The Fugitive Colours by Nancy Bilyeau

A new Nancy Bilyeau book is always something to look forward to. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her so far: her Joanna Stafford trilogy, about a nun displaced in Tudor England after the dissolution of the monasteries; Dreamland, set in a Coney Island amusement park; and The Blue, a wonderful historical thriller involving spies, art and the race to create a beautiful new shade of blue. The Fugitive Colours is a sequel to The Blue and another great read; the two books stand alone, so it’s not necessary to have read the first novel before beginning this one, although I would recommend doing so if you can.

It’s 1764 and Genevieve Planché, heroine of The Blue, is now a married woman running her own silk design business in Spitalfields, London. With the help of her two young assistant artists, Caroline and Jean, Genevieve is beginning to find buyers for her silk designs and is determined to make the business a success. However, she has not given up on her dream of becoming a serious artist and when she is invited to a gathering at the home of the portrait painter Joshua Reynolds, it seems she could still have a chance of achieving her ambition.

This in itself would have been the basis for an interesting novel – a woman trying to build a career for herself in what was still very much a male-dominated field – but there’s a lot more to the story than that. Due to the parts played by Genevieve and her husband in the recent search for the blue, their names have come to the attention of some very powerful people who are hoping to enlist them in further conspiracies. Yet again Genevieve is forced to wonder who she can and cannot trust, but this time one wrong decision could mean the end of her dreams, the loss of her business and even the destruction of her marriage.

The Fugitive Colours is perhaps not quite as exciting and fast-paced as The Blue, but I found it equally gripping. Set entirely in London, it’s a very immersive book taking us from the Spitalfields workshops of the Huguenot silk-weaving community to the grand homes of the rich and famous and the nightlife of Covent Garden. While Genevieve and most of the other main characters are fictional, we do meet some real historical figures too – not just Joshua Reynolds but also Giacomo Casanova, the Earl of Sandwich and the fascinating Chevalier d’Eon. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the 18th century art world, the snippets of information I picked up (not coming from an art background myself, I didn’t know what ‘fugitive colours’ were, but now I do), and the insights into how difficult it was for women like Genevieve and the real-life Frances Reynolds, Joshua’s sister, to gain recognition for their work.

I hope there will be another book in the Genevieve Planché series as I think there’s certainly a lot more that could be written about her. If not, I’ll look forward to seeing what Nancy Bilyeau decides to write next.

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

This is book 21/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley

The Vanished Days, Susanna Kearsley’s latest book, is a prequel to The Winter Sea, which happens to be one of the few Kearsley novels I haven’t read yet! However, it didn’t matter at all as this is a completely separate story and works perfectly as a standalone.

The novel opens in 1707, the year of the Act of Union between Scotland and England. A few years earlier, Scotland had been involved in the unsuccessful Darien Scheme – an attempt to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama – and as part of the union settlement, England will pay compensation to those who had lost money due to the failed venture. When a young widow, Lily Aitcheson, comes forward to claim the wages owed to her husband Jamie Graeme, who was killed during the Darien expedition, Sergeant Adam Williamson is asked to investigate her claim. There is some doubt as to whether Lily and the man she insists was her husband were really married – and unless she can prove that their marriage was valid, she won’t be entitled to the money.

As Adam begins his investigation, searching for witnesses to the wedding or anyone who can say that it ever took place, he finds himself becoming more and more attracted to Lily. And, in chapters which alternate with the 1707 ones, we go back to 1683 and follow Lily through her childhood and the sequence of events that lead to her arriving in Edinburgh and claiming to be the widow of Jamie Graeme. Unlike most of Kearsley’s novels, which either involve some form of time travel or are set in two completely different time periods, one contemporary and one historical, this book is entirely historical, with the two threads of the story set just a few decades apart. There are none of the other supernatural elements that often appear in her novels either, so this one has a slightly different feel.

It was interesting to read about an aspect of Scottish history that doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention in fiction. Although I was aware of the Darien Scheme and some of the events leading to the Act of Union, I’m not sure if any of the historical novels I’ve read have actually covered this subject. Some real historical figures appear in The Vanished Days too and Kearsley explores some of the political and religious tensions building in Scotland during this time – a reminder that the Jacobite rebellions are on the horizon. The focus, though, is on Lily’s personal story, whether seen through her own eyes or those of Adam and the people he interviews who once knew her.

