The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

I am always drawn to books with pretty covers like this one, even though I know that the story inside doesn’t always live up to the promise of the cover. This one, set in 17th century Norway, did sound fascinating, though, so I hoped that in this case it would be as good as it looked!

The novel opens in December 1617 in the remote island town of Vardø, in the far northeast of Norway. It is Christmas Eve but the men of the island have gone out to sea as usual in search of the fish on which their livelihood depends. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter watches from her window as she sits by the fire with her mother and sister-in-law mending torn sails. Suddenly there’s a flash of lightning and Maren and her mother run to the window…

And then maybe both of them are screaming but there is no sound save the sea and the sky and all the boat lights swallowed and the boats flashing and the boats spinning, the boats flying, turning, gone.

The effects of that Christmas Eve storm are disastrous both for Maren, who loses her father and brother, and for the town of Vardø as a whole. Where the male population of the town used to be fifty-three, now only thirteen remain – and those thirteen consist of babies, young boys and elderly men. Now the women of Vardø have two choices: abandon the island and start a new life somewhere else – or stay and do the work of the men themselves, so that their community can survive.

Meanwhile, far away in Bergen, a young woman called Ursa is marrying a man chosen for her by her father. The man’s name is Absalom Cornet and he has been summoned from Scotland to take up a position as Commissioner of Vardø. When they arrive in Vardø, Ursa is struck by the strength and independence of the women she meets there and the resilience they have shown in coping with such a terrible tragedy. Commissioner Cornet, though, views the women differently – and when Ursa discovers the true nature of the work her husband has carried out in Scotland and why he has been brought to Norway, she becomes afraid for her new friends.

The Mercies is based on real historical events – the 1617 storm which almost wiped out all the men of Vardø really happened, and so did some of the things that take place later in the novel. I loved the descriptions of the island and the portrayal of a small, superstitious society where outsiders and anyone deemed to be different – such as Maren’s sister-in-law, an indigenous Sámi woman – are regarded with suspicion. It was particularly interesting to see things from two such different perspectives: Maren, who has lived in Vardø all her life, and Ursa, to whom everything is strange and unfamiliar. However, despite the drama and tragedy of Maren’s storyline, she never really came to life for me and I couldn’t quite warm to her; I found Ursa more sympathetic as she struggled to fit into her new community and to come to terms with her knowledge of the sort of man she had married.

This is the first book I’ve read by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (she has previously written YA novels and this is her first one aimed at adults) and I thought her writing was beautiful at times, but I really wish authors would stop writing in present tense; I find it so distracting and distancing! Still, there’s a lot of atmosphere – I think books set in countries like Norway and Iceland do tend to have a certain atmosphere – but apart from those vivid opening scenes describing the storm and its aftermath, I felt that the rest of the story was one I’d read several times before. As soon as I found out who and what Absalom Cornet was, I could predict what was going to happen and I was right.

If you read The Mercies and enjoy it, I would recommend reading The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea too; I thought the two books had a very similar feel and if you like one you will probably like the other.

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

Two from 2019: Priestess of Ishana and Call Upon the Water

I’ve been gradually catching up with my backlog of 2019 reviews throughout January and today I’m going to talk about the final two books I read in December – two books with very different settings and subjects.

First, Priestess of Ishana by Judith Starkston. Historical fantasy set in the Bronze Age isn’t necessarily something I would usually be drawn to, but as I’ve previously enjoyed Starkston’s Hand of Fire, the story of Briseis from the Iliad, when I was offered a review copy of this one I was happy to give it a try.

The novel opens in the Hitolian city of Lawaza with a curse, a death and whispers of treason and dark magic. Suspicion falls on Hattu, the younger brother of the Great King, who has recently arrived in Lawaza, and he is quickly imprisoned and sentenced to death by the city’s Grand Votary. Tesha, the Grand Votary’s daughter, believes Hattu is innocent and sets out to clear his name, but this brings her into conflict with her father. But this is not the only challenge Tesha faces – as a priestess devoted to Ishana, the goddess of love and war, the people of her city are relying on her to overcome the evil of the Underworld.

