The Butcher’s Daughter by Victoria Glendinning

Today I am taking part in a blog tour for The Butcher’s Daughter, a novel set in Tudor England during and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It’s a time period and subject that interests me, so I had high hopes for this book, my first by Victoria Glendinning.

It’s 1535 and Agnes Peppin is the ‘butcher’s daughter’ of the title – a young woman from Bruton in Somerset who, after giving birth to an illegitimate child, has been sent to live with the nuns at Shaftesbury Abbey as a novice. Agnes can read and write, having been taught by the canons at her local church, and these skills make her useful to the abbess, Elizabeth Zouche. Before she has time to take her vows and become a nun herself, however, Shaftesbury Abbey, like other great religious houses across the country, becomes a target of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to dissolve the abbeys and monasteries, seizing their assets for the crown and then demolishing the buildings.

The Butcher’s Daughter is narrated by Agnes herself in the form of a memoir as she first describes her life at the abbey and then tells us what happens afterwards as she and her fellow nuns and novices find themselves facing uncertain futures. It’s a slow-paced novel and definitely one which is driven more by character than by plot, but I still found it quite gripping because Agnes pulled me so thoroughly into her world. The chapters set within the abbey are informative and detailed; as a novice, Agnes has a lot to learn, from how to dress herself correctly to studying the Lives of the Saints, as well as getting to know the other women with whom she will be living within the confines of the cloister.

The second half of the book was even more interesting. While the inhabitants of Shaftesbury Abbey have been watching the downfall of other smaller, less profitable houses, telling themselves that ‘in our case, of course, surrender is unthinkable and indeed unthought of’, it eventually becomes evident that they will not be spared and must prepare to suffer the same fate. We see the final days of the abbey through our heroine’s eyes, before following her through a series of adventures as she rejoins the secular world and attempts to find a place for herself in society again. Although Agnes has spent a relatively short time at Shaftesbury, there are others who have known no other sort of life and who find it much more difficult to cope with the changes enforced on them.

Although Agnes is a fictional character and her personal story is invented, Shaftesbury Abbey was real and characters such as Elizabeth Zouche really existed too. Towards the end of the novel, Agnes crosses paths with Sir Thomas Wyatt (son of the poet of the same name), bringing more real historical events and political intrigue into the story, but the focus is always on Agnes herself and the things she experiences during this traumatic and eventful period of religious history. And yet, despite the upheaval Agnes goes through and the challenges she faces, there is still a sense of optimism…a comforting knowledge that, whatever happens, life must go on, “Beans will sprout. Children will be born. There will be butterflies”.

Thanks to Duckworth Books for providing a copy of this novel for review.

Smile of the Wolf by Tim Leach

This is Tim Leach’s third novel and although I haven’t read his first two, which are both about King Croesus of Lydia, I have heard good things about them. His new book, Smile of the Wolf, has a completely different setting but sounded equally fascinating, so I was pleased to have an opportunity to read it as part of a blog tour arranged by the publisher Head of Zeus.

Smile of the Wolf takes us to 10th century Iceland, where a tale of revenge and betrayal, loyalty and friendship is played out across a cold, harsh, beautiful landscape. At the centre of the tale, which is inspired by the Icelandic Sagas, are Gunnar, a warrior and farmer, and his friend, the travelling poet – or skald – Kjaran. Kjaran has no lands of his own but moves from household to household providing songs and stories in exchange for the hospitality of his hosts. It is while spending the winter with Gunnar and his family that rumours begin to circulate of a ghost that wanders in the night. Gunnar and Kjaran set out to hunt down the ghost – but when a misunderstanding leads to a man being killed, a deadly feud is set in motion.

This is a beautifully written novel, which is very appropriate as our narrator is Kjaran the poet, a man whose livelihood depends on his skill with language. Tim Leach uses just the right words and phrases to transport me to another time and place and to help me understand the people who lived there.