This is quite a long book and I found it a bit slow for a while in the middle, but I was rewarded by a great ending with an unexpected twist. It was something I hadn’t seen coming at all and the sort of thing that makes you want to read the whole book again to see if there were any clues. I won’t do that just yet, but I will definitely try to read The Winter Sea soon, along with the other two Kearsley novels I still haven’t read, The Shadowy Horses and Bellewether.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 20/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Go Tell the Bees That I am Gone by Diana Gabaldon

Sometimes I wonder why I’m continuing to read this series. This is the ninth Outlander novel and the last one that I really enjoyed was the sixth; since then, each book has felt longer and less substantial than the one before. In this book, the final sequence – 100 pages or so – is excellent, but to get there you have to persist through 800 pages of irrelevant subplots that seem to lead nowhere and minor characters we barely know suddenly given large storylines of their own. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, though, part of my problem is that I’ve never been a fan of the Lord John Grey spin-off series, and Lord John and his family have played an increasingly large part in these most recent novels when I would prefer to be reading about other characters. I don’t mind Lord John himself but have very little interest in Hal, Ben, Amaranthus, Dottie or Percy!

Anyway, if you’re new to the series, should you start with this book? My answer would be no – definitely not! Start at the beginning, when 1940s nurse Claire Randall first steps inside a stone circle in Scotland and finds herself transported to the 18th century, then read the books in order, otherwise you’re going to be very confused.

Go Tell the Bees That I am Gone picks up where Written in My Own Heart’s Blood left off. It’s 1779 and the Revolutionary War is drawing ever closer to Fraser’s Ridge, the settlement in North Carolina where Claire lives with her husband, Jamie Fraser. Although Jamie had resigned his commission in the Continental Army after the Battle of Monmouth, with tensions growing between his tenants on the Ridge he knows he won’t be able to stay away from the action for long. Elsewhere, Jamie’s son William is still trying to come to terms with the discovery of his true father’s identity while also continuing the search for his missing cousin, Ben.

Meanwhile, Roger is finally about to achieve his dream of being ordained as a minister, but he and Brianna are becoming convinced that they are being pursued by someone from another time and are questioning whether they’ve made the right choices to keep their children safe. We also catch up, briefly, with Fergus and Marsali, who are discovering that printing newspapers can be a dangerous occupation in times of war, and we follow Ian, Rachel and Jenny as they travel north in search of Ian’s first wife.

It may sound as though a lot is happening in this book, but the things I’ve mentioned above are not enough to fill 900 pages and there seems to be a huge amount of padding: Frances Pocock, the orphan rescued from a brothel in the previous novel, trying to adjust to her new life at Fraser’s Ridge; William’s friend John Cinnamon searching for his father; a young girl, Agnes Cloudtree, escaping from an abusive stepfather; Silvia Hardman, Jamie’s Quaker friend, making a shocking discovery about her husband; and the usual assortment of difficult births, medical procedures, hunting expeditions, and all the minutiae of daily life on the Ridge. The focus on Claire and Jamie and their immediate family members, the relationships that made the earlier books so compelling, has been lost and the new characters just aren’t as interesting.

With no overarching plot to drive the story forward, it’s not until near the end that the pace eventually begins to pick up and I was reminded of why I used to love Diana Gabaldon’s books. We end on a cliffhanger which gives me hope that the next book will get off to a more exciting start! Book ten is apparently going to be the last and I suspect we could have another very long wait (the previous one was published in 2014, a seven year gap). I’ll definitely read it – I couldn’t not find out how it all ends after coming this far! – but I hope it will be better than this one and will concentrate on giving the main characters we know and love the ending they deserve.

This is book 11/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

The Clockwork Girl is Anna Mazzola’s third novel and, I think, her best so far. Not only is the cover beautiful, the setting is also wonderfully dark and atmospheric and the story is fascinating.

