Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

I’ve been curious about The Chronicles of St Mary’s for a while; I enjoy anything to do with time travel, so I thought there was a good chance that I would like these books, but you can never be sure. That’s why, when the publisher made several of the books in the series available through NetGalley a few months ago, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try the first one and see what it was like.

Just One Damned Thing After Another (the title is taken from a quote by Arnold Toynbee) introduces us to Madeleine Maxwell who, as the novel opens, is encouraged by her old schoolteacher and mentor, Mrs de Winter, to apply for the position of historian at St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. Max, as she is known, is instantly intrigued; she has had a passion for history since discovering a book about Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt as a child. She applies for the job and is invited for an interview, but as she is shown around her future place of work, she quickly becomes aware that this is no ordinary academic institute…and that the historians of St Mary’s are no ordinary historians.

The Institute has developed a form of time travel which allows the historians to travel back in time inside fully equipped ‘pods’ in order to investigate some of history’s many mysteries – large and small – at first-hand. From “being able to say with authority, ‘Yes, the Princes in the Tower were alive at the end of Richard III’s reign, I know because I saw them with my own eyes’” to understanding the secret of Greek Fire and how to handle a Roman chariot, the possibilities are endless. But so are the dangers: pods that malfunction with terrifying results, hostile groups of rival time travellers, as well as all the other hazards you would expect to find on a journey into a less enlightened time. Max and her friends are constantly getting into trouble – particularly Max, who seems to attract disaster like a magnet – but they see it as a risk worth taking in return for being able to see and experience so many wonderful things.

We don’t learn a huge amount about any of the historical periods to which Max travels (only the Cretaceous period has a significant amount of time devoted to it), but that’s not really the point of the book. The enjoyment is in following the adventures Max and the other St Mary’s historians have as they travel through time – and in sympathising with Max’s various accidents and mishaps, some of which are her own fault, but certainly not all! The story is narrated in Max’s own strong and humorous voice, which adds to the sense of fun.

Apart from Max herself, though, I didn’t feel that I got to know any of the other characters very well, but maybe they will be developed further in future books. Although I don’t feel the compulsion to continue with this series immediately (I did enjoy meeting Max, but I think I would find it a bit overwhelming to spend too long in her company), I do still plan to read the second book and am looking forward to finding out where the historians will travel to next. And of course, now I’m wondering where I would choose to go if I had one of the St Mary’s pods at my disposal…

This is book 9/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

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

The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer

Historian Ian Mortimer is probably best known for his non-fiction ‘handbooks’, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. His latest book, The Outcasts of Time, is a work of fiction but based around a similar concept. It’s a book packed with interesting ideas and intriguing themes, but although I found it an unusual and thought-provoking read, I don’t think it was entirely successful as a novel. I’ll try to explain.

The story begins in December 1348, with England ravaged by the Black Death. Two brothers, John and William, are walking home to their small village near Exeter when they too fall victim to the plague. Wandering into a stone circle in the dark, a mysterious, disembodied voice speaks to them, offering them a choice: they can return home and spend their last six days of life in familiar surroundings, but with the risk of spreading the sickness to the people they love – or they can live each of those six days in a different century, each one ninety-nine years after the one before. If they choose the second option, although they will still die at the end of the six days, all traces of plague will be removed during that period. I’m sure you can guess what they decide to do!

Waking up in the year 1447, the brothers find that the world is a strange and unfamiliar place – and each new dawn after that brings even greater challenges. As the novel’s narrator, John acts as our guide, describing the changes he sees in the English countryside and in the streets of the towns and villages he once knew so well. Some things, it seems never change – for example, in almost every year the brothers visit, a war is taking place – but it’s the great advances in technology and the small details of daily life which surprise John the most. When he reaches that distant age of 1942, he is equally amazed by the ‘flying crosses’ he sees in the sky and by the mysteries of an indoor bathroom!

With his background in history, Ian Mortimer has obviously taken great care to recreate each period his characters visit as accurately as possible, down to the tiniest details, showing the changes in architecture, fashions, food and drink, place names, and even the fact that people are growing taller over the centuries. However, although some characters do remark on the brothers’ unusual way of speaking, I’m not convinced that they would have been able to make themselves understood at all, bearing in mind how much the English language has changed since the 14th century (the time of Geoffrey Chaucer). Also, while I did like the different and unusual approach to time travel in the novel, it often felt more like the framework for a series of history lessons rather than the compelling story I would have preferred.