The characters are fictional and so is the story, but the world in which the action takes place – the Hitolian Empire – is based on the real Hittite Empire. Tesha herself is inspired by the historical Puduhepa, a priestess of Ishtar (renamed here Ishana), although as I know nothing at all about the history of the Hittite Empire and hadn’t previously heard of Puduhepa, I have no idea how close the parallels are between fact and fiction. I think the setting would have provided an interesting enough story even without the sorcery, evil curses and magical creatures, but I’m not a huge fan of fantasy and other readers might feel differently. I did love the atmosphere, the strong female characters – both Tesha and her sister, Daniti – and the element of mystery. Tesha’s story continues in a sequel, Sorcery in Alpara, which is available now.

Moving on to Stella Tillyard’s Call Upon the Water, this is another historical novel but one set in a much more recent period – the seventeenth century. It follows the story of Jan Brunt, a Dutch surveyor and mapmaker who arrives in England in 1649, the year of King Charles I’s beheading. Jan is part of a team working on a new engineering project: the draining and development of the Great Level, a large expanse of marsh to the north of Ely in the English Fens. It is here that Jan meets Eliza, an illiterate young Fenland woman with whom he falls in love.

Switching between two time periods and locations – England in 1649 and Nieuw Amsterdam, the Dutch settlement which would later become New York City, in 1664 – and told in two voices, Jan’s and Eliza’s – this is a beautifully written novel and a moving, poignant story. However, I found the pace very, very slow and I struggled to stay interested in the long, detailed descriptions of Jan’s work in draining the marshes and directing the flow of the water. I don’t think I was the ideal reader for this book as I do prefer novels with stronger plots, but I did like Stella Tillyard’s writing and wouldn’t rule out reading another of her books.

Call Upon the Water has also been published as The Great Level but I have used the title of the edition I received to review from Atria Books via NetGalley.

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Have you read these books? Do either of these subjects interest you?

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

The King’s Evil is the third in Andrew Taylor’s series of historical mysteries set during and after the Great Fire of London and featuring the characters of James Marwood and Cat Lovett. The first two, The Ashes of London and The Fire Court, were both excellent books so I had high expectations for this one as well, and I’m pleased to say that I think this might be my favourite of the three. If you’re new to the series, I don’t think it’s completely necessary to read the books in order but I would still recommend that you do so if possible.

‘The King’s Evil’ is another name for scrofula, a disease which causes the swelling of glands in the neck. Historically, it was believed that a touch from the king could cure the disease and as the novel opens we see James Marwood watching a ceremony at Whitehall where sufferers are being brought one by one to receive the touch of King Charles II. Marwood himself does not have scrofula, but is using the ceremony as cover for a rendezvous with Lady Quincy (a woman we first met in The Fire Court, which is one of the reasons why I think it’s best to read the series from the beginning).

Lady Quincy warns Marwood that his friend, Cat Lovett – who, as the daughter of a regicide responsible for the execution of Charles I, is in hiding under an assumed name – has been located by her stepson Edward Alderley. Worried that Edward is planning to take revenge on Cat after the events of The Fire Court, Marwood hurries to her hiding place to tell her she is in danger. Before Edward can do anything, however, he is found dead in a well in the grounds of the Duke of Clarendon’s London mansion. Cat, using her new identity of Jane Hakesby, has been helping the architect Simon Hakesby with his work on a garden pavilion at Clarendon House, and suspicion falls on her as the murderer. Marwood is asked to investigate on behalf of the government but, although those in power want him to find Cat guilty, he is sure she is innocent and must find a way to prove it.

