Traitor in the Ice by KJ Maitland

Traitor in the Ice is the second book in KJ Maitland’s new historical crime series set in the early 1600s during the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland. The first, The Drowned City, introduces us to Daniel Pursglove as he searches for a mysterious Catholic conspirator known as Spero Pettingar in the aftermath of the failed Gunpowder Plot. That book is set in Bristol just after the devastating Bristol Channel Floods of 1607; Traitor in the Ice takes place the following winter – a particularly cold winter referred to as the Great Frost.

In these freezing, icy conditions a man has been found dead in the grounds of Battle Abbey in Sussex. The man was one of the King’s agents, sent to infiltrate the Montague household at Battle to try to root out those with Catholic sympathies. Lady Magdalen, Viscountess Montague is believed to be sheltering Catholic priests within the abbey walls, but the agent has been killed before having the chance to send his report to London. A replacement is needed, so Daniel Pursglove finds himself summoned by the King’s man, Charles FitzAlan, once more and sent to Battle to find evidence of treachery. He quickly discovers that almost everyone in the abbey has something to hide, but when more murders take place Daniel begins to wonder whether he is on the trail of the elusive Spero Pettingar at last.

One of the things I liked about the previous book in this series was the setting; I knew nothing about the Bristol floods and found the descriptions of the city in the aftermath quite eerie and otherworldly. The frozen landscapes of Sussex described in this second novel are equally atmospheric: the ‘withered brown bracken, each frond encased in its own ice-coffin’; the pink light of dawn ‘sending sparks of light shivering across the frost’. It’s the perfect setting for a murder mystery and Maitland weaves her usual mix of superstition and legend into the plot, adding to the sense of time and place. I was particularly intrigued by the practice of ‘night-creeping’, which Maitland explains in more detail in her very comprehensive author’s note at the end of the book.

I had hoped to learn more about Daniel Pursglove in this novel, but that doesn’t really happen and he is still very much a man of mystery by the final page. Although it’s not essential to have read the previous book first, I was pleased that I had as it meant I was familiar with at least some of Daniel’s background and wasn’t quite as confused as I might otherwise have been. I do like Daniel, though, and enjoyed following him through his investigations.

However, I had the same problem with this book that I had with the first one: there was just too much happening! The chapters set at Battle Abbey alternate with others set at court where through the eyes of two cousins, Richard and Oliver, we watch the rise to power of the King’s new favourite, Robert Carr. We also see Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, working to maintain his own influence over King James, while in the streets and taverns of London violence is brewing between gangs of local youths and the Scottish courtiers who are newly arrived in the city. All of this is very interesting, but too much for one book on top of the murders and the Catholic conspiracies! With a tighter focus on just one or two threads of the plot, I think this would be a much stronger series. Anyway, I did enjoy this second novel overall and will be looking out for a third one.

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

This is book 15/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Rebel Daughter by Miranda Malins

In The Rebel Daughter, Miranda Malins returns to the family at the heart of her previous novel, The Puritan Princess: the Cromwells. However, where The Puritan Princess told the story of Frances, Oliver Cromwell’s youngest daughter, in this second novel we get to know Bridget – or Biddy – the eldest of his four daughters.

In 1643, nineteen-year-old Bridget is living at home in Ely, Cambridgeshire with her mother and younger brothers and sisters while her father and eldest brother are away fighting in the civil war that is currently tearing England apart. Bridget longs to join the men in shaping the future of their country, and although she watches with envy as her younger sister Betty falls in love, she knows she wants more from life than just to be a wife and mother. When she receives a marriage proposal from General Henry Ireton, a fellow commander of her father’s in the Parliamentarian army, she decides to accept in the hope that this marriage will provide the opportunities she’s been hoping for.

The relationship between Bridget and Henry is not a passionate or romantic one, but they get on well together and Bridget is able to involve herself in politics, offering opinions and advice as the war begins to come to an end and her husband and father must decide what happens next. The majority of the novel is set during this period, when with the Royalists defeated, the question of what to do about the King arises and Parliament and the army split into opposing factions, each with their own views on this very important question.

