The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman

The Ghost Theatre, Mat Osman’s second novel, is the story of two young people who meet on the rooftops of Elizabethan London. One of them is Shay, a teenage girl who dresses as a boy and belongs to a community of bird-worshippers. As the novel opens, Shay has released some caged birds from captivity in a shop and is being chased by the angry owner; with the instincts of a bird herself, she flees upwards to the roof and here she has her first encounter with Nonesuch. Taking his name from Henry VIII’s grand palace, Nonesuch claims to be the abducted son of a great lord, forced into performing at the Blackfriars Theatre, dressing as a woman to play leading female roles such as Cleopatra.

As Shay begins to fall in love with Nonesuch, she helps him to create the Ghost Theatre, a troupe of young actors who stage special plays in secret locations all over London. But it is another talent of Shay’s – her ability to tell fortunes – that brings her to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I and leads her into danger.

Mat Osman is the brother of the author and TV presenter Richard Osman and also the bassist in the British rock band Suede. I haven’t read his first novel, The Ruins, and had no idea what to expect from this one, but I can tell you it’s a very unusual book – not purely historical fiction but not quite fantasy either. It’s set in a city we can recognise as the London of the late Elizabethan period – there are outbreaks of plague, attempted rebellions, references to popular Elizabethan sports such as cock-fighting and bear-baiting – but there are also some imagined elements. As far as I know there was no community of Aviscultans living in Birdland and predicting the murmurations of starlings!

I have to be honest and say that this book wasn’t really for me. Perhaps because of the blend of alternate history with real history, it didn’t have the strong period feel I prefer – the dialogue was too modern, for example. I also found it quite difficult to focus on the plot; the imagery and descriptions were lovely but slightly distracting and sometimes I read several pages without really absorbing any of the words. If I had to compare this book to anything, it would be Megan Campisi’s The Sin Eater, another novel set in an alternate Elizabethan world and which I had some similar problems with. Incidentally, there is a sin eater in Osman’s novel too, although only mentioned in passing!

It would seem that Osman’s own love of music has influenced this story, with a lot of emphasis placed on the power of song, performing on stage and entertaining an audience. The novel as a whole is imaginative, creative, dreamlike and completely original. I wish I had been able to enjoy it more, but the right reader will love it.

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

This is book 16/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel

Having finished Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy last year, I knew I wanted to read more of her books. A Place of Greater Safety, her novel about the French Revolution, has always sounded appealing to me but the length is off-putting, so I decided to try a shorter one first.

The Giant, O’Brien, published in 1998, is based on the true story of the 18th century Irish giant, Charles Byrne. Also known as Charles O’Brien and claiming descent from the High Kings, but usually referred to by Mantel as simply ‘the Giant’, Byrne and his friends leave Ireland in 1782, fleeing ‘cyclical deprivation, linguistic oppression and cultural decline.’ The Giant has previously been able to make a living by entertaining his neighbours with stories and songs but, sensing that things are changing, he knows he needs to find a new way to earn money. The solution seems obvious, so after arriving in London with his entourage, the Giant appoints the unscrupulous Joe Vance as his agent and agrees to exhibit himself as a freak, to be stared at, pointed at, poked and prodded, in return for money.

The story of another man unfolds in parallel with the Giant’s. His name is John Hunter, a Scottish surgeon and anatomist – like Charles Byrne, a real historical figure. Mantel describes Hunter’s early years in Long Calderwood and how he came to be in London, first as an assistant to his brother William, another famous anatomist, and then on his own, conducting autopsies in the name of scientific research. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, it was very difficult to obtain bodies for medical study in the UK, a problem which led to body snatching and the illegal digging up of graves. In one fascinating, if slightly gruesome scene, Hunter lectures a group of newly recruited body snatchers on the best ways to get hold of fresh corpses without being detected. Naturally, the bodies of most interest to Hunter are those that are unusual in some way – so when he hears news of the Giant currently being exhibited in London, he decides to make him an offer, despite the fact that the Giant is not yet dead.

