The London Monster

The London MonsterThe London Monster by Donna Scott (Website, Twitter, IG)

Genre: historical mystery

Setting: Late Georgian London

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 322 pp

Published by: Atlantic Publishing

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In Late Georgian London, a man dubbed as “The London Monster” was attacking women, assaulting first their ears and sensibilities with terribly vulgar come-ons and, when those inevitably failed to win the lady’s affection, he stabbed at her with a dagger. Most of the women only had their dresses torn, though a few were cut on their hips and fortunately, none of them died. It is unlikely that the correct man was ever arrested, though one man did serve time in Newgate as the Monster. Author Donna Scott takes this historical figure out for a ride in her new novel, The London Monster.

Sophie Carlisle, daughter of a minor noble, wants nothing more than to become a journalist. Unfortunately, not only is that a profession forbidden to women, she is also betrothed to Cuthbert “Bertie” Needham, her childhood friend. To attempt to get her articles written and published, Sophie goes around London dressed as a boy, researching and following leads. In the course of her journalistic adventures, Sophie meets and befriends Maeve, an Irish prostitute. Tom Hayes, meanwhile, is the son of a filthy rich merchant with aspirations to a seat in the House of Commons. Tom is haunted by his mother’s murder, which happened before his own eyes when he was ten. To atone for his past helplessness, Tom now is a pugilist and vigilante, determined to catch the Monster before he can hurt any more women. Their paths intersect in so many ways, some entirely unexpected. 

First of all, I loved this book. I actually read it in one sitting, which hasn’t happened with a book in a long time for me. I found the writing to be highly descriptive and engaging, the characters complex, and tone perfectly balanced to reflect a variety of tensions. Sophie is a charming and irrepressible figure. Tom appears to be one of those mythical creatures – a man who is handsome, intelligent, AND genuinely kind all rolled into one. Maeve is salty and pragmatic yet still retains a deep sense of hope despite life having taught her not to bother. Each one of these characters are flawed in some way, but it serves to highlight the strengths of their personalities rather than their weaknesses. 

Speaking of weaknesses. Bertie. Bertie, Bertie, Bertie. He had great potential as a man but he’s just so gross and frankly kind of pathetic. I don’t think readers are really supposed to like him, and certainly I did not. If he had even a little more self-awareness and consideration for others, he might have been a totally sympathetic character. As it was, he came off as more of a self-centered whiner who tried to make Sophie love him even while thinking about how marrying her would solve his family’s debt crisis. Not sure you can truly love a person if you want them for their money, no matter how hard he tries. And perhaps he really did love her, but it always seemed tinged with a variety of desperation. Super not attractive. 

As with any book, I’m not sure if the author wrote about certain themes intentionally or if I am imposing my own interpretation upon the story. However, I picked up some strong themes of consent and safety throughout this book. There was obviously no consent at all in the Monster’s attacks on his victims; they all roundly rejected him and he forced violence upon them anyway. Maeve occupies a liminal space of consent – she is a prostitute so her consent is implied through her vocation, but she hates it and is ashamed, so her consent is grudging at best. To me, I think that equates to NOT giving consent. Sophie wants to help catch the Monster in part because of a frightening experience she had at a party several years earlier when a gentleman she flirted with tried to rape her. At one point, she also tells Tom that she wants the Monster to be caught and imprisoned because she wants him and all men to know that they can’t make women feel they can’t be kind or polite without risking assault. Oh hi, modern women’s continuing issue! Women today STILL can’t be friendly to so many men without them thinking we are flirting and they are entitled to get some. 

Linked to that is a strong sense of shame. Sophie feels ashamed of the incident at the party, despite the fact that it was in no way her fault. No matter what a woman says or does, whether she’s flirting or not, at some point a man makes the decision to assault or rape a woman. It is entirely on him. Yet even today, where there is not nearly the stigma surrounding rape that there once was, many women still are too scared or ashamed to report their assaults. Those who do are often not believed, contributing further reasons for women not to bother. If it’s still like that now, I can only imagine how much worse it would have been in the 1780s. And, as explained in the Author’s Note, while there were more than 50 reported cases of women being attacked by the Monster, the true figure is actually unknown – some women almost certainly never reported their attacks, and others falsely reported an attack. Also like today’s society, some people will say anything to get a little attention, to get their 15 minutes of fame. Shame is carried out further in Maeve’s character. She is a prostitute and she does what she does to survive and to provide money to her young daughter, in the care of another family. But she doesn’t want to be a prostitute and, despite some very frank language about sex from her and other sex workers in the book, Maeve is deeply ashamed of what she does and dreams of a day when she might save enough money to pay off her debts to her madame and leave to do other work instead. 

