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.

The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman

This is the first novel by historian Tracy Borman, although she has previously written several non-fiction books, none of which I have read. The King’s Witch is set in England in the early 17th century, during the reign of James I (who was also James VI of Scotland), and from the title I was expecting something similar to The Witchfinder’s Sister or Widdershins – a story of witch trials and burnings, and of innocent women persecuted because of a gift for healing. Well, The King’s Witch does cover those topics, but there is much more to the book than that and I wasn’t surprised to learn that this is the first in a trilogy and another two novels will be needed to finish the storylines begun in this one.

Our heroine – the ‘witch’ of the title – is Frances Gorges, a young noblewoman whom we first meet in 1603 at the bedside of Elizabeth I, helping her mother to nurse the dying queen through her final days. Frances knows how to use herbs to treat illness and provide comfort, but when Elizabeth is succeeded by James, her skills are no longer appreciated. The new king is determined to stamp out witchcraft in his kingdom and women like Frances could become a target. It is decided that she will be safer away from court, so she is sent home to the peace and quiet of Longford, her family’s manor house in Wiltshire.

It’s not long, however, before Frances is summoned back to court where her ambitious uncle, the Earl of Northampton, has secured her a position as maid to the king’s daughter, the young Princess Elizabeth. But court has become a very dangerous place and Frances almost immediately finds herself in conflict with the king’s Lord Privy Seal, Robert Cecil, who is hoping to please the king by hunting down a witch. It’s not just women healers who are under suspicion, though; James also sees Catholics as possible conspirators – and he is right, because a secret plot is taking shape that could bring his reign to an early end.

As I’ve said, the title of this book is slightly misleading. Frances’s knowledge of the properties of herbs and plants and the danger this puts her in with Cecil is certainly an important part of the story, but this is not really a book about witches and witchcraft. I would describe it more as a book about a young woman trying to make her way in a world full of treachery, lies and conspiracies. Most of the second half of the novel is devoted to one of these conspiracies – the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – and Frances’s own involvement in it. This is what I will remember about this book rather than the witch-hunting aspect, which doesn’t really come to anything.

Although I enjoyed the book overall, the pacing seemed to be a problem for me. The story gets off to a slow start and I felt that I’d been reading for a long time with very little happening; somewhere around the middle of the book when the Gunpowder Plot begins to take shape, I started to find it much more compelling. There is also a romance for Frances with the lawyer Thomas Wintour and I thought this was handled well, especially as Frances – and the reader – begins to have doubts as to whether he can or cannot be trusted.

Frances Gorges was a real historical figure, but she and her family are not characters I have come across before in historical fiction. It seems that very little factual information is available about Frances – I could only find a few basic details online – although more is known about her parents, Thomas Gorges and Helena Snakenborg. The lack of information on Frances must have given Tracy Borman the freedom to use her imagination in building a story around her, without being too restricted by historical fact.

By the end of the novel, there is a lot going on in Frances’s life and I will be interested to see how her story continues in the next two books in the trilogy.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 7/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Poison Bed by E. C. Fremantle

The Poison Bed is a slight change of direction for Elizabeth Fremantle. She has previously written four conventional historical fiction novels set in the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, telling the stories of Katherine Parr (Queen’s Gambit), Katherine and Mary Grey (Sisters of Treason), Penelope Devereux (Watch the Lady) and Arbella Stuart and Aemilia Lanyer (The Girl in the Glass Tower). This, her latest novel, also features the story of a strong and fascinating woman, but includes additional elements of mystery and suspense which give the book the feel of a psychological thriller at times. It’s not entirely different from her other books, but different enough that she obviously felt a slight change in name was appropriate.

The novel opens in 1615 with Frances Howard and her husband Robert Carr imprisoned in the Tower of London, accused of the murder of Thomas Overbury. Overbury had been a friend of Robert’s, but was opposed to his marriage to Frances – is this why he had to die, or could there be another reason? There is certainly plenty of evidence to link both Frances and Robert with his poisoning, but in order to discover the truth, we must go back to the beginning of their relationship and follow the chain of events that led to Overbury’s death.