In the long winter, even the wealthiest of Icelanders curses the day that their ancestors came to this land. They forget the dream of the people, that dream of a world without kings, and know only that they live in a dark, lonesome place. But when the sun begins to ride higher in the sky and the snow begins to quicken and thaw, it is an easy land to love. The dream grows strong once more, for we are a stubborn people.

Iceland is a country with a very strong tradition of storytelling and the author has drawn on some of the stories told in the Sagas – stories of ghosts and feuds and friendships which take place in a land of snow and ice. We also learn a lot about Icelandic culture and customs, systems of law and punishment, and the conflict between Christianity and the older beliefs.

The relationship between Kjaran and Gunnar is well drawn, showing their very different personalities and the very different ways in which they react to the same situations. Gunnar prefers to settle disputes with spears and shields, while the more cautious Kjaran takes the time to look for other solutions. Although the two main characters – and most of the characters on the other side of the feud – are men, there are also some women who have a big part to play in the novel. These include Vigdis, whose schemes cause the feud to spiral out of control and last much longer than it needs to, and Sigrid, the woman Kjaran hopes to marry.

The combination of interesting characters, atmospheric setting and poetic writing make this a great read – both moving and gripping. It has left me determined to read The Last King of Lydia and its sequel as soon as I can.

Thank you to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this novel for review.

For more stops on the tour, please see the banner below.

Court of Lions by Jane Johnson

The Court of the Lions is part of the Alhambra, the magnificent palace and fortress in the Spanish city of Granada which forms the setting for Jane Johnson’s latest novel. Having read and enjoyed one of her previous books (The Sultan’s Wife, set in 17th century Morocco), I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to read Court of Lions as part of a blog tour organised by publisher Head of Zeus. You can see the schedule for the other stops on the tour at the end of this post.

Court of Lions is a novel set in two different time periods. First, in the present day, we meet Kate Fordham, who has fled from a troubled marriage in England and is working in a bar in Granada, hoping she has done enough to prevent her husband from finding her. One day, exploring the gardens of the Alhambra, she discovers a scrap of paper pushed into a crack in a wall. Written on it is a message in an unfamiliar language and although Kate is unable to translate it, she senses that it could be important. And she is right, because her discovery leads her to form new relationships and to find the strength she needs to move on.

Alternating with Kate’s story is another story, set in the late 15th century and introducing us to Abu Abdullah Mohammed, the last Sultan of the Emirate of Granada, given the name Boabdil by the Spanish, but referred to in the novel as Momo. We get to know Momo from the point of view of a fictional character, Blessings, a slave child brought from Morocco to be his companion. Growing up together at the Alhambra, Momo and Blessings become close friends – and a loyal friend is what Momo desperately needs as he prepares to face the challenges which await him: a struggle for the throne against his own father and uncle, and war with Catholic Spain, led by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

I found the 15th century storyline completely fascinating and compelling. I have read a little bit about the fall of Granada before, but not from this perspective, so most of it was new to me. The sequence of events leading up to the surrender of the city is described in just the right amount of detail and left me wanting to explore the period further, which is something all good historical fiction should do. Momo’s personal life, his marriage and the fates of his children are also given some attention, all seen through the eyes of Blessings – who is not exactly an unbiased observer as it quickly becomes clear that what he feels for the young Sultan is more than just friendship. Blessings himself is also an interesting character and although I don’t want to say too much here, there are revelations later in the book which answered some of the questions I had about him.

The modern day sections of the novel were slightly less successful. I did like Kate and enjoyed watching as she made new friends in Granada and learned about their culture and lifestyle, but I found the storyline involving her disastrous marriage very melodramatic (again I don’t want to give too much away). Although some of the threads linking the two time periods together are a bit too coincidental to be convincing, I liked the fact that the two share common themes such as religious conflict, prejudice and tolerance – things which were relevant in Momo’s day and are still just as relevant in ours.