I also felt there was a strong theme of Otherness and acceptance. Sophie at one point thought about how she would never have tolerated a prostitute near her and would never have thought she would even speak with one. Then she met Maeve and got to know her. The two became true friends, despite the huge gap in their social class, and Sophie found she would go to great lengths to help her friend. See what happens when we get to know people? They turn out to be people with their own feelings and hopes and fears, just like the rest of us! Getting to know people is one of the greatest killers of prejudice and bigotry there is, and the friendship between Sophie and Maeve provided a great example of that. I wish it happened more in real life.

Overall, I devoured this book and can’t wait to read more by Donna Scott. Highly recommended!

Once Upon a River

Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (Website, Twitter)

Genre: magical realism/ historical fantasy

Setting: mid-late 1800s

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 464 pp

Published by: Atria Books (pub date)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Once Upon a River is the tale of a young girl who drowned, and then didn’t. There is an inn that is known for its storytelling, which is where the drowned girl and her rescuer end up. Her story spreads from there and she becomes three different girls who have all gone missing. The lives of a photographer, a healer, a farmer, and a pub owner all become entwined because of their connections, real or otherwise, to the drowned girl.

I honestly don’t want to write an in-depth review of this book. I fucking LOVED it and don’t want to have to think too closely about it. It was a fairy tale wrapped in a mystery set in a historical fiction. I never wanted it to end, and when it did, I wanted to forget all about it so I could read it again for the first time. The writing was gorgeous – truly evocative of fairy tales – and the characters were well defined and complex, every one of them. The setting was ephemeral and had very much an otherworldly feel to it, which was perfect for the story. I had too many favorite lines and scenes, so I only put a couple below. Otherwise, I’d just be copying down the entire book. I can’t describe it, just go read it for yourself. You will not be sorry you did!

 

Favorite part/ lines (spoilers!):

  • ‘The Swan was a very ancient inn, perhaps the most ancient of them all. It had been constructed in three parts: one was old, one was very old, and one was older still’ (3). 
  • ‘She could lift barrels without help and had legs so sturdy, she never felt the need to sit down. It was rumored she even slept on her feet, but she had given birth to thirteen children, so clearly she must have lain down sometimes’ (5). 
  • The discussion about the word one ought to use to describe a person rowing very quickly up a river. Can’t be haring because hares don’t go in row boats. Can’t be ottering because that sounds worse than haring. It was a very serious discussion.
  • ‘There was a general hubbub of conversation between the windows as the story was discussed, its missing pieces identified, attempts made to fill them in…Fred began to feel left out of his own tale, sensed it slipping from his grasp and altering in ways he hadn’t anticipated; now it had slipped the leash and was anybody’s’ (46)
  • ‘They sat on the bank. It was better to tell such stories close to the river than in a drawing room. Words accumulate indoors, trapped by walls and ceilings. The weight of what has been said can lie heavily on what might yet be said and suffocate it. By the river the air carries the story on a journey: one sentence drifts away and makes room for the next’ (361).
  • ‘While the water lay unperturbed and indifferent all around, the women at the Swan were engaged on the human pursuits of dying and being born. On one side of the wall Helena struggled to deliver her baby into life. On the other side, Joe struggled to depart it. The little Margots got on with everything that needed to be done so that life could be begun and so that it could be ended’ (417).
  • ‘There must be more to stories than you think’ (431).
  • ‘And though eventually there came a day when the man himself was forgotten, his stories lived on’ (457). 
  • ‘How many photographs could a man take in a lifetime? A hundred thousand? About that. A hundred thousand slivers of life, ten or fifteen seconds long, captured by light on glass’ (458).
  • ‘And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, you surely must have rivers of your own to attend to?’ (460).