Mantel portrays the Giant as a gentle, intelligent man with a natural gift for telling stories and a seemingly endless knowledge of myth, folklore and fairy tales. This, as much as his height, makes him stand out from his friends. While the others succumb to London’s temptations – alcohol, women and gambling – the Giant saves his money in the hope of one day rebuilding Mulroney’s tavern, now a ruin but once the place where ‘Courts of Poetry’ were held and he was taught the art of storytelling. John Hunter, in contrast, is much less likeable; if the Giant represents tradition and a way of life that is about to be lost forever, Hunter represents progress and advancement and is portrayed as clever, ambitious and lacking in empathy.

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Mantel explains which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional. There’s more factual information available on John Hunter than there is on the life of Charles Byrne, but what we do know about Byrne is that he suffered from gigantism caused by pituitary tumours, his height was 7ft 7 (2.31m) and his skeleton has been on display in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons for over two centuries, despite his own wishes to be buried at sea. The museum has been closed since 2017 for renovations and the future of Charles Byrne’s remains is the subject of an ethical debate.

I found both the Giant and John Hunter interesting to read about, particularly as I previously knew nothing at all about either of them, but I thought the book seemed slightly disjointed because of the way it kept switching between the two narratives. Until they began to converge very near the end, the two storylines felt completely separate and unconnected; I suppose Mantel’s aim was to show the contrast between the main characters and the different paths they followed through life, but I felt it didn’t flow very well as a novel. I also didn’t find the eighteenth century London setting as immersive as the Tudor world she creates in the Wolf Hall books. Still, there are some fascinating ideas in this novel and the Giant O’Brien himself is a character I won’t forget in a hurry!

This is book 1/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

That Bonesetter Woman by Frances Quinn

I loved this! I’ll admit that when I first saw that this was a novel about a female bonesetter in the 18th century, I had my doubts. Was this really something a woman would be able to do at that time or was this going to be another book, like one or two others I’ve read recently, based around a completely anachronistic idea that could never have happened in reality? Then I discovered that there really was a female bonesetter working in London in the 1700s: her name was Sally Mapp and her story has provided Frances Quinn with the inspiration for her latest novel.

That Bonesetter Woman begins with Endurance Proudfoot – known as Durie – arriving in London in 1757 with her sister, Lucinda. The unmarried Lucinda has found herself pregnant and, with Durie accompanying her, has been hastily packed off to stay with an aunt so that she can give birth away from prying eyes at home. Durie is not at all happy to be sent away; she had been on the verge of persuading her father, a bonesetter, to allow her to work with him as his assistant. Now it looks as though the position will go to her younger brother instead. This is devastating for Durie – with her large hands and feet, social awkwardness and tendency to always say and do the wrong thing, bonesetting is the one thing she’s discovered she’s good at.

Watching with a mixture of admiration and resentment as Lucinda overcomes her own personal crisis and launches a new career for herself on the London stage, Durie decides it’s time to take matters into her own hands. She’s determined to find a way to do the work she loves and nothing is going to stop her.

This is a fascinating novel, particularly as it’s loosely based on the lives of real people (like Durie, Sally Mapp was believed to have a sister, Lavinia Fenton, who became a famous London actress). I enjoyed reading about Durie’s work as a bonesetter – similar to a modern-day chiropractor or osteopath, I think – but what particularly interested me was seeing the obstacles she had to overcome to be allowed to carry out her work at all, the mistrust from patients on discovering that they were going to be treated by a woman, and the hostility she faces from the existing, exclusively male, medical community. Poor Durie experiences one setback after another, but her passion for bonesetting and helping those in pain really shines through.

Although Durie is not considered a great beauty like her sister, she does have love interests throughout the novel but her lack of self-confidence leads to her making mistakes and poor decisions. Nothing ever seems to go her way, but while things often look bleak for Durie I never stopped hoping that she would find happiness and success in the end.

