June, 1348: the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in the county of Dorsetshire. Unprepared for the virulence of the disease, and the speed with which it spreads, the people of the county start to die in their thousands.
In the estate of Develish, Lady Anne takes control of her people's future - including the lives of two hundred bonded serfs. Strong, compassionate and resourceful, Lady Anne chooses a bastard slave, Thaddeus Thurkell, to act as her steward. Together, they decide to quarantine Develish by bringing the serfs inside the walls. With this sudden overturning of the accepted social order, where serfs exist only to serve their lords, conflicts soon arise. Ignorant of what is happening in the world outside, they wrestle with themselves, with God and with the terrible uncertainty of their futures.
Lady Anne's people fear starvation but they fear the pestilence more. Who amongst them has the courage to leave the security of the walls?
And how safe is anyone in Develish when a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo..?
Minette Walters is best known as a writer of Crime novels - since the publication of "The Ice House" in 1992, she's won the Crime Writer's Association John Creasey award for best first novel, the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award, and the CWA Gold Dagger. Walter's now turns her considerable talents to another genre - moving into the realm of Historical Fiction with "The Last Hours", and sweeping her readers into the deadly, turbulent and terrifying world of a plague ridden middle ages England.
One thing that made Walter's crime books stand out was her grasp of character, and the viewpoints she used to tell her stories - they were never straightforward books packed with gore and violence, but often offered intriguing political and social commentaries alongside thrilling plots. That's something that, you'd think, would be somewhat trickier when plunging almost a millennia into the past and looking at the Black Death - but Walters is able to combine a truly engaging and well researched historical story with characters and threads that remind the reader of contemporary life.
A big part of this, is character - and the characters of Lady Anne, Thaddeus Thurkell and Giles Startout allow Walters to explore class, gender, race and religion in fascinating, compelling fashion whilst always ensuring that these themes are integral parts of the story rather than added on to give the book a contemporary relevance. Written with an urgent prose that pulls the reader through a vividly described landscape of death and destruction, the mix of rather incredibly drawn characters embroiled in a plot that, in its essence is a genuine battle for life and survival against the odds makes this a read that I was unable to put down.
Historical detail, a thrilling, fascinating plot and vivid, relatable characters, made this a read that I'll be recommending to all and sundry. I should warn that several plot strands are left very much open-ended, but that's only served to fill me with excitement for the upcoming sequel. Bravo Minette Walters - a brave change of genre, but one that has paid off in spades!
It’s 1592. Europe is in chaos. Religious factions have torn the region apart and witch-hunts have become a part of everyday life.
In the Company of Wolves follows three groups of travelers – a fearless female pirate roaming the North Sea, a priest and his wife escaping to England to avoid persecution, and a young thief from the slums of Germany looking for a better life. Each has a different reason for venturing out in such tumultuous times – fear, greed, family secrets.
Is the Werewolf of Bedburg still alive, roaming the countryside and killing innocent citizens? Many believe he’s still out there—that religious and political leaders have forsaken the truth in their cunning quest for power.
As each traveler searches for individual answers, these three seemingly separate stories converge in a place which may hold the key for them all. Based on true events involving one of the deadliest witch trials in European history, this tale of adventure, mystery, and the search for truth reminds us that, ultimately, no one is safe . . . in the company of wolves.
"In the Company of Wolves" is the sequel to "Devil in the Countryside" - a book I reviewed earlier in 2017 (review here). An intriguingly dark true story given the historical fiction treatment, it was a compelling read that blended excellent characterisation with a dark, genre-crossing plot. Cory has returned to that world and those characters in "In the Company of Wolves" - and it's a read that's just as compelling as the first.
In fact, it appears to me that Barclay has really hit his stride in "In the Company of Wolves". The interactions between characters seem more natural, and the pacing is fantastic, with the switching of viewpoints allowing for a huge amount of brilliant cliffhangers to crop up through out the course of the book. The distinct viewpoints are interesting enough that, whilst I was left eager to know what had happened to a character, I wasn't too annoyed when I was torn away from one journey and showed another - especially as, for a lot of the book, the individual chapters are rather short - allowing for a swift and interesting read that keeps the reader moving through this dark and dangerous world at considerable speed. It's a nice touch, and reminded me somewhat of the Victorian Penny Dreadfuls - dark stories told in quick, easily readable snippets.