Religion played an important part in medieval life, and John and William, as they move forward through time, have the chance to see how Christianity, the church and the ways in which people worship have evolved over the years. The religious element of the book is very strong – too strong for me at times – but led to some interesting discussions between the brothers and the other characters they meet. Themes of faith, morality and redemption are always at the heart of the novel, and in each of the periods he visits, John attempts to carry out good deeds in the hope of earning his place in heaven. And as well as seeing some of the worst evils human beings are capable of, he also witnesses some acts of kindness and humanity.

The Outcasts of Time is a fascinating novel but I found it difficult to become fully engaged with it. With only one chapter devoted to each time period, there wasn’t really time to become attached to any of the characters apart from John and his brother. It wasn’t completely satisfying as a story, then, but I would still recommend it to anyone who loves the idea of time travel as much as I do!

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

The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

the-phantom-treeI have always found the concept of time-travel fascinating – and equally fascinating are the number of ways in which various authors choose to approach the subject when writing time-travel fiction.  The Phantom Tree is one of many dual time period time-slip novels I have read over the last few years, but I found it refreshingly different in that it deals not with the usual idea of a modern day character going back in time but a woman from the past coming forward to the present time.

The name of our time traveller is Alison Bannister (or Banastre, as she was known in her previous life) and she has been trapped in the 21st century for ten years, unable to find a way to get back.  We first meet Alison walking through the streets of Marlborough one day just before Christmas.  Stopping to look through the window of an art gallery, she is surprised to see a painting of a woman she once knew.  Investigating further, she learns that this is apparently a newly discovered portrait of Anne Boleyn – but she’s sure it isn’t; it’s Mary Seymour, who lived with Alison at Wolf Hall in the 1500s.  To complicate things further, the historian hoping to build his career around the discovery of Anne Boleyn’s portrait is Adam Hewer, Alison’s ex-boyfriend.  Without telling him the truth about her journey through time, how can she convince him that he’s wrong?   

The historical sections of the novel are written mainly from Mary Seymour’s perspective.  Unlike Alison, who is fictional, Mary is a real historical figure – but one whose story has been lost in the mists of time.  Mary is the daughter of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, and Thomas Seymour, whom Katherine married following Henry’s death.  Katherine dies shortly after giving birth and Thomas is executed a year later, leaving Mary an orphan in the care of the Duchess of Suffolk.  Mary disappears from historical records in 1550, but Nicola Cornick suggests that she was sent to live with her Seymour cousins at Wolf Hall.  This allows plenty of scope to create a storyline for Mary which is both imaginary and historically plausible.         

Of the two time periods, I found the sections set in the past more interesting – in particular, I enjoyed the supernatural elements of Mary’s story.  Almost from the moment she arrives at Wolf Hall rumours begin to circulate that she is a witch, especially after she has a vision which seems to come true.  She also has a telepathic connection with a secret friend called Darrell and this reminded me instantly of Mary Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat, (which may have been intentional, as Darrell’s nickname for Mary is ‘Cat’). 

The present day story was enjoyable too, though.  I couldn’t help thinking that Alison had adapted remarkably quickly to modern life, which wasn’t at all convincing, but otherwise I was kept entertained by her attempts to find a gateway back to her own time and to decipher a set of clues sent by Mary through the centuries.   

The Phantom Tree does require disbelief to be suspended on many occasions, which I know is not something that appeals to all readers, but I think anyone who likes reading time-slip novels by authors like Susanna Kearsley or Barbara Erskine should find plenty to enjoy here.  I will now be looking out for Nicola Cornick’s previous book, House of Shadows!

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

 

The Bookish Time Travel Tag

By now you’ve probably seen versions of the Bookish Time Travel Tag appearing on other blogs or maybe even taken part in it yourself. I was tagged by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock and although it has taken me a while to put my post together, it’s finally ready! I’ve had fun coming up with my answers to the questions and would like to thank both Jane and The Library Lizard, whose original idea this was.

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1. What is your favourite historical setting for a book?

I couldn’t possibly give just one answer to this question – as someone who loves reading historical fiction, I find most historical settings interesting! A few that I particularly enjoy are:

* Medieval England
* Renaissance Italy
* The First and Second World Wars
* The English Civil War and Restoration
* The Tudor and Elizabethan periods

Sunne in Splendour I also love the Victorian period – as well as reading historical fiction set in that era, many of my favourite classics were also written in the 19th century.

But if I have to choose one favourite historical setting, it would have to be the Wars of the Roses. I hadn’t read anything set in that period until just a few years ago, but beginning with The White Queen by Philippa Gregory and then The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman, I’ve been reading everything I can find on the subject.

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2. What writer/s would you like to travel back in time to meet?