The year is 1750 and Madeleine Chastel, daughter of a Parisian brothel owner, is about to start a new job as a maid in the household of Dr Reinhart, a Swiss clockmaker. Madeleine is pleased to have an opportunity to escape from her mother’s clutches, but this particular job is not one she has chosen for herself – she has been forced to take it by the chief of police, who wants her to spy on Dr Reinhart and report back on any suspicious activities she witnesses. But although Madeleine soon becomes convinced that the police are correct and something strange is going on in the Reinhart household, she finds that she is growing fond of the clockmaker’s daughter, Veronique, and is reluctant to betray her new friend.

The novel is written from the perspectives of three different characters: Madeleine is one, Veronique is another and the third is Jeanne Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV. I found the choice of narrators very effective as it means we are given insights into every level of Parisian society – the working class, the bourgeoisie or middle class, and the aristocracy. Our story takes place several decades before the French Revolution would begin, but you can see the foundations being laid here as tensions start to simmer. The various locations in which the novel is set are vividly described, with sharp contrasts between the dark, dirty streets where the poor people live in squalor and the luxury and opulence of the royal palaces of Versailles and the Louvre.

Although The Clockwork Girl is a work of fiction, it is inspired by several real historical events. First, the disappearance of children from the streets of Paris in 1750, a scandal known as ‘The Vanishing Children of Paris’. And secondly, the technological advances during the 18th century in the creation of automata – clockwork dolls, animals and other machines with moving parts. Anna Mazzola weaves both of these things into the plot and the result is an engaging and unusual novel that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

If this book doesn’t appeal, you may prefer Anna Mazzola’s first book, The Unseeing, based on a true crime (the Edgware Road Murder) or The Story Keeper, a novel set on the Isle of Skye. I enjoyed both of them.

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

This is book 9/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass

The final decade of the 18th century is a time of revolution and political upheaval; in 1794, the year in which Black Drop is set, Britain is both at war with France – a country still in the grip of the Reign of Terror – and trying to negotiate a treaty with the recently independent America. Our narrator, Laurence Jago, is a London clerk working in the Foreign Office and facing the difficult task of trying to advance in his career while also hiding a secret that, if discovered, would lead to accusations of treason.

When details of Britain’s military plans are leaked to the press, suspicion falls at first on Jago – but then the blame shifts to another clerk, Will Bates, who is found to have hanged himself in his room. Was Will really the traitor or is he being used as a convenient scapegoat? Jago is sure he was innocent and that his death was actually murder rather than suicide so, with the help of his friend, the journalist William Philpott, he sets out to discover the truth.

I enjoyed this book, although it was more political thriller than murder mystery and I occasionally felt that the plot was becoming more complicated than it really needed to be; I struggled to keep track of all the characters, their roles within the government and which of them may or may not be a spy. Overall, though, it was a fascinating period to read about, with so much going on in the world at that time – not only the French Revolutionary Wars and American treaty mentioned above, but also the fight for political reform led by the British shoemaker Thomas Hardy (not to be confused with the author of the same name!) and the growing debate over slavery and abolition.

Laurence Jago is a great character and the sort of flawed hero I love. The ‘Black Drop’ of the title refers to the laudanum Jago depends upon to get through the day and to ease the fear of his secrets being discovered. As his addiction worsens, it begins to affect the way he judges people and situations and leads the reader to question whether or not everything he is telling us is completely reliable. Despite this, I liked him very much and connected with his narrative style immediately. Jago is one of several fictional characters in the novel whom we see interacting with real historical figures such as Thomas Hardy, Lord Grenville, the Foreign Secretary, and John Jay, the American envoy. I knew nothing about any of these people before reading this book; it’s always good to learn something new!

Black Drop is Leonora Nattrass’ first novel. The way this one ended made me think there could be a sequel, but if not I will be happy to read whatever she writes next.

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

Book 46/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 7 for R.I.P. XVI

The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach by Jas Treadwell

READER! – Good-day to you!
And good-morrow, too! for our acquaintance is destined to be long. We are sure of it. We see it in your eye –

Who is Thomas Peach? Why has he fled London to take up residence in a quiet country village in Somerset? What is in the locked chest he keeps hidden beneath the stairs? Why does Mrs Peach never leave her bedroom and why is she not permitted visitors? Does she even exist – and if not, who is it that Thomas talks to at night, when the curious maidservant stands with her ear to the bedroom door?