Bridget’s position as a member of the Cromwell and Ireton families leads her to cross paths with other important historical figures of the period such as Thomas Fairfax, commander of the New Model Army, and his wife Anne, and political activist Elizabeth Lilburne and her husband John Lilburne, one of the leaders of the movement known as the Levellers. Bridget herself doesn’t have a large role to play in politics, but Oliver and Henry value her input and she feels she is able to have a small amount of influence on their decision-making.

As well as the political situation, the novel also explores the human cost of war. Bridget experiences this for herself with the deaths of her brother and cousin and later, on a wider scale, when she sees the devastation of besieged Colchester, filled with crumbling buildings, smoke-filled streets and starving children – and this is nothing compared to the horrors she witnesses when she crosses the Irish Sea to join Henry after his appointment as Lord Deputy of Ireland. I wished we had seen more of life away from Parliament and the constant wrangling over the fate of the King, which did get a bit tedious at times.

Of the two books, I think I preferred The Puritan Princess, but I did find this one interesting and am pleased to have had the chance to learn more about Bridget Cromwell. I wonder whether Miranda Malins will write about the other two Cromwell sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, or whether she’ll be moving onto a new subject for her next novel.

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

This is book 6/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

I was drawn to this book, Rosie Andrews’ debut, by the title, the cover and the comparisons to other books I’ve read, such as The Essex Serpent, Once Upon a River and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – comparisons which for once turned out to be quite accurate!

It’s 1643 and Thomas Treadwater is on his way home to the family farmhouse in Norfolk. England is currently torn apart by civil war but Thomas has been summoned home from the fighting by his sixteen-year-old sister, Esther, who has accused a new servant of seducing their widowed father. Arriving back at the farm, Thomas finds the sheep dead in their field, with no visible signs of violence – and there are bigger shocks to come. Entering the house, he learns from Esther that their father has suffered a stroke and is dying, and the servant, Chrissa, has been arrested on suspicion of witchcraft.

What follows is a story which at first appears to be a tale of witch hunting in the 17th century, but eventually develops into something even darker and more unusual as Thomas discovers links with a shipwreck that occurred years earlier. The narrative moves back and forth between the 1640s and the year 1703, where Thomas is now living in ‘a place far from the sea’ and is trying to come to terms with what happened in the past and the impact it is still having on his life in the present.

I loved the first half of The Leviathan. The atmosphere is wonderful and the author creates an authentic sense of time and place through attention to detail and careful research. The pace is slow as characters are introduced and the scene is set, but I quickly became drawn into the story, intrigued by the mystery surrounding the ‘witch’ Chrissa Moore and the strange events at the Treadwater farm. There’s a real aura of mystery as Thomas begins to investigate, speaking to the witchfinder, the magistrate and the witch herself in an attempt to find out what is really going on.

In the second half of the book, the magical realism elements of the novel come to the forefront and the story then goes too far in that direction for my taste. The pace speeds up and things become more exciting, but the sinister, slowburning sense of foreboding that I loved in the earlier chapters was gone. I was still invested enough in this part of the book to read on to the end and I was interested to see that John Milton (author of Paradise Lost) makes some appearances as Thomas Treadwater’s former tutor and has some input into the unfolding of the story, taking it into the territory of biblical allegory. This is a novel with lots of layers, and although it wasn’t a complete success for me, I think other readers will love it much more than I did.

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

This is book 5/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Silver Wolf by JC Harvey

The Silver Wolf is the first in a new series, Fiskardo’s War, set in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. This conflict, which took place between 1618 and 1648, is one I’m not very familiar with, so I thought it would be interesting to read a book set in a period that I don’t know much about.

This novel has quite a simple premise: an orphan, Jack Fiskardo (also known as Jacques or Jag to various people at various times) sets out on a quest to find his father’s killers and take revenge. However, the plot is anything but simple! Jack’s adventures take him from the French countryside to the home of an Amsterdam merchant and then to the battlefields of Germany and along the way we meet a huge cast of characters ranging from army scouts and soldiers to tavern keepers, farmers and noblemen. All of these people interact with Jack in one way or another and many of them have intriguing stories of their own, but it’s a lot to keep track of, so be aware that this is certainly not a quick, light read.

