Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

Casanova and the Faceless Woman is the first in a series of historical mysteries by French author Olivier Barde-Cabuçon, set in pre-Revolutionary France. There are currently seven books in the series but this one, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, is the first to appear in English. When I was offered a copy for review by Pushkin Vertigo I was immediately intrigued because although I read a lot of historical mysteries I don’t think I’ve read any set in this particular period.

It’s 1759 and Louis XV is on the throne of France. He is not a popular king – unrest is growing amongst those who feel they have been oppressed under his reign and his rumoured liaisons with innocent young girls have not helped his reputation either – and there are several different factions plotting to overthrow or discredit him. Not long before our story begins, Louis had been the target of an assassination attempt and narrowly avoided being stabbed to death thanks to the quick actions of the Chevalier de Volnay. As a reward for his bravery, Volnay has been given the title of Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, responsible for investigating particularly unusual crimes on the king’s behalf.

One such crime occurs when a young woman is found dead in a dark Paris courtyard with the skin torn away from her face. On arriving at the scene, Volnay removes a sealed letter from the corpse intending to examine it later, but it seems that someone – perhaps several people – have seen him do it. Over the days that follow, as Volnay sets about trying to identify the woman and hunt down her killer, he himself is hunted by those who want to retrieve the letter and will stop at nothing to get it back.

Volnay interested me from the beginning because he is such a mysterious character. We are told very little about him at first, with the secrets of his tragic and eventful past being revealed very gradually as the story progresses. He seems very alone in the world, his only companions being a monk (with whom he forms a fascinating crime-solving partnership) and a tame magpie. There is a sense that he is not somebody who finds it easy to love or to trust others, and so, when he enters into a relationship with the beautiful Chiara D’Ancilla, we worry that he is going to get hurt – especially as his rival in love is the legendary Casanova.

Giacomo Casanova is one of several real historical figures who have important roles to play in the novel; others include Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, and the Comte de Saint-Germain, the alchemist, sorcerer and musician who has fascinated me since I first met him in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I don’t think Casanova has appeared in any other novels I’ve read, although his career as writer, adventurer, gambler and, most famously, seducer of women, makes him an ideal subject for historical fiction. His character is well developed and convincing here and Barde-Cabuçon explores events from his past in order to explain his present behaviour, but I could never quite warm to him because my sympathies were with Volnay from the start. While Casanova seems to treat his romance with Chiara – and his involvement with the stolen letter and all the intrigue surrounding it – as a game, for Volnay these things are literally a matter of life and death.

I’m not sure whether Louis was really as disgusting and depraved as he is depicted in the novel but his reign certainly wasn’t seen as very successful and I think the author does a good job of conveying the mood in France in the years leading up to the Revolution and the discontent of the people with the king and the aristocracy. However, as a mystery novel, I thought the plot felt a bit more complicated than it really needed to be and the action moved between one set of characters and another too quickly, so that there were times when I struggled to hold on to all the different threads of the story. I also found the ending unnecessarily dramatic with one twist too many – although I had been intrigued by some of the revelations near the end, which left me wanting to read the next book in the series. I hope it’s going to be available in English soon too as I would love to see more of the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

The She-Wolf by Maurice Druon

First published in French in 1959 as La Louve de France (The She-Wolf of France), this is the fifth novel in Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series. The series – which began with The Iron King – tells the story of Philip IV of France and his descendants, a line of kings “cursed to the thirteenth generation” by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, whom Philip sent to burn at the stake. So far, the curse seems to have been very effective, as in the first four novels we have seen poisoned kings, strangled queens, failed marriages and family feuds.

In this book, the action switches to England for a while, where Isabella – Philip’s daughter – is unhappily married to the English king, Edward II. Feeling that her husband cares more for his favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, than he does for her, Isabella has turned to Roger Mortimer for comfort. As the novel opens, Roger escapes from imprisonment in the Tower of London and flees to France, where he hopes to gain support to return to England at the head of an army.

