Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

“All Spain seems to seek me, señor,” answered the stranger merrily. “But who shall slay Nick Beauvallet? Will you try?”

Having read and loved many of Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian romances, I’ve been interested in trying one of her historical novels set in earlier periods – and at the same time, I’ve been a bit wary because they don’t seem as popular or well-liked as the Regencies. I needn’t have worried, though, because I made a good choice with her 1929 novel Beauvallet, set in sixteenth century Spain and England; I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to all Heyer readers, but it was definitely my sort of book!

Sir Nicholas Beauvallet is a notorious English pirate whose name is spoken of in the same breath as Sir Francis Drake’s and at the beginning of the novel his ship, the Venture, is engaged in conflict with the Spanish galleon Santa Maria. The Spanish vessel is captured and the people aboard taken captive, among them the beautiful Doña Dominica de Rada y Sylva and her father, Don Manuel. After a futile attempt to fight off Beauvallet with his own dagger, Dominica knows the situation is hopeless – and so she is very surprised when Beauvallet offers to take them safely home to Spain, swearing to return at a later date to make her his wife. This seems like a ridiculous plan – no Englishman in his right mind would attempt to enter Spain while the two countries are at war – but our hero is not known as ‘Mad Nicholas’ for nothing…

The plot is over the top and not to be taken too seriously, but the book is great fun to read – the perfect way to escape from the pressures of modern day life for a while and retreat into a good old-fashioned adventure story complete with swordfights, sea battles, abductions, imprisonments and daring escapes! Heyer’s attention to period detail is as evident in this novel as in her others, and being set in an earlier century means she has adjusted the language and the dialogue accordingly. While I thought Dominica was quite thinly drawn and not as memorable as many of Heyer’s other heroines, Nick Beauvallet is a wonderful character. He reminded me very much of some of Rafael Sabatini’s irrepressible swashbuckling heroes, particularly Peter Blood – and of course, Captain Blood, another pirate novel, was published just a few years before Beauvallet. As a Sabatini fan, it was probably inevitable that I would enjoy this book!

As a romance, the book is quite predictable; right from their first encounter, where Dominica shouts “I hate you! I despise you, and I hate you!”, it’s easy to guess that her hatred will not last long, especially as Nick is not the sort of man to accept defeat, in love or in anything else. But sometimes predictability is not a bad thing, and there were plenty of other twists and turns along the way to make this an exciting and entertaining read. I would like to read the earlier Simon the Coldheart, about one of Beauvallet’s ancestors, but first I will be heading back to the Regency period as the next Heyer novel I have lined up to read is Sprig Muslin.

The Moon Sister by Lucinda Riley

This is the fifth book in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series based loosely on the mythology of the star cluster known as Pleiades or ‘the seven sisters’. Each novel tells the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious millionaire known as Pa Salt.

The girls come from different cultures and backgrounds, but all grew up together on Pa Salt’s estate in Switzerland. They are each named after one of the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse. You may have noticed that there are only six sisters; for some reason, which we don’t yet know, a seventh was never adopted. This is one of many mysteries running throughout the series.

At the beginning of the first novel, The Seven Sisters, Pa Salt died, leaving each sister some clues to help them trace their biological parents. So far we have heard Maia’s story, Ally’s, Star’s and CeCe’s; now, in The Moon Sister, it’s the turn of Tiggy. All of the books in the series work as standalones and it’s not essential to read them in order, but this book does overlap with one or two of the others and advances some of the storylines begun earlier in the series.

The Moon Sister follows Tiggy as she begins a new job in the Scottish Highlands, where she has been employed by Charlie Kinnaird to establish a colony of wildcats on his estate. With her degree in zoology and her love of nature, Tiggy is perfect for the job and quickly settles in, getting to know the animals on the Kinnaird estate and forming a close friendship with Cal, the man whose cottage she shares. The peace is disturbed, however, when Charlie arrives with his troubled teenage daughter and his spiteful, vindictive wife.

Away from the problems in the Kinnaird household, Tiggy meets Chilly, an elderly gypsy who lives alone on the estate. It seems that fate must have brought them together, because Chilly is the one person who knows the truth of Tiggy’s origins and can point her in the direction of her birth family. From Chilly, Tiggy learns of her ancestor, Lucia Albaycin, a famous Spanish flamenco dancer. But Chilly doesn’t know everything, so to discover the rest of her family’s story, Tiggy must travel to Spain and visit the gypsy community in the caves of Sacromonte.

