Mystery and intrigue in the seventeenth century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imperfect Alchemist by Naomi Miller

Mary Sidney may not be as well known as her brother Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet who wrote Astrophel and Stella, but she was a successful and accomplished author in her own right – and one of the first Englishwomen to publish under her own name. In Imperfect Alchemist, Naomi Miller brings Mary’s story to life in fictional form, beginning in 1575 when Mary is summoned to court to attend the Queen. Marriage follows a few years later to Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and although it is an arranged marriage rather than one based on love, Henry at least seems to accept his new wife’s intelligence and learning and allows her the freedom to pursue her literary interests, leading to her eventually establishing a literary circle at their home, Wilton House.

Mary’s story, which is written in the third person, alternates with a first person narrative from the perspective of another young woman, Rose Commin. Rose, a fictional character, comes from a very different background, having grown up in the countryside, the daughter of a cloth merchant and a herbalist. After her mother is put on trial for witchcraft, Rose is sent away to the safety of Wilton House, where she becomes maid to Lady Catherine Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, who encourages her to develop her talent for drawing, as well as teaching her to read and write. Sadly, Lady Catherine dies shortly after Rose’s arrival, but when Henry Herbert marries again and brings his young wife, Mary Sidney, to Wilton House, a friendship begins to form between Rose and her new mistress.

Before reading Imperfect Alchemist, I knew almost nothing about Mary Sidney. Her brother Philip has appeared in one or two books I’ve read (such as Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge and Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle) but I can’t remember ever reading anything about Mary. As well as shedding some light on her personal life, the novel explores her involvement with alchemy and medicine, her relationships with other historical figures such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson and Aemilia Lanyer, and her major literary achievements. Not only does Mary prepare and publish an edition of her brother’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, she produces new translations of the Psalms and her version of the Antony and Cleopatra story is thought to inspire Shakespeare’s famous play.

Although Mary is, on the surface, the more interesting character, I think I preferred Rose’s sections of the book – possibly because Rose narrates her chapters herself, making her easier to identify with and to warm to. However, I’ve read a few other historical novels recently that have alternated a real woman’s story with an invented one (usually a lady’s maid), and along with the ‘healer being accused of witchcraft’ theme, which also seems to be an increasingly common trend in historical fiction, I didn’t feel that this book had anything very new or different to offer. As an introduction to the life and work of Mary Sidney Herbert, though, it’s excellent and I was certainly able to learn a lot from it. This is Naomi Miller’s first novel and apparently the first in a projected series of novels about early women authors, so I’ll be interested to see who she writes about next.

Book 17/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Drowned City by KJ Maitland

I had already been drawn to The Drowned City, the first in a new series of historical mysteries set in the 17th century, before it dawned on me that KJ Maitland was Karen Maitland, an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. All the more reason to want to read it, then!

In January 1606, exactly a year after the execution of the conspirators who tried to blow up Parliament in the failed Gunpowder Plot, a towering wave sweeps up the Bristol Channel, leaving a scene of devastation. Whole families are drowned, buildings are swept away and farmland is destroyed. As the survivors try to come to terms with what has happened, rumours begin to arise. Some say the wave was summoned by witches, others that it was God’s way of taking revenge for the executions. The King’s most trusted adviser, Charles FitzAlan, fears that it’s all part of another Catholic conspiracy and decides to send someone to Bristol to investigate. Luckily, he knows just the man for the job…

That man is Daniel Pursglove, currently languishing in Newgate Prison awaiting what seems to be certain death. Daniel’s particular background and skills have brought him to FitzAlan’s attention and when he is offered his freedom in return for carrying out some investigations in Bristol, he jumps at the chance. Arriving in the city, Daniel begins his search for the missing Catholic conspirator known as Spero Pettingar, but almost immediately finds himself caught up in another mystery – a series of murders. Are they all part of the same plot or is something else going on in the flooded city?

