By Sword and Storm by Margaret Skea

This is the third novel in Margaret Skea’s Munro Scottish Saga set in 16th century Scotland and France and based on the history of a clan feud known as the Ayrshire Vendetta. I haven’t read the first two, Turn of the Tide and A House Divided, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of this third book.

The novel opens in 1598 with Adam Munro, a colonel in the Scots Gardes, living in France with his wife Kate, who has skills as a healer, and their three children, Robbie, Maggie and Ellie. One of the functions of Adam’s regiment is to provide protection to Henri IV of France and when Adam saves the king’s life while risking his own in the process, the Munro family are rewarded with an invitation to come and live at the French court.

In Scotland, meanwhile, the feud between the Cunninghames and Montgomeries is supposedly at an end and the Scottish king, James VI, has banned unauthorised duelling. Most of the family members are trying to keep the peace, but two of them – Hugh Montgomerie and William Cunninghame – are still not prepared to let things rest. The Scottish storyline and the French one alternate throughout the book, eventually coming together as the novel heads towards its conclusion.

By Sword and Storm is a mixture of fact and fiction; many of the characters are real historical figures while others come from the author’s imagination – if you want to know who really existed and who didn’t, there’s a character list at the beginning of the book. Apart from the storylines involving the fictional characters, the novel is grounded in historical fact and has obviously been well researched. I loved the portrayal of life at the court of France, where Kate gets to know the king’s mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, and I sympathised with Maggie, who longs to study medicine and despite being given opportunities in France that would not have been open to her in Scotland, still faces obstacles because of her sex.

The political and religious situation in France at that time also plays a part in the story. At the beginning of the novel we see Henri IV issuing the Edict of Nantes, bringing the French Wars of Religion to an end and giving the Huguenots more freedom. However, it is still not safe for people in Paris to worship as they wish, as Kate and Adam’s son, Robbie, discovers when he becomes romantically involved with a Huguenot girl. I think Margaret Skea does a good job of showing the many dangers of 16th century life, not only where religion was concerned, but also for pregnant women before and during childbirth, patients with the sort of illness or injury that could be easily treated today, and anyone who had to travel by ship. It’s a period I love to read about but would not have liked to have lived through!

I really enjoyed By Sword and Storm. I liked the characters and even though I hadn’t been with them from the beginning, I found it easy enough to jump into their story and follow what was happening. Although this was meant to be the third in a trilogy, at the end of the novel I felt that there was still scope for more, so I was pleased to find that Margaret Skea has said she may return to this story again in the future.

Thanks to the publisher Corazon Books for providing a copy of this book for review.

Classics Spin Review: That Lady by Kate O’Brien

Kate O’Brien’s novel from 1946, That Lady, was the book chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. I had never read anything by Kate O’Brien before and had only added this one to my Classics Club list because I remembered reading some very positive reviews by Lisa and Kay and because I liked the portrait on the front cover of the Virago Modern Classics edition. The portrait shows Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli and Duchess of Pastrana, and Ana’s life is the subject of the novel.

That Lady opens in 1576, with Ana a widow of thirty-six. Following the death of her husband Ruy Gomez de Silva, one of King Philip II of Spain’s closest advisers, Ana and her children have continued to live on Ruy’s lands in Pastrana in the region of Castile. If you know nothing about Ana, as I didn’t before reading this book, you’ll be pleased to know that O’Brien gives plenty of detail on Ana’s background, explaining how she came to be married to Ruy Gomez at the age of thirteen, how she lost her eye fighting a duel with a page in her father’s household, and the origins of her close relationship with Philip II.

Early in the novel, Philip visits Ana at the Palace of Pastrana and asks her to consider coming back to Madrid. He gives several reasons why she should return, but it is clear that he misses Ana and her children and wants them living nearer to him. Ana is reluctant, but within a year she is back in Madrid and here she begins an affair with Antonio Perez, Philip’s ambitious secretary of state. Needless to say, this was not what the king had intended, and when Ana’s affair becomes public – and, worse still, leads to her becoming implicated in a murder case – she finds that Philip is not such a good friend after all.

