Quick Review – The Imitator by Rebecca Starford

The Imitator Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 February 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5

Deception, divided loyalties and despair are all on offer in the debut novel of Australian writer Rebecca Starford, who presents a curious and captivating read with The Imitator.

Synopsis:

‘We trade in secrets here, Evelyn. There’s no shame in having a few of your own. Our only concern is for who might discover them.’

Out of place at boarding school, scholarship girl Evelyn Varley realises that the only way for her to fit in is to be like everyone else. She hides her true self and what she really thinks behind the manners and attitudes of those around her. By the time she graduates from Oxford University in 1939, ambitious and brilliant Evelyn has perfected her performance.

War is looming. Evelyn soon finds herself recruited to MI5, and the elite counterintelligence department of Bennett White, the enigmatic spy-runner. Recognising Evelyn’s mercurial potential, White schools her in observation and subterfuge and assigns her the dangerous task of infiltrating an underground group of Nazi sympathisers working to form an alliance with Germany.

But befriending people to betray them isn’t easy, no matter how dark their intent. Evelyn is drawn deeper into a duplicity of her own making, where truth and lies intertwine, and her increasing distrust of everyone, including herself, begins to test her better judgement. When a close friend becomes dangerously ensnared in her mission, Evelyn’s loyalty is pushed to breaking point, forcing her to make an impossible decision.

A powerfully insightful and luminous portrait of courage and loyalty, and the sacrifices made in their name.

This ended up being a fantastic and enjoyable read from Rebecca Starford, who has come up with a really intriguing and unique story.  Starford is an Australian writer who is probably best known for her work on the Kill Your Darlings magazine, as well as her non-fiction book Bad Behaviour, which chronicled the author’s life at an elite country boarding school.  The Imitator, which was also released under the title, An Unlikely Spy, is an impressive and captivating historical drama that follows a young woman who becomes involved with British espionage at the start of World War II. 

The Imitator has an interesting and surprising story to it which is guaranteed to grab the reader’s attention all the way up to its final shocking twist.  Told from the perspective of protagonist, Evelyn Varley, the story is split into two distinct periods, with some of plot set shortly after the end of World War II, while the rest follows the protagonist during the early days of the war.  Most of the narrative is set during the earlier time and examines the protagonist during this period, including her recruitment into MI5 and her eventual work investigating Nazi sympathisers.  This proves to be quite a fascinating narrative thread, and I really enjoyed the great blend of historical espionage and the compelling drama surrounding the character and her personal relationships.  I was particularly intrigued by the parts of the book that explored Evelyn’s attempts to infiltrate a major group of Nazi sympathisers, especially as she is forced to alter her personality to fit into the tight-knit group of fascists.  Starford also includes several chapters set after the war which show Evelyn dealing with the aftermath and her actions during the conflict.  These post-war sequences compliment the rest of the story extremely well, and hint at tragic consequences to what she did after she is contacted by people from her past.  However, readers are in for quite a shock, as these later sequences are shown to be a major bait and switch.  Instead of the conclusion that you would generally expect in one of these stories, Starford puts in a particularly major and dramatic twist which really changes the entire tone of the narrative.  This twist was a brilliant master stroke from the author, especially as it switches around the implications for the post-war chapters and shines a whole new light on everything.  I was really impressed with this amazing narrative, especially once you realise how the author set up the clever ending, and this was truly an awesome and memorable story.

One of the things that I really liked about The Imitator was the fantastic historical setting of London during the early period of World War II.  Starford did a great job of highlighting what life during this period would have been like, from the early actions of organisations such as MI5, to the feelings of the populace, most of whom were convinced that the war would be fought far away or would not happen at all.  I was also really impressed by the author’s examination and dramatization of several intriguing real-life historical events that occurred during this period.  The character of Evelyn Varley is based upon the real life of MI5 operative Joan Miller, who infiltrated a major Nazi sympathiser movement, known as the Right Club, in London back in 1939.  Many details about the Right Club are fitted into the book and used as the basis for the Nazi group the protagonist infiltrates.  While there are several name changes, the fictional group closely matches what actually happened with the Right Club and MI5’s mission to infiltrate it.  I felt that Staford did an amazing job exploring this group and the mission of Joan Miller, and it proved to be an exceptional and clever base to this awesome story.

I also must compliment the compelling and intriguing protagonist of this novel, Evelyn, who serves as the main point-of-view character for the story.  Evelyn is a complex individual with a number of features formed during her harsh early life at a prestigious private boarding school.  Thanks to her less affluent parents, Evelyn does not really fit in with the richer students and is soon forced to adopt a much different persona, which is helped by the relationship she forms with the family of her one friend at the school.  This ability to change her persona becomes particularly important later in life when she begins her career in espionage and must show a false side to herself to people she is trying to take down.  Starford has written a fantastically complex character here in Evelyn, and I really appreciated the way in which the author examines what events or personality traits a successful undercover spy might need to have.  I also liked the way in which we get to see the character at different parts of her life as the book progresses, such as her innocent pre-war life, her experiences as a seasoned infiltrator and her reflections as a damaged survivor.  These various periods of her life and the different personalities are very dramatic and intriguing, and I found it fascinating to see how the author envisioned her changing personality.  Starford also writes in an extremely good storyline around the protagonist’s twisted loyalties, which forces her to choose between the safety of her country and the people closest to her.  These conflicting loyalties and friendships take Eveyln in some dark places and I really must applaud the clever and powerful narrative that Starford constructed around this great character.

Overall, The Imitator by Rebecca Starford is an exceptional and captivating read that comes highly recommended.  I really enjoyed this fantastic book’s clever blend of historical fiction, espionage and dramatic storylines, and I had a wonderful time getting through all of The Imitator’s compelling twists and revelations.  An outstanding read that is guaranteed to stick in the mind long after you have finished reading it.

The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

The Evening and the Morning Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Hardcover – 15 September 2020)

Series: Kingsbridge – Book 0

Length: 819 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following three long years of waiting, one of the best authors of historical fiction in the world today (and one of my all-time favourite authors), Ken Follett, returns with another historical epic, The Evening and the Morning.

Follett is a highly acclaimed author who has written a number of impressive bestsellers over his 45+ year writing career.  After starting off with thriller novels, Follett really hit his literary stride when he moved on to massive historical fiction novels.  After experiencing great success with the iconic The Pillars of the Earth, he has gone on to produce several other epic books, including two sequels to The Pillars of the Earth and the outstanding The Century trilogy.  I have been a major fan of Follett for years ever since I had the great pleasure of reading The Century trilogy.  This was followed up with the second sequel to The Pillars of the Earth, A Column of Fire, which was easily one of my favourite books of 2017.  Thanks to how overwhelmingly compelling each of these previous novels were, I have been eagerly waiting to read his latest novel, The Evening and the Morning, for a while now, and it has been one of my most anticipated novels for the second half of 2020.

The Evening and the Morning is a character driven historical fiction novel that is set near the end of the Dark Ages of England.  The novel actually serves as a prequel to Follett’s bestselling The Pillars of the Earth and is part of Follett’s Kingsbridge series.  The Kingsbridge novels are all set within the fictional town of Kingsbridge, which each novel exploring a different period of English history (for example The Pillars of the Earth is set between 1123 CE and 1174 CE, while its sequel, World Without End, starts in 1327 CE).  This prequel is once again set in the same area, with the novel running between 997 CE and 1007 CE.

At the end of the 10th century, England is far from settled and faces attack from external threats.  One particularly vicious Viking raid causes untold damage at the town of Combe, near the city of Shiring, and sets off a chain of events that will change the area forever.

Following the raid, one of the survivors, a young boat builder named Edgar is forced to abandon his home and follow his family to the small hamlet of Dreng’s Ferry.  Living amongst the unwelcoming locals and corrupt landlord, the brilliant Edgar chafes and tries to find a new way to provide for his family.  At the same time, a Norman noblewoman, Ragna, falls in love with the ealdorman of Shiring and travels to England to marry him.  However, she soon discovers herself engulfed in a brutal battle for power with her husband’s family, and any misstep could cost her everything.  These characters are joined by Aldred, a young and ambitious monk who wishes to turn the abbey at Stirling into an academic hub.  However, his strong sense of right and wrong gets him into trouble as he searches for justice in all the wrong places.

As all three of these characters try to survive the troubles of the location, they find themselves drawn into each other’s lives.  Together they have the power to solve each of their problems and prosper together.  However, each of them has run afoul of the area’s corrupt Bishop, who is determined to gain power and influence no matter the cost.