I’m not sure about this one. In most cases, I prefer to just enjoy an author’s writing without knowing too much about them as a person – and I think if I did meet one of my favourite authors, I would probably be too shy to say very much anyway. I’ve always found the Brontës interesting to read about, however, so I would pay them a visit at Haworth Parsonage and see if they were really as they’ve been portrayed.

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3. What book/s would you travel back in time and give to your younger self?

thetalismanring There are a lot of authors I’ve only discovered in recent years (thanks to book blogging) who I know I would have loved when I was younger. I would give my younger self copies of Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart and The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer because I’m sure working through the many novels of both of those authors would have given me hours of pleasure as a teenager.

I would also take Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, both books I’ve read and loved in the last few years but which I think would also have been perfect for the younger me.

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4.What book/s would you travel forward in time and give to your older self?

I remember reading The Professor’s House by Willa Cather and thinking that it might be a book I would appreciate more if I was older, so maybe I would give that one to my older self to see what she thinks of it. Otherwise, I’ll leave her to decide for herself what she wants to read. One thing is certain: if my TBR continues to grow at its current alarming rate, she’ll never run out of books to choose from!

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5. What is your favourite futuristic setting from a book?

The Time Machine I don’t read a lot of books set in the future – I much prefer books set in the past – and of the few futuristic novels I have read, I can’t really say that any of the settings particularly appealed to me. The first book that comes to mind here is The Time Machine by HG Wells which takes us forward in time to the year 802,701, an eerie and unsettling world in which the human race has evolved into two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks. I found it a bleak and depressing view of the future, so can hardly describe it as a favourite!

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6. What is your favourite book that is set in a different time period (can be historical or futuristic)?

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett Well, after my answer to the previous question you won’t be surprised to hear that I won’t be mentioning any futuristic books here – my favourites are all historical! This could be a long list, but I’ve limited myself to five.

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman
The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett (technically six books, but I couldn’t single out one of them)
Katherine by Anya Seton
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye

If I can also include books written in a different time period – but not strictly ‘historical’ – my list would be even longer and would include some of the following (again I’ve restricted my choices to five):

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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7. Spoiler Time: Do you ever skip ahead to the end of a book just to see what happens?

No, never. I like to be surprised by all the twists and turns of a story and I’m always disappointed when I inadvertently come across a spoiler. There have been times when I’ve flicked through the pages ahead looking for a chapter break and seen something I would rather not have known, so I’m always very careful now. I avoid reading introductions in books for the same reason.

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8. If you had a Time Turner, where would you go and what would you do?

I don’t think I would like to travel into the future, but with my interest in history, I would find it fascinating to go back to any earlier time and see how people lived. Of course, some time periods are more dangerous than others, so I would have to think carefully about when and where it would be safe to go! I would only want to observe; I would be too afraid to do anything that might change the course of history, tempting as it might be in some cases.

Imperium From a literary point of view, I think it would be interesting to spend some time in the 19th century so I could read those wonderful classic novels while they were being serialised week by week, as the authors intended. While I’m there, I would like to go and see one of Charles Dickens’s public readings (I remember reading about this in The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl and lamenting the fact that we don’t have any recordings to listen to).

Which reminds me that when I was reading the Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris recently, I kept thinking how great it would be to sit there in the senate in Ancient Rome, listening to Cicero’s famous speeches, so maybe I could go further back in time and do that as well.

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9. Favourite book (if you have one) that includes time travel or takes place in multiple time periods?

The House on the Strand I have always loved reading about time travel – one of my favourite books as a child was Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle. As for books set in multiple time periods, I’ve read a lot of those too. Again, I could put a long list of books together in answer to this question but I’ve forced myself to just choose a few.

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
Mariana by Susanna Kearsley
The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd (no time travel but set in many different periods!)

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10. What book/series do you wish you could go back and read again for the first time?

And Then There Were None I would like to be able to read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None again without knowing the solution to the mystery. This also applies to any other mystery novel, I suppose, or any book with a clever twist – they can still be enjoyed on a re-read, but it’s not the same when you know what’s going to happen!

I do enjoy revisiting my favourite books – there are some on my shelves that I’ve read over and over again, so many times I’ve lost count – but the first read is always very special. Reading the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett for the first time in 2012 was the greatest reading experience I’ve had since I started blogging. I remember my surprise on reaching a point in the first book, The Game of Kings, where things suddenly became much clearer and a certain character’s behaviour started to make a lot more sense; I would like to be able to recapture that moment!

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Now I’m supposed to tag other people who I think might like to take part, but as so many of the bloggers I follow have already been tagged and I’ve lost track of who has and who hasn’t – I’m simply going to tag anyone who wants to join in! If you decide to do this yourself, please let me know in the comments. I would love to see your answers.