That Lady is an unusual novel and at first I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like it. The pace is slow and although there is a lot happening, most of it happens off the page; major events including the defeat of the Spanish Armada are covered in a few brief sentences, while dramas which directly affect Ana, such as the murder mentioned above and the circumstances which lead to it, are only referred to in conversation afterwards. The lack of action makes this much more of a character driven novel, which I’m usually quite happy with, but I also struggled to understand and warm to Ana as a character during the first half of the novel.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, though, I began to find Ana’s story much more compelling. I understood why her relationship with Antonio was so important to her, despite the disapproval of Philip and the public – because it was her own choice, something she was doing because she wanted to, and not because she had been pushed into it by her father, by her husband or by the king. I admired her for sticking to her principles and I was impressed by the loyalty she inspired in her young daughter, Anichu, and her servant, Bernardina. Ana also finds herself struggling to reconcile her actions with her religious beliefs and this is another of the novel’s themes, which develops through conversations with her friend, Cardinal Quiroga of Toledo.

I found it intriguing that in her foreword to That Lady, O’Brien states that this is not a historical novel, but an ‘invention’ based on the story of Ana de Mendoza and Philip II, in which the outline of historical events is real but the words, thoughts and emotions of the characters are imaginary. I think I know what she was trying to say, but surely any historical novel contains an element of invention, otherwise it wouldn’t be a novel. Anyway, I was able to learn a huge amount from this book, not just about Ana, Philip and Antonio, but also about the political situation in Spain in the late sixteenth century. Most of this was new to me and the amount of detail made it quite a slow read, but an interesting one too.

I was left wanting to know more about the real woman, so I looked her up online and found a selection of portraits of Ana, with her distinctive silk eye patch (although it seems there could be a less dramatic explanation for the loss of her eye than the duelling story). I couldn’t find any other novels about Ana, but if you know of any, please let me know. And if you’ve read this book, I would love to hear what you thought of it – and whether you would recommend anything else by Kate O’Brien.

This is book 8/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Lamentation by CJ Sansom

When I heard the exciting news that there was a new Shardlake novel – Tombland – coming in October, I remembered that I still needed to read Lamentation, the sixth book in the series, so I put it on my 20 Books of Summer list to ensure that I would read it sooner rather than later and be up to date in time for the new one.

Lamentation is set in London in 1546, about a year after the previous novel, Heartstone, ended. Henry VIII is in poor health and although it is treason to predict the death of a king, it is obvious to everyone who sees him that he can’t have much longer to live. Having broken away from the Roman Catholic Church several years earlier, it now seems that Henry is slowly moving England back towards Rome. A power struggle is taking place at court between the religious traditionalists and the reformers, while those suspected of heresy are being hunted down, tortured and burned at the stake. Even the Queen herself – Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr – is not above suspicion, and when a book she has written on the subject of her faith, titled The Lamentation of a Sinner, is stolen, she knows her life could be at risk.

Our narrator, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake, has worked for the Queen before, and it is to Shardlake that she turns again to ask for assistance in finding the missing book. Despite having vowed to stay out of politics following the events of Heartstone, Matthew can’t resist a request from his Queen, but when the first page of the manuscript is found clutched in the hand of a murdered printer, the danger involved in the mission becomes clear.

I’ve enjoyed all of the Shardlake novels, but I think this is one of the best in the series. It’s a long book, with over six hundred pages, but at no point does it ever start to feel slow or repetitive. The plot is complex and does require some concentration – it’s important to try to remember the religious and political backgrounds of various characters and which are allies and which are rivals, especially as various groups of suspects begin to emerge – but in my case I was so absorbed in the story my concentration never wavered for a moment anyway. I always find Sansom’s portrayal of Tudor England very immersive; he manages to make the history of the period easy to understand, but without simplifying things too much, and shows us how the decisions made by those in power affect the lives of ordinary people who are just trying to survive from day to day.

As well as the search for Catherine’s stolen book, there is also a secondary mystery taking place in which Shardlake is representing a client who is locked in a feud with her brother over the wording of their mother’s will. Most of the Shardlake novels have multiple storylines and sometimes they feel a bit unconnected, but everything in this book comes together very effectively. The two feuding siblings are on opposite sides of the religious divide and this eventually has implications for Matthew.