Unsurprisingly, I absolutely loved this new novel from Follett, who has once again composed an outstanding historical epic.  The Evening and the Morning is another exceptional book that takes the reader on a powerful and captivating ride through an exciting period of English history with an addictive story told through the eyes of several great characters.  I had an outstanding time reading this book, and despite its length (at 800+ pages, it is one of the longest novels I have ever read), I powered through this book in relatively short order as I found the compelling narrative that Follett produced to be deeply addictive and hard to put down.  This was a fantastic read, and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

The Evening and the Morning contains an impressive and addictive character driven narrative that sees three distinctive protagonists attempt to change their destiny and the destiny of the people they love over a period of 10 years.  Set during a turbulent period of England’s history, The Evening and the Morning follows these characters as they attempt to survive Vikings, hunger, bandits and the machinations of a dangerous bishop.  The scope of this book’s story is truly epic as Follett ensures that his protagonists are forced to contend with all manner of challenges and tragedies, from political intrigue, direct attacks, imprisonment and so much more.  The resulting story is deeply compelling, extremely intelligent and wildly entertaining, especially as Follett comes up with a ton of unique and intriguing scenarios for his characters to work around.  I had an incredible time reading The Evening and the Morning’s story and it proved extremely hard to put down.

As I mentioned above, The Evening and the Morning is part of the Kingsbridge series and serves as a prequel to the first book in the series, The Pillars of the Earth.  Despite this, I would say that readers really do not need to have any prior knowledge of the rest of the Kingsbridge books to enjoy The Evening and the Morning.  This latest novel from Follett is extremely accessible, and as it is set more than 100 years before the events of The Pillars of the Earth, readers really should consider this a standalone novel that any historical fiction fan can easily enjoy (that is true for every entry in this series).  That being said, long-term fans of Follett and the Kingsbridge series will no doubt really appreciate seeing this early version of this iconic fiction setting, especially as the author includes a number of clever connections to the future novels in the series.  I particularly liked seeing how the titular Kingsbridge of the series was created, and you also get more of a look at how important the clergy were to the early inhabitants of the town, which is fascinating if you consider how the relationship between the church and the townspeople changes over the course of the series.  As a result, I would say that The Evening and the Morning is a book that most readers will be able to enjoy, while also serving as an intriguing entry in the Kingsbridge series.

The Evening and the Morning’s story follows three major point-of-view characters, Edgar, Ragna and Aldred, and shows the reader 10 key years of their lives.  These three characters form the heart of this story, and it does not take long for you to get really drawn into their individual stories.  Each of these characters has their own intriguing and emotionally charged story arcs, such as the creative Edgar’s attempts to rebuild his life in a hostile new village after experiencing a series of terrible losses, Ragna’s marriage and the subsequent battle to gain power and influence, and Aldred’s bid for justice and knowledge.  I really enjoyed each of these character’s individual arcs, but their real strength lies in the way that their stories and lives tie into one and other.  All three major characters becoming incredibly entwined as the book continues, as they form a strong friendship between themselves and attempt to help each other come the various struggles they encounter.  These separate character storylines come together extremely well into one powerful and cohesive narrative which sees the reader become deeply engrossed in all their lives.  You really grow to care for all three of these characters as the story progresses, becoming deeply invested in their wellbeing and happiness.  While this is evidence of some outstanding writing on Follett’s behalf, it is a little unfortunate as a lot of bad things happen to each of these characters (especially Ragna), and it makes for some emotionally hard reading at times.  There is also a rather intriguing love triangle between these three characters with some interesting LGTB+ elements attached, which adds an additional level of drama to the story.  I ended up being quite satisfied with how these character arcs unfolded, and readers are going to have an incredible time seeing how they turn out.

In addition to the main three characters, there is also another major point-of-view character, Wynstan, the Bishop of Shiring.  Wynstan is the book’s main antagonist, a cunning and ruthless manipulator who is desperate to gain power and influence at the expense of others.  Wynstan is the half-brother of Ragna’s husband, who uses his familiar connections and his corrupted followers to control much of Shiring and the surrounding area.  Follett has created an extremely despicable and aggravating villain with Wynstan, who comes into conflict with all three major protagonists, as each of them cross him in some way or another.  Wynstan is an extremely vengeful and dangerous opponent, who manages to do some fairly evil deeds throughout the book, while avoiding too many repercussions.  I found myself really growing to hate Wynstan and his followers as the book progressed, becoming fairly aggravated whenever he managed to weasel his way out of trouble.  This emotional response to Wynstan is exactly what you want when you write an antagonistic character, and I think that he helped add a lot to the overall narrative.

Follett has also loaded up his story with a ton of side characters who the point-of-view characters interact with throughout their lives.  There are quite a substantial number of side characters in this book, but thanks to Follett’s excellent writing the reader is able to keep track of each of them; at no point during this book did I become lost working out who someone was.  Many of these supporting characters have their own minor story arcs throughout the book, and it is interesting to see how they evolve and change over the years.  While quite a few of them are fairly despicable (indeed, at times it seems like the three main characters are the only decent or sensible people in the story), you do grow attached to them and become wrapped up in what happens to them.  That being said, readers are advised not to get too attached to them, as they have a much higher mortality rate, although there are a few happy endings in there which are guaranteed to satisfy.  Overall, Follett does an exceptional job with all the characters in this novel, and watching their lives unfold was a real emotional rollercoaster.

I also quite enjoyed the author’s fascinating depiction of England (with a bit of Normandy thrown in for good measure) during the late 10th and early 11th century.  While the setting of this book, Shiring and its surrounding environs, are fictional, they come across as period-appropriate settlements and the reader gets a real sense of what life in the various villages and towns would have been like.  Due to the broad scope of the story and what the characters witness, the reader gets a look at a huge range of different people who would have existed during this period, including the nobility, the various members of the clergy, the common people and even slaves.  Follett does an amazing job of highlighting how these various characters would have lived, what their professions or stations were like and the problems they would have typically experienced.  The author really replicates the hard nature of the times, allowing the reader a fascinating glimpse into the harsh and dangerous lives of our ancestors.  Follett also works in some broader historical elements, such as the increased attacks from the Vikings and the political situation at the time.  A lot of these historical inclusions, such as having King Ethelred the Unready appear as a minor character, proved to be really intriguing, and I loved how the author dived back into history to enhance his tale.

With The Evening and the Morning, Ken Follett has once again shown why he is one of the top historical fiction authors in the world today.  This latest novel presents the reader with an exceptional and captivating tale of love, connection and triumph over adversity at the end of England’s dark ages.  Serving as a prequel to Follett’s bestselling The Pillars of the Earth, The Evening and the Morning contains an amazing story that follows some driven and likeable protagonists during this dark period.  The end result is an epic and incredibly addictive read that comes highly recommended and is easily one of the best books of 2020.  There is a reason why Follett is one of my favourite authors of all time, and I cannot wait to see what elaborate novel he comes up with next time.

The Bear Pit by S. G. MacLean

The Bear Pit Cover

Publisher: Quercus (Trade Paperback – 11 July 2019)

Series: Damien Seeker – Book Four

Length: 410 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Back in 2018 I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Destroying Angel, the third book in S. G. MacLean’s Damien Seeker series of historical murder mysteries.  I had an amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I ended up giving a full five-star rating, and I was excited when I heard that a sequel was coming out in 2019.  This sequel, The Bear Pit, had an intriguing premise and sounded like it was going to be quite an awesome read.  Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to read it last year when it first came out, which I have been regretting for some time now.  Luckily, I recently found myself with a little bit of spare reading time, so I finally managed to check this book out.  I am really glad that I did, as The Bear Pit contained a captivating and clever story that sets MacLean’s intense protagonist on the trial of some dedicated killers.

London, 1656.  Oliver Cromwell rules England as the Lord Protector, but not everyone is happy with his reign.  Many believe that his death will end the Puritan state and lead to a return of the monarchy in exile.  In order to bring this about, three men loyal to the crown are currently plotting to kill him.  However, Cromwell is not without his protectors, and his most ardent investigator, the legendary Captain Damien Seeker, is on the case.

Seeker has only recently returned to London after a harrowing investigation in Yorkshire and he is determined to catch the potential assassins before it is too late.  However, Seeker soon finds himself on another case when he discovers the mutilated body of man while conducting a raid on a gaming house.  The victim appears to have been brutally savaged by a bear, yet all the bears in London were shot after bear baiting was declared illegal by Cromwell.  Where did the bear come from and why was it used to commit a murder?