Like the others in the series, this book is divided between the modern day storyline and the historical one. We spend a decent amount of time with each character before switching to the other, which means we can become absorbed in both stories. Lucia’s story is fascinating – I can’t say that I liked her, as I found her very self-centred and driven by ambition at the expense of everything else – but she is certainly a strong character, whose power and passion as a person is matched by the power and passion of her dancing. It was interesting to watch as she (along with her equally selfish and irresponsible father) start from nothing to build a successful career in flamenco which takes them all over the world. Meanwhile, in Sacromonte near Granada, we follow the sad story of how the lives of the other gitanos (Spanish gypsies) are affected by first the Spanish Civil War and then the onset of the Second World War, leaving their community changed beyond recognition.

It was good to get to know Tiggy better too – and she is much easier to like than Lucia. The other d’Aplieses think of her as the sensitive, spiritual sister…the sort of person who wants to help everyone around her, whether human or animal, and who cares deeply about nature and the environment, trying hard to resist temptation and stick to her vegan diet! Of all her sisters, Tiggy is particularly close to Ally, whom we met in The Storm Sister, and it was lovely to see her again in this book. The one part of Tiggy’s story that didn’t really work for me was the romance. I felt that she and the man concerned hadn’t spent enough time together for their love for each other to develop, so I didn’t become as emotionally invested in their relationship as I would have liked.

The next book is going to tell Electra’s story and I have to admit I’m very apprehensive about that one. From the little we’ve seen and heard of Electra so far, her personality strikes me as very unappealing. However, we are given lots of intriguing clues in The Moon Sister regarding Pa Salt, his death and some strange occurrences at his home, Atlantis, so I’m hoping Electra will fill in some more of the gaps for us. I’m also curious about the rich businessman Zed, who keeps popping up throughout the series, trying to worm his way into the lives of first Maia, then Tiggy and now, it seems, Electra. For those reasons, I will be looking out for the next book, which I’m hoping will be published later this year.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

It’s 1809 and a wounded man is being carried into his home in Somerset. His name is Captain John Lacroix and he has just returned from Spain, where he has been fighting in the Peninsular War. Injured, exhausted and haunted by his experiences, he seems close to death, but with the help of his housekeeper, Nell, he slowly regains his strength. Unable to contemplate returning to the war, he sets off for Scotland instead – first to Glasgow, then to the Hebrides, in search of some peace and redemption.

Meanwhile, in Spain, a British soldier called Calley is providing evidence to a military inquiry regarding atrocities carried out in the Spanish village of Los Morales during the retreat of the British army. He says he can identify the man responsible for this war crime, the man who was in command of the troops as they raped and murdered. To satisfy the Spanish that justice has been done, Calley is sent to hunt down and punish the perpetrator of the crime, accompanied by a Spanish officer, Medina, who will act as a witness.

Due to the alternating of the two narratives, it very quickly becomes obvious to the reader that the man accused by Calley is John Lacroix…but can it be true? Can the quiet, decent, sensitive man we have been getting to know on his journey to Scotland really have carried out these appalling deeds? Either there is more to the story than meets the eye or we don’t know John Lacroix as well as we think we do. There’s plenty of suspense as we wonder when we will find out exactly what happened that day in Los Morales and what sort of man John Lacroix really is.

As we wait to see whether Calley and Medina will catch up with their target, Lacroix arrives on a remote Hebridean island where he meets Emily Frend and her siblings, Jane and Cornelius. Together with their absent leader, the mysterious Thorpe, they are the last remaining members of a small community who have made the island their home. Intrigued by their lifestyle, Lacroix compliments Emily on her freedom, only for her to explain to him that she does not consider herself to be free at all: “Is it because I take off my stockings to paddle in the sea?” she asks. “That I have let you see me do it? Is that my freedom?”

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is a beautifully written novel and although there were one or two aspects of the plot that I found unconvincing and although I was disappointed in the Hebridean setting, which I would have expected to have a much stronger sense of place, I could overlook these things because there was so much else that I liked. Andrew Miller has a lot to say about so many things: guilt and blame, the atrocities of war, independence, redemption and love. This is only the second book of his that I’ve read – the first was Pure, a dark and fascinating novel about the destruction of a cemetery in Paris. I enjoyed both but preferred this one because the characters are stronger and because it left me with more to think about at the end. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of his books; I like the sound of Ingenious Pain, so maybe I’ll try that one next.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Court of Wolves by Robyn Young

Robyn Young’s New World Rising series got off to a promising start in 2016 with Sons of the Blood and now it continues with the second novel, Court of Wolves. I would recommend beginning with the first book if you can as the story is very complex and I’m not sure how easy it would be to follow if you were to jump straight into this one. For the rest of this review, I will assume that you have either already read Sons of the Blood or don’t mind coming across one or two spoilers here.

