The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton – #RIPXV

I loved Stuart Turton’s first novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which I thought was one of the most original and unusual mystery novels I’ve ever read, so I had high hopes for his new book, The Devil and the Dark Water. However, although this is another complex and cleverly plotted novel, it has a very different structure, setting and feel, and didn’t impress me as much as the previous book did.

The Devil and the Dark Water opens in 1634 in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), an outpost of the United East India Company. The Dutch ship Saardam is about to set sail for Amsterdam, carrying a cargo of spices, a mysterious object known as The Folly – and a prisoner, Sammy Pipps, the world’s greatest detective. Nobody knows what crime Sammy is supposed to have committed, but his friend and bodyguard, Lieutenant Arent Hayes, has vowed to protect him during the journey and to prove him innocent if possible. As the passengers and crew prepare to embark, a leper wrapped in blood-stained rags appears on the dock and has time to place a curse on the ship before his body is consumed by flames.

The curse appears to set in motion a chain of eerie, unexplained events which begin to occur as soon as the ship sails out to sea. Is the Saardam really being haunted by the devil, Old Tom, or is a human being behind these sinister occurrences? With Sammy locked in a cell, it falls to Arent to investigate…but he is not the only person on the ship who is trying to solve the mystery. Sara Wessel, wife of the Governor General, is also determined to uncover the truth, with the help of her daughter, Lia, and her husband’s mistress, Creesjie.

This is a wonderfully atmospheric book, with a real sense of evil and foreboding, beginning in the first chapter with the leper’s curse – ‘Know that my master sails aboard the Saardam. He is the lord of hidden things; all desperate and dark things…’ – and continuing to build throughout the novel, with strange symbols appearing on the sails, a lantern that shines out at sea where no lantern should be, stories of witchfinders and burning villages, and a series of ‘unholy miracles’. I found it genuinely spooky and although the plot itself seemed to move along very slowly at times (I read it on my Kindle and hadn’t really appreciated what a long book it was), the atmosphere more than made up for it. The revelations at the end of the book also took me by surprise; I’d had my suspicions about one of the characters, but I certainly didn’t guess everything correctly!

There were things I liked, then, but the main problem I had with the book was that I never at any point felt fully immersed in the seventeenth century. There’s no real attempt to use language appropriate to the period, Sara and Lia are both modern women with modern attitudes, and the depiction of Sammy Pipps as a sort of Sherlock Holmes character whose cases had been written about (by Arent) for all the world to read seemed completely implausible. To be fair, Stuart Turton acknowledges in an author’s note at the end of the book that he ‘did his research, then threw away the bits that hindered the story’, but I personally prefer a story set in the past to actually feel historical – otherwise, why bother setting it in the past at all? If you’re not too bothered about historical accuracy and are just looking for a dark and atmospheric mystery novel, I’m sure you’ll find a lot to enjoy here, but I don’t think I was the right reader for this book.

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

I am counting this book towards this year’s R.I.P. Challenge.

The Honey and the Sting by EC Fremantle

After 2018’s The Poison Bed, a Jacobean thriller based on a real life murder scandal, EC Fremantle has returned to the same period – the early seventeenth century – with another historical thriller, this time one which is only partly inspired by a true story.

Hester, Melis and Hope are three sisters who live together in a cottage in Iffley, Oxfordshire. With no male relative in the household, apart from Hester’s little boy Rafe, their living arrangements are unusual for the time – not quite respectable, some would say. Yet all three women have their reasons for avoiding outsiders and keeping themselves to themselves. Hester’s secret is perhaps the most scandalous: the father of her son is George Villiers, the powerful Duke of Buckingham and the King’s favourite. The beautiful, eccentric Melis experiences visions and premonitions which have an unsettling habit of coming true. And Hope’s African heritage makes her stand out from the other girls in Iffley, while also making her the target of unwelcome attention from men.

When we first meet the sisters, they are leading quiet lives at Orchard Cottage, filling their days with cooking, gardening, needlework and tending the bees in their hives. This will all change when George Villiers decides that the time has come to claim his son – something Hester refuses to contemplate as the Duke had cruelly cast her aside and left her to raise Rafe alone. In order to keep Rafe out of his hands, the three women are forced to go on the run, fleeing to an isolated house in the woods. But even here it seems there’s no guarantee of safety and they must decide who can and cannot be trusted.