While he continues his hunt for the assassins, Seeker employs his reluctant agent, Thomas Faithly, a former Royalist turned informer, to infiltrate the underground fighting pits in an attempt to find out if any bears remain in the city.  However, as both investigations progress it soon becomes clear that they are connected and that the murder is tied into the assassins hunting Cromwell.  As Seeker attempts to stop them before it is too late, he finds himself facing off against a talented and intelligent foe with great reason to hate Cromwell and everything Seeker stands for.  Can Seeker stop the assassins before it is too late, or has he finally come up against someone even he cannot outthink?

MacLean has come up with another fantastic and compelling historical murder mystery with The Bear Pit.  This book contains an amazing multi-character narrative that combines an intriguing murder mystery storyline with real-life political intrigue and plots, enjoyable characters and a fascinating historical backdrop, all of which comes together into an impressive overall narrative.  Despite being the fourth Damien Seeker book, The Bear Pit is very accessible to readers unfamiliar with the series, and people who are interested in a good historical murder mystery can easy dive into this book without any issues.

At the heart of this novel is an enthralling mystery and intrigue laden storyline that sees Seeker and his companions not only investigating a murder apparently done by a bear, but also trying to unravel a plot to assassinate Cromwell.  This turned into quite an enjoyable and exciting tale that was filled with all manner of twists, surprises, reveals, action-packed fights, disguised antagonists and confused loyalties.  Naturally, the murder and the assassination plot are connected, and the investigations of the protagonist and his compatriots combine together as they attempt to find out who is behind the various crimes and why they were committed.  This proved to be a very captivating storyline, and I really loved the way in which MacLean blended an inventive murder mystery with realistic political intrigue and plots.  There are several clever clues and plenty of foreshadowing throughout the book, and the end result of the mystery was rather clever and somewhat hard to predict.  I really liked how these intriguing storylines turned out, and they helped to make this story particularly addictive and hard to put down.

Another distinctive and enjoyable part of this book is the great characters contained within it.  The main character of The Bear Pit is the series’ titular protagonist Damien Seeker, the moody and serious investigator and loyal solider of Oliver Cromwell.  Seeker is a particularly hardnosed protagonist who inspires all manner of fear and worry in the various people he meets, and it proves to be rather enjoyable to watch him go about his business.  While Seeker is the main character, this novel also follows a substantial cast of characters who end up narrating substantial parts of this book.  Most of these additional point-of-view characters have appeared in previous entries in the series, and it was great to see MacLean reuse them so effectively while also successfully reintroducing them in the context of this book.  Two of the main characters who assist Seeker with his investigation are Thomas Faithly and Lawrence Ingolby, both of whom were introduced in the previous novel, Destroying Angel.  Both characters are rather interesting additions to the novel’s investigative plot, and they serve as a great counterpoint to Seeker due to their youth, their inexperience, and their own way of investigating the crimes.  While Ingolby was a great younger character who looks set to be a major protagonist in the next book in the series, a large amount of the plot revolves around Faithly and his conflicted loyalties.  Faithly is a former exile with strong ties to the royal family, but his desire to return to England sees him make a deal with Seeker to serve Cromwell as a spy.  Despite his desire to remain in England, Faithly finds himself torn between his existing friendships and his new loyalty to Seeker, and this ends up becoming a rather dramatic and compelling part of the book.  Extra drama is introduced thanks to the reappearance of Maria Ellingworth, Seeker’s former love interest.  Both Seeker and Ellingworth have a lot of unresolved feelings with each other, which only become even more confused throughout the course of The Bear Pit when they find themselves in a love triangle with another major character.  This romantic angle, as well as the continued use of his secret daughter, really helps to humanise Seeker, and I enjoyed getting a closer look under Seeker’s usual tough mask.

In addition to the fantastic mystery and intriguing characters, one of the best aspects of The Bear Pit, and indeed the entire Damien Seeker series, is the author’s fascinating look at life in Cromwell’s England.  This is particularly interesting part of England’s history, which saw the implementation of Puritan law across the country, while secret Royalists lay hidden across the country.  This book in particular took a look at what was going on within London, and it was fascinating to see the various aspects of life during the period, from the politics, the hidden loyalties, the impact of day-to-day activities and the removal of previously iconic parts of London life, such as the bear baiting and other blood sports.  MacLean does a really good job of examining these various aspects of life during the Cromwell era and working them into her novels, making them a vital part of the plot as well as a fascinating setting.

One of the most fascinating and impressive historical aspects that MacLean includes in The Bear Pit was the focus on the 1656 plot to kill Oliver Cromwell.  This was a real historical conspiracy that took place throughout London, as three conspirators attempted to kill Cromwell through various means.  The author really dives into the details of the plot throughout this book, and the reader gets a glimpse into the various attempts that were made on Cromwell during this period, as well as the identity and motivations of the three killers.  MacLean even shows several chapters from these killers’ viewpoints, showing all the various preparations they put into each attempt, and then presenting how and why they failed.  I really liked how the author worked these assassination attempts into the main plot of the book, utilising Seeker as a major reason why several of the attempts failed and ensuring that the antagonists were aware of him and considered him the mostly likely person to stop them.  This was a very clever story aspect as a result, and I liked the blend of creative storytelling with historical fact to create an epic and impressive storyline that really stood out.  I also liked MacLean’s compelling inclusion of a major historical Royalist figure as the mastermind of the plot and the main antagonist of the book.  This character has such a distinctive and infamous reputation, and I liked how the author hinted at their arrival and then sprung the surprise towards the end of the book.  This was such a great part of the plot and I look forward to seeing what major historical events MacLean features in the next book in the series.

Overall, The Bear Pit was an outstanding and captivating historical murder mystery that really highlighted S. G. MacLean’s writing ability and creativity.  I really enjoyed the excellent blend of murder and intrigue, set during a fascinating period of England’s history, and the author’s use of great characters and the inclusion of a particularly notable historical occurrence proved to be extremely impressive and resulted in an outstanding read.  As a result, The Bear Pit comes highly recommended by me and I really do regret taking this long to read it.  Luckily, this should ensure that the overall plot of the series is fresh in my mind when I get my hands on the next and final book in the Damien Seeker series, The House of Lamentations, which is out in a couple of weeks.  I have already put in my order for a copy of this upcoming book and I am looking forward to seeing how MacLean finishes off this series, especially after I had such an awesome time reading The Bear Pit.

The Queen’s Tiger by Peter Watt

The Queen's Tiger Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 12 November 2019)

Series: The Colonial series – Book 2

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s best historical fiction writers, Peter Watt, returns with another exciting historical adventure in The Queen’s Tiger, the outstanding sequel to his 2018 release, The Queen’s Colonial.

Following on from the events of The Queen’s Colonial, in 1857, former Australian settler Ian Steele is still living under the guise of Samuel Forbes, a rich English noble who Ian bears an uncanny resemblance to. Ian switched places with Samuel in order to help him meet the required military service he needs to receive a vast inheritance. Serving as a captain in Queen Victoria’s army, Ian has proven himself to be a natural soldier, fighting against the odds dozens of times over against the most vicious enemies of the crown. However, despite the formidable enemies he has faced on the battlefield, Ian has encountered greater dangers far closer to home, as Samuel’s father and his murderous brother Charles are determined that Samuel will never receive his inheritance.

As Ian and his men, including his old friends Sergeant Conan Curry and Corporal Owen Williams, return from fighting the Persian army in Iran, a dangerous threat to the empire is brewing in India. Indian troops under the employ of the British East India Company have begun to mutiny, and the country, caught up in a swell of anti-British nationalism, is beginning to violently rebel against British rule. Among those caught up in the chaos are Samuel’s sister Alice and her husband the surgeon Peter Campbell, whose honeymoon turns into a brutal fight for survival.

Redeployed to India, Ian is once again leading the charge in some of the campaign’s most deadly battles against a determined foe. However, the biggest threat to his survival is happening half a world away back in England, as the real Samuel Forbes returns to London for a personal meeting under the name Ian Steele. When Samuel is spotted and his true identity is suspected, he finds himself hunted throughout England by Charles’s agents, determined to prove that Ian is an imposter. Can Ian and Samuel continue their ruse amidst the tragedy, tribulations and conflicts they encounter, or will the evil forces arrayed against them finally bring them down?