Robert and Frances take turns to tell their side of the story in alternating chapters headed ‘Him’ and ‘Her’. Robert’s is written as a straightforward first person narrative, while Frances relates her story to a young wet nurse who is sharing her room in the Tower to help take care of her newborn baby. In this way we get to know both main characters, as well as their friends, family members and rivals – but it’s important to remember that at the court of King James I, nobody is ever exactly as they seem.

As one of the ambitious and powerful Howard family, Frances could be seen as a pawn, pushed into making one advantageous marriage after another – first to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and then to Robert Carr. Yet Frances is an intelligent young woman with a mind of her own; she is prepared to do what is necessary to take control of her destiny…but would this include murder?

Robert Carr is the king’s favourite – some would say the king’s lover – and this has enabled him to rise to a much higher position at court than he could otherwise have hoped to achieve. Robert (at least as he is depicted by Fremantle) does not really have the strength of character to take advantage of this, but others, such as Frances’s scheming great-uncle, see getting close to Robert as a way of wielding influence over the king. Robert denies any involvement in Thomas Overbury’s murder, but is he telling the truth?

While Robert and Frances, as our narrators and protagonists, are always at the heart of the novel, there are other interesting characters to get to know too. I particularly liked the portrayal of James I and his relationship with Robert, but I also enjoyed the elements of black magic in the story and the roles played by the astrologer Simon Forman and the physician’s widow Anne Turner. There’s a lot going on in this novel, which makes it quite a gripping read. I found the first half more enjoyable than the second, which is when the thriller aspect becomes more dominant, but that’s just my personal preference.

The Poison Bed, in case you’re wondering, is based on a true story – you can find plenty of information on the Overbury Scandal online – but the interpretation of the characters and their motives is Fremantle’s own. If all of this is new to you, I would recommend not looking up any of the facts until after you’ve finished the novel as it’s a story packed with twists, turns and surprises. I have read about the same events before, in Marjorie Bowen’s The King’s Favourite from 1938, but this is a very different book, with a fresh and different approach. I love the cover too!

It seems that the author is currently writing another historical crime novel under the E.C. Fremantle name called The Honey and the Sting. I’m curious to see what it is about.

This is book 3/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Illumination of Ursula Flight by Anna-Marie Crowhurst

Yet another new historical fiction novel with a colourful, eye-catching cover! This one looks like an illuminated manuscript, which is quite appropriate, not just because of the title but also because our heroine, Ursula Flight, has a deep love of books, language and the written word.

Ursula is born in December 1664, on the same night that a great comet appears in the sky. It is believed to be an ill omen, bringing with it bad luck and disaster, but for Ursula’s father this is a time to rejoice and to thank God for the safe delivery of his daughter. As Ursula grows into an intelligent and curious young woman, he decides to educate her himself, sharing with her his knowledge of astronomy, Latin and Greek, mathematics, science and literature. At the age of fifteen, however, everything changes: Ursula is married off to the wealthy Lord Tyringham, who is much older and who has different ideas of how a woman should behave.

It is not a happy, loving marriage, but Ursula is able to find solace in her writing – or her scribbling, as her friends call it – and this provides a way for her to express herself and to cope with the difficulties she encounters in her new life. There is nothing she wants more than to write plays and see them performed on stage but, despite her talent and enthusiasm, Ursula will find that this is still very much a man’s world.

Things do not always go smoothly for Ursula and she faces a series of challenges, obstacles, trials and disappointments both in her personal life and in her attempts to establish a career for herself. Told in a different way, it could have been a rather depressing story, but Ursula’s narrative voice is so strong and warm and witty that the novel never becomes too dark. Her sparkling personality suits the lively writing style and the imaginative format of the book.

I am not always a fan of novels that are written in an unusual or unconventional way, but I could still admire the playfulness and creativity of Ursula Flight. Chapters are given titles like In which I am born under inauspicious circumstances and In which I assert my independence at three years old, while Ursula’s narrative is interspersed with other examples of her writing: letters and lists, diary entries, personal notes to herself, definitions of words and even whole scenes from some of her plays. These all provide us with valuable insights into her state of mind or way of life, while also being quite funny at times; I expect Ursula found that writing about certain episodes of her life in this way made it easier to deal with them.

The Illumination of Ursula Flight is an entertaining read; it’s maybe a little bit lighter than I would have preferred, but it’s fun and different. I would probably recommend it to people who have enjoyed books like Dark Aemilia, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and Restoration.

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