St Martin’s Summer by Rafael Sabatini

St Martin’s Summer is a term used to describe a period of unusually warm weather taking place in early November – but the title of this Rafael Sabatini novel from 1909 has a double meaning, as the name of our hero is also Martin: Martin Marie Rigobert de Garnache. When a young heiress, Valerie de la Vauvraye, writes to the Queen of France requesting urgent help, Garnache is the man the Queen sends to her assistance. Valerie is betrothed to Florimond de Condillac, but Florimond has been away fighting in Italy for the last three years and in his absence his stepmother, the Marquise de Condillac, has been trying to marry the girl to her own son, Marius, instead. Can Garnache rescue Valerie from the Marquise’s clutches and reunite her with Florimond?

Having read Rafael Sabatini’s most famous novels, Scaramouche, Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk, I have moved on to his lesser known titles and have had mixed success with the ones I’ve chosen so far; some I have enjoyed, while others have been disappointing. I had high hopes for St Martin’s Summer, which seemed to be a popular one and came highly recommended by a blog reader (thank you, Cheryl T) – and I’m pleased to say that it definitely lived up to my expectations.

First of all, it’s a lot of fun to read. Set in early 17th century France, the story itself is quite simple and straightforward, revolving entirely around Garnache’s attempts to free Valerie from her imprisonment in the Chateau de Condillac and the Marquise’s attempts to thwart him. What makes the book so entertaining, though, are the lengths both sides go to in their efforts to get one step ahead: there are duels, disguises, impersonations and all sorts of other tricks and deceptions, some of which are obvious to the reader, but not to the characters, who repeatedly fall into each other’s traps!

Garnache is a wonderful character. Like many of Sabatini’s heroes, he has great courage, a quick brain and an array of other skills and talents, but also one or two serious flaws – in this case an inability to keep his temper under control:

The greatest stumbling-block in Garnache’s career had been that he could never learn to brook opposition from any man. That characteristic, evinced early in life, had all but been the ruin of him. He was a man of high intellectual gifts, of military skill and great resource; out of consideration for which had he been chosen by Marie de Medicis to come upon this errand. But he marred it all by a temper so ungovernable that in Paris there was current a byword, ‘Explosive as Garnache.’

Garnache’s temper gets him into trouble and ruins his plans again and again, which is frustrating to watch but makes him a more believable and sympathetic character than he would otherwise have been. At the beginning of the book he also has a low opinion of women – he has remained single to the age of forty – but as he spends more time in the company of Valerie, as well as being forced to pit his wits against such a formidable female opponent as the Marquise de Condillac, he begins to change his views! The Marquise is obviously a great villain, but I also liked Garnache’s quick-thinking servant Rabecque, who is sometimes more perceptive than his master, and Monsieur de Tressan, the Seneschal of Dauphiny, a cowardly man who tries to ‘run with the hare and hunt with the hounds’.

I really enjoyed this book – it was so much better than my last Sabatini, The Minion, and I hope my next choice will be another good one!

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Book 22/50 from my second Classics Club list

Book 35/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

Mystery and intrigue in the seventeenth century

Looking at the historical fiction I have read so far this year, it seems that the 17th century is displacing the Tudor, Victorian and early 20th century periods as the most common historical setting for my reading. Here are my thoughts on two more 17th century novels I’ve read recently, both of them historical mysteries.

The Wrecking Storm is the second book in Michael Ward’s Thomas Tallant series, following the adventures of a London spice merchant’s son in pre-civil war England. You could read this book without having read the first one, Rags of Time, but if you do read them in order you’ll have a better understanding of the background of the characters, their relationships and the political situation in England at that time.

The novel opens in 1641 with the murder of two Jesuit priests, one of whom was known to have been in hiding in a building close to the Tallant warehouse on the banks of the River Thames. Thomas Tallant’s friends, Member of Parliament Sir Barty Hopkins and Robert Petty of the Merchant Adventurers, ask for Tom’s help in catching the culprit, but before investigations have progressed very far, Tom finds that his own family has become the next target. Joining forces again with another friend, Elizabeth Seymour, Tom must find out who is responsible before the family business is ruined or one of the Tallants is killed.

