of the Girls was that, despite the title, we only actually heard the voice of one girl, Briseis, while large sections of the book were written from the point of view of Achilles – and the title of The Women of Troy also seems slightly misleading, as we have two male perspectives and only one female. However, this time I felt that, at least through Briseis’ eyes, we do see more of the other women in the camp than we did in the first book. These include Hecuba, the former Queen of Troy and wife of the murdered King Priam; their daughter Cassandra, who has the gift – or curse – of prophecy; and Andromache, the widow of Hector who was killed by Achilles during the war. All of these women have interesting stories of their own, as well as now all sharing the same problem: how to cope with living amongst the men who destroyed their city.

Then – and now – people seem to take it for granted that I loved Achilles. Why wouldn’t I? I had the fastest, strongest, bravest, most beautiful man of his generation in my bed – how could I not love him?

He killed my brothers.

We women are peculiar creatures. We tend not to love those who murder our families.

As this entire novel is set during that period of waiting for the weather to change, it’s a slower paced and more character-driven story than the previous one. The plot, so much as there is one, revolves around the attempts of the Trojans to bury the body of their beloved King Priam, brutally killed by Pyrrhus and denied proper burial. Despite this, I still found the story quite gripping and enjoyed getting to know some of the women better. I’m wondering whether there will be a third book, as this one felt very like the middle book in a trilogy to me.

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

Book 40/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.