Court of Wolves begins in 1486 with Jack Wynter arriving in Florence where he plans to seek an audience with Lorenzo de’ Medici. He has reason to believe that Lorenzo will be able to answer some of his questions regarding his father, Sir Thomas Vaughan, who was executed during the recent Wars of the Roses in England. He is also hoping for help in locating his old friend, the priest Amaury de la Croix, who has been taken captive and may be hidden somewhere in the city. As ruler of Florence, however, Lorenzo already has enough worries of his own with his power coming under threat from a secret society known as the Court of Wolves. If Jack can infiltrate the society and report back to Lorenzo, then maybe Lorenzo will help him.

Before he died, Sir Thomas Vaughan had entrusted Jack with a map hinting at undiscovered lands and new sea routes. This map has been stolen by Jack’s half-brother, Harry Vaughan, and is now in the possession of the newly crowned Henry VII. If these lands really exist, then Henry wants England to benefit from discovering them – but with the sailor Christopher Columbus seeking funding from Queen Isabella of Spain to finance his own voyage of exploration, Henry fears that the Spanish could get there first. He sends Harry Vaughan to Isabella’s court to find out what is happening and to ensure that Columbus never sets sail, but once there, Harry becomes drawn into Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand’s war in Granada.

Court of Wolves is set during a fascinating period in Europe’s history and the chapters alternate between Jack in Florence and Harry in Spain. There’s a sense that the world is changing and looking towards the future, with England, Spain, the Italian city states and others all searching for new opportunities to grow, expand and trade. Jack’s sections of the book were my favourites, partly because Jack is our hero while Harry is more of a villain, but also because I loved the descriptions of Florence and the Medici court – always a wonderful setting! I wasn’t very keen on the secret society storyline, but it was only one aspect of the novel and there were plenty of other things to enjoy.

The Harry chapters were interesting too, especially as I haven’t read about Isabella and Ferdinand’s Granada War in as much detail as this before. The war was a series of campaigns by the Spanish monarchs aimed at taking control of Granada, the last remaining Islamic stronghold in Spain, and Harry is at the heart of the action, present at the bombardment of Loja and the siege of Malaga. I can’t say that I liked Harry any more than I did in the first book, but I did care about what happened to him; even in another country, hundreds of miles from England, he seems to be very much under the control of Henry VII and is starting to face the consequences of his earlier actions during the reign of Richard III as well.

Although Jack and Harry are having separate adventures in this novel, there are still some links between them and no doubt their paths will cross again in the future. I haven’t seen any news on a third book yet, but I’m sure there will be one as the final chapter sets everything up perfectly for a continuation of the story.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Classics Spin Review: That Lady by Kate O’Brien

Kate O’Brien’s novel from 1946, That Lady, was the book chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. I had never read anything by Kate O’Brien before and had only added this one to my Classics Club list because I remembered reading some very positive reviews by Lisa and Kay and because I liked the portrait on the front cover of the Virago Modern Classics edition. The portrait shows Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli and Duchess of Pastrana, and Ana’s life is the subject of the novel.

That Lady opens in 1576, with Ana a widow of thirty-six. Following the death of her husband Ruy Gomez de Silva, one of King Philip II of Spain’s closest advisers, Ana and her children have continued to live on Ruy’s lands in Pastrana in the region of Castile. If you know nothing about Ana, as I didn’t before reading this book, you’ll be pleased to know that O’Brien gives plenty of detail on Ana’s background, explaining how she came to be married to Ruy Gomez at the age of thirteen, how she lost her eye fighting a duel with a page in her father’s household, and the origins of her close relationship with Philip II.

Early in the novel, Philip visits Ana at the Palace of Pastrana and asks her to consider coming back to Madrid. He gives several reasons why she should return, but it is clear that he misses Ana and her children and wants them living nearer to him. Ana is reluctant, but within a year she is back in Madrid and here she begins an affair with Antonio Perez, Philip’s ambitious secretary of state. Needless to say, this was not what the king had intended, and when Ana’s affair becomes public – and, worse still, leads to her becoming implicated in a murder case – she finds that Philip is not such a good friend after all.