A real draw of these books is that Barclay shines a light on historical events that have been all but forgotten - and shining a light on the "Trier Witch Trials" makes for immensely fascinating reading. The characters drawn from history are brought to life with considerable skill, joining the already impressive fictional creations of the author in order to guide the reader through dark, dramatic but ultimately incredibly well researched historical events
Things feel a little unfinished towards the end - but I'm sure they'll be resolved well in Book Three, which I'm already looking forward too! Thanks to Cory for the copy - and make sure to pick up "Devil in the Countryside" first in order to make sure you know what's going on!
1792: the blood begins to drip from the guillotine. The French Revolution is entering its most violent phase, and threatens all Europe with chaos. In the age of the mob, no individual is safe.
The spies of England, France and Prussia are fighting their own war for survival and supremacy. Somewhere in Paris is a hidden trove of secrets that will reveal the treacheries of a whole continent.
At the height of the madness a stranger arrives in Paris, to meet a man who has disappeared. Unknown and untrusted, he finds himself the centre of all conspiracy. When the world is changing forever, what must one man become to survive?
Robert Wilton works as an author and, rather surprisingly, an international diplomat. Over the years he's worked in both Kosovo and Albania, and it's clear that his experience in international relations and the internal workings of countries allows him to create books full of fascinating, complex characters and well developed worlds for those characters to live in.
His latest, "Treason's Spring" is a prequel to "Treason's Tide" - a book set during the Napoleonic Wars. Here Wilton takes things back to the French Revolution - a turbulent period evoked remarkably well by the author. Into this world, Wilton throws in mysteries, murders, and characters so vital they draw the reader swiftly into the plot, forming a tight grip on them as they move through the fast paced and often thrilling events that occur. Page turners like this can often be high in plot but rather low in quality - but there's no cause for concern here. Wilton's writing has a rich, slightly old fashioned feel to it, which when combined with his eye for historical accuracy leads to a read that's as informative as it is thrilling and transportive. Set to be the first part of a trilogy, I'm looking forward to book two - many thanks to the publishers for the copy.
Valiant Gentlemen reimagines the lives and intimate friendships of humanitarian and Irish patriot Roger Casement; his closest friend, Herbert Ward; and Ward's extraordinary wife, the Argentinian-American heiress Sarita Sanford.
Valiant Gentlemen takes the reader on an intimate journey, from Ward and Casement's misadventurous youth in the Congo - where, among other things, they bore witness to an Irish whiskey heir's taste for cannibalism - to Ward's marriage to Sarita and their flourishing family life in France, to Casement's covert homosexuality and enduring nomadic lifestyle floating between his work across the African continent and involvement in Irish politics.
When World War I breaks out, Casement and Ward's longstanding political differences finally come to a head and when Ward and his teenage sons leave to fight on the frontlines for England, Casement begins to work alongside the Germans to help free Ireland from British rule
Sabina Murray is a Filipina American screenwriter and novelist - the recipient of various awards and fellowships, and a Professor at the University of Massachusetts. Murray has written historical fiction before, but never anything quite as impressive in size and scope as "Valiant Gentleman" - it's been described as her Magnum Opus, and I can certainly see why.
Roger David Casement was an Irish civil servant, activist, nationalist and poet - and, until shortly before his execution for treason, the holder of a knighthood.
Herbert Ward was a sculptor, writer, illustrator and explorer, and a close friend of Roger Casement. Before reading "Valiant Gentleman" I had a vague awareness of Roger Casement and his infamous "Black Diaries", but had no knowledge of Herbert Ward at all. The friendship that the two had spanned countries and decades - making it one worthy of the attention that Murray has lavished on it in this epic of a novel.
A friendship grown in the Belgian Congo, Murray writes the two men at the heart of this relationship with considerable skill, bringing them to vivid life and writing these fascinating, brilliant men with the care that their respective histories have earnt them. Whilst the friendship is at the heart of the book, Murray takes care not to let this read become fully male dominated, with Ward's wife Sarita entering the narrative and providing POV chapters that are wholly illuminating - shedding light on the two men as well as creating a fascinating character in Sarita herself.
Over the course of their lives and adventures, both men make decisions that surprise and baffle the reader - and the path that Casement ends up on is one that is often difficult to understand. Murray does an admirable job of conveying the motivations and passions behind the choices, but stops short of placing any judgements - instead imbuing the characters with so much life, and the novel with so much detail, that the reader is well placed to consider the moments that drove these men to their very different paths in life. Some of the situations may be uncomfortable for readers - but topics such as colonisation, betrayal and treason are never handled anything but fairly.