Chariot of the Soul

Chariot of the SoulChariot of the Soul by Linda Proud (Website, Twitter)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: ancient Rome and Britain

I read it as a(n): digital galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 498 pp

Published by: Godstow Press (23 Oct 2018)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Togidubnos (AKA Delfos or Delphinius) is the youngest son of the Briton king Verica, sent to Rome as a royal hostage as part of a trade agreement between Verica and Rome. Educated in that great city for 10 years by Seneca himself, Togidubnos is then sent back to Britain to help convince his people that their wisest course of action is to fall in line and submit to the might of the Roman Empire. When he arrives, he finds his two worlds – Roman and Stoic, Briton and Druid – at odds, both in the politics of the world and within himself.

Chariot of the Soul focuses on the eventual takeover of Britain by the Roman Empire under Claudius. The author sets the stage nicely. It is obvious that she did some **excellent** research and she shows it with thorough but not pedantic history given as current events in Togidubnos’s young life. The Britons are still rather tribal, and alliances between the various tribes are often unpredictable and ever-changing. Caligula sent an invasion force during his short, disastrous reign, but it failed, the biggest impact being that some British tribes continued trading with Roman territories afterwards. Claudius was smarter about it, using Togidubnos’s knowledge of his home country to try to win the Britons over through more peaceable means. To some extent, this worked as the regions in southern Britain were generally more peaceful under Roman rule than other regions. By the end of the novel, readers have a good understanding of the shifting politics of the period. We are also introduced to Boudicca, that spectacular woman who united the tribes and very nearly kicked the Romans out on their collective asses. Presumably, that part will come in the sequel, as Chariot of the Soul is only the first of a series. 

The characters in Proud’s novel were all deep and well-crafted. Seeing the ways in which Togidubnos grew and changed over time was…not really fun since a lot of bad things happened to him. But satisfying, I suppose, to see how he grew in Stoicism, learned how best to use his knowledge of both Rome and Britain to help as many people as he could, and how he reconnected with the people of his birthplace. His mission was really an impossible one – go back to Britain and convince these very different and almost neurotically independent tribes to submit peacefully to Rome. It is no wonder that he became conflicted in a variety of ways. Togidubnos was a real king, by the way, of the Atrebates tribe. There’s not a lot known about him, but it was enough to give Proud a few good ideas! His British slave, Mandred, was probably my favorite character. I have a soft spot for sarcastic folk anyway, and he was probably the one person who truly kept Togidubnos on a proper path. 

I think my favorite element of character development focused on Claudius himself. He did not have a very large role in this novel, nor was it necessary since the story isn’t about him. But I loved how Proud made him seem a fool prior to becoming emperor, but he always had flashes of the real man underneath, hidden and waiting to be released. She really highlighted the ways in which other people underestimated him. I never really subscribed to the view that Claudius was mentally challenged because I just don’t see how he could have reigned for nearly 14 years if that were the case. I suppose he could have been a puppet but it seems easier and more in line with so much of Roman succession if his handler were just to kill him and take over. I recently read that possible reasons for Claudius’s tremor, slurred speech, and other physical ailments could have been polio, cerebral palsy, or even Tourette’s syndrome. Whatever the reason, I think he was a more successful emperor than many who came before him, and certainly more so than some who came after. 

Another excellent element of this novel was the focus on horses. Yes, I was a horse-crazy little girl. I am probably still a horse-crazy middle-aged woman. But no, that isn’t why I love this part. In a lot of other novels I’ve read set in pre-Roman or Roman Britain, horses were present but treated mainly as tools. Here, they were priceless, with herds going back through generations of painstaking breeding. The warriors loved their horses and when bad things happened to them, they were as grief-stricken as they were when a beloved comrade died. I liked seeing this side of ancient British culture explored more. The author actually has a nice little segment about this on her website.

Proud also did a good job with her handling of the druids. I loved the mystical feel to many of these characters, but it wasn’t so mystical as to be unbelievable. I do wish there had been more here, more detail or rituals. But Proud did very well with the extremely limited sources there are about the druids. 

Honestly, I think the only thing I didn’t care for was the title of the book, and that may not even have been up to the author. It does come from a discussion Togidubnos has with a druid, but we don’t get that until near the end of the book. Initially, the title made me think of some melodramatic bodice ripper with a very buxomy lass spilling out of her dress all over a half-naked Fabio. LOL. It has nothing to do with any of that, thank god, and is a complex and very well researched novel.

Overall, this was an excellent read and I am looking forward to reading the sequel.