Meanwhile, Isabella’s brother, Charles, has just become France’s fourth king in eight years following the death of their elder brother, Philippe V. The new Charles IV proves to be a weak king but others who surround him at court continue to plot and scheme, looking for ways to gain power for themselves. But unknown to Charles, the person who could pose the biggest threat to his reign is far away, growing up in the care of Marie de Cressay, his existence known only to a select few.

It’s been a few years since I read the fourth book in this series (The Royal Succession) and I worried that I might struggle to remember what had happened in the previous novels. Luckily, the prologue gives us a reminder and then fills us in on the details of the reign of Philippe V the Long, who had just taken the throne at the end of The Royal Succession and is dead before this book begins. I was sorry that we weren’t able to spend more time with Philippe in The She-Wolf as I thought he was a much more interesting character than his brother Charles, but I’m sure Druon must have had his reasons for not writing much about that period and moving quickly on to the next king.

So far, most of the history covered in this series has been new to me and the books have given me a good introduction to the reigns of the Capet kings of France. With The She-Wolf I was on more familiar ground as there was more focus on English history and Isabella is someone I have read about several times before (both in non-fiction such as Helen Castor’s She-Wolves and in novels including Isabella by Colin Falconer and, indirectly, Susan Howatch’s Cashelmara which I’m currently re-reading). I was a bit disappointed that Isabella isn’t really given a chance to shine in this book; despite her strength and intelligence, it is Roger Mortimer who is shown to be in control and making all the decisions. Having said that, I did like the fact that she and Roger are portrayed as being genuinely in love; this helped me to believe in their characters and their relationship.

Edward II comes across very badly in this book (which does usually seem to be the case and I can’t really think of any positive portrayals of him in fiction). Druon takes the view that Edward’s relationships with Piers Gaveston and then Hugh Despenser were of a homosexual nature, although there is some debate about this today, and he also sticks with the traditional story surrounding the method of Edward’s death, which again has not been proved. The book was written in the 1950s, though, and I assume they were probably the accepted theories at that time. I can’t comment at all on the accuracy of the French sections of the novel, but I think it’s clear that Druon did his research – as with the other books in the series, there’s an extensive section of historical notes at the back which are referenced throughout the text. And as ever, Humphrey Hare’s English translation is clear and easy to read.

I was disappointed that the battle of wits between the scheming Mahaut d’Artois and her nephew Robert, which has played such a big part in the previous novels, was pushed into the background and I was also sorry not to see more of two other recurring characters, Marie de Cressay and Guccio Baglioni. For those reasons, although I did enjoy this book, it’s not one of my favourites in the series, but I’m still looking forward to reading the final two and finding out what happens in the next one, The Lily and the Lion.

Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini

I love Rafael Sabatini’s books. His classic tale of the French Revolution, Scaramouche, and his two famous pirate novels, Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk, have been some of my favourite reads of the last few years, while Bellarion was a great book too. I’m now beginning to explore his more obscure books and chose this one, Bardelys the Magnificent, more or less at random when I was putting my Classics Club list together. I hoped it would be a good choice – and it was!

The story is set in 17th century France, during the reign of Louis XIII, and is narrated by the wealthy Marquis de Bardelys, a ‘libertine, a gambler, a rake, a spendthrift’ and a favourite of the King. As the novel opens, Bardelys is hosting a party in Paris at which his rival, the Comte de Chatellerault, makes an unwelcome appearance. It is well known that Chatellerault has recently tried and failed to win the hand in marriage of the beautiful Roxalanne de Lavedan and as Bardelys and his friends tease the Comte about his failure, the discussion becomes more heated. Before the night is over, Bardelys finds himself wagering his entire fortune that he can succeed where Chatellerault could not – and he sets off the next day for Languedoc, the home of Roxalanne.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and following a series of misunderstandings, Bardelys arrives at the Lavedan estate under a mistaken identity. When he meets Roxalanne and discovers that he is genuinely falling in love with her, he knows that he should tell her the truth about who he really is, but as time goes by it becomes harder and harder to do this. To complicate things further, Bardelys learns that the man whose identity he has stolen is a wanted traitor. Our hero’s life quickly becomes such a confusing mess that it’s difficult to see how anything can ever be resolved! Will he lose his fortune, his life, or the love of Roxalanne – or will he somehow manage to keep all three?