This was another fantastic book from Peter Watt, who has a true knack for producing compelling historical adventures filled with action, intrigue and family drama. The Queen’s Tiger is the second book in Watt’s Colonial series, which follows its protagonists through some of the most dangerous conflicts that the British army found itself involved with during the 19th century. I have to admit that I have been quite keen to check this book out for a little while, and not just because it quotes one of my Canberra Weekly reviews on the cover. The first book in this series, The Queen’s Colonial was an excellent read, and it did a good job following up Watt’s long-running Frontier series of which I was a big fan (make sure to check out my Canberra Weekly reviews for the last two books in this series, While the Moon Burns and From the Stars Above).

The Queen’s Tiger continues the intriguing story from the first book, which saw a simple Australian blacksmith pretend to be an English gentleman in order to serve as an officer in the Queen’s army. This was a compelling start the series, and I am glad that Watt has continued to follow through the fun blend of military action, intrigue and character interactions that have been a signature writing trend of his for some time. The Queen’s Tiger contains a wide-ranging story that covers several characters across a number of continents. This allows the author to showcase a number of different and enjoyable storylines within one book, and as such we can have one section of a book that focuses on the military action and adventure being undertaken by several of the characters in India, and the next section than looks at the sinister plotting of the book’s antagonists, or the desperate attempts of the real Samuel to keep his identity secret in England. In addition to their ongoing adventures, the author also explores the various relationships and romances that the various characters have, painting a rich tapestry of these point-of-view characters’ lives. This is a wonderful combination of storylines, all of which comes together into an excellent and highly enjoyable read.

Just like he did with the Crimean War in The Queen’s Colonial, Watt does a fantastic job bringing an intriguing historical conflict to life in this book, with his focus and examination of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The book actually follows the entire duration of the Indian Mutiny and showcases most of the key moments of the rebellion that turned into full-scale war for independence. As a result of the way that Watt positioned his characters from the first book, the reader gets to see two separate parts of the mutiny. Alice and Peter’s storyline, which also features the new major character of Scott Campbell, focuses on how the English people who were living in India when the mutiny started would have perceived what was going on, and the desperate battle that the English forces garrisoned in India faced against a mass rebellion of their Indian soldiers. Ian’s storyline, on the other hand, shows the battles that the English relief force faced as they tried to retake the country and rescue the English citizens trapped within. This was an extremely fascinating historical event, and I think that Watt’s portrayal of this conflict was extremely intriguing and compelling. Based on the comments in the historical notes section of this book, it looks like Watt is planning to take his characters through a number of England’s various 19th century military campaigns in the following books, and I look forward to seeing where they end up next.

Needless to say, a book that has such a strong focus on soldiers and the Indian Mutiny is going to be very heavy on the action, as the protagonists fight in several battles across Indian and Iran. There are a significant number of fast-paced sequences throughout this book, from the various battles and skirmishes that occur during the mutiny, to thrilling chase scenes in the backstreets of London. Watt’s grasp of 19th century military combat is quite impressive, and there is a very realistic feel to the huge number of fight sequences that occur throughout the book, as he focuses on the tactics and weaponry of the British infantry man. As a result, there is rarely a dull or quiet moment in this book, and action fans will really appreciate the cool fights occurring throughout the book.

Peter Watt has once again delivered an electrifying and enthralling piece of historical fiction with The Queen’s Tiger. Featuring some amazing depictions of a deadly part of history, as well as a bunch of great characters whose various adventures, deceptions and relationships are particularly intriguing, this is a fantastic piece of Australian fiction that is really worth checking out.

The Bone Fire by S. D. Sykes

The Bone Fire Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardcover – 25 July 2019)

Series: Somershill Manor Mystery – Book Four

Length: 310 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a clever and captivating historical murder mystery? Look no further than the latest book from the brilliant S. D. Sykes, The Bone Fire, which continues the adventures of her reluctant 14th century murder-solving protagonist, Oswald de Lacy, who this time finds himself stuck in a unique situation.

After several years of respite, the Plague returns to England in 1361. As a survivor of the original outbreak in 1350, Oswald de Lacy, lord of Somershill in Kent, knows the devastation the sickness can bring. Desperate to save his family, he accepts an invitation from one of his friends, Godfrey, to shelter for the winter in his remote castle in the Romney Marsh with a select company of friends and allies. The rules are simple: once the de Lacy family enters the castle, the gates will be closed and no-one will be allowed to leave until the Plague has passed.

Arriving just ahead of the Plague with his wife, son, mother and valet, de Lacy finds that Godfrey’s castle is a grim refuge filled with a disagreeable group of fellow guests and servants. Despite this, the castle appears to be the safest place for them, especially with the Plague already ravishing the outside countryside. That is until their host is found murdered in his own library.

As the residents deal with the shock of losing the lord of the castle, other bodies are discovered within the castle walls. With nowhere to run except onto the plague-infested island outside the castle walls, de Lacy must once again rely on his talent for solving mysteries to save the day. However, it soon becomes apparent that de Lacy is up against a ruthless killer who delights in violence and is seemingly able to move about the castle undetected. Can de Lacy solve this crime before it is too late, or will he and his family face a fate worse than the sickness keeping them trapped within the castle?

The Bone Fire is the fourth book in Sykes’s Somershill Manor Mystery series, which started back in 2014 with Plague Land. The Somershill Manor Mystery books are an intriguing historical mystery series which follows the investigations of its protagonist in the land devastated by the Black Death. I had not previously read any of Sykes’s books, although her preceding release, City of Masks, is probably one of the books I most regret not reading in 2017.

I was initially drawn to The Bone Fire by the beautiful cover and the really cool-sounding plot, and I thought that this novel had some real potential. I am extremely glad I decided to get a copy of this book, as I was blown away by the fantastic and clever story. Sykes does an excellent job of combining a complex and compelling murder mystery with a unique and fascinating historical setting. The entire story is extremely fast paced, and I found myself racing through the book in no time at all, especially as it proved to be pretty darn hard to disengage from the fantastic story.

Those readers who have not had the opportunity to read any of Sykes’s books can easily enjoy The Bone Fire without any foreknowledge of the previous entries in the Somershill Manor Mystery series. Each of the books in the series can be read as a standalone novel, although existing readers will note the continuation of character arcs from the earlier entries in the series. Some information from the previous books does play a role in the story, including how the protagonist survived the first outbreak of the Plague, however Sykes always does a careful job of reintroducing these elements in The Bone Fire well before they become relevant to the plot.

At the heart of this book lies an excellent murder mystery storyline, as the protagonist is forced to investigate a series of killings in a remote English castle. Sykes has come up with a thrilling murder mystery storyline that follows a twisting and intriguing investigation. The protagonist has a huge bevy of potential suspects, each of whom has their secrets and schemes, which de Lacy has to unravel in order to get to the bottom of the murders, and there are a variety of motives for the killings occurring in the castle. The case goes in some very interesting directions, and the end result was very satisfying, with some well-plotted-out twists and some truly unique motivations for a murder. I had a great time trying to figure out who the killer was, and this was a terrific storyline to centre the book upon.

While the murder mystery storyline is an excellent part of this book, readers will also be entranced by Sykes’s use of a fascinating historical setting. Like the first two books in this series, the author has set the story in the midst of plague-ravished England. However, unlike the previous books, which dealt with the first bout of the Black Death between 1348-51, this story is set in 1361, when a second plague hit the country. This time the populace, including all the characters in this book, were much more aware of how deadly the Plague could be and took steps to try and avoid it. Sykes does an amazing job capturing the subsequent sense of despair, fear and paranoia that emulates from people who previously experienced the Plague, and it makes for a fantastic emotional background to the story. The various theories and ideas of the cause of the Plague are pretty fascinating, as are the methods with which the protagonists attempt to protect themselves from its influence. It also results in some heartbreaking, if not cruel, decisions from the protagonist, who is still traumatised from his experiences during the first sickness, and results in some dramatic character moments.

I really enjoyed the way that Sykes utilised the Plague and other intriguing historical aspects, such as religion, to enhance the murder mystery storyline of this book. The restrictions of the Plague keeping the residence within the castle helped make the story feel like a classic whodunnit in places with a small group of suspects trapped in an enclosed location and only one investigator trying to sort out the entire case. The historical setting also resulted in a number of intriguing potential motives for the story, such as religious differences, complex inheritances, arranged marriages and even clocks, all of which adds a compelling edge to the story.