The descriptions of Spain and the Alhambra itself are beautifully written. One of my aims for 2018 is to read more fiction set in countries other than my own so I have taken a step towards achieving that aim by reading Court of Lions. Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy for review.

Traitor by David Hingley

This is the third in a series of novels featuring Mercia Blakewood, a 17th century Englishwoman recruited by Charles II to carry out secret missions on his behalf. If you think that sounds far-fetched, it is worth noting that while Mercia is a fictional character, the King really did employ female spies, among them the playwright and novelist Aphra Behn. I haven’t read Mercia’s earlier adventures, but Traitor sounded so intriguing that I jumped at the chance to read it despite my usual preference for starting a series at the beginning.

The novel opens in 1665 and even without having read the previous novels, I quickly picked up all the background information I needed to be able to understand and follow the story. I discovered that Mercia’s father has been branded a traitor and executed following the English Civil War. His manor house has ended up in the possession of Mercia’s uncle, Sir Francis, but Mercia has not given up hope of regaining it, hence her desire to win the King’s favour.

At the beginning of the novel she has arrived back in England from America where she had been sent on a quest for the King and became caught up in the capture of New Amsterdam, now renamed New York. She has barely set foot on the shore when she receives a summons from Charles’ mistress, Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine, who explains her next task to her. The country is now at war with the Dutch and it seems that someone close to the War Council is passing on secrets to the enemy. Mercia’s task is to identify the spy – a woman using the code name Virgo – but her investigations could endanger her own life as well as her young son’s.

I love books set in the seventeenth century but while I’ve read quite a lot about subjects such as the Civil War, the restoration of Charles II, the plague and the Great Fire of London, the specific setting for this novel – the Second Anglo-Dutch War – is something I’ve come across less often. Although the focus is on Mercia’s personal mission and her efforts to uncover the spy, the war provides an interesting backdrop for the story.

Mercia is a strong heroine and despite not having read the first two books in which she appears, I felt that I knew her well by the end of the novel. Other characters who stood out for me were Nicholas Wildmoor, the servant who has accompanied Mercia to and from America, and One-Eye, a sinister old woman who runs a ring of smugglers. There are also five suspects who could each be Virgo and although some of these characters are less developed than others, they are representative of different opinions and different positions in society. Helen Cartwright, for example, is delighted with the black boy, Tacitus, whom she receives as a gift and uses as a sort of fashion accessory, whereas Lavinia Whent has seen the results of slavery first hand in Barbados and has returned with more progressive ideas. Mercia herself is modern enough in her views to make her easy for a modern reader to like and identify with, but not so much that she feels entirely out of place in the seventeenth century either.

The mystery element of the novel worked well. I didn’t guess who Virgo was, although I did have my suspicions as to who else might be involved and wanted to scream at Mercia not to trust anybody! Along the way there’s plenty of suspense as both Mercia and Nicholas get themselves into some difficult and dangerous situations.

This was the first book I finished in 2018 but I have held back my review until now so I could take part in the Traitor blog tour. Other stops on the tour are shown in the image below. As I’ve said, I prefer to read a series in the correct order, but I enjoyed this book so much I think I’ll have to go back and read Birthright and Puritan now!

Thanks to Allison & Busby for providing a copy of Traitor for review.

The Frost of Springtime by Rachel L. Demeter

The Frost of Springtime When I was offered the opportunity to take part in a blog tour for Rachel L. Demeter’s The Frost of Springtime, I wasn’t sure whether or not to accept. I read a lot of historical fiction novels and many of them have an element of romance, but I tend not to be drawn to books that are specifically classed as ‘historical romance’ as this one is. The setting sounded intriguing, though, so I decided to give it a try.

The Frost of Springtime is set during the Paris Commune of 1871, a brief period during which a revolutionary government ruled Paris. The novel begins with Vicomte Aleksender de Lefèvre rescuing a young girl, Sofia Rose, who has been sold into a Parisian brothel by her own mother. Sofia becomes Aleksender’s ward but she is later separated from her guardian while he goes away to fight in the Franco-Prussian War.