Bardelys the Magnificent is one of Sabatini’s earliest novels, published in 1906, and although I did find it weaker than the others I’ve mentioned above, it’s another entertaining adventure with all the drama, romance, political intrigue and sword fights that you would expect. As a character, I found Marcel de Bardelys less memorable than other Sabatini protagonists such as Andre-Louis Moreau, Peter Blood and Oliver Tressilian, but he is still interesting and engaging. I referred to him as a hero above, but he is not particularly heroic at all – he is selfish and irresponsible, he makes one mistake after another, and his original reason for wanting to marry Roxalanne is hardly very admirable. Despite all of this, I still had some sympathy for him and wanted him to succeed – and, thankfully, he does also develop as a character as the novel progresses. While concealing his true identity, he finds out what people really think of him and sees himself as he appears to others.

Although I wouldn’t recommend Bardelys as the best place to start with Sabatini, if you’re already a fan I’m sure you’ll enjoy this early example of his work as much as I did. I’m looking forward to exploring more of his lesser-known novels and hope my next choice will be another good one.

This is book 11/50 from my Classics Club list.

The Poppy Field by Deborah Carr

2018 has been an eventful year in many ways and in November we marked the one hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. I picked up Deborah Carr’s new novel, The Poppy Field, to read over the centenary weekend, but I’ve since fallen behind with my reviews, which is why I’m only posting about it now.

The Poppy Field has two narratives, one set in 2018 and the other in 1916-18. First, in the present day, we meet Gemma, a British trauma nurse who has taken some time away from her stressful job to work on the renovation of a farmhouse in Doullens, in Northern France. Her father has recently inherited it and wants to get it into a good enough condition to be able to sell. With the help of Tom, a man she meets in Doullens who offers to assist with the building work, Gemma begins the long and difficult task of restoring the house to its former beauty. During the refurbishment, they discover a bundle of old letters dating back to World War I, written by an Alice Le Breton, and as soon as Gemma settles down to start reading them, she becomes obsessed with finding out how Alice’s story will end.

The other thread of the novel follows Alice, a young woman from Jersey in the Channel Islands, who volunteers as a VAD nurse at a casualty clearing station near Doullens during the war. Working conditions at the station are challenging and often horrifying, as wounded soldiers are brought in from the front line and the doctors and nurses do their best to save lives with the limited medication and equipment available to them. In the midst of so much pain and suffering, Alice is still able to find some happiness when she falls in love with one of her patients – but in times of war life is uncertain and Alice knows that her dreams could be shattered in an instant.

Although Alice and Gemma are very different people, there are many parallels between their stories – they are both nurses, they have both reached important turning points in their lives, and they have both found themselves in the same part of France. They also each become involved in a romance, but while I found Alice’s very moving (as wartime romances usually are), I thought Gemma’s was less convincing and very predictable. She meets the man who will become her love interest almost as soon as she arrives in France and there’s no real suspense involved in wondering whether they will end up together or not. Gemma’s whole storyline felt like little more than a frame for Alice’s, but I find that’s often the case with dual-time period novels and I almost always prefer one narrative over the other.

Although I’d hoped for more from this book, I did still enjoy it, particularly the historical sections and the details of Alice’s nursing work. The two separate threads of the story tie together nicely towards the end and the novel as a whole is an interesting and poignant read.

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

Dark Summer in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

This is the second in Allan Massie’s four-book crime series set in occupied France during the Second World War. My review is as spoiler-free as I could make it, so it should be safe to read on even if you’re new to the series, but I would definitely recommend beginning with the first book, Death in Bordeaux, as there are lots of recurring characters and some storylines which continue from book to book.