As I come to the end of this review I realise there are a lot of things I haven’t mentioned – the vivid portrayal of 18th century London, the menagerie in the Tower of London, the subplot involving the Foundling Hospital – but there’s so much going on in this novel, I can’t include all of it! It’s a great book and I will have to find time to read Frances Quinn’s previous novel, The Smallest Man.

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

This is book 36/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

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.

Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth

When the audience take their seats at Crillick’s Variety Theatre looking forward to an evening of entertainment featuring the Great Amazonia, a ‘savage queen’ captured in Africa, little do they know the act is a fraud. The ‘Great Amazonia’ is actually Zillah, a young mixed-race Londoner who has never been to Africa in her life. Zillah can see nothing wrong with what she is doing; she enjoys being the headline act, she’s being paid for her work and she’s making some powerful new friends, among them Vincent, Viscount Woodward, who is setting her up as his mistress. It’s not until she meets Lucien Winters, an African merchant and former slave, that she begins to question her actions and wonder whether there is a better life she could be leading.

Then, her manager Marcus Crillick unveils a new act – the ‘Leopard Lady’ – and Zillah’s eyes are opened to the full extent of Crillick’s cruelty and the way she and others are being exploited for financial gain. When the Leopard Lady goes missing, Zillah becomes convinced that she is being held captive somewhere and sets out to search for her – a search that will take her across Victorian London, from the bustling dockyards to the slums of St Giles and the elegant parlours of the upper classes. Meanwhile Zillah must choose between Vincent and Lucien and decide how she wants her future to unfold.

I enjoyed Theatre of Marvels, although it did seem very similiar at first to Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders, another novel about the exploitation of ‘circus attractions’. However, this one is written from a very different perspective, allowing Lianne Dillsworth to explore different themes such as racial and class inequality and slavery. The thousands of black and mixed race people who lived in Victorian London are often ignored in fiction set in that period, but Dillsworth gives them a voice here through the characters of Zillah, Lucien and others. Zillah is a particularly interesting heroine as she is clearly struggling with her identity throughout the novel, feeling that she doesn’t truly fit in with one community or the other and trying to decide who she is and what she wants.

Although I felt that some of the characters, particularly the villain Marcus Crillick and Zillah’s friend and rival Ellen, were too thinly drawn, there were others I found much more interesting. I was intrigued by Vincent Woodward, as there were times when I thought he must genuinely care about Zillah, but I doubted from the beginning that he would have the courage to defy convention and commit to a future with her. I could only see their relationship ending unhappily. On the other hand, Lucien seemed to have a deeper understanding of Zillah and much more personal integrity, yet I never really managed to warm to him. However, I thought I had predicted how the story would end and was taken by surprise because it wasn’t quite what I’d expected!

While I would have liked to have seen more of the Leopard Lady and to have heard some of her story from her own point of view, I did enjoy getting to know Zillah. This was an absorbing and surprisingly quick read and I’ll be looking out for more books from Lianne Dillsworth.

Theatre of Marvels is published in the UK on Thursday 28th April 2022. Thanks to Hutchinson Heinemann for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 19/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

This is also my contribution to Reading the Theatre 2022 hosted by Lory of Entering the Enchanted Castle.

Rags of Time by Michael Ward

I love a good historical mystery, so I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to read Rags of Time, the first in a new series set in the 17th century during the final years of the reign of Charles I. Based on how much I enjoyed this book, I will certainly be looking out for the next one.

The story begins in 1639 with Tom Tallant, a young spice merchant, returning to London from India only to find that he has become implicated in a murder investigation. Wool merchant Sir Joseph Venell has been found dead in a meadow near his home in Kensington and it seems that Tom is the main suspect. Then another murder takes place, this time in the Tallant household, casting further suspicion on Tom. In order to clear his name, Tom must try to identify the real murderer – and for that he will need the help of Elizabeth Seymour, an intelligent and unusual young woman with an interest in astronomy and an addiction to gambling.