Hester and her sisters are fictional, but their story is entwined with a sequence of real historical events involving George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. I won’t say too much here, but if you know anything about Buckingham then as soon as a certain character appears in the novel you will be able to guess what is ultimately going to happen. Knowing this didn’t spoil the story for me, though; I found this particular character and the motivations for their actions very intriguing and their inclusion made the book much more compelling than it would otherwise have been.

The novel is written in present tense, never my favourite but I didn’t find it as annoying as I often do because it somehow suited the pace of the story and gave it a sense of urgency and danger. Some of the chapters are told from Hester’s perspective and these are written in the first person, but others are from Hope’s perspective, in the third person. I didn’t really understand the reason for this and would have preferred one style or the other. We don’t hear from Melis at all, only seeing her through the eyes of the other characters, but this is quite effective and adds to the aura of mystery that surrounds her. I think she was probably the sister I found most interesting; Hester and Hope both frustrated me with the number of poor decisions they made!

The only other thing that bothered me slightly was the way Hester refers to Buckingham throughout the novel as ‘George’. I felt that, as she had been a servant in Buckingham’s household when he seduced her, she would have spoken of him as ‘the Duke’ or ‘Buckingham’ or ‘His Grace’. A servant calling a nobleman by his first name in the seventeenth century just didn’t seem right to me, but maybe I’m just being pedantic. Overall, this was an enjoyable novel, even if it wasn’t one of my favourites by Fremantle.

Thanks to Penguin Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

This is book 10/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor

The Last Protector is the latest addition to Andrew Taylor’s wonderful Marwood and Lovett series set in England during the Restoration. It’s now 1668, and Charles II, restored to his throne eight years earlier, is beginning to lose the support of the people due to the extravagance of his lifestyle and the immoral behaviour of his courtiers. Many are starting to long for the days of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and his son, Richard – and when Richard returns (in disguise) from exile, he becomes the centre of a conspiracy into which James Marwood and Cat Lovett are drawn.

At the beginning of the novel, government agent Marwood, still working for Joseph Williamson, Under-Secretary of State to Lord Arlington, is sent to spy on a duel between Lord Shrewsbury and the Duke of Buckingham, who is believed to be plotting against the king. Unfortunately, Marwood is seen by Buckingham’s men, making him a target of the Duke. Meanwhile, Cat, now married to the elderly architect Simon Hakesby (and not really enjoying the experience) has a chance encounter with a young woman she hasn’t seen for years. The woman’s name is Elizabeth Cromwell, the daughter of Richard, the last Protector. Richard has become caught up in Buckingham’s plans to gain power and he wants Cat and Simon to help him. In this way, Cat and Marwood are both pulled, via different routes, into the same circle of events and their two separate storylines become entwined.

This is the fourth book in the series and I would recommend reading them all in order if you can (the previous books are The Ashes of London, The Fire Court and The King’s Evil). It’s not really essential as the novels do all stand alone to a certain extent, but Marwood and Cat have a complex relationship and I think it’s best to follow their stories from the beginning. They don’t seem to have as many opportunities to interact in this book as they do in the earlier ones, but the occasions when their paths do cross are always worth looking forward to.

As usual, there’s also an interesting collection of secondary characters to get to know. One of the many things I enjoy about this series is the way the books incorporate both the lives of the nobility and the lower classes and there are two characters in particular who stand out this time: Ferrus, the ‘mazer-scourer’, a tall, skinny man whose job it is to squeeze himself down sewers to clear blockages underground, and Chloris, a kind-hearted prostitute who does her best to help Marwood despite her humble position in life.

Compared with the previous three novels, this book is more of a thriller than a mystery, still with plenty of twists and turns to the plot. And of course, the atmosphere and attention to detail are excellent, bringing to life the London of the period as the city continues to rebuild following the Great Fire of 1666. I hope there’s going to be a fifth book, especially as there’s a certain development towards the end of this one that has left me wondering what the future might hold for Cat and Marwood.

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

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

After enjoying Stacey Halls’ The Foundling earlier this year, I decided to read her previous book, The Familiars. It didn’t sound as original as The FoundlingThe Familiars is about the Pendle Witch Trials and I’ve read quite a few other books about witches – but I hoped it would still be interesting.