This series is getting better and better. We are moving further away from the time of the Great Fire now, but its effects are still being felt across London as rebuilding takes place and people try to move on with their lives. The aftermath of the fire is less important to the plot of this novel than it was to the previous two, though, with the focus this time on the royal court and the question of who will succeed to the throne if Charles II fails to produce a legitimate heir. The king’s brother James and his two daughters are currently next in line, placing James’s father-in-law, the Duke of Clarendon, in a position of power. As Marwood begins to look into the circumstances of Edward Alderley’s death, he finds himself caught up in a rivalry between Clarendon and one of the king’s favourites, the Duke of Buckingham. Andrew Taylor is so good at blending fact and fiction, so that the fictional events of the story feel quite plausible within the context of the period and the murder mystery fits smoothly into the history and politics of the time.

When I read the first book, I mentioned that I didn’t find James Marwood a particularly strong character, but after three books he feels much more real to me now. I love his relationship with Cat – it’s not what you could describe as a romance and sometimes not even really a friendship, but it’s clear that there is still a strong bond between them. I enjoy spending time with both of them and am hoping it won’t be too long before they are back with another mystery to solve!

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

With its cold Icelandic setting, dark atmosphere and shades of classic Gothic novels, this would have been an ideal winter read, but for me it was a spring one, finished towards the end of April – and now here I am writing about it in June, at the beginning of summer. An indication of how far behind I am with everything, but I know I will catch up eventually!

Anyway, The Glass Woman opens in November 1686 with a body rising to the surface of the frozen sea just off the coast of Iceland. Amongst the crowd who gather to watch and to try to pull the body from the water is one man who knows more than he’s willing to admit. A man who ‘remembers carrying the heavy body in the winding sheet, weighted with stones; remembers his wound paining him as they scraped through the snow and smashed the ice with long staves before sliding the body in’.

We then go back a few months to the August of that year, when Rósa comes to live in the village of Stykkishólmur with her new husband, Jón. She knows very little about Jón but he had promised to see that her ailing mother was cared for if she married him, so she felt she had to accept his proposal. Rósa finds it difficult to settle into her new life; she misses her mother and her childhood friend Páll and her husband is proving to be disappointingly cold and distant. The other women of the village seem to be reluctant to befriend Rósa and she soon discovers that this is because there is some sort of mystery surrounding the death of Jón’s first wife, Anna.

Alone and isolated in Jón’s croft, Rósa listens to strange noises coming from the loft above but she is unable to investigate because her husband keeps the loft door locked and has forbidden her to try to enter. He expects her to be meek and obedient, as symbolised by the small glass woman he gave her as a wedding present, but Rósa has other ideas. She has questions that must be answered. Who or what has been hidden away in that secret locked room? What really happened to Anna? And what sort of man has she married?

The Glass Woman is a beautifully written novel; Iceland is a setting I always find atmospheric and interesting and in this book it is more than just a setting – the landscape itself plays a part in the development of the story. I liked Rósa and understood how difficult the situation was that she found herself in, unable to trust her husband yet doing her best to make the marriage work, while suspecting that he may have done something terrible and that she herself could be in danger.

Most of the novel is written from Rósa’s point of view, but there are also some chapters narrated by another character and set at a slightly earlier time. Although this did help to fill in some of the gaps in Rósa’s knowledge, I thought it was done in a way that confused things rather than clarified them. The structure seemed to slow the story down and I didn’t find myself becoming fully absorbed until near the end of the book when the various threads began to come together and the truth started to emerge.

Overall, though, I did enjoy reading The Glass Woman. Some of the plot elements in the first half of the book made me think of Jane Eyre and others of Rebecca, but as the story moved forward I knew it wasn’t going to be exactly like either of those other novels and that Caroline Lea had written something quite different.

Thanks to the publisher Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini

I love Rafael Sabatini’s books. His classic tale of the French Revolution, Scaramouche, and his two famous pirate novels, Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk, have been some of my favourite reads of the last few years, while Bellarion was a great book too. I’m now beginning to explore his more obscure books and chose this one, Bardelys the Magnificent, more or less at random when I was putting my Classics Club list together. I hoped it would be a good choice – and it was!