The Bone Fire by S. D. Sykes is an exciting and gripping historical murder mystery that is really worth checking out. The author did a fantastic job creating a clever mystery storyline that perfectly utilises its bleak and intriguing historical setting. The end result is a terrific fourth book from Sykes that was a lot of fun to read. It is safe to say that Sykes’s Somershill Manor Mystery series is now firmly on my reading radar, and I will be keeping an eager eye out for the next book in the series.

Nothing Ventured by Jeffrey Archer

Nothing Ventured Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 10 September 2019)

Series: William Warwick series – Book 1

Length: 323 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

One of the biggest names in modern fiction, Jeffrey Archer, returns with Nothing Ventured, an intriguing piece of historical crime fiction that starts up his brand-new William Warwick series.

William Warwick, son of a respected London defence attorney, has always dreamed of becoming a detective in the London Metropolitan Police Force. Despite the opposition of his father, William enrols as a trainee police officer at the start of the 1980s after finishing university. Armed with determination, sharp observation skills, an education in fine art and a can-do spirit, William is unaware of the adventures in store for him.

After quickly making the rank of detective constable, William is assigned to Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiquities squad. While also investigating of a series of different art crimes and frauds across London, the squad is mainly concerned with capturing Miles Faulkner, a criminal mastermind responsible for the thefts and forgeries of some of the most expensive art in England. All previous attempts to capture Faulkner have failed miserably, as the criminal is always two steps ahead of the police.

As William becomes more and more involved in investigating the various crimes Faulkner is organising, he makes a crucial breakthrough when he befriends Faulkner’s wife, Christina. Christina is willing to return a valuable stolen Rembrandt from Faulkner’s personal collection in return for help from the police. Can Christina be trusted, or will Faulkner once again evade justice and continue his dastardly schemes? In addition, what happens when William falls head over heels in love with Beth, a research assistant at the museum the Rembrandt was stolen from, whose family secrets may drive a terrible wedge between her and William?

I have mentioned before how Jeffrey Archer, or the Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare as a Member of the British House of Lords, is one of the more colourful professional novelists in the world today. Archer has produced over 30 diverse books since 1976, including several standalone novels, a bestselling long-running series, several collections of short stories, three plays, three non-fiction books about his time spent in prison, and four children’s books. I have read several of his books in the past, although I only have his 2018 book, Heads you Win, currently reviewed on my blog at the moment.

Nothing Ventured is a fantastic new novel from Archer and is the first book in a planned eight-part William Warwick crime fiction series. The William Warwick series actually has a very interesting origin, as William Warwick served as the protagonist of a fictional series of books written by the main character in Archer’s most iconic series, the Clifton Chronicles, Harry Clifton. Following the end of the Clifton Chronicles in 2016 and several requests from his fans to expand on the adventures of Warwick, Archer started on this series. The William Warwick series will examine the career of its titular character and show the various cases he investigates that helped him to become a great detective.

This series is off to a good start with Nothing Ventured, as Archer creates a compelling and enjoyable read that does a fantastic job introducing the readers to his new protagonist and showing the early days of his police career. Archer has always excelled at creating historical fiction narratives that focus on the lives of specific characters, and Nothing Ventured is no exception. Within this book, the reader gets a great idea of the character of Warwick and sees the struggles and early influences that drive him to become a successful police detective. The reader is also introduced to a bevy of interesting side characters, many of whom are set up to be major friends, colleagues, love interests or antagonists of Warwick through the future books of the series. Overall, Archer does a superb job setting up his overarching series in Nothing Ventured, and the intriguing mysteries explored within, as well as the introduction of a likeable new protagonist, should ensure readers will check out future instalments of this series.

One of the most intriguing aspects about Nothing Ventured was the focus on the artistic world and the subsequent fraud or theft that accompanies it. At the start of the book, the protagonist studies art history at university and subsequently develops a life-long love for the artistic greats. This appreciation of art becomes an important part of his future career, as it helps him join the Arts and Antiquities squad. Throughout the course of Nothing Ventured, Warwick and his colleagues investigate a number of different instances of art fraud, including forgeries of famous works, fraudulent signatures of historical figures and the forging of fake antique coins, among several other interesting examples. I thought that this was an absolutely fascinating focus for this book, and I really enjoyed reading about all the different ways art fraud could be committed. It also allowed for a number of unique and compelling mysteries, and readers will enjoy seeing the diverse outcomes that result from these cases. I also enjoyed the various discussions about art that permeated the book’s narrative. Archer is obviously very passionate and knowledgeable about classic artworks and antiquities, and this shines through in his writing. I am hoping that this focus on art will continue in future books of the William Warwick series, as it really helped set this book apart from some other historical mystery series.

The focus on the art world in Nothing Ventured also allowed Archer to introduce a great antagonist in the form of Miles Faulkner. Faulkner is a criminal mastermind who specialises in crimes involving art and is the bane of the Arts and Antiquities squad. Faulkner is a great gentleman-thief character, who is in many ways quite similar to Warwick, especially when it comes to his love and appreciation of artistic works. However, unlike Warwick, he uses his knowledge for his own benefit and is a fantastic master criminal. I really enjoyed the various ways that Faulkner was able to outsmart the police in this book, and he proved to be a worthy opponent to Warwick and his colleagues. The reveal of the true depths of Faulkner’s intelligence and deviousness in the last sentence of the book is masterfully done and Archer is clearly setting the character up as one of the major antagonists of this series. I look forward to seeing him return in future entries in this series, and I am sure he will continue to be a great villain.

Readers should also keep an eye out for the chapters in which Archer splits the focus between two separate events occurring at the exact same time. This is done a couple of times throughout the course of the book, and these split chapters are a lot of fun to read. They are mostly done to highlight the differences between two similar events happening in different areas; for example, showing two different police operations occurring at the same time, or two unrelated court cases with implications for the protagonist that are running in separate court rooms. The inclusion of these simultaneous events was done really cleverly in places, and it resulted in a couple of amazing and compelling chapters which I felt were some of the book’s best scenes. I hope that Archer continues to utilise this writing technique in the future books of this series, as it was a true highlight of Nothing Ventured.

Jeffrey Archer has once again created a thrilling and intriguing novel that focuses on the life of an English protagonist in a historical fiction setting. Nothing Ventured is the compelling first instalment of a crime fiction series with some real potential. Within this first book of the William Warwick series, Archer has come up with an intriguing life story to follow, introducing some great characters and producing some captivating mysteries and criminals that readers will love to unravel in future books. The massive planned William Warwick series should ensure Archer remains one of the bestselling historical fiction authors for the next eight years, and I look forward to seeing how the career and life of the titular main character progresses in the next instalment of the series.

Nemesis by Rory Clements

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Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback Format – Australia – 3 March 2019)

Series: Tom Wilde – Book 3

Length: 317 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Historical thriller and murder mystery author Rory Clements returns with the third book in his electrifying and clever Tom Wilde series, Nemesis.

August 1939.  War is on the horizon, and while most of the world is preparing for the next great conflict, Cambridge Professor Tom Wilde is enjoying a holiday in France with his partner, Lydia.  That is, until a mysterious man alerts him to the fact that one of his former students, an idealistic young man by the name Marcus Marfield, is currently being held in an internment camp on the France-Spain border after his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.  When Wilde finds Marfield at the camp he moves quickly to secure his release, and they flee the country just as the Germans begin their invasion of Poland.

Back in England, the country moves to a war footing, as the Allies attempt to persuade America to join them against the Nazis.  While many Americans oppose joining the war, the sinking of the passenger ship the SS Athenia may be the spark that brings them into the war.  With the Nazis attempting to convince the world that Churchill orchestrated the sinking of the Athenia to galvanise American support against Germany, Wilde and his companions return to Cambridge.

Once back in the city, Wilde begins to notice a change come over Marfield.  At first attributing it to his shell shock following his battles in Spain, a series of mysterious deaths around Cambridge all seem to link to the recently returned Marfield.  These events are tied to a deadly conspiracy to keep America out of the war for good.  A spy ring is active in Cambridge, and Wilde must find a way to uncover it before it is too late.  Can Wilde once again avert disaster, and what role does Marfield play in this conspiracy?