Of course, Matthew doesn’t have to deal with all of this alone. His friend and legal assistant, Jack Barak, is there for him as usual and always ready for an adventure – although with Jack’s wife expecting another baby, Matthew is reluctant to let him get involved. He also has a new assistant – Nicholas Overton, a young man who has been sent to London to study law – and over the course of the novel he comes to value Nicholas’s courage and loyalty. Another old friend, the doctor and former monk, Guy, is back too, but their friendship is put under strain by Guy’s disapproval of Matthew’s mission and the very different religious views they each have. Nobody, including Shardlake, ever comes out of a Shardlake novel entirely unscathed and this is why, although it would be possible to treat the books as standalones, I still recommend reading the series in order. That way, you’ll be able to watch the characters develop and see how the things that happen in one book affect their lives in the next.

By the end of this book Henry VIII is dead, to be succeeded by his son, the young Edward VI. The change of monarch – and the consequences this will have for the country – is sure to bring new challenges for Shardlake but we will have to wait for the publication of Tombland to find out what they are.

This is book 11/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Cursed Wife by Pamela Hartshorne

Having previously read Pamela Hartshorne’s time-slip novel The Edge of Dark, I found her latest book, The Cursed Wife, both similar and different. Similar in that they both explore the lives of women in Elizabethan England; different because this one is set entirely in the past, with no modern day storyline and no form of time travel.

The Cursed Wife is written from the perspectives of two women, Mary and Cat, who are both friends and rivals. When we first meet Mary in 1590 she appears to be leading a happy and contented life; she is married to the merchant Gabriel Thorne, and lives with him, their children and their servants in a comfortable house in London. Mary is devoted to her family and her household and has almost – but not quite – managed to forget that she was cursed as a child and predicted to die by hanging.

However, Mary’s whole life is built around lies and deception and she knows that if the truth is ever revealed she could lose everything. One rainy day she sets out to do some shopping in Sopers Lane to replenish her stocks of herbs and medicines, and is shocked to see a face from her past – a face she had expected never to see again. It’s Cat, her childhood friend, who was once as close to her as a sister, but who now possesses the secrets that could ruin Mary’s life…

As I’ve said, I found this a very different sort of book from The Edge of Dark; it doesn’t have such an eerie atmosphere and lacks the touches of the supernatural – although Mary does have a very creepy one-armed wooden doll called Peg. Instead the focus is on the relationship between Mary and Cat. It’s a relationship which changes and transforms itself over the years as the roles of the two women in each other’s lives are reversed, but the links between them are seemingly unbreakable and their stories are very closely entwined.

Cat and Mary take turns to narrate in alternating chapters and although their narrative voices are very similar, the author does use a few techniques to distinguish between the two – for example, Cat’s thoughts are often aimed directly at Mary (‘you say this’ and ‘you do that’). Cat is also a more bitter person than Mary, who can often seem quite naive and slow to understand things that are obvious to the reader. Neither woman is very likeable and although Cat is nastier, I can’t really say that my sympathies were with Mary either.

Pamela Hartshorne has written about the Elizabethan period before, not just in The Edge of Dark, but in other novels too, and she obviously knows it well. We are given lots of little details on domestic life in the late 16th century – the food people ate, the clothes they wore, the tasks carried out by servants in the home – and although historical events happening in the wider world have little direct effect on the story, there’s a sense of how precarious life could be in this period when hanging is a punishment for crime and when the most minor of illnesses can result in death. The novel also looks at the roles of women and the expectations that were placed on them regarding marriage.

The Cursed Wife is an interesting read and the storyline was compelling enough to hold my attention until the end, but I did prefer The Edge of Dark and as her earlier books all seem to be time-slip novels like that one I think I’ll have to investigate them at some point.

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

The Savage Brood by Martha Rofheart

Having read two of Martha Rofheart’s other books, Lionheart and Burning Sappho (about Richard I and the poet Sappho, respectively), I decided to try her 1978 novel The Savage Brood next. It sounded different from the others, being a multi-generational family saga and concentrating on fictional characters rather than real historical ones. I liked it enough to finish it but, as I so often find with this kind of book, the earlier sections were the best and I struggled to stay interested as the action moved closer towards the modern day.

The novel follows the fortunes of the Savage family, who have a long history as actors of one sort or another. It is divided into three sections which are set in different periods and work almost as self-contained novellas. We begin in Tudor England where we meet one branch of the family, a group of travelling players who make their living moving from town to town in a horse-drawn wagon and putting on performances for the local people. Finding English law too restrictive, the troupe move to Italy where, under the patronage of Cosimo I de’ Medici, they learn the skills of Commedia dell’Arte.