The story is set in 17th century France, during the reign of Louis XIII, and is narrated by the wealthy Marquis de Bardelys, a ‘libertine, a gambler, a rake, a spendthrift’ and a favourite of the King. As the novel opens, Bardelys is hosting a party in Paris at which his rival, the Comte de Chatellerault, makes an unwelcome appearance. It is well known that Chatellerault has recently tried and failed to win the hand in marriage of the beautiful Roxalanne de Lavedan and as Bardelys and his friends tease the Comte about his failure, the discussion becomes more heated. Before the night is over, Bardelys finds himself wagering his entire fortune that he can succeed where Chatellerault could not – and he sets off the next day for Languedoc, the home of Roxalanne.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and following a series of misunderstandings, Bardelys arrives at the Lavedan estate under a mistaken identity. When he meets Roxalanne and discovers that he is genuinely falling in love with her, he knows that he should tell her the truth about who he really is, but as time goes by it becomes harder and harder to do this. To complicate things further, Bardelys learns that the man whose identity he has stolen is a wanted traitor. Our hero’s life quickly becomes such a confusing mess that it’s difficult to see how anything can ever be resolved! Will he lose his fortune, his life, or the love of Roxalanne – or will he somehow manage to keep all three?

Bardelys the Magnificent is one of Sabatini’s earliest novels, published in 1906, and although I did find it weaker than the others I’ve mentioned above, it’s another entertaining adventure with all the drama, romance, political intrigue and sword fights that you would expect. As a character, I found Marcel de Bardelys less memorable than other Sabatini protagonists such as Andre-Louis Moreau, Peter Blood and Oliver Tressilian, but he is still interesting and engaging. I referred to him as a hero above, but he is not particularly heroic at all – he is selfish and irresponsible, he makes one mistake after another, and his original reason for wanting to marry Roxalanne is hardly very admirable. Despite all of this, I still had some sympathy for him and wanted him to succeed – and, thankfully, he does also develop as a character as the novel progresses. While concealing his true identity, he finds out what people really think of him and sees himself as he appears to others.

Although I wouldn’t recommend Bardelys as the best place to start with Sabatini, if you’re already a fan I’m sure you’ll enjoy this early example of his work as much as I did. I’m looking forward to exploring more of his lesser-known novels and hope my next choice will be another good one.

This is book 11/50 from my Classics Club list.

The Magick of Master Lilly by Tobsha Learner

Although I have read a lot of books set in 17th century England, I can’t remember ever reading anything about the astrologer William Lilly so I was immediately intrigued by the title and premise of Tobsha Learner’s new novel which promised to bring Lilly’s story to life.

We first meet Master Lilly in 1641, living quietly in the Surrey countryside after finding himself out of favour with Parliament. Even in exile, though, he is still famous for his knowledge of the occult and his skill at reading fortunes, and it’s not long before he is summoned back to London to draw up an horary (a form of horoscope) for Charles I. As Master Lilly looks to the future to discover what fate has in store for his King and his country, he sees only war, fire and plague on the horizon. He and his fellow ‘Cunning Folk’ will need to use all the magical powers they possess if they are to avert disaster – but is it really possible to change what is written in the stars? Master Lilly thinks it is:

We are all born with our Fates written like maps across the cosmos, but our faith and humanity give us choice. This is what I, William Lilly, believe: the Stars incline, they do not compel, and it is up to us mortals to know when to play our hand and when to fold.

The Magick of Master Lilly had the potential to be a good book, and in some ways it was. As I’ve said, I knew nothing about William Lilly before I started reading, so it was nice to be introduced to him and to learn about his life and work (the author includes some notes at the end to give some indication of what is based on fact and what isn’t). Whether you believe that some people can really see into the future or not, it seems that Lilly, among his other achievements, quite accurately predicted the Great Fire of London. He is also a healer and herbalist, and a writer of astrological texts and almanacs, although his day to day work, as he explains in the first chapter of the novel, consists mainly of “horaries, Natal figures, seduction of reluctant lovers, the finding of lost things, and the location of errant husbands”.