In Dark Summer in Bordeaux, we re-join Superintendent Jean Lannes of the Bordeaux Police as he is called out to deal with another crime – this time involving the murder of an elderly man, whose body has been found in a city park. As Lannes learns more about the man and how he died, some political implications begin to emerge, as well as some surprising links to the murders committed in the previous novel. Lannes comes under pressure from his superiors who want the investigations brought to a close as quickly as possible, but he is not ready to drop the case just yet – not until he finds out what is really going on here.

Investigating a murder is never going to be easy or pleasant at the best of times, but it is particularly challenging for Lannes because of the political situation in France, where the demands and concerns of the Vichy secret services, the German occupiers and the French Resistance all have to be taken into consideration. As a decent, principled person Lannes often finds himself torn between his conscience telling him to do what he knows is right and see justice done, and his common sense telling him to do as he is told and keep his family safe.

As if the stress of his job was not enough, Lannes is also worried about all three of his children, for different reasons. His eldest son, Dominique, is making plans to go and work for the Vichy regime, while Alain, whose views are rather different, wants to join Charles de Gaulle and the Free French. Meanwhile, his daughter, Clothilde, announces that she is in love with the young German officer who is stationed in their apartment block. Lannes is not very happy about any of this, but only because he is looking ahead to a time when (he hopes) the war will be over and a wrong decision taken now could have disastrous consequences. His wife, Marguerite, has her own opinions and this is causing tension in her marriage to Lannes.

As well as Lannes and his family, we also catch up with other characters from the previous book, including one of my favourite characters – Leon, the nephew of Lannes’ friend Miriam. Leon is in a particularly interesting – and dangerous – position in Vichy France, being both Jewish and gay, and this makes him a target of blackmailers and others who want to take advantage of him for their own ends. It seems that, in Bordeaux, the war is bringing out the best in some people and the worst in others. It’s a fascinating setting, even more so because I have read so little about life in France during the Occupation.

I haven’t said much about the mystery aspect of this novel, but that’s because I found it almost secondary to the setting and the characters. The murder of the man in the park is important and ties all the other threads of the story together, but I was much less interested in finding out who killed him than I was in reading about Leon’s ordeals or Alain’s support for the Resistance. I found this a more enjoyable book than the first one, probably because I already knew the characters and was invested in what happened to them. I’m looking forward to continuing with the third book, Cold Winter in Bordeaux.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery).

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart is one of my favourite authors and when I saw that her birthday – today – was going to be celebrated in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, it seemed a good opportunity to pick up one of the few Stewart novels I still hadn’t read. I decided on Thunder on the Right, one of her earliest novels which was first published in 1957. I had seen a few reviews which suggested this wasn’t one of Mary Stewart’s better books, but I was pleased to find that I enjoyed it. It’s been a while since I read one of her romantic suspense novels, having taken a break from them to concentrate on her Arthurian series instead, and I’d forgotten how much fun they are.

The novel begins with Jennifer Silver, a young woman from England, arriving in the French Pyrenees to visit her cousin, Gillian Lamartine, who has written to her to say that she’s planning to enter a convent there. Waiting at Jennifer’s hotel in Gavarnie is Stephen Masefield, an old friend who may have become more than just a friend if it hadn’t been for the disapproval of Jennifer’s parents. She is unsettled by the unexpected meeting after an absence of two years, but pleased to see him again – especially as she is beginning to think that something terrible must have happened to Gillian.

Visiting the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages the next day, Jennifer’s worst fears are confirmed when she is told that Gillian died after being injured in a car crash several weeks earlier and has been buried at the convent. Jennifer is devastated, but when she begins to ask questions of the nuns who nursed Gillian in her final days, she becomes convinced that something is not quite right. Is her cousin really dead? Jennifer has her doubts and, with Stephen’s help, she sets out to discover the truth.