Soothsayer

SoothsayerSoothsayer by Kathryn Amurra (Website)

Genre: historical romance

Setting: Roman city of Lugdunum (modern day Lyon, France)

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 212 pp

Published by: Kathryn Amurra/ independently published (10 May 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Set in the Roman Empire, Soothsayer is the story of Aurelia, a beloved daughter of a minor nobleman. She is determined only to marry a man she loves and her doting father agrees, allowing her to turn down several potential suitors. His death, which takes place before the book begins and thus is no spoiler, places her in an unstable situation, not just on her own behalf as an unwed young woman, but because of her brother, Angelus. Angelus is what we would consider developmentally disabled, possibly autistic, and Aurelia is desperate to prevent him being inevitably killed during the mandatory military service required of men when they turn 16. The best way to do this is for Aurelia to marry the regional governor, an old friend of her father’s, who can give Angelus a dispensation from military duty.

Sent to bring Aurelia and her unpleasant aunt to the governor’s estate is Cassius, a career military man and captain of the governor’s soldiers. He was told by a soothsayer as a child that his life would be short, so Cassius has spent his whole life to date avoiding close attachments. He figures it would be better for others not to get attached to him only to have him die young. Of course, making a plan is the best way to make the gods laugh, so Cassius finds himself in charge of Aurelia after a series of small disasters separates them from the rest of Aurelia’s retinue and sets them alone on the road to the governor’s estate. 

This novel was a delightful surprise. I chose to read it mostly because I hadn’t read anything set in the Roman Empire in a long time and I felt the urge to, despite the obvious romance elements it contains (I’m NOT a reader of romance). What I found was not the usual predictable romance but rather a very well researched story about ancient Rome that just happened to have a little romance in it. Murra set this story solidly in a historical framework and adhered to the facts we know. 

Aurelia was a complex and well-crafted character. She did not come across as shallow or frivolous, which she could easily have done considering her young age of 19. She was a mature woman by the standards of the time and she was portrayed as such on the page, a fact I highly appreciated. She was the mistress of her own household once her father died, and she took her duties seriously. Her care for her brother would probably have been a pretty rare thing for the time, when no developmental delay was really understood. Many people, including Aurelia, thought Angelus’s defects were a result of his mother’s sins. When he got into some trouble with Cassius’s soldiers, it was evident that they probably would have killed him if Aurelia and Cassius both hadn’t intervened. With that kind of society, Aurelia learns that she has to make sacrifices to save her brother from a horrible life and quick, probably brutal, death. 

The title Soothsayer is interesting considering that the soothsayer in question had a very tiny on-page presence. But the notion of fate and one’s future is prevalent throughout. Aurelia thinks it is her fate to be unhappy but she is willing to make that sacrifice on Angelus’s behalf. Cassius thinks he is fated to die young. The choices each of them makes are informed almost entirely by their interpretation of the soothsayer’s predictions. The cool thing about fate, other than how it doesn’t exist, is that you can interpret a prediction in just about any fucking way you please. Which, in this case, provides a pleasing denouement to the story 

The only thing I didn’t like was that I felt there needed to be a little more description. Murra discussed the clothes the characters wore in that she called them a palla, tunic, or toga, but there wasn’t a lot of describing what those actually looked like. Same with the buildings. Wealthy Roman houses had an atrium with some kind of catchment for collecting water, gardens, various rooms. None of these were really described. It would help bring the story even more to life if these details had more prominence. But their lack did not take away from the story very much, so maybe other readers won’t care. 

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book and would gladly read others by the same author.

The Forgotten Kingdom

The Forgotten KingdomThe Forgotten Kingdom by Signe Pike (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fantasy*

Setting: 6th century Scotland

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Toni Frutin, Gary Furlong, and Siobhan Waring

Source: my own collection

Length: 14:07:00

Published by: Simon and Schuster Audio (15 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Forgotten Kingdom is the second instalment in Signe Pike’s Lost Queen trilogy. It picks up immediately after the events of the first book. Languoreth is imprisoned and awaiting news of a battle that holds the fates of her brother, eldest son, and husband. The land is divided and her brother, Lailoken, is battling against her husband, Rhydderch. At the same time, Languoreth’s youngest daughter, Angharad, is traveling with Lailoken to become a Wisdom Keeper. IN the chaos of battle, they become separated and Lailoken is drawn into the political and military intrigues while his young niece is lost in the wilderness and left on her own. The survivors of the battle are similarly thrown to the elements, left to fend for themselves in the Caledonian forest. 