It is a huge book - there's no denying that. But it's one that's hugely readable - with a compelling plot drawn from life, fascinating characters who the reader will no doubt be keen to read more about, and resulting in a novel that serves as an admirable tribute to a friendship that crossed oceans. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.
It’s 1588, the height of the Reformation, and a killer is terrorising the German countryside. There are reports that the legendary Werewolf of Bedburg has returned to a once-peaceful land. Heinrich Franz, a cold and calculating investigator, is tasked with finding whomever — or whatever — the killer might be. He’ll need all the help he can get, including that of a strange hunter who’s recently stumbled into town. Though they’re after the same thing, their reasons are worlds apart. And through it all, a priest tries to keep the peace among his frightened townsfolk, while a young woman threatens his most basic beliefs. In a time when life is cheap and secrets run rampant, these four divergent souls find themselves entwined in a treacherous mystery, navigating the volatile political and religious landscape of 16th century Germany, fighting to keep their sanity — and their lives.
Cory Barclay is an author, songwriter and guitarist from San Diego California. “Devil in the Countryside” is his second novel.
Now, I love a bit of historical fiction. I’m a big history fan, and when done well, historical fiction can shine a light on events of the past, whilst creating new and exciting situations for the reader – something Cory Barclay has most certainly done on this occasion. “Devil in the Countryside” is a dark read -full of death and gore, but Barclays expertly balances this out – the overwhelming darkness of the world that surrounds these characters is brightened out, at least initially, by the motivations and personalities of the characters who fill this book. All are compelling – none are straight forward and all have very individual personalities, meaning that the distinct viewpoints that Barclay employs throughout the book are easy to follow. These characters are layered and well developed – all regularly make decisions that are not always easy to empathise with, but Barclay sells their motivations and drive to the reader well. It’s particularly fascinating to see how the characters develop alongside the plot – seeing the effect that the investigation at the core of the plot has on the characters is particularly compelling, and drives the reader towards the compelling conclusion.
In terms of historical fiction, Barclay manages to keep this a relatively light read – he doesn’t go overboard on exposition, but one still comes out of this read feeling relatively enlightened on the subject of the Germany of the late 1500’s. Little facts and details are dropped in throughout, and whilst there are a few pages that are fairly heavy on sharing facts with the reader, one is invested enough to not care – and in fact they add a good level of depth to an already compelling story.
A skin prickling, puzzling, page turner – “Devil in the Countryside” is a fun read and Barclay is an author with a strong command of language and a talent for fantastic structuring a cracking story – bring on the sequel!
Lib Wright, a young English nurse, arrives in an impoverished Irish village on a strange mission. Eleven- year old Anna O’Donnell is said to have eaten nothing for months, but appears to be thriving miraculously. With press and tourists flocking to see the child, the community looks for an outsider to bring the facts to light. Lib, an educated sceptic trained by the legendary Florence Nightingale. Her job is simple: to watch the girl and uncover the truth. Repelled by what she sees as ignorance and superstition, Lib expects to expose the fast as a hoax right away. But as she gets to know the girl, over the long days they spend together, Lib becomes more and more unsure. Is Anna fraud, or truly a ‘living wonder’? Or is something more sinister unfolding right before Lib’s eyes, a tragedy in which she herself is playing a part?
Emma Donoghue is an Irish writer, now based in Toronto. She’s published over 13 books, the majority historical fiction much like “The Wonder”, but she’s best known for her 2010 novel “Room”, a tale of captivity and freedom, the film adaptation of which won four Academy Awards. Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of “Room” – it’s clever and moving, but I struggled somewhat with the fact that it was mainly told through the child’s perspective – a literary device that I found worked hugely well in getting across a harrowing situation without making the reader too uncomfortable, but for some reason I never enjoy child narrators all that much. However, Donoghue’s historical fiction is always thrilling – strong, compelling characters thrown into plots often drawn from real historical situations. So I was exceptionally pleased to be asked to review “The Wonder”for the Social Book Co, and it’s an example of Donoghue’s capability for taking historical situations and crafting fictional stories around them – and it’s a cracking read as a result.
“The Wonder” follows the genuine Victorian phenomenon of “Fasting Girls” -pre-adolescent girls who claimed to be able to survive indefinitely long periods of time without any sustenance, often linked with a deep religious belief and supposed miraculous powers. Some never truly had the truth behind their fasting explored – many died. Emma Donoghue explores this phenomenon with a skillful, careful touch. Whilst main character Lib is a sceptic, Donoghue is careful to never poke fun at the heavy religious beliefs of those in the small town of Athlone. Instead, they explore and investigate the situation along with Lib, learning to love Anna, the strange little girl at the center of events. It’s hard to go too much into the plot without spoiling things, but the reader is kept on their toes throughout, revelations and mysteries gradually revealing themselves throughout. The climax is compelling – the epilogue a slight disappointment for me, but only because parts of it felt rather rushed.