I enjoyed the mystery element of the book and was surprised when the truth was revealed as I’d had no idea who was behind the attacks on the Tallant family! It was nice to see Elizabeth play such a big part in the investigations; her intelligence, puzzle-solving skills and interest in science and mathematics make her a better detective than Tom himself and her observations and suggestions prove invaluable to the solving of the mystery. I was particularly intrigued by her encounters with Lucy, Countess of Carlisle, a real historical figure who was also involved in political conspiracies during the civil war (and who I’ve discovered may have been the inspiration for Milady in The Three Musketeers).

As with the first book, the historical context was as interesting as the mystery. The story unfolds during the sitting of the Long Parliament, the execution of the Earl of Strafford and Charles I’s attempt to arrest five Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. The conflict between King and Parliament is mirrored by the turmoil on the streets of London where opposing political and religious groups and unruly mobs of apprentices are creating a dangerous and unsettling atmosphere.

The Wrecking Storm is a short, fast-paced read; I think I slightly preferred the longer Rags of Time, but both books are entertaining and I hope to meet Tom and Elizabeth again soon.

The Protector by SJ Deas is a sequel to The Royalist, which I read several years ago and enjoyed. This second book was published in 2015 and there have been no more in the series since, which is disappointing but it seems the author has moved on to other things.

Anyway, The Protector continues the story of William Falkland, a former Royalist soldier who has reluctantly found himself in the service of Oliver Cromwell. It’s 1646, the First Civil War is over (the Second will begin within two years), and Henry Warbeck, Cromwell’s man, has again approached Falkland to ask for his assistance with another investigation. Anne Agar, sister of John Milton, the epic poet and writer of political pamphlets, has disappeared and Cromwell believes she has been abducted by Royalists in an attempt to convert the pro-Parliamentarian Milton to their cause.

Falkland is less than enthusiastic about taking on this mission; after four years of war he no longer feels any strong allegiance to either side and just wants to go home to his wife and children. However, that’s easier said than done, as he returns to find his house abandoned and his family missing, with no idea where they have gone or why they have left. Hoping that Cromwell will help him to locate his own family in return for tracking down Anne, Falkland sets out on her trail – but the biggest obstacle in his way turns out to be Milton himself, who takes an instant dislike to Falkland and is unwilling to cooperate.

As well as being an interesting and compelling mystery novel, The Protector is also quite a sad and poignant portrayal of the human cost of war, with families left divided, destroyed and separated once the fighting ends. William Falkland is a sympathetic and tragic hero as, lost and lonely, he begins the hunt for Anne Agar while despairing of ever finding his own beloved Caro. I was pleased to see him team up again with Kate Cain (whom we first met in The Royalist), but at the same time I was glad that Deas doesn’t push them into a romance, leaving us in no doubt that William is still devoted to Caro and the children and will continue his search unless and until there is no hope left. I enjoyed this book nearly as much as the first one and would love to know what the future holds for William Falkland, but sadly it looks as though we’re not going to find out.

~

Have you read either of these books – or any other good historical mysteries set in the 17th century?

Books 29 and 30/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

This is the fifth book in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood and Lovett series and one of my favourites so far. Set in England during the reign of Charles II, each book in the series works as a separate mystery novel, but if it’s possible for you to read them in order (starting with The Ashes of London) you will have the pleasure of getting to know James Marwood and Cat Lovett from the beginning and watching their relationship develop.

The Royal Secret opens in 1670 with two young women plotting a murder by witchcraft. Soon afterwards, their target, Mr Abbott, meets his death under unusual circumstances. The dead man had been a clerk working in the office of Lord Arlington, Secretary of State, and James Marwood, also a government clerk, is asked to investigate. Beginning with a visit to Abbott’s lodgings to look for some confidential files the man had taken home from Arlington’s office, Marwood is soon on the trail of the mysterious Dutch merchant Henryk Van Riebeeck – a trail which will lead him first to the notorious Blue Bush Tavern and then to the home of Mr Fanshawe, owner of a captive Barbary lion called Caliban.