This summary does no justice to the depth of this novel. While I liked the first book in the trilogy a bit better, this was a necessary examination of the politics and alliances Languoreth and her kin had to make to survive against the tide of the new Christian religion. Readers are introduced to Artur, who will, I’m sure, become King Arthur later. Angharad, surviving with a relative she discovered among the Pictish folk, may, I suspect, become the Lady of the Lake. I’m very curious to see if I am right, and how this will all play out.

Dumbarton Castle and Fortingal are the modern names for real places in the book. Pike set her story among these locations based on her extensive research. Clyde Rock and the kingdom of Strathclyde, as well as Languoreth’s birthplace of Cadzow, were historical sites, long since lost to history. But, as I have said in other reviews, placing a fantasy in a historical context is the best. It gives us hope that the figures and stories we love so well might not be stories at all, but are part of an actual history that has been lost or overwritten. 

Pike’s term “the forgotten kingdom” regrets to the Picts, the Scots of Dalriada, and other Brythonic peoples. Much of what we know about these people comes from Roman records, which must be taken with a large grain of salt. The Britons of the early medieval period passed knowledge primarily through oral tradition and so their histories were recorded by others. Few relics of their cultures survive. Sometimes, the best we can hope for are post holes from a building; the buildings themselves were mostly made from wood, or wattle and daub, and rotted away. Pike did a terrific job with the use of historical placenames and customs of various groups of people and of bringing the characters to life.

The politics and battles in this book were complex and dramatic. In a way, I wish this period of history was better recorded so we could know more for certain about it. But the very fact that it is not well recorded leaves rich ground for authors to craft stories around the few facts we do have. 

I highly recommend this book (though it is not really a standalone, so you’ll want to read The Lost Queen first, if you haven’t already). The only thing I don’t like is that the third book isn’t coming out until late 2023, per Pike’s website. That is so long! 

*The author’s note made an excellent argument that historical fiction is often miscategorized as historical fantasy, especially if there are references to old or other deities than those found in the Christian tradition. A character will do a chant, prayer, or spell and something happens as a result of it, so they think, and so the story is labeled fantasy. And yet, when Christian characters do the exact same things, the story is labeled historical fiction, as though the religions and beliefs of pre-Christian cultures are somehow less worthy of being considered real. Pike makes a great point with that argument. What we now consider to be mythology was once the official religion of state for the Roman Empire. It would be interesting to see what people in a thousand years will think of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Short of having actual magic or dragons or other similar elements of pure fantasy, I will be calling all books like Pike’s historical fiction. She made a convert out of me. Every pun intended.

Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1

27396420._sy475_Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1 by Erica Laine (Website, Twitter, Facebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 13th century England

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 124 pp

Published by: Brook Cottage Books (28 Oct 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Not many things, fictional or otherwise, are written about Isabelle of Angoulême, so when I came across this trilogy while researching the wives of King John, I was pleased. This first installment covers Isabelle’s life from just prior to her marriage to John, while she was still betrothed to Hugh le Brun de Lusignan, to John’s death in 1216. 

Almost nothing is known about Isabelle’s early life, but Raine filled in some blanks admirably with educated guesses at how a girl of her status would have been raised. There were tons of historically accurate details about daily life in medieval Europe, which made for an immersive reading experience. For instance, Laine often used quotes from various medieval manuscripts, chronicles, or people. They were not always given to the people who actually said the words, but it didn’t make a negative impact on any given scene, and I doubt anyone who hasn’t been up to their eyeballs in medieval research would even know it. But I got a kick out of reading things like “To some it was ugly news, to others, lovely,” which is from the History of William Marshal, and knowing where they were from, who said it, and the context. Raine clearly did her research even while taking some creative liberties.

Similarly, there are several different schools of thought regarding Isabelle and John’s relationship, why he married Isabelle, the reasons for his loss of the continental Angevin lands, and the personalities of each. Raine took some of these various theories and used them to spin a plausible story about this royal couple. It will be interesting to see how the rest of Isabelle’s life plays out in the remaining two books, and how she herself will grow and change. In this book, Isabelle was portrayed as very much a spoiled, somewhat vapid brat, a girl who was raised to be ambitious but who could be distracted with shiny baubles and jewels. 