Lilly is not always the most likeable of characters, particularly where his relationship with his wife, Jane, is concerned, but despite this his narration is warm and lively, pulling us into his story. The tone of the novel reminded me of Rose Tremain’s Restoration and Anna-Marie Crowhurst’s The Illumination of Ursula Flight. I could have done without the long, in-depth descriptions of every horoscope Lilly casts, though! I found myself skimming through those sections as I was much more interested in Lilly himself – his interactions with people at court; his meetings with other magicians; his romance with the (fictional) Magdalene de Morisset – than in the intricate details of his work.

My biggest problem with this book was the language. I’m usually the first to complain when the language used in historical fiction is too modern, but sometimes when the author attempts to write in a style appropriate to the period it can be just as distracting and I felt that was the case here. The word ‘hath’, for example, was used in place of ‘have’, but not consistently and not always when it made grammatical sense within the sentence. Modern words and phrases are used alongside the archaic ones, which just felt wrong to me. Also, Lilly often talks about his wife being a Quaker, a term which wasn’t used until the end of the English Civil War.

Just little things, but there were a lot of them, and they meant that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped to. Still, I was pleased to make Master Lilly’s acquaintance. I do love reading about this period of history and with appearances from characters such as the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and the female painter Artemisia Gentileschi, this was still an interesting read at times.

Thanks to Little, Brown Book Group for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Words in My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

The French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes is well known, but how many people have heard of Helena Jans van der Strom? Helena was in a relationship with Descartes for over a decade and played an important role in his life, yet she has been given little attention by historians and the information we have about her is very limited. In The Words in My Hand, Guinevere Glasfurd attempts to redress the balance and gives Helena a voice, building a fictional story around the known facts.

At the beginning of the novel, Helena, a young Dutch woman, is working as a maid in the Amsterdam home of Mr Sergeant, an English bookseller. There are not many options open to girls of Helena’s class in the 17th century, which is why she has entered service, but, possessing a natural intelligence and curiosity, she is teaching herself to read and write, spelling out the words on the palm of her hand in the absence of paper:

Mr Sergeant had paper, but if I was caught with any of that I would be dismissed. I could not take it without asking. And if I asked, he’d want to know why, what I wanted it for. What would I say?

“I want to write, Mr Sergeant – I know you decided I couldn’t, but I’ve decided I can.”

Some excitement comes into Helena’s life one day in 1634 when Mr Sergeant takes in a new lodger – René Descartes, whom Helena thinks of only as the Monsieur. Getting to know the Monsieur is not easy as he is fiercely guarded by his valet, the Limousin (who takes his name from his place of birth), but eventually he and Helena become friends – and then something more than friends.

The Words in My Hand explores the relationship between Helena and Descartes, suggesting possible answers to the many questions that arise. What qualities did Helena have that made her attractive to Descartes? What did they teach other and learn from each other? What was the significance of the role she played in his life and he in hers? It is often a difficult relationship and not a very equal one either – it can’t be, because of their very different positions in society. It’s obvious that Descartes cares about Helena, but he is reluctant to give her the sort of conventional family life she would like, so she accepts what he is prepared to offer instead. She refers to him throughout the entire novel as the Monsieur and never as René, which says a lot about the barriers between them which are never quite broken down. It’s not a particularly romantic love affair and Helena deserves something better, but it feels realistic for the time period.

Other characters are pulled into Helena’s story too including Betje, a fellow maid whom she befriends and tries to introduce to the joys of reading and writing. I was particularly intrigued by the uneasy interactions between Helena and the Limousin, Descartes’ valet. And of course, I should mention the setting – I often seem to be drawn to historical fiction set in the Netherlands and I thought Guinevere Glasfurd captured the atmosphere of the time and place very well. I really enjoyed this book (despite feeling annoyed with Descartes at times); it was published in 2016 and is Guinevere Glasfurd’s only novel so far, but I hope she is going to write more.