Sleeper’s Castle by Barbara Erskine

Sleeper's Castle After reading Lady of Hay I said I wouldn’t be looking for any more of Barbara Erskine’s novels, but I couldn’t resist this latest one with its unusual title, pretty cover and intriguing synopsis! And actually, Sleeper’s Castle was a pleasant surprise; I enjoyed it much more than any of the other books I’ve read by Erskine.

Despite its name, Sleeper’s Castle is not really a castle; it’s a house near Hay-on-Wye, close to the border between England and Wales. For several years it has been home to Sue and her cat, Pepper, but when Sue decides to go back to Australia she offers her friend, Miranda, the chance to live in Sleeper’s Castle rent-free for a year in return for looking after the house and the cat. Miranda – who prefers to be known as Andy – has been going through a difficult time following the death of her partner, Graham, and is delighted to have the opportunity to get away from London for a while. She looks forward to resuming her career as an illustrator in the peace of the Welsh countryside, safe in the knowledge that Rhona – the jealous, vicious wife Graham never divorced – will never be able to find her now.

As soon as she moves into Sleeper’s Castle, Andy knows she is going to love her new home. It’s an old house, with a history dating back hundreds of years, so at first Andy is not surprised when she begins to have vivid dreams involving a young woman called Catrin who lived at Sleeper’s Castle around the year 1400. Catrin is the daughter of another dreamer – Dafydd, a bard and seer – and as she travels around Wales with her father, entertaining at the castles of his patrons, she finds herself caught up in Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against the English.

Most of Barbara Erskine’s books are described as time slip novels and this one really lives up to that description, with the narrative slipping seamlessly from one time period to another so that the boundaries between past and present gradually start to blur. It’s not only Andy who is aware that something unusual is occurring; while she can see into the past, Catrin can also glimpse the future. Less convincingly, there’s also a sort of psychic connection between Andy and Rhona which draws the two women together against their will.

Catrin’s story is fascinating and I could understand why Andy was captivated by it. I have to admit, I know almost nothing about Owain Glyndŵr other than that he is considered a Welsh hero for his attempt to free Wales from the rule of Henry IV, so it was good to have the opportunity to add to my knowledge. As most of the characters in the historical sections of the novel are fictional, however, and Glyndŵr himself appears only occasionally, this book serves as a starting point to finding out more rather than exploring the period in any real depth.

The present day storyline was entertaining too – I loved Bryn the gardener, Meryn the healer and Pepper the cat – but it was spoiled slightly by the Rhona subplot. Rhona’s behaviour becomes so malicious and threatening that I really couldn’t believe Andy didn’t call the police and I couldn’t accept her reasons for not doing so. Very frustrating!

Much has been made of the fact that this book is being published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Barbara Erskine’s first novel, Lady of Hay, and is set in the same part of the world. Sleeper’s Castle is not a sequel and it’s not necessary to have read Lady of Hay first; this is an enjoyable book in its own right and I’m glad I decided to give Barbara Erskine another chance to impress me.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine I don’t often read science fiction, but when I do I usually find that I enjoy it. H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel, The Time Machine, is an early classic of the genre and I’m sorry it has taken me so long to decide to read it – especially as I’ve previously read and liked two of his other books, The Island of Dr Moreau and Ann Veronica (although the latter is not science fiction).

The Time Machine follows the adventures of a Victorian scientist known only as the Time Traveller who believes he has created a machine which can travel into the past and the future. After describing his invention to a group of friends and explaining how it works, he announces that he intends to use the machine to explore time. Assembling at a dinner party the following week, the gentlemen await the appearance of the Time Traveller – who arrives late, looking dirty and exhausted, and proceeds to narrate an incredible story.

The Time Traveller tells of his journey to the year 802,701, a world populated by the Eloi, a race of beautiful, innocent, childlike people who, far from being the advanced society he had expected, are leading surprisingly lazy, directionless lives and appear to be weaker and less intelligent than ourselves. Due to a change in language, he is unable to communicate with them to find out more about their way of life, although he does form a friendship of sorts with an Eloi woman whose name is Weena.

Later, the Time Traveller discovers that the Eloi are not the only inhabitants of this futuristic world; another race of human-like creatures live below ground, only coming to the surface at night. Known as the Morlocks, these creatures are brutish and savage but appear to be carrying out all the work and industry which enables the Eloi to live their simple lives of leisure on the land above. They also appear to have stolen the time machine, which means that unless the Time Traveller can find a way to retrieve it, he could be trapped in the future forever!