After the excellent first two books in his Tom Wilde series, Corpus and Nucleus, Clements continues the adventure of his series’ titular character, Tom Wilde, as he investigates a series of Nazi espionage activities around Cambridge in the lead-up to World War II.  I have quite enjoyed this series in the past and was looking forward to continuing the story in Nemesis.  The latest book is a thrilling story that takes place just at the outset of the war and utilises the several historical events and figures to turn this into quite an intriguing tale.

Nemesis is a really good historical thriller which combines a great spy story with the historical context of early World War II.  The previous books in the Tom Wilde series have all contained compelling and complex mysteries with huge implications for England and the allies, and Nemesis is no different.  Clements has crafted together an excellent mystery that has massive, worldwide implications, and I really enjoyed unravelling the mystery, especially as the author presents all sorts of doublecrosses, twists, cover-ups and mysterious deaths to confuse the reader away from the main goal of the antagonists.  The antagonists’ master plan is quite out there, and it is one of those plots that would have had massive historical implications.  I quite like the role that new character Marcus Marfield played in this plot, as the protagonists and the reader are constantly trying to work out what his secrets are and what kind of person he truly is.  Overall, I found the thriller and mystery elements of this book to be quite clever and captivating, and readers will enjoy uncovering the full extent of the antagonist’s overall plot.

One of the most interesting parts of the Tom Wilde series so far was its setting during the chaotic pre-World War II period.  In Nemesis, Clements sets his story right at the start of the war and immediately shows all the panic and preparation that followed this declaration of war.  Clements did a fantastic job portraying the low-key sense of dread and paranoia that the inhabitants of England would have felt in the build-up to the war in the previous books in the series, and in Nemesis these feelings are realistically amplified now that the war has begun.  The author has quite a good grasp on a number of historical events and feelings during this period, and I quite liked seeing the Cambridge viewpoint of the war.  The Cambridge setting has always been a fantastic highlight of this series, but it was quite intriguing to see the author incorporate all the various changes to the city that occurred as a result of the war into his novel.  Clements dives deep into the Cambridge lifestyle when it comes to the war, whether it involves the removal of the rare books from the colleges, the preservation of the stained glass windows, the roles that the professors were being assigned in the war effort or even the many Communist professors throwing away their party membership cards when it became clear that the Soviets were supporting the Nazis.

Clements also ties his story in quite closely with one of the more interesting early events of World War II: the sinking of the passenger liner the SS Athenia as it sailed across the Atlantic.  I was deeply fascinated not only with the depictions of this event, but the discussions and conspiracy theories that resulted from it.  This was especially true when it came to the examination about the sinking of the ship being used to bring the United States into the war.  The likelihood of America joining in the war became a major part of the story, and it was interesting to see what the European characters thought about America’s reluctance to enter the war, especially as one of the protagonists is an American character, and one of the chief architects of America’s isolationist policy, Joe Kennedy, was the United States Ambassador to England at the time.  I thought that the historical elements that Clements explored were a real highlight of this book, and readers will enjoy his literary examination of these events.

While the main focus of the book’s story is a conspiracy and the start of the war, Clements does take his time to continue to develop a number of the characters introduced in the previous books.  For example, Wilde continues to deepen his relationship with his romantic partner, Lydia, and I quite liked the role that Lydia played in investigating the case alongside Wilde.  There is also a significant focus on Wilde’s American friend Jim Vanderberg and his family, especially as Vanderberg’s family are passengers aboard the Athenia.  Phillip Eaton, the British spy who was hit by a car in the last book of the series makes a return in Nemesis, and the reader gets to see his struggles to recover from his horrific injuries while still working as an intelligence officer.  A number of intriguing new characters are introduced in this book and it will be interesting to see what role they and the existing characters will play in any future entries in this series.

In the latest book of his enjoyable Tom Wilde series, Nemesis, Rory Clements once again delivers a captivating historical thriller that brings the reader into the early days of World War II.  Featuring an incredible overarching mystery and some detailed examinations of intriguing historical events and settings, Nemesis is a deeply interesting book that is well worth checking out.  I am very curious to see where Clements takes the series next, and I look forward to seeing what impact Thomas Wilde will have on the rest of World War II.

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

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Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback edition – 24 January 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 432 page

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

From the creative mind of Laura Shepherd-Robinson comes this powerful, dark and extremely captivating historical murder mystery, which might just be one of the most impressive debuts of early 2019.

In June 1781, a horrific murder is discovered on the dock of the slaver port of Deptford, outside of London.  The body has been brutally tortured in a variety of ways associated with the slave trade, and his chest has been branded with a slaver’s mark.  The dead man was Tad Archer, a passionate abolitionist who had been causing trouble throughout Deptford as part of his abolitionist campaign.

Days later, Captain Harry Corsham, a war hero who fought in the American Revolution, currently attached to the War Office and about to embark on a promising career as a politician, receives a visit from Tad’s sister, who is searching for her missing brother.  Tad, an old estranged friend of Harry’s, was apparently in Deptford to expose a secret that could potentially end the British slave trade.  Travelling to Deptford, Harry discovers the terrible fate of Tad and is determined to bring his killer to justice.

In order to discover who is responsible for his friend’s the murder, Harry must uncover the secret that Tad believed could permanently end the slave trade.  But as Harry investigates further, he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that reaches to the very heart of the realm.  Powerful forces wish to see murder covered up and anyone connected to the dark secret silenced.  Harry soon finds himself on the wrong side of men who can easily destroy his career and family.  Undeterred, Harry presses on with his investigation, but he may prove to be unprepared for the cruel killer stalking him through Deptford.

Blood & Sugar is the debut novel of Laura Shepherd-Robinson, a fantastic new voice in the historical murder mystery genre.  Shepherd-Robinson has created an outstanding novel that masterfully blends a fantastic and clever murder mystery with some powerful and evocative historical content.  The result is a terribly addictive novel that highlights this debuting author’s obvious ability to craft an excellent and compelling story.  From how the story is written, Blood & Sugar will probably be a standalone novel, although I do hope that Shepherd-Robinson sticks with the historical fiction and murder mystery genres, as she has an amazing talent with both.

At the heart of this amazing book is a complex and intriguing murder mystery that sets the book’s protagonist off on a dangerous and dark investigation of the slave trade.  While the investigation is originally focused on the murder of Tad Archer, it spirals out into to encapsulate several additional murders and a larger and more widespread conspiracy which may or may not be connected to the initial murder.  Each of these mysteries is clever, well thought-out and guaranteed to grab the reader’s curiosity and keep them going through the story to work out the incredible solution.  The author has also populated her story with a number of distinctive and complex characters, each of whom has their own hidden secrets and dark pasts.  In order to solve Blood & Sugar’s overarching mystery, the protagonist has to unravel each of these character’s lies and personal secrets, each of which add a new layer to book’s excellent plot.  These characters are all extremely self-serving and naturally suspicious, providing the reader with a huge pool of potential suspects.  The investigation into each of these mystery elements is extremely well written, and I really loved all the solutions to the book’s various mysteries.  I was really impressed with the conclusion to each of the personal mysteries that are uncovered throughout the narrative, and some of them were extremely satisfying to see come to a conclusion.

In addition to the outstanding mystery storyline, Shepherd-Robinson has also created an amazing and realistic historical setting for her story.  I felt that the author did a terrific job capturing the essence of 18th century England, from the streets of London to the docklands of Deptford.  There was a particular focus on the then port town of Deptford, which served as a major plot focus for the book, as well as several other riverside locations.  I loved this examination of Deptford, and I found the examination of this part of its dark history to be absolutely fascinating.  These locations serve as an appropriately dingy setting for such a dark story, and I really enjoyed it.

A major part of this book was the focus on the evil slave trade that was a major business during the 18th century in England.  As part of the plot, the author spends a significant amount of time exploring every facet of English slavery and the slave trade in the 1780s, including the economics behind it, the burgeoning abolitionist movement, slave laws throughout England during this period and how it was a major part of Deptford’s economy and way of life.  These details are extremely interesting and disconcerting, as Shepherd-Robinson pulls no punches when it comes to describing the brutal actions of the slavers and the cold business that they practiced.  The slave trade also serves as an incredibly effective background motive and catalyst for the murders and the conspiracy that the protagonist finds himself drawn into.  The author crafts an incredibly captivating mystery storyline around the English slave trade, and I was both intrigued and appalled to find that certain horrendous elements of this plot were based around a real-life historical slave event.  Blood & Sugar is definitely a must-read for those unafraid to learn more about the cruelty of the English slave trade and who wish to see it creatively used as a major plot point in this captivating story.

