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.

Alathea by Pamela Belle

alathea A few years ago, I read the first two books in Pamela Belle’s Heron series, The Moon in the Water and The Chains of Fate. I loved them but because I didn’t have a copy of the third novel ready to start immediately, I never moved on with the series. The books have recently been reissued by Endeavour Press and I’m pleased to have finally had an opportunity to read the next Heron novel, Alathea (originally published in 1985).

Alathea is the eldest daughter of Francis and Thomazine Heron, whose stories are told in the previous two novels. Although Francis and Thomazine do appear in this book, the focus is firmly on Alathea, which means it wouldn’t be absolutely necessary to have read the first two books before this one. I would still recommend starting at the beginning, though; I think you will get more out of the story if you understand Alathea’s family background and the relationships between the characters.

The novel opens in 1660. Charles II has just been restored to the throne and thousands of Royalists exiled after the recent Civil War are on their way back to England – amongst them Simon Heron, whose return means that Alathea and her family must move out of the Herons’ Suffolk estate of Goldhayes and go back to Ashcott in Oxfordshire. It is there that Alathea meets a boy called John Wilmot for the first time – but it will be several years before their paths cross again.

At the age of eleven, Alathea’s talent for drawing is becoming apparent, and she already has dreams of building a successful career for herself as an artist. Her dreams move a step closer to reality when her parents send Alathea to live with her Aunt Lucy in London in the hope of separating her from her jealous half-brother, Kit. Here Alathea has the opportunity to study with the famous female artist, Mary Beale, and as the years go by she begins to establish herself as a portrait painter.

It is through her painting that Alathea is brought back into contact with John Wilmot, better known as the notorious Earl of Rochester. An attraction quickly forms between the two of them, but Rochester is not the only man interested in our heroine; Jasper, the son of Thomazine’s dearest friend, has decided Alathea is the woman he wants to marry, while Kit is also growing increasingly obsessed with his beautiful half-sister. Will any of them succeed? With Alathea reluctant to sacrifice her independence, she will need to find a way to reconcile her personal life with the career for which she has worked so hard.

I’m actually glad that I waited a while before reading Alathea; I think if I’d read it straight after The Chains of Fate, I would have been disappointed that there wasn’t more of Thomazine and Francis, but allowing some time to pass meant that I was able to enjoy Alathea’s story in its own right. And it is an enjoyable story. Although there are some sad moments and some dramatic ones, there’s also plenty of humour (in particular, I’m thinking of a certain scene involving a dinner party and Rochester’s pet monkey). I’m sure Rochester must have been a fascinating character to write about; I’ve read about him once or twice before, but never in as much detail and never in a way that made him feel so human.

There are some beautiful descriptions of the countryside surrounding Ashcott and Goldhayes, as well as of life in Restoration London – the section set during the Great Fire stood out for me as being particularly vivid. I also loved the way some of Rochester’s poetry is incorporated into the story, and the painting of his famous portrait, complete with monkey. What I found most interesting, though, was the portrayal of a young woman trying to make her own way in a male-dominated world, at a time when it was not at all common or very socially acceptable for a woman to earn a living as an artist.

I didn’t like this book quite as much as The Moon in the Water and The Chains of Fate which I think was simply because I loved following the ups and downs of the romance between Thomazine and Francis, so was more emotionally invested in their story than I was in Alathea’s. I still thought Alathea was a great book and I’m hoping to read Pamela Belle’s other series, Wintercombe, this year too.

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain

merivel I wasn’t planning to read Merivel so soon after finishing Rose Tremain’s Restoration, but when I saw a copy on the library shelf a few days later, I couldn’t resist bringing it home so I could catch up with Robert Merivel again and see how he was getting on. I didn’t expect this book to be as good as Restoration, as sequels written many years later often aren’t, so I was surprised to find that I actually preferred this one. Looking at other reviews, I can see that I’m in the minority with that opinion, but I think the reason I liked this book better was because I liked Merivel himself better.

At the beginning of Merivel, our narrator, Robert Merivel, is back at his Norfolk estate of Bidnold, where he returned at the end of Restoration. It’s 1683 and sixteen years have gone by since we last saw him; he’s now a middle-aged man, very aware that time is slipping away and bringing changes to himself and the people around him. His faithful servant, Will, is getting old and is struggling to carry out his duties, while his little girl, Margaret, is now a young lady and planning to spend Christmas in Cornwall with friends. Facing the prospect of being left at home alone, Merivel decides to make the most of the time remaining to him and sets off to Versailles – with a letter of introduction from his friend, King Charles II – in the hope of finding some excitement and intellectual stimulation.