The Time Traveller comes up with several theories to explain what is happening in this futuristic world, but has to revise his opinion as more information comes to light. He speculates that the human race must have evolved at some point into two species, the rich and privileged becoming the Eloi and the working classes becoming the Morlocks. The Eloi, he thinks, have led such comfortable lives and faced so few challenges, that they have had no further need to grow and adapt:

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of time travel and although I personally would be more interested in visiting the past than the future, I find it fascinating to see what people think the future will hold. Remembering when this novel was published, Wells’ vision of a future world has been developed from some of the issues which would have seemed relevant at the end of the 19th century, such as widening class divisions, theories of evolution and Darwinism. It’s a bleak and depressing view of the future – and if that really is what we have to look forward to, then imperfect as our current society may be, I’m very glad to be living in 2016!

While I enjoyed reading The Time Machine, I thought there could have been more to the story. I hadn’t realised it was such a short book (there are just over 100 pages in my edition, so it can easily be read in a few hours), and I would have liked it to have been a bit longer which would have allowed some of the ideas in the novel to be developed in more depth. Still, I’m pleased to have read such an important and influential science fiction novel and will think about reading more of Wells’ work at some point.

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

Shadow of Night This is the second book in the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. I read the first, A Discovery of Witches, earlier this year and the third, The Book of Life, has just been published, which is what made me decide to pick up the middle book last week.

Shadow of Night follows witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew Clairmont as they travel back in time to the year 1590 with two goals in mind. The first is to hunt down Ashmole 782, an elusive manuscript which they hope will provide important information on the origins of their species – witches, vampires and daemons (known collectively as ‘creatures’). The second is to find another witch who can help Diana to understand and control her magical powers. Another benefit of leaving the present day behind is that Matthew and Diana will be able to escape the clutches of the other witches, vampires and daemons who have also been trying to get their hands on Ashmole 782.

Arriving in Elizabethan England, Diana discovers that Matthew is one of a group of writers, artists and scientists known as the School of Night, whose other members include Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher (Kit) Marlowe. Reunited with his old friends again, Matthew also resumes one of his other occupations – spying for Elizabeth I. Meanwhile, Diana’s mission to find a witch willing to train her in the use of magic proves more difficult than expected in a time when public fear and suspicion of witches is increasing. Discovering that life in the past is no less complicated than it was in the present, Diana’s and Matthew’s adventures take them first into the heart of Elizabethan London, then to Matthew’s family estate at Sept-Tours in France and to the court of Rudolf II in Prague.

This book should have been perfect for me as I usually enjoy both historical fiction and time travel, but I think I actually preferred A Discovery of Witches. There were some parts of this book that I loved, but for such a long novel (nearly 600 pages) I found the pace very slow and uneven. It seemed that most of the book’s major developments all took place in the final 50-100 pages.

There are a lot of characters to keep track of in Shadow of Night and the character list at the back of the book was very useful. Diana and Matthew meet a huge number of real historical figures as they travel between London, Sept-Tours and Prague, but while some of these were very intriguing, such as the Rabbi Judah Loew who created the Golem of Prague, many of them had little or no relevance to the story. I couldn’t help thinking that they had been included just for the sake of it; I would rather have had fewer characters so that we could spend more time getting to know each one. I also really disliked the portrayal of Kit Marlowe in the book. I’m sure the real Marlowe would have been a fascinating character to write about in his own right; making him a daemon (a very spiteful, petulant daemon) added nothing to the story.

Matthew began to stretch my belief to its limits. Not only does he belong to the School of Night, he is also a member of at least one other secret organisation and an order of chivalry, a spy for Elizabeth I and a close personal friend of numerous famous historical figures from all over Europe. You may think that as I’m happy to accept that he’s a vampire I should be able to accept the rest of it too, but it all felt too convenient and just not believable in the context of the story. I do like Diana, partly because as she’s the narrator the reader naturally feels closer to her, but I would still like to see her take the lead more often when it comes to decision-making.

The time travel aspect of the book didn’t quite make sense to me either – it seemed that as Matthew was returning to an earlier period in his own life, he simply replaced his previous self for a while, but I’m not sure what was supposed to have happened to the 16th century Matthew in the meantime or what would happen when he came back. Time travel is always confusing, though, so I tried not to think about it too much! I did like the way each section of the book ended with a chapter set in the present day, showing how Matthew and Diana’s actions in the past affect the future. This also gave us a chance to briefly catch up with characters from the previous book such as Diana’s aunts, Sarah and Emily, and Matthew’s mother, Ysabeau.

Although I didn’t find this book as enjoyable as A Discovery of Witches, I think it maybe suffered from being the middle book in a trilogy. I will still be reading The Book of Life and hoping I don’t have any of the problems I had with this one!

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review.