Recent reads: The Drums of War; Ashes in the Snow; Ithaca

I’m falling behind with my reviews again, so here are my thoughts on three recent reads – all very different books.

The Drums of War is the third in Michael Ward’s Thomas Tallant mystery series, continuing the story begun in Rags of Time and The Wrecking Storm. It also works as a standalone novel, so don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two in the series.

This third novel opens in London in 1642. With the divisions between King and Parliament becoming greater, England is rapidly heading towards Civil War and spice merchant Thomas Tallant and his friends are being forced to choose sides. Soon Tom finds himself assisting the Puritan leader John Pym in his search for a consignment of stolen gunpowder being smuggled out of London by Royalist forces. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Seymour is carrying out investigations of her own as she sets out on the trail of a mysterious jewel thief. Although Tom and Elizabeth are separated for most of the book and I missed their interactions, I did find both storylines interesting, particularly Elizabeth’s as she suffers a personal trauma and begins to fall back into some of her former bad habits as a result!

As with the first two books in the series, real historical figures appear alongside the fictional ones and as well as John Pym and the commander of the London Trained Bands, Philip Skippon, we also meet the scientist and physician William Harvey and are reacquainted with the intriguing Lucy, Countess of Carlisle. In the second half of the novel, the focus moves away from the mystery-solving for a while to concentrate on the events of the Civil War, particularly the battles of Edgehill and Brentford. This aspect of the story was of less interest to me, but that’s just down to personal taste (I’m not really a fan of battle scenes) and I still found this an enjoyable novel overall.

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Ashes in the Snow is Oriana Ramunno’s debut crime novel, written in Italian and translated into English by Katherine Gregor. The book is set in Poland during World War II and begins with a young boy, Gioele Errera, finding the body of an SS officer in the snow. The man appears to have choked on an apple, but it soon seems that there is more to his death than that and German criminologist Hugo Fischer is summoned to investigate. Finding the murderer will not be easy, particularly as the dead man’s wife seems reluctant to cooperate, but Gioele agrees to help – if, in return, Hugo will help him to find his family from whom he has become separated.

This is a beautifully written and translated novel but not an easy one to read because, as we quickly discover, Gioele has a twin brother and the two of them have become subjects of the infamous Josef Mengele’s experiments. Of course this sort of thing is not supposed to be pleasant to read about, but I wasn’t really prepared for the level of detail Ramunno goes into in describing this and other parts of Gioele and Hugo’s stories. Hugo is an interesting and likeable character, a man suffering from a degenerative illness who must keep his condition a secret to avoid becoming a target of the Nazi regime himself. He’s an unusual detective and the crime element of the novel works well, but this book wasn’t for me.

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Ithaca by Claire North is the latest of many Greek mythology retellings based on the events surrounding the Trojan War. What makes this one different from the others I’ve read is that it focuses on the story of Penelope as seen through the eyes of the goddess Hera.

It has been seventeen years since Penelope’s husband Odysseus, King of Ithaca, sailed away to war with Troy and although the war is now over, she and her son, Telemachus, are still awaiting his return. Penelope is kept busy running the kingdom with the help of her women, while also trying to defend the island of Ithaca from raiders and fend off the attentions of the crowd of suitors who have descended upon her home in the hope of marrying her if Odysseus never comes back. Meanwhile, Penelope’s cousin Clytemnestra has fled to Ithaca looking for somewhere to hide after murdering her husband, Agamemnon.

Ithaca is quite a long novel and moves at a slow pace; it’s the first in a planned trilogy and Claire North takes her time setting the scene and introducing the characters. I liked the choice of Hera as narrator; she provides a different perspective on a well-known story and I enjoyed her observations of the mortal world and her interactions with other goddesses such as Athena. However, it does mean we are kept at a distance from Penelope herself, which could explain why I found it difficult to form any kind of connection with her – or with any of the other characters. For that reason, I don’t think I’ll be continuing with the second book. Claire North writes beautifully but I needed more than that to sustain my interest and I preferred Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad – I didn’t love that one either, but it was a shorter and more memorable read.

Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

Robert Harris is one of my favourite authors, so a new book by him is always something to look forward to. This one sounded particularly interesting, dealing with a manhunt that takes place in 17th century New England, a setting Harris has never written about before.

The men being hunted are Edward Whalley and his son-in-law William Goffe, both of whom had been colonels in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, fighting for the Parliamentarians against Charles I’s Royalists. When that war ended in a Parliamentarian victory, Whalley and Goffe, along with fifty-seven other men, signed the death warrant that led to the king’s execution. Oliver Cromwell then ruled as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland until his death in 1658.

Harris’ Act of Oblivion begins in the year 1660, just after Parliament invites the former king’s son to return from exile and take the throne as Charles II. With the monarchy now restored, attention turns to punishing the regicides who were responsible for Charles I’s beheading. Most of these are either already dead or are quickly caught and brought to justice, but several – including Whalley and Goffe – have disappeared, seemingly without trace. Richard Nayler, secretary of the Regicide Committee, is the man tasked with tracking them down.