When Aleksender returns to Paris accompanied by his friend, Christophe Cleef, he finds that the city has been torn apart by revolution, protest and destruction. At home, too, things are changing. His father’s death has left him with new responsibilities and an altered relationship with his brother…and the little girl he saved from a life of misery and abuse has matured into a beautiful young woman of nineteen. Left scarred by his traumatic wartime experiences, Aleksender is in need of love and comfort and it seems that Sofia can provide them. But what about his wife, Elizabeth, the woman he married years earlier as part of an arranged marriage and has never loved the way he loves Sofia?

The Frost of Springtime is a dark and atmospheric story with some great descriptions of a Paris in political turmoil. Although there is certainly a strong romantic thread running through the centre of this novel, there is also quite a lot of history. In fact, there could be too much history for those who are looking purely for a love story, but for me personally the balance was about right. I had no previous knowledge of the Paris Commune and now that I’ve learned a bit about it from reading this book I would like to know more. I may have to do some further reading on the subject!

Aleksender and Sofia were both strong characters – characters I was interested in and cared about. Unless you just don’t like the idea of the age difference or a man falling in love with a girl who had been his ward, I’m sure you’ll feel the same and will be hoping for a happy ending for the two of them. However, I did also like Elizabeth and had a lot of sympathy for her as she really hadn’t done anything wrong and didn’t deserve to be treated badly. Aleksender’s behaviour sometimes disappointed me because it wasn’t always what you would expect from the hero of a romantic novel but this could be partly explained by the fact that he is suffering from what appears to be post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his experiences at war.

frostofspringtimebanner I’m glad I didn’t let my doubts about historical romance put me off reading this book as I did enjoy meeting Aleksender and Sofia and learning about such an interesting period of French history.

If you’d like to read more reviews, interviews and guest posts please see the tour schedule at Enchanted Book Promotions – and don’t forget to enter the tourwide giveaway for an Amazon gift card at this link: a Rafflecopter giveaway

Norah by Cynthia G. Neale

Norah Norah McCabe is a young Irish woman living in Five Points, New York City in the 1850s. Having left Ireland during the Famine to come to America as an immigrant, Norah is determined to work hard and escape a life of poverty. Her first venture is a used clothing store called A Bee in Your Bonnet which she runs with her friend, Mary, but when the purchase of an expensive dress leads to them both being implicated in a murder inquiry this proves to be an unexpected turning point in Norah’s career. Offered a job as a reporter for the Irish-American newspaper, she meets a man who introduces her to revolutionary politics – and finds herself both in love and in serious danger.

Cynthia Neale has previously written two young adult books about Norah McCabe, The Irish Dresser and Hope in New York City, which tell the story of Norah’s journey to America as a teenager and her first years in her new country. This book, subtitled The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th Century New York, is the author’s first adult novel and continues Norah’s story. The fact that this is actually the third Norah McCabe book probably explains why from the very first chapter Norah feels like a fully developed, three-dimensional character.

I didn’t always like Norah or agree with her decisions – she can be sharp tongued, impulsive and reluctant to take advice – but she is also ambitious, courageous and resilient. Some of the terrible situations she finds herself in could possibly have been avoided, which was frustrating, but I was pleased to find that she does learn from her mistakes and continues to mature over the course of the novel. While I’m not Irish, not an immigrant and not living in 1850s New York, I could still relate to parts of Norah’s story and enjoy watching her use her wits and intelligence to overcome the obstacles that are constantly being placed in her path.

As a work of historical fiction, the background to the novel has clearly been well researched. Life in the poorer areas of New York during this period was not easy and not always very pleasant and the author doesn’t shy away from describing the violence, corruption and prejudice that Norah encounters. But this is also a book about love, about the importance of family and friends, and about what it was like to be a woman in the 19th century – a woman with dreams and ambitions and the determination to try to make them a reality.