Like Maitland’s earlier novels, this is a dark and atmospheric story with an interesting historical setting. I’ve never read anything about the Bristol Channel Floods of 1607 (or 1606; Maitland uses the old Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian), so that was something completely new for me. The descriptions of the devastated city in the aftermath of the wave are vivid and even quite eerie and almost otherworldly. It’s always refreshing to read historical novels with a setting other than London, and the flooded Bristol, in a superstitious age when natural disasters were often attributed to witchcraft or messages from heaven, was the perfect choice for this particular story.

Although there a few real historical characters in the book, notably Robert Cecil, most are fictional. Daniel Pursglove, the central character in this and presumably the rest of the series, intrigued me as we know so little about him at first. What is his background? How did he come to be a prisoner? What are the special talents that make him so suitable for this task? As the story unfolds, so does our understanding of Daniel and gradually some of our questions are answered. I’m sure we’ll be learning more about him in future books.

Where this book was less successful, in my opinion, was with the mystery element; once Daniel arrives in Bristol the plot takes off in so many different directions I kept forgetting what his original purpose was in going there. Had it been shorter and more tightly focused, I think I would have enjoyed it much more; instead, I found myself struggling to keep track of what was happening at times. Still, this is a promising start to a new series and I’m definitely interested in reading the second book.

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

Book 16/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins

As someone who reads a lot of historical fiction, it’s always nice to come across books featuring historical figures I’ve never read about before. The Puritan Princess, Miranda Malins’ debut novel, tells the story of Frances Cromwell, youngest daughter of Oliver Cromwell. Despite the title, Frances never actually became a princess, but the book covers the period from 1657 to 1658 when this looked as though it could be a possibility.

Following years of civil war and the execution of King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell has been named Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland…but for some of his supporters, this is not enough. In 1657, Parliament offers him the crown, leaving Cromwell facing a dilemma. On the one hand, accepting might bring about stability, which is what Parliament hopes, but on the other, having recently been involved in abolishing the monarchy, he is reluctant to become monarch himself. History tells us that he will eventually turn the offer down, but while it is under consideration Frances wonders what his decision will mean for her and what implications it could have for her marriage. Frances is in love with the young courtier Robert Rich, whose father supported the opposite side in the recent civil war; they already face difficulties in persuading Cromwell to allow them to marry and any change in Frances’ status could make it even less likely.

As well as her relationship with Robert, the relationships Frances has with her sisters also form an important part of the story. Her eldest sisters, Bridget and Elizabeth are much older; they reached adulthood before their father rose to power and can remember a different way of life; Mary, though, is only a year older than Frances and the two are very close, to the extent that Mary is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness for her sister’s sake. Less attention is given to Cromwell’s sons, but they do appear in the novel now and then – Richard, who will succeed his father as Lord Protector, and Henry, who is Lord Deputy of Ireland.

Oliver Cromwell himself is shown in a much more positive light than usual. Seen through his daughter’s eyes, he is depicted as a loving father and husband, fond of art, music and hunting – very different from the image most people have of the strict Puritan opposed to all forms of enjoyment. However, although it’s good to see a different side of Cromwell, because the story is narrated by Frances and she is clearly biased in favour of her father, I don’t think it’s a very balanced portrayal.

I found the first half of the book slightly slow and repetitive as it is mainly concerned with whether or not Frances will marry Robert Rich and whether or not Cromwell will accept the crown, but I’m glad I kept going as the plot does become more gripping later on. I previously knew very little about the final years of Cromwell’s Protectorate and, as I’ve said, I had never read about Frances until now, so I do feel that I’ve learned something new from The Puritan Princess and I’m already looking forward to Miranda Malins’ next book.

Book 15/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Mini-reviews: Ashes; A Net for Small Fishes; The Lost Diary of Venice

Although I usually devote an entire post on my blog to every book I read, sometimes I find that I have very little to say. That’s not always necessarily a reflection on the quality of the book or how much I enjoyed it, but more an inability to put into words my thoughts about a particular book and an awareness that if I don’t just write something soon I will never get round to reviewing it at all! Three of my recent reads fall into that category, so here are a few paragraphs about each of them:

The first is Ashes by Christopher de Vinck, a novel set in Belgium during World War II. Simone Lyon, the daughter of a major general in the Belgian army, meets Hava Daniels while volunteering with the Red Cross in 1939 and despite their different backgrounds – Hava’s family are Jews from Poland – the two become close friends. In those innocent days at the beginning of the war, the girls believe their country will remain safe and neutral, untouched by the horrors starting to sweep across the rest of Europe. Less than a year later, Brussels is under German occupation and Hava and Simone become caught up in everything they’d hoped to avoid.