That Lady is an unusual novel and at first I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like it. The pace is slow and although there is a lot happening, most of it happens off the page; major events including the defeat of the Spanish Armada are covered in a few brief sentences, while dramas which directly affect Ana, such as the murder mentioned above and the circumstances which lead to it, are only referred to in conversation afterwards. The lack of action makes this much more of a character driven novel, which I’m usually quite happy with, but I also struggled to understand and warm to Ana as a character during the first half of the novel.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, though, I began to find Ana’s story much more compelling. I understood why her relationship with Antonio was so important to her, despite the disapproval of Philip and the public – because it was her own choice, something she was doing because she wanted to, and not because she had been pushed into it by her father, by her husband or by the king. I admired her for sticking to her principles and I was impressed by the loyalty she inspired in her young daughter, Anichu, and her servant, Bernardina. Ana also finds herself struggling to reconcile her actions with her religious beliefs and this is another of the novel’s themes, which develops through conversations with her friend, Cardinal Quiroga of Toledo.

I found it intriguing that in her foreword to That Lady, O’Brien states that this is not a historical novel, but an ‘invention’ based on the story of Ana de Mendoza and Philip II, in which the outline of historical events is real but the words, thoughts and emotions of the characters are imaginary. I think I know what she was trying to say, but surely any historical novel contains an element of invention, otherwise it wouldn’t be a novel. Anyway, I was able to learn a huge amount from this book, not just about Ana, Philip and Antonio, but also about the political situation in Spain in the late sixteenth century. Most of this was new to me and the amount of detail made it quite a slow read, but an interesting one too.

I was left wanting to know more about the real woman, so I looked her up online and found a selection of portraits of Ana, with her distinctive silk eye patch (although it seems there could be a less dramatic explanation for the loss of her eye than the duelling story). I couldn’t find any other novels about Ana, but if you know of any, please let me know. And if you’ve read this book, I would love to hear what you thought of it – and whether you would recommend anything else by Kate O’Brien.

This is book 8/50 from my second Classics Club list.

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.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

This is Jessie Burton’s second novel, following her very successful debut, The Miniaturist. I had one or two problems with The Miniaturist and didn’t fall in love with it the way so many other people seemed to, but I did like it enough to be interested in reading more of her work.

The Muse is split between two different time periods. In 1967, we meet Odelle Bastien, a twenty-six-year-old woman from Trinidad who is looking for work in London. As she settles into her new job as a typist at the Skelton Institute, a prestigious art gallery, Odelle strikes up an unusual friendship with her employer, the glamorous and secretive Marjorie Quick, who encourages her to follow her ambition of becoming a writer. At a party one night Odelle is introduced to Lawrie Scott, who shows her a painting he has inherited from his mother. A few days later he brings it to the Skelton where it causes a great deal of excitement; it seems that Lawrie’s painting could be a lost masterpiece.

To discover the origins of the painting, we have to go back to Spain in 1936 where Austrian art dealer Harold Schloss and his English wife, Sarah, are living in a rented finca – a country house – in a village near Malaga. The couple’s daughter, nineteen-year-old Olive, has ambitions of her own but is keeping her talents hidden knowing that they wouldn’t be appreciated by her father. When local painter and political activist Isaac Robles and his sister Teresa come into her life, Olive has some big decisions to make; this could finally be her chance to follow her dreams.

What is the truth behind the painting once owned by Lawrie Scott’s mother? What really happened to the artist Isaac Robles, whose final fate is unknown? And is Marjorie Quick really who she claims to be? Like The Miniaturist, The Muse has an element of mystery, but unlike the previous book, it is grounded entirely in reality with no hints of the supernatural. I thought the writing style felt quite different too, especially as this one is written in the past tense instead of the present tense of The Miniaturist. In fact, I would almost go so far as to say that they could have been written by two different authors, which is not necessarily a bad thing as it’s good to see authors trying something new.

I found both threads of the novel interesting to read. In the 1960s, Odelle gives us some insights into what it’s like to be an immigrant from the Caribbean living in Britain and what it’s like to be black in a predominantly white community. However, I couldn’t help thinking that Odelle herself feels almost superfluous to the story; it’s Lawrie who owns the painting and Marjorie Quick who is connected in some way with the events of 1930s Spain. Usually in this type of novel, the modern day (or relatively modern, in the case of this book) narrator has some kind of personal link with the historical characters, but Odelle doesn’t, which seemed a bit strange to me.

The 1930s storyline is where most of the real action takes place. With Spain on the brink of civil war at that time, Spanish politics form a large part of the story – not just as a backdrop, but with a real significance to the lives of the Schloss and Robles families. A lot of care has obviously gone into creating the Spanish setting – the descriptions feel detailed and vivid – but again, my problem was with the characters. None of them came fully to life for me and I struggled to understand their motives and the decisions they made.

Although there were some aspects of the novel I liked – such as the mystery surrounding Marjorie Quick and the exploration of the struggles faced by women in the worlds of art and literature in years gone by – I think of Jessie Burton’s two novels I probably preferred The Miniaturist.