War rages across the land. In the wake of Magna Carta, King John’s treachery is revealed and the barons rise against him once more. Fighting with them is the Earl of Locksley – the former outlaw Robin Hood, and his right hand man Sir Alan Dale. When the French enter the fray, Robin and Alan must decide where their loyalties lie – with the king or their land. Death may wait for us all, but can Robin Hood pull off his greatest ever trick and cheat the Grim Reaper one last time just as England needs him most?
Now, as someone who has been a huge fan of the Robin Hood myth throughout my life, the one thing I’ve always found frustrating is the death of Robin Hood. It may be sweet and tender, but it always seemed a little weak, more of a postscript to the stories than a real ending. So when I heard that the last book in Angus Donald’s brilliant Outlaw series, I was, understandably, a little worried!
I shouldn’t have been though. Donald has crafted an epic end to his series – one that brings the characters together one final time, in a journey filled with excitement, betrayal, love, and emotion. I won’t go too much into the plot for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that this is a masterfully written book that will please fans of the series immensely – the series has always been leaps and bounds ahead of other Robin Hood adaptions due to the huge amounts of humanity and personality that Donald injects into his characters. People here love, die, make mistakes, grieve and form complicated relationships with each other, meaning that their drama is never overshadowed by that of the Kings and Crusaders fighting throughout, but all comes together to form books that have been constantly exciting, and made an old legend into a contemporary tale about brotherhood, corruption, love, and the choices that shape the path of our lives.
As for The Death of Robin Hood – I’ll say that it’s everything I feared, and also everything I hoped for. A little vague, I know, but hopefully you’ll understand when you read it. I’ll miss this series – it’s been an epic ride, and I for one will miss journeying with the fantastic characters that Donald breathed new life into. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.
Bastard son, mercenary soldier, protector of the rightful king and seeker of a treacherous secret, Jack Wynter lives in dangerous times. In England, the Wars of the Roses ended a decade agao, with the victory of King Edward of York. But an uneasy peace is fast broken when the King dies, and feuds old and new are awoken. When Jack is sent from his life in Seville to gloomy and dangerous England, he must uncover the truth behind the secret that he has been guarding, and the reason for his Father’s fall. As the new Prince Edward readies himself to be king, his uncle Richard makes a move for the throne – leading him and Jack on paths of intrigue, corruption, mystery and war. The old world is turning. A new world is rising.
Wow. I read a lot of books, and historical fiction is one of my favourite genres. I’m a huge history buff, so anything that mixes books and history, is right up my street. And, with the rise of bloody fantasy like Game of Thrones, combined with huge historical successes like the Shardlakeseries by C.J.Sansom, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books, there is a new drive for historical fiction, so fans like me have plenty to go at.
Little so far, has reached as lofty a height as Robyn Young has in “Sons of the Blood” though. This is one of the most thrilling books I’ve read in years – a true page turner that had me staying up late at night, determined to find the fates of characters that I had been made to invest so much in. The fall of the house of York and the rise of the house of Tudor is one that is often ignored – many books choose to focus on the slightly more glamourous Tudors, but in doing so they miss out on a turbulent and truly exciting period of history, where anything could happen.
Historical figures are skillfully blended with Young’s new creations, and all are treated with due respect – Richard III is, as is thankfully happening more often these days, not treated as a bad villain sterotype, and the question of the Princes in the Tower is one that becomes a major plot point here, developed in a way that I’ve never seen before.
In Jack, Robyn Young has created a lead character who fits well into historical ranks whilst forging his own path – his journey throughout the book is astonishing, and he becomes a friend to the reader the more the book goes on. I’m longing to go back to the world of Jack Wynter, the mysteries put in place so great that I’m eager to see to what new horizons where they will take both us and him, and frustrated that there’ll be a wait until the next book. For now though, read “Sons of the Blood” – you won’t regret it. Huge thanks to the publishers for the copy.