Although the pace was slow at the beginning of the book, there was plenty of drama in the later chapters to make up for it. I found this quite an enjoyable, inspirational read and I’m pleased to have had the chance to get to know Norah McCabe.

Norah book tour

I read Norah as part of a Virtual Book Tour organised by Fireship Press, an independent publisher of historical and nautical fiction and non-fiction. For more reviews, guest posts and giveaways please see the tour schedule.

Colossus: The Four Emperors by David Blixt

Colossus - The Four Emperors This historical fiction novel by David Blixt is set in Rome in the 1st century AD and follows the story of one ambitious but honourable man, Titus Flavius Sabinus, and his family. This is actually the second in the Colossus series and I haven’t read the first, but fortunately it doesn’t seem to be essential to read them in order. Rather than being a conventional sequel to the first book, Stone and Steel, this one adds another layer to the same story, choosing to focus on some different characters and events.

The Four Emperors begins near the end of Nero’s reign. An unpredictable and eccentric emperor, Nero is capable of acts of great cruelty, and Rome under his rule is a dangerous place to live. When Nero commits suicide to avoid assassination, a power struggle begins with four different claimants becoming emperor in the space of a year. We see the events of this turbulent period from the perspective of Sabinus and the other members of his family, including his elderly father, his two sons, Tertius and Clemens, and a cousin, Domitian. Domitian’s father, Vespasian, has been sent to Judea to put down a Jewish rebellion there, and Sabinus hopes this will be a chance for the family to rise in the world – but when he visits the Oracle of Delphi, he learns that he may be fated to be forgotten by history…

Ancient Rome is not one of my favourite periods for historical fiction, but having enjoyed another of David Blixt’s books (The Master of Verona, set in 14th century Italy) I was happy to try this one. Because I don’t read about the Romans very often, I was fascinated by Blixt’s portrayal of their daily lives, their beliefs and customs. I thought his descriptions of the Oracle’s prophecies and the wildness of the Saturnalia celebrations were particularly vivid. The book also explores the politics of the period, the military campaigns, and how Jews and Christians were treated by the Romans.

Another storyline I found interesting involved a young Greek shepherd boy called Spiros, who was forced to marry Nero because his face reminded Nero of his dead wife Poppaea Sabina’s. This and many other incidents showed how dangerous and uncertain life could be during this period and how everyone had to obey the Emperor’s every whim, however cruel or outlandish. Life under the other rulers who succeeded Nero during the Year of the Four Emperors was no less precarious and unpredictable. Of all the time periods in history, this is not one that I would like to have lived in!

At first I thought it would be hard to remember who all the characters were, as so many of them had very similar names thanks to the complicated Roman naming system, but it was actually a lot easier to understand than I thought it would be. Sometimes when I read fiction set in Ancient Rome I find it difficult to connect with and relate to the characters. I’m not sure why it should really be any different from reading about the Tudor or medieval periods but for some reason, for me, it is. I didn’t have that problem with The Four Emperors; every character came alive on the page. I’ve only really mentioned the men so far, but there were some interesting female characters too, including Vespasian’s mistress, Caenis, and two slaves, Abigail and Perel.

My only problem with this book was that, after such a great start, in the second half of the novel there are some long battle sequences which, although they were well written, I didn’t really enjoy reading. I just don’t find battle scenes very interesting and my attention often starts to wander so much that I struggle to follow what’s happening. That was the case again here and it meant that I didn’t love the book quite as much as I had expected to at the beginning, but this is just due to my personal taste and not the author’s fault. Apart from this, I did enjoy The Four Emperors and although I didn’t feel at any disadvantage as a result of starting with the second book in the series, I would now like to go back and read the first one, Stone and Steel, which is told from a Judean perspective.

The Four Emperors tour

I read The Four Emperors as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. There’s only one more stop on the tour, but if you’d like to read more about the book and the author you can find a list of previous reviews, guest posts and interviews here.