Unfortunately, Versailles fails to live up to Merivel’s expectations; he finds little to admire at the French court and it’s not long before he’s on his way home to England. Apart from a brief romance with an attractive botanist, Louise, and an invitation to visit her at her father’s estate in Switzerland, the only thing Merivel has to show for his time in France is a large bear called Clarendon whom he has rescued from captivity and brought back to Norfolk. On arriving at Bidnold, however, Merivel discovers that he has more to worry about than Louise and his bear: his daughter, Margaret, is seriously ill and requires all of his skills as a physician if she is to survive.

Although there are some humorous scenes in this book, I found this quite a sad and sombre novel, especially in comparison to the liveliness of Restoration. The passing of time is a major theme (it’s no coincidence that Merivel shares lodgings in France with a clockmaker) and there’s always a sense that things are coming to an end, that Will, Merivel – and even the King – won’t live forever. Merivel is not so much searching for his place in the world as he was in the previous book, but trying to understand himself and come to terms with his own nature. He still gets things wrong sometimes, he still makes some poor decisions, and has a tendency to neglect the things that are most important, but he also has a good heart and I found him completely endearing! I remember thinking he was a very frustrating character in Restoration, but in this book I had more patience with him because I could see that he was doing his best.

Merivel is a book with many layers, giving the reader a lot to think about. Even the headings of the four sections – The Great Enormity, The Great Captivity, The Great Consolation and The Great Transition – have a significance which is worth considering. But this is also a very entertaining novel. The pace is quite leisurely, but there’s always something happening: a duel, an encounter with highwaymen, an illness, or a visit from the King. The mood of the late 17th century is captured beautifully; Tremain even gives some of the nouns capital letters to enhance the feeling of authenticity, something which I thought might be irritating at first but which, after a few pages, I decided I liked.

The ending, when it came, was not entirely unexpected, but I was still a bit surprised because I think a lot of authors would have chosen to end Merivel’s story in a different, happier way. Considering the themes of this novel, though, I thought it was the perfect conclusion. I loved revisiting Merivel’s world and I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who has read and enjoyed Restoration. It could probably be read as a standalone but I think you’ll get more out of it if you’ve been following Merivel’s story from the beginning.

This book also counts towards my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project. It was shortlisted in 2013.

Lady on the Coin by Margaret Campbell Barnes

lady-on-the-coin One of the many things I enjoy about reading historical fiction is seeing how different authors choose to interpret the same historical events and people. This is the second novel I’ve read about Frances Stuart, one of the prominent figures at the court of Charles II, and as I remembered being disappointed in Marci Jefferson’s Girl on the Golden Coin, I was curious to find out how Margaret Campbell Barnes had approached the same subject in this novel from 1963.

Lady on the Coin opens with Frances Stuart (or Stewart, but I have gone with the spelling used by Barnes) and her family in exile in Paris where they have been living since the Royalists were defeated in England’s recent civil war. In 1660, the monarchy is finally restored and Charles II, to whom Frances is distantly related, takes the throne. After saying goodbye to her close friend, Henrietta – Charles’ beloved sister, ‘Minette’ – who has married the brother of Louis XIV of France, Frances returns to England to join the household of the new queen, Catherine of Braganza.

With her appealing combination of beauty, enthusiasm and youthful innocence, Frances soon finds herself with many friends and admirers at court, and Charles himself is one of them. Although she enjoys the attention, Frances has no desire to hurt Catherine, so she does her best to resist the King’s attempts to make her his mistress. As she comes under more and more pressure to agree to his demands, a rumour begins to circulate that he is planning to make her his wife should anything happen to Catherine. A chance of escape arrives when she falls in love with the King’s cousin, the Duke of Richmond and Lennox, but there will be more obstacles to overcome before they can find happiness together.

I found this book better written and more satisfying than Marci Jefferson’s. Although the two are very similar in terms of plot (I suppose there’s a limit as to how much could be written about Frances Stuart, after all), I felt that Margaret Campbell Barnes did a much better job of forming a compelling story from the material available and giving her characters depth. Frances is portrayed as frivolous and immature, but she also has a kind heart and I couldn’t help liking her, as did most of the people around her. I say ‘most’ because her popularity at court earns Frances some enemies as well as friends and puts her at the mercy of those who wish to manipulate her for their own ends, such as Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine, the King’s mistress of many years.

Later in the novel, when Frances’ relationship with Lennox begins to develop and she has some important decisions to make, we see a stronger, more serious side to her character. I don’t know enough about the real Frances or Lennox to be able to say whether their relationship has been romanticised here, but I expect it probably has; he is described, by his own admission, as a gambler and heavy drinker, but these problems seem to be brushed aside very easily once he and Frances get together. I did find their romance quite moving, though, and much more interesting to read about than the King and his mistresses!