While Blood & Sugar featured a number of duplicitous and villainous characters who serve as excellent antagonists, Shepherd-Robinson has also crafted a compelling and layered protagonist to tell this story as the book’s narrator.  On the surface, Captain Harry Corsham is your typical English hero, a former soldier determined to find the man responsible for the death of his friend.  However, as the book progresses, the reader finds out that there is a lot more to Harry’s character than first meets the eye.  Harry is a deeply conflicted character in many ways, but throughout this book he struggles with his opinions about slavery and the abolitionist movement.  In his past he was a strong supporter of abolishing the slave trade, but since he has entered politics and married into an influential family, he is more aware of the current political realities around the slave trade.  But as he spends more and more time investigating the Deptford slave traders, he finds himself being drawn more and more into the abolitionist way of thinking.  The author has also written in a fairly realistic portrayal of PTSD for Harry after the horrors he experienced fighting in the American Revolution.  This is an intriguing character trait, and one that comes into play the more horrors that Harry experiences during this book.  Shepherd-Robinson has also included some amazingly well-written and very surprising personal developments for her protagonist that really change everything in the latter half of the book.  All these character elements add layers to this central protagonist, and I liked the emotional and ethical impacts that they caused on the story.

Overall, I thought that Blood & Sugar was a powerful and captivating historical murder mystery that expertly combines an intriguing and clever mystery storyline with some first-rate historical backgrounds and plot points.  This is an exceptional debut from Laura Shepherd-Robinson which showcases her amazing talent and superb ability as a writer.  This was an easy five stars from me, and I am really excited to see what sort of story this fresh and inventive author writes next.

Tombland by C. J. Sansom

Tombland Cover

Publisher: Mantle

Publication Date – 18 October 2018

 

One of the best historical fiction authors in the world today creates another exceptional piece of literature with Tombland, the epic historical crime fictional book set during the fictionally unexplored events of Kett’s Rebellion.

It is the summer of 1549, and King Henry VIII has been dead for two years.  The young Edward VI is on the throne, while his uncle, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, rules the country as Lord Protector.  However, the country is slowly descending into chaos as a long, unsuccessful war with Scotland, religious conflict, poverty and the corrupt actions of the rich landowners are raising discontent among England’s peasant population.

In the midst of this, Matthew Shardlake is working as a lawyer for the King’s sister, the young Lady Elizabeth.  When a distant relative of Lady Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, is found murdered near Norwich and her husband, John Boleyn, is accused of the crime, the case could have political implications for Elizabeth.  Matthew is sent to organise a legal defence of John and to investigate whether or not he committed the crime.  Travelling with his assistant Nicholas, Matthew travels to Norwich and begins to examine the details of the case.  Meeting up with their old friend Jack Barak, the three friends are convinced of John’s innocence, but malevolent forces intervene to disrupt their defence.  As several deaths occur around Norwich, Matthew’s investigation is disrupted by events outside of his control.

A well-organised peasant rebellion erupts around the city, throwing everything into chaos.  Led by the charismatic Robert Kett, the rebels march on Norwich and set up a large camp outside the city, filled with thousands of disenfranchised peasants.  Captured by the rebels, Matthew and his companions find themselves in the midst of a dangerous and divisive situation.  Nicholas’s established views about the superiority of gentlemen sees him imprisoned, while Barak finds much in common with the peasants and their cause.  Matthew is forced to make a decision about where his loyalties lie, as Kett wishes him to assist in organising trials for the landowners they have captured.  As the rebellion drags on, Matthew finds evidence about the Boleyn murder case in the camp.  Following these leads, Matthew soon uncovers a terrible conspiracy that will not only endanger John Boleyn and his lawyers but could affect the fates of every peasant in Kett’s Rebellion.

C. J. Sansom is one of historical fiction’s most highly regarded authors, having written a series of amazing novels in the genre. His most significant body of work is the Matthew Shardlake series, which follows the titular lawyer as he finds himself forced to solve a series of elaborate mysteries during the Tudor period. All the books in this series are extremely impressive, as they all feature clever mysteries and an excellent use of the book’s historical setting.  In addition to this series, he has also written a standalone historical thriller, Winter in Madrid, as well as an alternate history novel, DominionTombland is the seventh book in the Matthew Shardlake series and Sansom’s first book since 2014, but considering the sheer amount of detail and the length of the text, this is hardly surprising.

Tombland is another epic novel from Sansom and one that I really enjoyed reading and ranked as one of my top 10 reads for 2018.  This book contains an outstanding combination of an intense and complex murder mystery and some amazing historical settings and storylines.  All of these elements are extremely amazing by themselves, but together they create one of the best reads of the year.  While I really loved this book, potential readers really need to set aside a lot of time to get through Tombland.  It has over 800 pages of story, with an additional 50 plus pages of the author’s historical notes and discussions about what events he included.  In addition, each page has such a rich amount of detail and plot that I found myself getting through this book at a lot slower pace than I usually would.  While it does take a while to get through Tombland, I personally believe it is well worth the effort, as the incredible story within had me hooked from the very first page.

This book has an intricate and powerful investigation angle, as Matthew and his associates attempt to solve a terrible murder that they believe their client has been wrongfully accused of.  The mystery part of this book is very well done and features an elaborate and intriguing solution that is slowly revealed throughout the course of the book.  Sansom introduces a significant number of potential suspects, all of whom have substantial motives to kill the victim, designed to throw the reader off the scent of the real solution.  I liked how the case continued to expand out as the book went on, as the protagonists not only attempt to solve the original murder but must also investigate several murders committed to cover up the initial acts, as well as several attempts to eliminate John Boleyn.  There are several major and surprising twists throughout the investigation, as a number of small clues and characters that at first appear minor turn out to have major implications for the overarching mystery.  The solutions to the mysteries at the end of the book reveal a dark and powerful motive that has severe consequences for several of the characters involved.  Overall, Tombland contained an outstanding central mystery, which is guaranteed to keep the reader deeply curious and engaged with this fantastic text.

One of the most interesting features of Tombland is the fact that Sansom has set it during Kett’s Rebellion of 1549.  This is a somewhat obscure piece of history that many readers might not be familiar with, but it is an incredibly fascinating event of English history.  Sansom does a masterful job of portraying the entirety of the rebellion throughout the novel and use it as a fantastic secondary storyline as the protagonists witness the beginning and end of the mystery.

Sansom does an outstanding job covering the events of this rebellion, including the events that led up it and caused the peasants to rise up against the rich landowners.  As a result, he expertly examines all the events and conditions that were making the peasants and poor of Norwich, and the rest of England, discontented with the way the country was being run.  In order to do this, a number of relevant elements are effortlessly inserted into the story and become key parts of the plot.  These elements include discussions about the poorly run war in Scotland contributing to armed deserters on the rebels’ side, talks about the political structure of the country and thoughts about the religious disagreements and schisms that were rife in the country during that period.  One of the most fascinating and significant elements that apparently led to the rebellion was the rich landowners’ focus on sheep farming and the creation of large sheep enclosures rather than the growth of traditional crops.  Before reading Tombland I would never have thought that sheep farming would have the potential to be a cause of rebellion; however, Sansom is able to explain in some significant detail how sheep farming and enclosures were negatively impacting many poorer individuals in England, and how it became a key part of Kett’s Rebellion.

In addition to covering the causes of the rebellion, Sansom’s narrative grows to cover the entire length of this intriguing event.  All sorts of elements of it are explored, and readers get an excellent idea of how the peasants were organised, what their motivations were, what sort of actions they were undertaking, how the government reacted to it and what the overall attitude of the participants was.  This was all boundlessly fascinating, and as the reader gets deeper and deeper into the book it becomes harder to put the book down as they become extremely curious about what the overall fate of this group of people was, especially after the reader gets an idea of how big the rebellion was and what sort of victories they were able to obtain.  The final results of this rebellion and the long-term impacts it had on the country are really interesting to hear about, and I had an amazing time seeing all the significant events that occurred during this underexamined historical rebellion.

As always, I was immensely impressed with the sheer amount of research that Sansom did and the historical detail that resulted from it.  Tombland includes over 50 pages of the author’s notes about the event and the conclusions he drew from his extensive research.  While these 50 pages are extremely interesting to read, the revelations about how many of the events the protagonist witnesses actually occurred were astounding, and it sounds like Sansom was able to recreate nearly every significant event of Kett’s Rebellion throughout the course of Tombland, with some necessary dramatic flourishes to create the overall story.  It was amazing how many of these events actually occurred, and how many of the secondary characters were actually real-life people who had significant impacts on the outcome of the rebellion.  Readers will also be amazed by the historical details that Sansom has included on every page of this book and will have a hard time forgetting the events of 1549 and Kett’s Rebellion.