The novel is set in 1612, in Lancashire in the northwest of England, and is narrated by Fleetwood Shuttleworth, mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. Fleetwood is seventeen years old, in love with her husband, Richard, and pregnant with his child; this should be a happy time for her, but instead Fleetwood is filled with dread. This is her fourth pregnancy and all of her previous three have ended in a miscarriage – and, more worrying still, she has discovered that Richard has been hiding a letter from a doctor warning that if his wife became pregnant again neither she nor the baby would survive.

A chance meeting in the woods one day with Alice Gray, a young midwife, gives Fleetwood new hope. Alice seems to know a lot about herbs and remedies and what is needed to bring about a healthy birth, so Fleetwood asks her to join the household at Gawthorpe Hall until the child is born. Just having Alice around makes her feel better and she is sure that this time she will give birth to the son and heir Richard so desperately wants. 1612, however, is a dangerous time for women who are seen as ‘different’ in any way, and when a group of suspected witches are arrested Alice is one of those accused. Fleetwood vows to do whatever she can to help her friend, but will she be able to save her before it’s too late?

I think The Foundling is the better of Stacey Halls’ two novels, but I did still enjoy this one. As I’ve said, I’ve read other books on similar subjects – for example, Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister, Katherine Howe’s The Lost Book of Salem and Helen Steadman’s Widdershins – but this is the first one I’ve read specifically focusing on the Pendle Witch Trials. I was interested to learn that most of the characters in the book are based on real people, including Fleetwood Shuttleworth herself, the ‘witches’ and the men responsible for arresting them and arranging the trials. In her author’s note at the end, Stacey Halls explains which parts of the story stick to the historical facts and which are fictional.

Although the witches are obviously an important element of the novel, we don’t see as much of them as I had expected. Because the story is written entirely from Fleetwood’s perspective, a lot of the action – including the so-called acts of witchcraft, the arrest of the witches and the trials – takes place elsewhere and Fleetwood hears about these things from other people rather than witnessing them for herself. That’s one of the limitations of a first person narrative, I suppose, and it wasn’t really a problem as I found Fleetwood’s personal story quite engaging anyway. I liked her from the beginning and could really feel her fear and anxiety over her pregnancy and her frustration at not being able to do more to help Alice and the other witches.

I’ll be looking out for any future novels from Stacey Halls, but if you have any other books to recommend on the Pendle witches, please let me know which ones.

Killing Beauties by Pete Langman

Set in England during the Interregnum, the period between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Pete Langman’s Killing Beauties tells the story of two female spies – or she-intelligencers, as they were known. Female spies played an important role in the intelligence networks of the time and the two women who feature in this novel, Susan Hyde and Diana Jennings, are based on real people.

The story begins in August 1655. With England under the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, the future Charles II – who is in exile awaiting the day when he can return to claim his throne – has entrusted Susan and Diana with a difficult and dangerous mission. Their task is to infiltrate the household of Cromwell’s Secretary of State John Thurloe in the hope of extracting secrets that will help them to undermine the Protectorate. However, Thurloe is also Cromwell’s spymaster, with a large and powerful network of his own. Will the women be able to obtain the information they need before their true identities are revealed?

Killing Beauties is a fascinating novel from the point of view of learning what was involved in the secret services of the 17th century: how they were organised and structured; the disguises, code names and terminology they used; how they gathered their intelligence; and the methods they used to keep their correspondence private – it was particularly interesting to read about the clever and intricate art of letterlocking! It’s such a shame that the contributions of the women who worked for these secret societies have been largely ignored and forgotten. The real Susan Hyde was completely overshadowed by her own brother Edward, the Earl of Clarendon, whose book, The History of the Rebellion, doesn’t even mention her.

Pete Langman has stated that the inspiration for his novel was Nadine Akkerman’s Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain, which refers to both Susan and Diana, but as there is a limit to how much is actually known about them, particularly Diana, he has had to use some imagination to fill in the gaps. According to Akkerman’s book, Susan Hyde was postmistress for the secret royalist society of the Sealed Knot, and she carries out this role in Langman’s novel as well as trying to gain the trust of John Thurloe in order to obtain intelligence. Susan is portrayed as a sensible, practical person who takes her work very seriously, fully aware of the danger she is in – and I admired her, but I have to admit I found her a little bit bland. Diana, in contrast, is lively, daring and much more fun to read about, even if her loyalties are sometimes in question…

Diana had her fingers crossed as she spoke. It was something she did a lot, crossing her fingers as she spoke. Sometimes even Diana was unsure when she was lying, and at such times she had long ago decided that it was best to assume that she was.