The Silver Wolf is divided into three sections: in the first, which begins in 1619, we meet Jack for the first time on the docks of Amsterdam; the second part takes us back several years to fill in some of the details of Jack’s childhood in the village of Belle-Dame near La Rochelle; and finally, in the third section we find Jack in Germany, playing his part in the events of the war while carrying out his private mission of revenge. My favourite was the middle section as it answered some of my questions and gave me a better understanding of what was going on. But although I thought the way the book was structured was quite effective, it did mean that lots of new characters were still being introduced very late in the novel, which I found slightly overwhelming.

The book is written in a lively, often playful style, and the author has opted to use modern speech and slang; I personally prefer dialogue in historical fiction to feel more ‘historical’, but I can see that the choice of language here probably suited the gritty, sometimes brutal, wartime setting. As for the Thirty Years’ War itself, as I’ve said, I previously knew very little about it, so it was good to learn more. The author’s note at the beginning of the book provides a basic outline of the war, why it was fought and the effect it had on the population of Europe, which I found very helpful!

Although I didn’t enjoy The Silver Wolf as much as I’d hoped to, for the reasons I’ve described above, I do think it’s an impressive and ambitious debut novel. I’m not sure whether I will read the second book, but I suspect it will be easier to follow than this one now that the scene has been set, so maybe I’ll be tempted!

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 3/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters

Minette Walters is better known as a crime writer, but she has made some forays into historical fiction in the last few years with The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight, both set in England during the Black Death of 1348. Although I didn’t love either of those books, I did find them interesting, so I was keen to try her new one, The Swift and the Harrier, which is set in a completely different time period.

It’s 1642 and England is divided by civil war. On one side, the supporters of King Charles I; on the other, the Parliamentarians. In the middle, refusing to commit to either group, is Jayne Swift, a Dorset physician – although, as a woman, she is not allowed to officially give herself that title. The reason for her neutrality is that she values all human lives and doesn’t believe in denying treatment to someone in need just because they are the enemy. Most people, however, do take sides and Jayne finds that there are divisions within her own family.

Visiting her Puritan cousin in Dorchester one day, Jayne finds herself caught up in a crowd gathering to watch the hanging of some Catholic priests. She is rescued by a neighbour, Lady Alice Stickland, who introduces Jayne to her footman, William Harrier. Even on that first meeting, Jayne can’t help feeling that William doesn’t behave at all like a servant and, as their paths cross again and again, she begins to wonder who he really is. Footman, nobleman or soldier? Royalist or Parliamentarian? William is an enigma and Jayne must decide whether he can or cannot be trusted.

The Swift and the Harrier provides a wonderfully detailed depiction of life in the south of England during the Civil War. Real historical characters such as Oliver Cromwell and Prince Maurice (Charles I’s nephew) appear now and then and have a part to play in the story, but the main focus is on the ordinary people of Dorset and the impact the war has on them. I found the section of the book set during the Siege of Lyme Regis particularly interesting as I can’t remember reading much about it before, certainly not in as much detail as this.

However, I had difficulty believing in Jayne Swift as a 17th century woman. While I could maybe accept the premise that she had received some medical training from a male physician friend, I felt it was completely unrealistic that she would be able to practise her medicine so openly in the 1640s. The challenges she faces in getting the men she meets to accept her as a doctor seem to be very easily overcome and there is no sense of the danger Jayne would surely be in due to the witch hunts sweeping England at that time, when women with even a basic knowledge of healing and herbal remedies were at risk of accusations of witchcraft. Although I did find the plot quite gripping and enjoyed getting to know William Harrier and some of the secondary characters such as Alice Stickland, the fact that I found Jayne and her circumstances so unconvincing stopped me from becoming fully absorbed in the story.

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 48/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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.

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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.