These are the questions our narrator, an unnamed person who describes themselves as a necromantic historian, sets out to answer in this strange and fascinating new novel by the equally mysterious Jas Treadwell. By the end of the book, we have answers to these questions, as well as some others that are raised along the way, but what makes this such an intriguing and entertaining read, in my opinion, is not the plot so much as the style in which the book is written. Not everyone will agree, of course; I think whether or not you will enjoy Thomas Peach could depend on how you feel about the sort of book it is parodying – the 18th century novel.

Set in 1785, the book imitates the fiction of that time, with the narrator speaking directly to the reader, commenting on what has happened and what is about to happen and providing footnotes where they feel further information is necessary. If you’ve read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, you will have an idea of what I mean, although the narrator in this book is much more intrusive and is there with us through every turn of the page. Chapter Ten, for example, begins like this:

Like the rustic, who closes his eyes at sun-set, after his day of wholesome toil, and wakes again with the dawn, we omit the night altogether, by the simple method of opening our new chapter upon the following day.

This is probably the kind of writing you either like or you don’t; it does require some patience, as those 18th century authors never used one word when they could use ten! Treadwell draws heavily on the literature of the period and there are lots of references to Samuel Richardson’s huge 1748 epistolary novel Clarissa (which I was glad I had read, as it meant I knew what the narrator was talking about without having to rely on the footnotes!) as well as books by other authors such as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett. You don’t actually need to have read any of these books, but a familiarity with some of them will add to your experience of the novel.

Due to the leisurely pace of the novel and all the diversions and digressions, Thomas Peach’s story unfolds very slowly – and when his secrets do eventually begin to be revealed, I felt that beneath the clever writing, the plot was less complex, less magical and less satisfying than I had expected it to be at first. Still, I enjoyed meeting Thomas Peach and the other characters, particularly Clary, a young woman about whom I can’t really say anything at all without spoiling the surprise! Although I couldn’t read a lot of books like this as the style would quickly become irritating, this one kept me entertained.

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

Book 9/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Book 38/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Prophet by Martine Bailey

When I finished reading Martine Bailey’s The Almanack last year I didn’t know there was going to be a sequel and didn’t expect one, so it was a nice surprise to come across The Prophet and to reacquaint myself with characters I hadn’t thought I would meet again. This book does work as a standalone, though, so if you haven’t read The Almanack yet, don’t worry!

The story begins in 1753, on Old May Day – eleven days were ‘lost’ the year before when Britain changed over from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar – and Tabitha De Vallory and her husband Nat have decided to ride into the forest to see the giant Mondrem Oak which has been decorated for the occasion. Tabitha also has a special reason of her own for wanting to visit the oak; she is pregnant and wants to ask the tree spirit for a safe childbirth. However, she and Nat are unprepared for what they actually find beneath the tree – the dead body of a young woman, brutally murdered.

The woman’s death has coincided with the arrival of a group of people who are on their way to America to start a new life in Pennsylvania and have set up camp in the forest before continuing their journey to the coast. Led by a charismatic young preacher known as Baptist Gunn, the group deny all knowledge of the murder, but are they telling the truth? Could the dead woman be linked to Gunn’s prophecy predicting the coming of a second messiah on Midsummer’s Day?

I enjoyed being back in Netherlea, the Cheshire village in and around which these books are set. It’s a small community steeped in tradition and folklore, where people’s lives are still ruled by ancient superstitions and rituals, making them suspicious of things that are new and unfamiliar – the perfect setting in which a religious cult like Baptist Gunn’s can take root and develop. The conflict between new and old is also explored through the themes of pregnancy and childbirth as Tabitha looks forward to the arrival of her baby with both excitement and anxiety.

The mystery element of the novel is also interesting; both Tabitha and Nat have a personal connection to the dead woman which makes it even more important for them to find out what happened to her. In addition to the prophet Gunn, there are several other suspects and some of the revelations towards the end of the book surprised me! As well as trying to solve the mystery, Tabitha is trying to put her past behind her and adjust to a new way of life as the lady of Bold Hall, with all the changes in status her marriage has brought her.

Of the two books, I think I preferred The Almanack, mainly because I loved the little riddles at the start of every chapter which aren’t included in this one, but The Prophet was still an enjoyable, if unsettling, read.

Thanks to Severn House for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

Book 14/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.