Part of the novel is written from the perspective of Nayler and part from the points of view of Ned Whalley and Will Goffe. This means that the reader knows from the beginning exactly where Ned and Will have gone – they have crossed the Atlantic to America, to build new lives for themselves in the like-minded Puritan colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut. When Nayler arrives in pursuit, however, the two regicides are forced to move from one hiding place to another, never able to relax, knowing that they could be betrayed by anyone at any time.

If, like me, you come to Act of Oblivion with no knowledge of what happened to Whalley and Goffe (both real people), then I would strongly advise against looking up the details until you’ve finished reading. It’s better not to know and be kept in suspense wondering whether or not they’ll be caught. However, the book wasn’t quite as exciting as I’d expected based on others I’ve read by Robert Harris; although some of the ‘chase’ sections are very gripping, a lot of time is also spent on a memoir Whalley has been writing about the events of the Civil War and his relationship with Oliver Cromwell, and I felt that this slowed the pace down a lot.

Whalley and Goffe are real historical figures, as I’ve said, and so are most of the others we meet in the novel, including not only Charles II, the future James II and the Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde, but also many of the governors, magistrates and ministers of the colonies in which they seek refuge. Richard Nayler is fictional, although Harris states that he’s sure someone like Nayler must have existed in order to carry out the hunting down of the regicides. I found Whalley and Goffe quite difficult to identify with (particularly Goffe, a religious zealot and Fifth Monarchist who believes that Jesus will return to form a new kingdom on earth in the year 1666), so I actually found myself on Nayler’s side a lot of the time, which probably wasn’t the author’s intention!

The pages of this novel are packed with history, but what I found particularly interesting was the portrayal of life in the recently founded colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay and New Haven. New Haven’s role in sheltering the two regicides was apparently one of the reasons why that colony was never given a royal charter allowing it to become a state like the other two. The people of New Haven also follow a stricter set of Puritan laws than Whalley and Goffe had been used to in England and it’s interesting to see how differently the two men react to this, with Goffe feeling that he has found his spiritual home while Whalley begins to have doubts.

Act of Oblivion is not my favourite Harris novel, then – I think, for me, An Officer and a Spy and the Cicero trilogy will be hard to beat – but it’s still a very good one. I must find time to catch up on the earlier novels of his that I haven’t read yet!

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

This is book 47/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd

Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars was one of my books of the year in 2019. I don’t think her new novel, The Night Ship, will achieve the same honour this year, but it’s still a book that I enjoyed very much. It takes as its starting point a real historical event – a 17th century shipwreck – and uses it to tell the stories of two children whose lives are separated by more than three hundred years.

In 1629, a nine-year-old Dutch girl, Mayken, is sailing to the Dutch East Indies aboard the Batavia, accompanied by her nursemaid. It’s a long journey and Mayken occupies herself by exploring the ship and getting to know some of the passengers and crew. When one of her new friends tells her about the legendary eel-like monster known as Bullebak, Mayken becomes convinced that Bullebak is the cause of everything bad that is happening aboard the ship and she sets out to capture the monster in a jug.

In 1989, nine-year-old Gil arrives on an island off the west coast of Australia to live with his grandfather following the death of his mother. Gil is a lonely child who has never fit in and he struggles to settle into his new life on the island. He finds some comfort in playing with his best friend, the tortoise Enkidu, and in watching the work of the scientists who have come to the island to investigate the wreck of the Batavia.

The stories of Gil and Mayken alternate throughout the novel so that we spend about the same amount of time with each of them. It soon becomes clear that although the two children are leading very different lives, there are also some parallels between them. Not only will Mayken’s ship be wrecked on Gil’s island, both children have recently lost their mother and are trying to come to terms with this. They are also both drawn to the tales of monsters who appear in their national folklore – for Mayken, it’s Bullebak, and for Gil, the Bunyip. However, I had expected the two storylines to tie together more closely at the end and was slightly disappointed that this didn’t really happen.

I knew nothing about the fate of the people on board the Batavia before I read this book and if you’re not familiar with it either I recommend not looking it up until you’ve finished. It wasn’t actually the shipwreck story that interested me the most, though – I found that I was drawn much more to Gil than to Mayken, despite Mayken’s storyline being more dramatic. Poor Gil has such a difficult time and parts of his story are heartbreaking. I should probably point out here that although both protagonists are young children, this is not a children’s book and is quite harrowing even for an adult to read! I must go back and read Jess Kidd’s earlier novels now; I meant to do that after finishing Things in Jars and never did.

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

This is book 39/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Traitor in the Ice by KJ Maitland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rebel Daughter by Miranda Malins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Silver Wolf by JC Harvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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