Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann

Ace King Knave In Ace, King, Knave, Maria McCann takes us on a journey into the heart of 18th century London and introduces us to two very different women.

Quiet, plain and suffering from what her parents call ‘a little weakness’, Sophia Buller is thrilled when she receives a proposal of marriage from the handsome, charismatic Edmund Zedland. Leaving the Buller family estate behind, Sophia accompanies her new husband to Bath and then to London, but quickly discovers that married life is not quite as she’d hoped. Disappointed to find that their new house is in a disreputable area of town and that Edmund spends a lot of his time away from home collecting debts, Sophia is left feeling unhappy and disillusioned, with only the servants for company.

Betsy-Ann Blore is a woman of an entirely different background and social class. A former prostitute, she now makes her living from selling gin and stolen goods, while her partner, Sam Shiner, has gone into the ‘resurrection’ business with Betsy-Ann’s brother, Harry. Sam’s new career has made him feel miserable, dirty and increasingly dependent on drink, leaving Betsy-Ann dreaming of how life used to be – and maybe could be again – with her previous lover, the cardsharp Ned Hartry.

Two different women living different lives…but could Sophia and Betsy-Ann have more in common than you might think? Ace, King, Knave is a very entertaining and enjoyable novel set in a world of fraud and deception, where nothing is as it seems and outward appearances can be very misleading. Although the two storylines are kept separate from each other at first, there is a connection between the two – a connection which becomes obvious to the reader long before either Sophia or Betsy-Ann discovers the truth about the men they love.

While neither of these women’s lives bears any resemblance to my 21st century life, I initially found it easiest to empathise with Sophia, thrown into a bewildering situation which she is completely unprepared and unequipped to deal with. Sophia compares herself once or twice with Clarissa Harlowe (from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa) and I thought this was a good comparison, although her story is not exactly the same as Clarissa’s. Betsy-Ann, though, is a stronger character – not surprisingly, as she’s had to learn to survive in a dangerous world of thieves, pickpockets, gamblers and grave robbers – and she quickly became my favourite of the two. Sophia and Betsy-Ann are the novel’s two main viewpoint characters, but some of the story is also told from the perspective of the Zedlands’ young black servant, Fortunate , or Titus as he is renamed. At first I thought these sections of the book felt a bit superfluous, other than to give us an idea of how unpleasant life was for a black person in 18th century London, but by the end of the novel I understood Fortunate’s significance to the story.

Sophia’s narrative and Betsy-Ann’s each have a distinct feel and the author has chosen language appropriate to each woman’s upbringing and social position. Betsy-Ann, Sam Shiner and the other inhabitants of London’s underworld use a style of 18th century slang known as ‘cant’. This slang is very like the ‘flash’ used in Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde mysteries and also has some similarities to the language found in Georgette Heyer’s Georgian and Regency novels, so I already understood some of the words and phrases. I still found myself constantly turning to the glossary at the back of the book, though, as there were a lot of words I wouldn’t have known otherwise (an ‘autem mort’, for example, is a wife and ‘Romeville’ is a nickname for London). The more refined Sophia and her friends use occasional French expressions such as comme il faut and partie de plaisir and while these are still in use today, they are listed in the glossary too if you need help translating them.

This is Maria McCann’s third novel and although I still haven’t got round to her first, As Meat Loves Salt, I did read her second, The Wilding, which is set just after the end of the English Civil War. This novel, Ace, King, Knave has quite a different feel, as well as having a very different setting, and I enjoyed it a lot more than The Wilding. It reminded me of the Victorian sensation novels I love, despite being set in a slightly earlier time period, and also of novels such as Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. The only thing that disappointed me was the ending; I had expected a more revenge-oriented conclusion to the novel and I think that would have been more satisfying than the ending we actually got. Other than that, I loved this book and now I must go back and read As Meat Loves Salt!

The Wilding by Maria McCann

The Wilding is set in England in 1672, just after the end of the Civil War. Our narrator is Jonathan Dymond, a young man who works as a cider-maker. Jonathan lives with his loving parents and leads a quiet, happy life, travelling around the neighbouring villages with his mobile cider-press. But when Jonathan’s father receives a mysterious letter from his dying brother, Jonathan grows suspicious and decides to visit his uncle’s widow to investigate. At his Aunt Harriet’s house he meets Tamar, one of his aunt’s servants, and begins to unravel the circumstances surrounding his uncle’s death.

Due to the fast pace and the plot twists, I would recommend reading this book in as few sittings as possible. I had started off reading it in small portions alongside another book and found it difficult to get into the story; when I decided to put my other book to one side for a while and concentrate solely on this one, I found that I flew through the rest of the novel. The story was entertaining, very compelling and kept me turning the pages.

McCann evokes the period very well. I liked the way she portrayed a small rural community in 17th century England. I also learned more than I could ever wish to know about cider-making and apples…

What does Solomon say? ‘Comfort me with apples.’ Everything about them is kind and comforting: the mild eating apple, the sharp or bitter fruit that crushes to a miraculous sweetness, the homely apples, like tried and trusted friends, that serve all purposes.

But to me, the difference between a good book and a great book is having strong characters that I can connect with – and unfortunately I felt that most of the characters in The Wilding had very little depth. As the narrator, Jonathan was boring and not very engaging. Tamar and her mother were both interesting, well-drawn characters, but as we only saw them through Jonathan’s eyes, I didn’t get to know them as well as I would have liked to. It would have been nice to have had part of the story told from Tamar’s perspective, because Jonathan was just too weak and I felt no emotional involvement with him at all.

So, I thought The Wilding was a good book but not a great one. I would recommend it to people who like well-written, fast moving historical fiction with plenty of twists and revelations.