After a short ‘interval’, the story then jumps forward to 1752 where some of the Italian Savages (or Savaggi, as they have become known in the intervening years), return to London’s Drury Lane to work with the great English actor and producer, David Garrick. Garrick identifies young Miranda Savage as a special talent, but loses her when she moves to America – just in time for the Revolution.

There’s another interval and then we skip forward again, this time to San Francisco in 1906. The Savages have now made a name for themselves as vaudeville entertainers, but this form of theatre is in its final days as the first silent films begin to make their appearance. This section of the novel takes us right through both world wars and follows the careers of comic actor Sammy Savage, showboat musician Solange Sauvage, and Hollywood star JP Savage.

As I said, the first two sections were the most enjoyable, at least in my opinion. The third dragged on for too long, and except for the wartime parts, when the action moves to France for a while, I found the storyline much less interesting. The characters were unlikeable and self-obsessed, lacking the charisma of some of their earlier ancestors and little more than stereotypes of early Hollywood stars. By contrast, I loved the eighteenth century section and was particularly fond of Miranda Savage’s cousin Beau, who rises from humble beginnings to become a stage and fashion icon. Taken as a whole, though, I found the saga of the Savages unconvincing, with too many chance encounters between people who turn out to be distant Savage cousins.

Although Rofheart does acknowledge that women couldn’t act on stage in England until the Restoration, she does depict some of her sixteenth century female characters as acting with a travelling troupe. I didn’t think women were allowed to perform at all during that period (apart from in Italy), so that bothered me while I was reading, although I have since discovered a book on Women Players in England, 1500–1660, which suggests that women may have had more opportunities to act in sixteenth century England than I had imagined, at least on an amateur basis. I really don’t know enough about the subject to comment any further on Rofheart’s historical accuracy.

Despite the problems I had with The Savage Brood, I think it will be a fascinating read for anyone interested in the theatre, incorporating almost every type of acting you can think of – Commedia dell’Arte, Shakespeare, vaudeville, film and more – set against a backdrop of major historical events. I’m not really in any hurry to read the rest of Martha Rofheart’s books, but if anyone has read The Alexandrian, Cry God for Glendower and Fortune Made His Sword I would like to know if you enjoyed them and if you think they’re better than this one?

The Queen’s Mary by Sarah Gristwood

Sarah Gristwood is an author of both historical fiction and non-fiction. I have read one of her non-fiction books – Blood Sisters, a biography of several of the women involved in the Wars of the Roses – but this is the first of her novels that I’ve read. It’s set in the 16th century and the queen of the title is Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary is known to have had four ladies-in-waiting, young women her own age who were also all called Mary. They were the daughters of Scottish nobility – Mary Fleming, Mary Livingston, Mary Beaton and Mary Seton. Gristwood’s novel is written from the perspective of Mary Seton.

We first meet the four Marys as children of five or six years old. It’s 1548 and they are embarking on a voyage to France where the young queen will grow up and eventually marry the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne. This forms the novel’s brief prologue and we hear very little about what actually happened in France, except when Seton looks back on the period later in her life:

Seton could tell tales of Diane’s banquets where the white wine was made cool with snow, of music in the pavilions by the river; a tennis court where the king played dressed in white silk. Of a park where special deer wore silver collars and ornamental canals were filled with fish; and of how, when the royal children came to stay, muzzled mastiffs and even a bear were brought into the nursery.

We join the Marys again in 1561 as they return to Scotland following the death of the queen’s husband. They have now grown into young women, all with very different personalities: Fleming pretty and regal, Livingston down to earth and flirtatious, Beaton quietly passionate, and Seton herself sensible and thoughtful. However, it would have been nice if, rather than the author just telling us what the Marys were like (by comparing them to the four elements, earth, fire, water and air, for example) she had done more to convey their personalities through their speech and actions instead.

The rest of the novel takes us through the years of Mary’s reign, a troubled time of religious conflict, disastrous marriages and controversial love affairs. It can’t have been easy for a young woman returning after a long absence in France to rule over a country she barely remembered:

It was as if the queen were groping to understand what to her – Seton thought with a chill – seemed almost to be an alien country.