Overall, a quick and interesting read about a woman many readers would never know about. Recommended.

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary

 

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin (Website)

Genre: literary/historical fiction

Setting: 1st century Ephesus

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Meryl Streep

Source: my own collection

Length: 03:07:00

Published by: Simon and Schuster Audio (10 Sept 2013)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A first person narrative of some of the events of the alleged life of Jesus, told from his mother Mary’s point of view. The premise is that she is now an old woman waiting to die, and so is writing down her recollections in a factual manner. She is not amused by her son’s choice of friends, who she says are mostly men who can’t even look a woman in the eye. Nor is she impressed with the people who believe her son is the son of God. She definitely has no time for that. She has no interest in collaborating with the authors of the Gospels, who are her keepers as well. She doesn’t think they are ‘holy disciples’ or that her son’s death was ‘worth it.’

I dig this Mary. This Mary has absolutely zero fucks left to give, and she’s not shy about telling you so. She points out the many times she was dismissed or treated badly by her son or others. She is not the gentle, meek, retiring woman portrayed over the centuries in so much art and literature. This Mary has Things to Say™ and she is not happy about the way events played out, nor with the players involved. Here, she is a grieving, bitter old woman, and I don’t blame her. If someone killed my child in any way, let alone in a horrifically brutal way, I’d be bitter and pissed off about it, too. And would likely have a whole lot more to say about it than she did here. Or else I’d be dead because I would attack the people and get it over so they’d kill me. 

I am as atheist as they come and find this a refreshing and realistic portrayal of Mary, totally divorced from centuries of veneration that has been heaped on her. Not that I believe she existed any more than Jesus did. But if she did, I can see her ending up like this. This Mary obviously loves her son but she doesn’t spare him any criticism, either. She doesn’t think he is divine or that he is the son of God. She thinks he didn’t treat her all that well once he was grown. She didn’t like his friends and thought they were a bunch of misfits. She felt that her son’s preaching was dangerous, bizarre, and delusional. She will not tell her keepers stories about her son that weren’t true just so they could fit them in with the narrative they created about him. She simply refuses to play. I loved her, and I felt horrible for her.

Meryl Streep, of course, did an exceptional job narrating this story. She imbues her voice with age, fatigue, bitterness, grief, everything you might expect to find in a woman who has lived far longer than she really wants to, burdened as she is with sorrow and anger. 

I loved this book (novella, really) and recommend it highly. However, if a reader is really religious and isn’t inclined to view Mary or her son in any way other than how they are represented in the Wholly Babble, then it might be better to skip this one. It is NOT an irreverent or heretical book, but it pulls no punches and undermines the whole point of Christianity. Which is why I loved it, naturally. 

The Distant Hours

The Distant HoursThe Distant Hours by Kate Morton (Website, Insta)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction/ mystery

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Caroline Lee

Source: my own collection

Length: 22:31:00

Published by: Bolinda Publishing (26 Oct 2010)

Edie Burchill never really understood her mother. But the arrival of a letter, lost for 50 years and addressed to Edie’s mother from Milderhurst Castle, sets Edie on a mission to discover the mysteries of her mother’s past. Mystery mixed with a bit of the Gothic and the romantic, the plot takes Edie back to Milderhurst Castle, her mother’s home during the evacuation of London’s children during the Blitz. There, she meets the sisters Blythe, twins Persephone ‘Percy’ Blythe and Seraphina ‘Saphy’ Blythe, and their younger sister Juniper. Edie digs deep to discover why her mother is so reluctant to talk about her time at Milderhurst, why the abandonment of Juniper’s fiance in 1941 sent her mad, and what the twin sisters are really hiding. 

This was a solid Gothic mystery, though not one of my favorites. It seems like it has all the requisite components of a very good Gothic mystery, but something was just lacking. I think there was often too much telling and not showing, what must have been pages of no dialogue (listening to it on audio makes it a little hard to tell), and then the denouement was kind of flat and not really a surprise. 

I didn’t really like Edie very much. Not that she was a bad character or anything, she was just rather boring. Maybe this was intentional on Morton’s part because the sisters Blythe were certainly NOT boring. Maybe Morton did that so she could highlight the eccentricity of the sisters. Whatever it was, I did very much enjoy the sisters. The writing style itself was also nice. I like the florid style of Gothic literature, and while this wasn’t exactly florid or fully Gothic, I liked the atmosphere Morton created all the same. 