“The murder was just the beginning of the affair”, it says on the front cover of the book, and that is quite true because although Rags of Time at first appears to be a straightforward murder mystery, it soon becomes apparent that the murder is only one aspect of the story and for a while takes second place to an equally fascinating subplot involving a printing press and the distribution of seditious pamphlets. Remember that this is all taking place during an eventful and turbulent period of history, a time of tension between King and Parliament and unrest on the streets:

‘Each day and week we suffer treasonable talk on the street, attacks on our churches, seditious street-preachers, scandalous pamphlets on every corner and finally this…mutinous gangs of Apprentice Boys!’

I loved the recreation of 17th century London; there’s such a strong sense of time and place (without becoming overly descriptive) and with so much going on it’s the perfect backdrop for Tom’s adventures. Yet one of my favourite parts of the story relates to something taking place overseas – the ‘tulip mania’ sweeping Amsterdam in the 1630s and the notion of windhandel, or ‘trading in promises’.

As for the mystery itself, once everything starts to come together towards the end of the book, there are plenty of twists and turns and when the solution was revealed I was completely taken by surprise! I think there were probably a few clues but I didn’t pick up on them and didn’t guess either the culprit or how and why the murders were carried out. Although most of the focus of the novel is on Tom, I was pleased to see that Elizabeth also contributes to the solving of the mystery; I wasn’t sure I would like her at first and it took me a little while to warm to her, but I think she’s a character with a lot of potential, as is Tom himself. I hope to meet them both again soon!

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this book for review.

Book 4/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Lost Boys of London by Mary Lawrence

This is the fifth book in a series of historical mysteries set in the Tudor period and featuring the character of alchemist’s daughter Bianca Goddard. I don’t think it’s essential to read all of the books in the series in order; I started with the fourth one, The Alchemist of Lost Souls, and had no problems in picking up the threads of the story and following the plot.

As The Lost Boys of London opens, Bianca’s husband John is away fighting in Scotland for Henry VIII, leaving Bianca in London, devoting her time to preparing herbal remedies in her ‘room of Medicinals and Physickes’. In the past, Bianca’s skills as a herbalist have led to her assisting Constable Patch with his investigations, and having played a part in solving several previous mysteries, her help is required again when a young boy is found hanging from the exterior wall of a church.

Finding a rosary wrapped around the boy’s neck marked with a set of initials, it seems there could be a religious motive for the murder, and this appears to be confirmed when a second boy is found under similar circumstances at another church. Bianca is determined to do whatever she can to find the murderer before he or she kills again – and she has a personal reason for wanting to do so as quickly as possible. Her own young friend, Fisk, who is about the same age as the other boys, has gone missing and Bianca is afraid that he could become the next victim.

I enjoyed this book more than The Alchemist of Lost Souls. I thought the mystery was stronger and more interesting, with its exploration of topics such as religious conflict, the rivalries between the clergy of various churches, and child poverty in Tudor London. Also, although the previous book included some magical realism elements, which didn’t entirely work for me, there didn’t seem to be anything like that in this one and I thought that was a good decision as the plot was strong enough without it. As well as following Bianca’s investigations in London, there are some chapters describing John’s adventures as a reluctant soldier in the Scottish borders during the war known as the ‘Rough Wooing’ and this added some variety to the novel, taking us away from London now and then to see what was going on elsewhere.

Sometimes the language used is not right for the setting (English houses don’t have ‘stoops’, for example) and I found that a bit distracting, but otherwise the atmosphere is convincing enough and it’s always interesting to read about the lives of ordinary, working-class people in the Tudor period as a change from all of the books dealing with the royal court. Oh, and I love Bianca’s cat, Hobs!

This is apparently the final book in the Bianca Goddard series. I received a copy for review via NetGalley.