Frances Stuart’s story is played out during an eventful period of history, but important events such as the plague, the Great Fire of London and the Anglo-Dutch Wars seem to pass by in the background without having much of an effect on the life of our heroine. It’s probably true that Frances would have been very insulated from the outside world by her position at court, but I would still have liked a better balance between her personal story and the wider history of the period in general.

Now, you may be wondering why the title of the book refers to the ‘lady on the coin’. Well, one of Frances Stuart’s claims to fame is that she was apparently the model for Britannia, appearing on a commemorative medal produced after the war with the Dutch and then on various British coins until as recently as 2006.

Lady on the Coin is the second book I’ve read by Margaret Campbell Barnes; the first was Mary of Carisbrooke, which told the story of Charles I’s imprisonment in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books and the next logical choice is With All My Heart, her novel about Catherine of Braganza.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Restoration by Rose Tremain

Restoration Rose Tremain is a new author for me, but I’ve been meaning to try one of her books for a long time. Her 1989 novel Restoration seemed like my sort of book and knowing that I need to read the sequel, Merivel: A Man of His Time, for my Walter Scott Prize project gave me the motivation to pick it up and start reading. It also counts towards my Ten from the TBR project, which has been sadly neglected this year!

Restoration is set in 17th century England in the years following the restoration of the monarchy; the title refers not just to the time period but also to the personal restoration of a man’s self-respect and his place in the world. That man is Robert Merivel, a glovemaker’s son and trained physician who, near the beginning of the novel, obtains a position at the court of Charles II as surgeon to the king’s spaniels. Merivel is quickly swept away by the fun and frivolity of the court, making himself popular by playing the fool and entertaining the king.

It’s not long, however, before the king comes to Merivel with a request for help. Charles requires a husband for one of his mistresses, Celia Clemence – someone who will be a husband in name only, giving Celia a form of respectability while the king continues his affair with her. Merivel agrees to marry her and at first is delighted with the country estate in Norfolk which he is given as part of the deal. Everything is going well until Celia comes to join him there and Merivel discovers that he is falling in love with his wife…something he has been strictly forbidden to do.

Restoration is narrated by Robert Merivel himself and I found him both a fascinating and a frustrating character, more anti-hero than hero. Irresponsible and immature, you get the impression he is stumbling through life from one disaster to another, with no clear purpose in sight – and yet, despite his flaws and his failures, you can’t help feeling for him as he falls out of favour with the king. While I can’t say that I actually liked Merivel, he is an engaging narrator and his story is told with such an appealing mixture of humour and sensitivity that I was captivated by him and hoped that he would find a way to restore his fortunes.

Rose Tremain’s lively writing style perfectly suits the time period in which the novel is set. I always enjoy reading about the 1660s and I liked the contrast here between the descriptions of Merivel’s life as a country gentleman, his adventures at court and his time practising medicine in London. Merivel is in London during the Plague and the Great Fire, which are both vividly recreated. However, there is a long section in the middle of the book set in an asylum run by Merivel’s Quaker friend, Pearce, and I found my attention starting to wander during these chapters. I could see the importance of this section to the plot and to Merivel’s personal development, but I struggled to feel any interest in the new characters we meet at the asylum and I thought the whole episode went on for far too long.

Overall, though, I was impressed with this book and with my first experience of Rose Tremain’s writing. I’ll be interested to see how Robert’s story continues in Merivel, which I’m hoping to start soon.

Plague by C.C. Humphreys

Plague I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Plague of 1665. I know that probably makes me sound morbid, but it’s true – with my interest in the history of medicine, I love reading about the theories suggested by 17th century people to explain what was happening to them, the weird and wonderful ‘cures’ they came up with and the impact of the epidemic on English society. So when I saw a novel called Plague in my library’s ebook catalogue, I was immediately intrigued, especially as it’s by C.C. Humphreys, an author I’ve been wanting to try since I saw Audra’s review of one of his other books, Jack Absolute.

Plague, I quickly discovered, is not simply a novel about the plague (although it’s always there in the background affecting the lives of all our characters in one way or another) but it’s also an action-packed historical mystery set in Restoration London.

In 1665, England is still recovering from the aftermath of the recent Civil War which had resulted in the execution of King Charles I. Although his son, Charles II, has now been restored to the throne, lots of former royalists are still struggling after losing everything in the war. One of these is Captain William Coke, who has had to resort to highway robbery to survive.

One night, Coke is surprised to find that his shouts of “stand and deliver” have no effect on the approaching carriage. The reason: the driver and the passengers have all already been brutally murdered. Coke takes an expensive necklace from the neck of one of the bodies before running away, but leaves one of his pistols behind in his hurry to escape. This is found by the thief-taker, Pitman, who becomes determined to capture Coke and receive the reward for bringing him to justice. We, the readers, know that Coke is innocent – but who is the real killer?