The queen is lucky to have such loyal companions as the Marys to help her through these difficult years, but even they are unable to prevent her from making mistakes. She rarely confides in them or asks their advice, remaining a very lonely and isolated figure. Seen only through the eyes of Mary Seton, she never fully comes to life on the page and we never really know what she is thinking or feeling, but maybe that was intentional, to show the distance between the queen and her ladies, even after so many years together.

The story of Mary, Queen of Scots is fascinating but has been written about many times before; the stories of Mary Seton, Beaton, Livingston and Fleming are much less well known and the hope of finding out more about them was what drew me to this novel. I can appreciate that there will not be a lot of information available on the lives of these four women, but I think Sarah Gristwood did a good job of working with what we do know to flesh out each character a little bit. I do wonder, though, whether the story might have been more compelling if it had been written in the first person rather than the third, or if each Mary had been given a chance to take a turn at narrating rather than just Seton.

I did have a lot of sympathy for Mary Seton; she is the one who remains in the queen’s service as the other three gradually marry and find freedom (or if not freedom exactly, at least a form of escape) away from court. Seton’s whole life has been devoted to the queen and she gradually becomes torn between loyalty to her mistress, frustration at her lack of influence and a longing to break the bond and live her own life at last.

Although there was too much distance in this novel for me to say that I really enjoyed it (distance between one character and another, as well as distance between the characters and the reader) it was still good to have an opportunity to meet the Four Marys and to add to my knowledge of this period of history.

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

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Despite my love of historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell is not an author I’ve ever really felt like reading. The usual settings and subjects that he writes about don’t appeal to me and although I did once start to read his book on Stonehenge, I didn’t get very far with it before giving up. His latest novel, Fools and Mortals, however, sounded much more like my sort of book, so I thought it was time I gave him another chance.

The title is inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”) and it is Shakespeare who is at the heart of the novel – not William, though, but his younger brother, Richard, who has followed him to London in the hope of becoming an actor. I found this slightly confusing, because I remembered from reading Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare that it was their other brother, Edmund, who was the actor. I don’t know why Cornwell gave this role to Richard instead; the rest of the background to the novel seems to have been thoroughly researched, so I would be interested to know whether that was a deliberate decision rather than a mistake.

Anyway, Richard Shakespeare is our narrator. The novel opens in 1595 just as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men – the acting company to which both Richard and William belong – are beginning rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Until now, Richard, like several of the other young men in the company, has been given only women’s parts to play. He wants nothing more than to play a man for a change, but it seems that his brother is still determined not to take him seriously as an actor. There are other companies, of course, and other theatres, and Richard receives a tempting offer from Francis Langley of the newly constructed Swan in Southwark. However, this will depend on whether or not he is prepared to steal two of William’s new plays. Will Richard betray his brother and leave The Lord Chamberlain’s Men – or can he find another way to earn William’s respect and win the bigger, better roles he believes he deserves?

I enjoyed this book much more than I’d expected to! I imagine that battle and military scenes probably form a big part of most of Cornwell’s other books, but there was nothing like that in this one, which is set entirely in the world of the Elizabethan theatre. There is still plenty of action, but it takes the form of the attempts of other companies to steal Shakespeare’s plays and the efforts of the Pursuivants to find evidence of heresy and close the playhouses down. As the narrator, Richard is involved in all the drama, both on stage and off, and tells his story in a lively, humorous style. He has his flaws but is a likeable character – although I should warn you that William is not!

The other members of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are also brought to life, from well known figures of the period such as the comic actor Will Kemp to those who are purely fictional. It was fascinating to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream take shape starting with the earliest stages – the allocation of parts to actors and the learning of lines – to rehearsals at the home of their patron, Lord Hunsdon, and then the final performance (I loved the hilarious description of the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play). However, I couldn’t help feeling that this all became very repetitive; I felt that the entire plot of the play had been described in detail a hundred times by the time I reached the end of the novel!

The book finishes with an author’s note from Cornwell; this is long and detailed, describing his interest in Shakespeare’s work and discussing the history behind London’s playhouses. Surprisingly, he doesn’t talk about Richard Shakespeare himself or why he was chosen to be the central character in the novel.

It would be nice to think that I would find the rest of Cornwell’s books as entertaining as this one, but I’m still not sure that any of the others would really be to my taste. I do have a copy of The Last Kingdom which I acquired when it was free for Kindle a while ago, so I will try it at some point and will be happy to be proved wrong!

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