This was my first read from Morton and, while I didn’t care for some aspects of it, I liked her writing and am happy to give her other books a go. 

Bright Blade (Byrhtnoth Chronicles #3)

Bright Blade coverBright Blade by Christine Hancock 

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 398 pp

Published by: Madder Press (8 Oct 2019)

Thegn Byrhtnoth owes allegiance to his lord, Ealdorman Athelstan, and his king Eadred. He is, however, less than thrilled to be ordered to participate in Ealdred’s attempt to retake the Northumbrian kingdom from the self-styled King of York. In the war, Eadred pits his army not only against the political North, but its people as well, giving his soldiers free reign to plunder, pillage, and rape indiscriminately. Byrhtnoth has issues with this, partly because it goes against his personal sense of honor. When Eadred assigns him to repair ships in Devon to bring to the war effort, Byrhtnoth finds himself in the middle of a battle to revenge himself upon a man who harmed his wife (in a previous book) and a quest to find his long-lost father. 

This novel is the third in the Byrhtnoth Chronicles series. While it was very readable and told a fast-paced story, I don’t think it is really good as a standalone. There are references to events from the prior two books that attempt to fill in the gaps, but it wasn’t really adequate for readers who haven’t read the whole series. Additionally, there were a few anachronisms, such as the term ‘girlfriend,’ which didn’t come into use until the 20th century. These are relatively minor quibbles, though, as the plot and action were engaging and the characters are generally intriguing enough to make readers want to learn more about them and what happens in their lives. 

The historical detail in this novel was precise and layered. I enjoyed reading about the Anglo-Saxon culture and the ways in which their political system worked. Some references to other very well-known texts, such as Beowulf, added depth to the story. Additionally, the details of the treatment of one specific wound (which I won’t detail further to avoid spoilers!) aligns with archaeological evidence from the Wharram Percy site, to the northeast of York. It always thrills me to read historical fiction that blends in actual practices and is based on evidence from the historical record. 

I didn’t see a lot of character development in this novel, but much of it may have occurred in the previous books. The story and writing were compelling enough that I plan to backtrack and read the first two installments in the series. The writing itself and structure of the book draw readers in and encourage them to keep reading, as the chapters are quite short. 

Overall, a very pleasing read about one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon lords. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and the fourth book, anticipated later in 2020.

Sword of Shadows

47863903Sword of Shadows  by Jeri Westerson (WEBSITE, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley 

Length: 224 pp

Published by: Severn House (20 April 2020)

We are nearing the end of the adventures of Crispin Guest, disgraced lord and knight, self-created Tracker of London. In this tale, Crispin and his apprentice Jack Tucker are hired by Cornish treasure hunter Carantok Teague to assist him in finding a long lost sword. It turns out to be none other than Excalibur that Teague seeks. Crispin is, of course, skeptical, but takes the job as he needs money, as always. Teague leads them to Tintagel, the fabled birthplace of King Arthur, to seek the sword. While there, two men in the castle guard are murdered, and Crispin is sidetracked from the search for the sword to investigate the deaths. Along the way, he encounters Kat Pyke, his one-time lover, as well as a host of young women jilted by one of the murdered men, and a hidden village in the forest full of Druids. Exactly what Crispin needs to have an interesting time.

Anyone who knows me at all knows I have a particular soft spot for Arthurian legend. Mixing that in with one of my favorite historical fiction series is like human catnip to me. The murder investigation element of the story takes a fairly normal course, and certainly not all is as it first appears. The Arthurian element was fun because who hasn’t thought about that sword in the stone or of where its final resting place might really be? I did feel that the Athurian sections were not as well fleshed out as the rest, but that just adds to the mystery a bit. And the surprise at the end with the old caretaker was a delight. 

Jack is grown now and Crispin is letting him take the lead on a variety of tasks that he wouldn’t have before. I’ve said it before and will say it again here that it is good to see Jack grow from a mischievous young boy to an honorable, dependable man. If she wanted to, Westerson could easily continue her medieval noir novels with Jack as the protagonist and new Tracker, with Crispin making cameo appearances. I think she has no such plans, but it is still fun to consider, as well as the final story in the series. I know how *I* hope Crispin’s tale ends, but we shall have to wait and see what Ms Westerson thinks about it! 

Strongly recommended!