For various reasons Diana virtually disappears from the story in the middle of the book and we don’t see as much of her as I would have liked. However, there’s a large cast of other characters to get to know, some of whom I’m assuming are fictional but others who definitely really existed: for example, Isaac Dorislaus, the Dutch scholar recruited to examine the correspondence passing through Cromwell’s ‘Black Chamber’, and Samuel Morland, one of Thurloe’s spies, who was also a mathematician and inventor.

I can’t really say that I loved this book; I found the plot unnecessarily complex and on occasions a bit difficult to follow, which admittedly could have been because I wasn’t paying enough attention, although I don’t think so. I also thought the book felt longer than it really needed to be, which meant the pace seemed to drag at times. Still, it was good to get some insights into the fascinating world of 17th century espionage and to have the vital contributions of female spies highlighted. At the end, it seemed as though things were being set up for a sequel, so despite having one or two problems with this book I would be happy to read another by Pete Langman.

Lady of the Highway by Deborah Swift

This is the third book in Deborah Swift’s Highway trilogy set in 17th century England in the aftermath of the civil war. All three novels revolve around the character of Kate Fanshawe, who is loosely based on the legendary highwaywoman known as ‘The Wicked Lady’. The books do all stand alone to a certain extent, but reading them in order makes much more sense. The first volume, Shadow on the Highway, is written from the perspective of Abigail Chaplin, a maid in Kate’s household, while the second, Spirit of the Highway, is the story of Abigail’s brother, Ralph, who becomes Kate’s lover. Now, in Lady of the Highway, we finally get to hear Kate’s own point of view.

Following the events of the previous two novels, poor Kate has very little left in her life. Her husband, Thomas Fanshawe, and her cruel, overbearing stepfather, Simon, are still away from home, having been on the losing side in the recent wars – and although Kate is not too unhappy about that, she is struggling to continue with life at Markyate Manor on her own. Impoverished and desperate, she can expect little support from her neighbours, who have no sympathy for a woman from a family of defeated Royalists. Her beloved Ralph is gone, although she still feels his presence all around her, and to make matters worse, Abigail is ill and there is no money for medicine. When an attempt to seek help from her friends in the Digger community doesn’t go quite as planned, it seems that Kate has no choice but to take to the highways again…

The Highway novels are aimed at young adults but have plenty to offer an adult reader too. This book is as enjoyable and interesting as the previous two, although it’s also quite relentlessly sad and tragic; nothing at all seems to go right for Kate and she meets with rejection, anger and hostility everywhere she turns. Sometimes she deserves it – she is not the most loveable of characters and, for me, Abigail is the real heroine of the series – but often the cruelty she receives seems unnecessary and disproportionate. I think that’s maybe one of the areas where the book lacks the depth I would expect in an adult novel; there are good characters and there are bad characters but not much in between and no real explanation as to why the villains are so villainous.

Despite the titles of the books, the action we see on the highway – when Kate, out of desperation, goes out armed with her pistols in search of rich travellers – is only one small aspect of the story. Other topics that have been covered in the previous two novels and developed further in this one include the work of the Diggers, who believe that land should belong to everyone and not be bought, sold or enclosed, and what it is like to be a deaf person living in the 17th century. There’s a little bit of romance in this book too, not for Kate but for Abigail – and although I found it very predictable, I was pleased with the outcome! I liked the way the story was resolved for Kate too…both a sad and a happy ending at the same time.

I enjoyed all three books in this trilogy, including this one. I thought it was a good idea to use a different narrator for each book – first Abigail, then Ralph and finally Kate – as it meant they could each tell the part of the story most relevant to them and give three different perspectives on the same period of history. If you read these books hoping to learn more about the real Katherine Fanshawe (or Ferrers, as she is often known by her maiden name), however, bear in mind that the details of the legend are very hazy – it is not clear how and when she died, for example, and there is no evidence that Ralph actually existed, although his name is usually linked with Kate’s. The historical notes at the end of each novel give some guidance and for a different approach to the ‘Wicked Lady’ legend you may like to read The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements too.

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.