I found this a moving portrayal of friendship and loyalty, although I struggled to believe that Simone and Hava were really supposed to be eighteen years old as they felt a lot younger than that to me – in fact, I thought the whole story and the way in which it was written felt more like YA fiction than adult. Not a problem, but not what I’d expected! It was interesting to read about the Holocaust from a Belgian perspective and the quotes from politicians, news articles and Nazi propaganda which begin every chapter help to put everything into historical context, but the story was not quite as harrowing as books on this topic usually are. Maybe that was due to the pacing, as a lot more time is spent on building up Hava and Simone’s friendship than on describing the events that follow the Nazi invasion. Overall, this was a worthwhile read, but just didn’t have the sort of depth I prefer in a novel.

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago is set much earlier, in Jacobean England, and tells the story of the real life Thomas Overbury Scandal from the perspective of Anne Turner, one of the people involved in the crime. Anne, the wife of a London physician, is also a businesswoman in her own right, holding the patent for yellow starch for collars and ruffs. Early in the novel, she becomes dresser and companion to Frances Howard, the young Countess of Essex – and when Frances falls in love with Robert Carr, the king’s favourite, it is Anne to whom she turns for help. Frances wants to marry Robert, but his friend Sir Thomas Overbury stands in their way; if only she and Anne could somehow get rid of him!

I think I would probably have enjoyed this book more if I hadn’t already read several other versions of the Overbury story, most recently EC Fremantle’s The Poison Bed and Rafael Sabatini’s The Minion. Being familiar with the story in advance took away the suspense and what was left wasn’t really enough to hold my attention. The choice of Anne as narrator, while interesting from the point of view of showing us how an ordinary citizen of the time might have viewed royalty and courtiers, took us further from the action, often leaving a sense that all the excitement was happening elsewhere. I also found Anne’s habit of referring to Frances as ‘Frankie’ very irritating as I didn’t think that name was in common use in the early 17th century. This book just wasn’t for me, but most of the other reviews I’ve seen are much more positive than mine! I do like the title, which is a reference to ‘small fishes’ being caught in the net of justice while the larger fish swim away.

The Lost Diary of Venice by Margaux DeRoux is a dual timeline novel; the present day narrative follows Rose, an expert in book restoration from Connecticut, and the historical one is set in Renaissance Italy. The connection between the two comes when William, an artist, brings a 16th century manuscript into Rose’s bookshop. Rose quickly discovers that the document is a palimpsest, where one set of words has been written over another which has been scraped away. On the surface it is a treatise on art by the great Italian painter Giovanni Lomazzo, but it’s the hidden diary entries and sketches underneath that really intrigue Rose and William.

It’s often the case that when a novel is set in two time periods, I like one much more than the other; with this novel, however, I didn’t find either of them very compelling. The book is well written, with some beautiful descriptions of Venice in the historical sections, but I didn’t feel any emotional connection to any of the characters. Rose’s relationship with the married William didn’t interest me and I was unmoved by Giovanni’s romance with the courtesan Chiara too (although I did have some sympathy for Giovanni as he discovered that he was losing his sight, a terrible thing for an artist to have to come to terms with). I also loved the glimpses we are given of the political situation in Venice at that time, the conflict between the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire, and the events taking place in Cyprus ahead of the Battle of Lepanto. I wished more time had been spent on all of this, as every time I started to become gripped by what was happening, the chapter ended and we switched back to the modern day story. This is not a book I can say I particularly enjoyed, but I’m pleased I was at least able to learn something from it.

Have you read any of these? If so, let me know what you thought.

Book 10, 11 and 12/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.