Although Thunder on the Right hasn’t become a favourite Stewart novel, it’s as entertaining as any of her others and I flew through the pages, desperate to see whether Jennifer would find her cousin and what other secrets were being hidden in the convent. The early chapters, in which she encounters the sinister Spanish nun Doña Francisca and hears the details of Gillian’s alleged death, are wonderfully eerie and the tension builds slowly as Jennifer explores the chapels, courtyards and tunnels of the convent in search of clues. In the second half of the novel, though, things become very melodramatic – almost too fast-paced and too exciting, at the expense of atmosphere and character development.

There are other problems – the main villain is too obviously villainous to be convincing, while the romance between Jennifer and Stephen is less engaging than some of Stewart’s other romances, possibly because they already know each other before the story begins and then spend a relatively small amount of time together over the course of the novel. But the setting is wonderful, of course. A Mary Stewart novel wouldn’t be a Mary Stewart novel without lots of vivid and evocative descriptions and there are plenty of them here, as the search for Gillian is played out high in the mountains while the wind blows and the thunder crashes.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned, I would agree that this isn’t one of Mary Stewart’s very best books but it was still an enjoyable read. If you’re new to her suspense novels, I would recommend starting with Nine Coaches Waiting, Madam, Will You Talk? or This Rough Magic. Those are my favourites, along with the Merlin trilogy which begins with The Crystal Cave.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: suspense).

By Sword and Storm by Margaret Skea

This is the third novel in Margaret Skea’s Munro Scottish Saga set in 16th century Scotland and France and based on the history of a clan feud known as the Ayrshire Vendetta. I haven’t read the first two, Turn of the Tide and A House Divided, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of this third book.

The novel opens in 1598 with Adam Munro, a colonel in the Scots Gardes, living in France with his wife Kate, who has skills as a healer, and their three children, Robbie, Maggie and Ellie. One of the functions of Adam’s regiment is to provide protection to Henri IV of France and when Adam saves the king’s life while risking his own in the process, the Munro family are rewarded with an invitation to come and live at the French court.

In Scotland, meanwhile, the feud between the Cunninghames and Montgomeries is supposedly at an end and the Scottish king, James VI, has banned unauthorised duelling. Most of the family members are trying to keep the peace, but two of them – Hugh Montgomerie and William Cunninghame – are still not prepared to let things rest. The Scottish storyline and the French one alternate throughout the book, eventually coming together as the novel heads towards its conclusion.

By Sword and Storm is a mixture of fact and fiction; many of the characters are real historical figures while others come from the author’s imagination – if you want to know who really existed and who didn’t, there’s a character list at the beginning of the book. Apart from the storylines involving the fictional characters, the novel is grounded in historical fact and has obviously been well researched. I loved the portrayal of life at the court of France, where Kate gets to know the king’s mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, and I sympathised with Maggie, who longs to study medicine and despite being given opportunities in France that would not have been open to her in Scotland, still faces obstacles because of her sex.

The political and religious situation in France at that time also plays a part in the story. At the beginning of the novel we see Henri IV issuing the Edict of Nantes, bringing the French Wars of Religion to an end and giving the Huguenots more freedom. However, it is still not safe for people in Paris to worship as they wish, as Kate and Adam’s son, Robbie, discovers when he becomes romantically involved with a Huguenot girl. I think Margaret Skea does a good job of showing the many dangers of 16th century life, not only where religion was concerned, but also for pregnant women before and during childbirth, patients with the sort of illness or injury that could be easily treated today, and anyone who had to travel by ship. It’s a period I love to read about but would not have liked to have lived through!

I really enjoyed By Sword and Storm. I liked the characters and even though I hadn’t been with them from the beginning, I found it easy enough to jump into their story and follow what was happening. Although this was meant to be the third in a trilogy, at the end of the novel I felt that there was still scope for more, so I was pleased to find that Margaret Skea has said she may return to this story again in the future.

Thanks to the publisher Corazon Books for providing a copy of this book for review.