Meanwhile, Cat Hakesby, formerly Lovett, has taken over her late husband’s architect firm and has been given a commission by the king himself to design a poultry house for his sister Minette. Another of Cat’s clients is Mr Fanshawe and through him she meets Van Riebeeck, a man to whom she finds herself drawn romantically. Although she is unaware of it at first, Cat quickly becomes entangled in the same mystery that Marwood is trying to investigate, but with a very different perspective on what is happening.

Those of you who have read the previous books in the series will be familiar with Cat and Marwood’s uneasy relationship and their obvious attraction to each other which they seem unable to acknowledge even to themselves. That continues in this one and is becoming frustrating, but I’m grateful that Andrew Taylor didn’t just give us an instant romance that was resolved by the end of the first book. It’s another reason to keep reading the series!

As usual with Taylor’s books, the story unfolds against a backdrop of real historical events. In fact, they are often more than just a backdrop and become a significant part of the plot. In this particular novel, there is a focus on the political intrigue between England, France and the Dutch Republic, as well as on the tensions in the marriage between Charles II’s sister Minette (Henrietta Anne) and the Duke of Orléans, the king of France’s brother. These storylines take our characters to Paris where Minette has summoned Cat to discuss the designs for the poultry house and to Dover where secret negotiations are underway. With so much going on, as well as the mystery to be solved, this was a difficult book to put down and I was sorry to come to the end. I hope there’s going to be a sixth adventure for Marwood and Lovett!

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

Book 22/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

This book has been on my TBR since it was published in 2012; I couldn’t get into it at the time, so put it aside to try again later, not really intending ‘later’ to be nearly ten years later! Anyway, although I had one or two problems with it I’m pleased to have read it at last and am now interested in reading more of Lawrence Norfolk’s novels, all of which sound intriguing.

John Saturnall’s Feast begins in a place called Buckland, a small village where John Sandall lives with his mother, a herbalist and midwife. It’s the early 17th century, a time when women with skills like these risk being accused of witchcraft – and this is what happens to John’s mother. Finding themselves the target of their Puritan neighbours and the fanatical preacher Marpot, they flee to the safety of nearby Buccla’s Wood. Here, John continues to receive an education from his mother, who teaches him to read from a book of ancient recipes and reveals to him the secrets of a traditional Feast which have been passed down through the generations.

When John’s mother dies, leaving him an orphan, he is taken into the kitchens of Buckland Manor, where he impresses the other cooks with his knowledge of food. At the Manor, we meet Lady Lucretia, the young daughter of Sir William Fremantle. A marriage has been arranged for Lucretia, in order for her to inherit the estate, but she has chosen to defy her father by refusing to eat. Can John Sandall – now known as John Saturnall, Master Cook – create a dish that will tempt her from her fast?

This is an unusual and complex novel; I have simplified the plot in the paragraphs above, but there is a lot more to it than that and I would probably need to read the book again to fully appreciate all the different layers of the story. I don’t think I quite understood the significance of the ritual of the Feast, for example – was it intended as a myth, an allegory or something real? I felt that important plot points and details were sometimes getting lost beneath the overwhelming descriptions of ingredients, smells, tastes and colours that filled almost every page. I also struggled to keep track of the characters; there are so many of them, particularly working in the kitchens, and none of them are very strongly drawn, so I found it difficult to distinguish one from another.

I did really enjoy the first half of the book, which describes John’s childhood in Buckland and the events that lead to his arrival at the Manor. The portrayal of his life in the kitchens – the huge, subterranean network of rooms, the heat, the smells, the sounds, and the complex social hierarchy that exists between the cooks and the humble kitchen hands – is vivid and fascinating. I was reminded very strongly of Abiatha Swelter’s kitchens in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books! In the second half of the novel, though, there’s a change of scene and pace as civil war breaks out in England and John and his friends exchange the kitchen for the battlefield. There seemed to be very little build up to this and I felt that the war chapters didn’t really add much to the overall story.

Although not every aspect of this book was a success with me, the wonderful atmosphere and the imaginative plot still kept me turning the pages. I would like to try one of Lawrence Norfolk’s other three books, so if you have read any of them please let me know what you thought!

Book 19/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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.