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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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