Two women also become embroiled in the mystery. One of them, Lucy Absolute, is the sister of a wartime comrade of Captain Coke’s. She is now an actress at a London theatre – and the mistress of the notorious Earl of Rochester. The other woman is Lucy’s friend, Sarah Chalker, another actress. When Sarah’s husband goes missing, the unlikely pairing of Coke and Pitman must work together to investigate his disappearance…and meanwhile, plague is continuing to spread through London. As the novel’s subtitle tells us, ‘murder has a new friend’.

Although the story deals with serious subjects such as murder, illness, robbery and treachery, and can be quite graphic at times, Plague is an entertaining novel that I found fun to read. Humphreys’ writing style is clear and engaging and I knew from the first page that this was a book I was going to enjoy. It’s always a relief when that happens! It’s a very atmospheric novel too, taking us from the dark, dirty cells of Newgate Prison and the squalid, claustrophobic homes of the plague victims to the splendour of the royal court and the drama of the theatrical world. Each location is brought to life vividly and realistically and the author doesn’t shy away from describing some of the less pleasant sights, sounds and smells of the period!

We meet lots of interesting characters in Plague, including some real historical figures such as Charles II and the fascinating Earl of Rochester. But my favourite was Captain Coke. He’s a complex, flawed character and I liked him from the beginning, even though we first see him as a highwayman and a thief. I enjoyed watching his relationship with Pitman develop from hunter and prey to unlikely partners. One aspect of the book I was less happy with, though, was the inclusion of a conspiracy plot involving a religious sect called the Fifth Monarchists. I think this sort of thing is overused in historical crime and I’m starting to get a bit bored with it. Other than that, I really enjoyed this book. The ending sets things up nicely for a sequel; I don’t know if there will be one, but I would like to have the chance to meet some of these characters again.

Girl on the Golden Coin by Marci Jefferson

Girl on the Golden Coin For more than three hundred years, an image of Britannia with her shield and spear or trident has been depicted on the reverse of certain British coins. In the 17th century, the model for Britannia was said to be Frances Stuart, who was described by Samuel Pepys as a great beauty and who famously refused to become a mistress of King Charles II. Girl on the Golden Coin is Frances Stuart’s story.

At the beginning of the novel, Frances is one of a family of Royalists who have been living in exile in Paris since Charles I was defeated in the English Civil War. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Stuart family return to favour and Frances joins the household of Henriette Anne, Charles II’s younger sister, who has just married the brother of Louis XIV of France (the ‘Sun King’). When Frances catches Louis’ eye, he sends her to the English court where she is faced with the task of seducing Charles, converting him to Catholicism and helping to form an alliance between England and France.

The rest of the novel follows Frances at the court of Charles II, exploring her relationships with the King, his noblemen and the other women of the court including the young Queen, Catherine of Braganza, and the King’s favourite mistress Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine. As Frances grows closer to Charles and begins to replace Castlemaine in his affections, she finds herself under pressure from the Queen Mother, the French ambassadors and various courtiers to use her influence with the King to help further their political intrigues – and failure to do so could result in her own family secrets being exposed.

Girl on the Golden Coin is Marci Jefferson’s first novel and was only published in February, but has been attracting some excellent reviews already. I can see its appeal, but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy it as much as most other readers have. It was fun to read but it was too light for me and didn’t have the depth I prefer in my historical fiction – although to be fair, that’s what I had suspected before I started reading but decided to still read it anyway as the Restoration is such an interesting period of history and I had never come across a book written from Frances Stuart’s perspective before.

I suppose given who Frances was and her position at court, it’s understandable that so much of the novel concentrates on her love life, but I would personally have preferred less romance, fewer descriptions of pretty silk dresses and beautiful jewels, and more focus on the history. The novel does touch on important issues such as religious conflict (in the form of two of Frances’ servants, one of whom is a Catholic and the other a Quaker), and the Anglo-Dutch War but I was disappointed that there were only a few pages devoted to some of the most significant historical events Frances lived through, such as the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. I couldn’t help making comparisons with Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, another historical romance set at the court of Charles II, but which captures the drama and atmosphere of the Restoration period in a way which, in my opinion, this book doesn’t.

I don’t want to sound too negative because I didn’t actually dislike Girl on the Golden Coin – it was a quick read that kept me entertained for a few days and a good introduction to the life of Frances Stuart, someone I previously knew almost nothing about. As the response to this novel so far has been overwhelmingly positive I’m sure Marci Jefferson has a very successful career ahead of her. This just wasn’t the right book for me.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.