AD 1215: The year of Magna Carta – and Robin Hood’s greatest battle. King John is scheming to reclaim his ancestral lands in Europe, raising the money for new armies by bleeding dry peasants and nobles alike, not least the Earl of Locksley – the former outlaw Robin Hood – and his loyal man Sir Alan Dale. As rebellion brews across the country and Robin Hood and his men are dragged into the war against the French in Flanders, a plan is hatched that will bring the former outlaws and their families to the brink of catastrophe – a plan to kill the King. England explodes into bloody civil war and Alan and Robin must decide who to trust – and who to slaughter. And while Magna Carta might be the answer to their prayers for peace, first they will have to force the King to submit to the will of his people.
So, I must confess that I’ve been obsessed with the Robin Hood legends since I was a small child. I daresay it was the product of growing up in the Midlands, and as a heartily unsporty child, displaying a modicum of talent in Archery, and so deciding that I was clearly destined for a life as a wood-dwelling outlaw. Whilst that hasn’t happened (yet), I still love a good book on Robin Hood, and also find the time period in which he (probably didn’t) exist intriguing, as our country changed enormously, in ways that still affect our very ways of life today.
This is the 7th in Angus Donald’s Outlaw Chronicles, a series of books which take a genuinely new and exciting look at an ancient legend, and have been thrilling many readers (including myself), for many years now. Many of these ‘Action/Historical Fiction’ books, of which we’ve seen a wave in recent years, either focus on bloody action, historical detail, or character. Angus Donald talent is in combining all three, creating gritty, affecting drama based in historical places and situations, and conjuring artfully drawn characters who inhabit every molecule of the three dimensions they are imbued with. The quality doesn’t let up in The King’s Assassin, despite having been writing these books for a good six or seven years now. Robin and Alan are still hugely readable characters, realistic in their flaws and decisions and compelling as they move the story along. Returning characters from previous books are a welcome surprise, and the plot is a page turner. Despite knowing that the major characters are likely to make it to the end of the series (or at least the final book), there are still several breath catching moments when I began to question that very idea… In addition, the time period is explored well – it’s always great to see genuine historical detail and infamous moments appear when you least expect it – whilst these may not be 100% accurate, I’d say they’re cracking books for getting teenagers and adults alike interested in history, with this compelling and imaginative take on the life of an English legend.
1667 – The civil wars are over. King Louis XIV crushed the nobility’s rebellion against his father, leaving the throne his. But the aristocracy hounds his every step – and realises that if they will not be loyal, they will at least obey. So the King plants a trap to ensnare them – building Versailles, a prison of opulence where his power is absolute. Trapped by the palace, they have no choice but to play the King’s game and to obey his rule. And so the court becomes a place of tactical liaisons and salacious passions. The Queen fights to keep the King’s attention from his mistress, and the King’s brother struggles to keep his relationship alive. Versailles is not the paradise it appears to be; instead, it is a labyrinth of treason and hushed secrets, of political schemes and deadly conspiracies. It is a place of passion and death, love and vengeance. The King will take what is rightfully his.
I should start by mentioning that this is an adaptation of a TV series – a lavish drama that I’ve yet to watch, but, if this book is anything to go by, one I’ll definitely be tuning into at some point. I was reminded of The Tudors – a series that had little regard for historical accuracy, but focused on character and utilising the genuinely startling true facts in order to craft compelling plots – just not necessarily in the right order… It’s had a fair share of people who enjoyed it, and a fair share who grumbled at the inaccuracies, but, as far as I’m concerned, anything that sparks an interest in history should be encouraged. And so it is with Versailles – a steamy, dramatic romp of a drama that isn’t always completely accurate, but forgoes dry academia for exciting and captivating plot, and explores the lives of genuinely intriguing real life characters. Whilst this is a period novel, the machinations of those in the court could be taking place in any modern day government, and there is a modernity to the prose that I think makes the book accessible for anyone – provided they’re okay with moments of violence, torture, and rather a lot of sex…
Author Elizabeth Massie has had quite the challenge – having to adapt the scripts of an entire series into one book – but does so with real skill, the short chapters serving to make the book a real page turner, but also allowing brief glimpses of the characters that manage to artfully paint very full portraits with surprisingly few brushstrokes. As for the characters? They are wonderfully three dimensional – living, breathing, beating adults who leap off the page and through the centuries to the reader. A particular favourite of mine was Phillipe – the King’s brother, a man whose sexuality was predominantly homosexual, but whose strong will of character and prowess as a military commander warned anyone from gossiping and allowed him to lead a relatively open life (various wives aside…) It all adds up to a thrilling read, and I’m hoping future series of the TV show will produce further books. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.