There are several other elements I enjoyed in this book, including the seamless ways that the investigative storyline combines with the historical background of Kett’s Rebellion.  So many characters that are potential witnesses or suspects in the murders that the protagonists are investigating become key figures in the historical events that occurred around Norwich.  Suspects and witnesses are also found in the rebel camp, and I liked how the key to crime and the downfall of the rebels were both in the same place.  I also enjoyed the examination of 16th century English legal procedures and the depictions of murder trials, and found the scenes featuring them very fascinating.  The book’s focus on the divide between the rich and the poor is also a great addition to the story and gets a significant look in throughout the entire book, and it is a discussion that is still relevant to this day.

C. J. Sansom once again hits his literary ball out of the park with Tombland, another five-star historical mystery that has the perfect combination of compelling mystery and intriguing historical elements. With an incredibly addictive overall narrative and a focus on a fascinating historical event that is rarely used in other pieces of historical fiction. One of my favourite reads of 2018, I highly recommend this book, especially for people who love a great mystery.

My Rating:

Five Stars

War of the Wolf by Bernard Cornwell

War of the Wolf Cover.jpg

Publisher: Harper Collins

Publication Date – 24 September 2018

 

Uhtred of Bebbanburg returns in another rich historical adventure set in the heart of post-Roman Britain in this incredible and first-rate story from historical fiction legend Bernard Cornwell.

In the early 10th century, after many years of trials and tribulations, Uhtred has at last achieved his lifelong goal of reclaiming his ancestral fortress of Bebbanburg.  Finally able to claim his independence from Wessex and the Saxon Christians who have always treated him with scorn and hostility for his pagan beliefs, Uhtred seeks to move away from the politics, battles and backstabbing that has been his life for so long.  However, his new peaceful life is about to be interrupted by the interventions of enemies new and old.

In the outside world, King Edward of Wessex has made his move on the kingdom of Mercia, and has finally achieved his father’s dream of uniting the Christian kingdoms of Britain into one nation.  The only remaining country outside of his control is the Kingdom of Northumbria, ruled by Uhtred’s son in law, Sigtryggr.  These events have led to dangerous changes and new alliances for the remaining factions living outside of Edward’s control.

When a mysterious priest sends Uhtred on a mission to save Edward’s maligned firstborn son and Uhtred’s former ward, Æthelstan, from a Mercian siege, he finds himself outmanoeuvred by a new army of Danes who have come to claim Northumbria for themselves.  Faced with great loss, Uhtred finds himself in a brutal fight against an opponent who seems to have mystical powers at his command.  At the same time, the politics of the Wessex court threaten to start a war on another front, as the various contenders for the fading Edward’s throne seek to gain position, and many of the potential heirs want Uhtred dead.  With enemies all around and not enough men at his back, the odds look grim for Uhtred.  But, despite years of brutal battles and the ravages of age, Uhtred is still the most feared warrior in all of Britain, and he’s about to show everyone why he is always a force to be reckoned with.

War of the Wolf is the 11th book in The Last Kingdom series of historical fiction books from Bernard Cornwell.  To my mind, Bernard Cornwell has to be considered one of the greatest authors of historical fiction in the world today, both in the quantity of books he has written and the quality of their content.  Cornwell has been writing since 1981 and has produced more than 55 novels in his career, the vast majority of which are either set in England or focus on English characters out in the world.  The sheer scope of Cornwell’s work is incredible, as he has covered vast tracts of world history, including several more obscure eras not regularly covered by other historical fiction authors.  He is possibly best known for his long-running Richard Sharpe series, which followed the adventures of a British soldier and commander during and around the time of the Napoleonic Wars.  The Richard Sharpe series featured 24 books and was adapted into the British television series, Sharpe, featuring Sean Bean as the titular character.  Other series that Cornwell has published include the American Civil War series The Starbuck Chronicles, the Arthurian legends series The Warlord Chronicles and the Grail Quest novels, which are set during the early years of the Hundred Years’ War.  Cornwell has also produced a number of standalone novels, including several sailing based modern thrillers and a number of intriguing individual historical novels.  These standalone novels cover a huge range of different topics, from the prehistoric English story in Stonehenge, to the war novel Azincourt, the excellent examination of one of the more interesting battles of the American Revolutionary War in The Fort and the thriller set among Shakespeare’s theatre company in Fools and Mortals, which I have previously reviewed here.

The Last Kingdom series, alternatively known as the Saxon Stories, the Saxon Tales, the Warrior Chronicles or the Saxon Chronicles, started in 2004 and is Cornwell’s second–longest-running series, with 11 books currently written, and more set for the future.  The Last Kingdom series is the second of Cornwell’s series to be adapted for television, with a third season of The Last Kingdom television just starting yesterday.  I have always been a massive fan of this series, especially as one of the books in the series, Sword Song, was one of the first pieces of historical fiction I ever read and which helped get me into the genre.  This is a fantastic series, as each of the books contains an electrifying adventure set during a period of history often overlooked or underutilised by other historical fiction authors.  I have routinely reviewed several books in this series over the years, many of which will appear in future additions of my Throwback Thursday series of reviews.

War of the Wolf is another incredible outing from Cornwell that once again focuses on the life of his grizzled and battle-tested protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg.  Uhtred is a superb series protagonist who has witnessed the changing political and religious landscape of this period of post-Roman Britain.  Originally a Christian Saxon, he is captured by pagan Danes as a child after the death of his father and the theft of his Uhtred’s ancestral fortress of Bebbanburg (modern day Bamburgh Castle in Northeast England) by his uncle.  Raised by the Danes, Uhtred gains an appreciation for their culture and even starts practicing their religion.  Uhtred is eventually forced into the service of the last remaining Christian kingdom of Wessex and its pious King Alfred (Alfred the Great).  Even with several falling outs between the two, Uhtred serves Alfred and his family for many years as his most ferocious warrior and war leader, participating in several of the defining battles of the era.  Throughout the series, Uhtred is constantly torn between the Christian Saxons and the invading pagan Danes.  Despite being born as a Christian in a formerly Christian kingdom, Uhtred finds more in common with the Danes after being raised by one of their noble families and taking on their religion.  While he’d rather fight alongside the Danes, circumstances force Uhtred to swear oaths of loyalty to various Saxon kings, especially Alfred, despite the hatred and disdain they show towards him for retaining his pagan faith.  These dual loyalties are a key part of the character, and often result in much internal and external conflict for Uhtred and form the basis of a number of excellent storylines.  Cornwell uses the character of Uhtred extremely well to highlight the differences between the Danes and the Saxons, as well as the importance of religion to these warring groups, especially when it comes to the somewhat insidious spread of Christianity to the Danes.

These storylines continue in War of the Wolf, as one of Uhtred’s oaths sends him into battle once again.  This sets up the main story of the new book perfectly, as Uhtred is forced to deal with the politics and betrayals of the Saxons, while also fighting against a dangerous pagan opponent.  I liked how Cornwell has continued to focus on Uhtred’s ties to the warring factions of Britain, and his attempts to reconcile his loyalties with his sense of honour and right and wrong.  I also really enjoyed the way that Cornwell has aged up his protagonists throughout the series.  Many authors will try to fit a number of adventures in to a short period of time in order to keep their protagonists in the same age range.  Cornwell, who has based many of the key occurrences of his books on real-life historical events, has instead chosen to age up his protagonist as he outlives several historical figures.  As a result, in War of the Wolf, Uhtred is no longer the young warrior he was at the start of the series, but is now an old sword in his 60s.  This is an intriguing narrative element from Cornwell, who has been slowly building up to this over the last few books in the series.  Not only has Cornwell been slowly ageing him but he’s been making him a more canny and crafty individual, able to rely on his brains and experiences more than his sword arm, although he still finds himself in the middle of every battle.  In the latest book, this leads Uhtred to think more about the future of the people he cares about than his own future, as he realises he is getting closer to death.  This is another fantastic outing featuring one of Cornwell’s best protagonists, and I am excited to see that he has left the series open for several additional stories in the future.

One of the more interesting parts of The Last Kingdom series is Cornwell’s outstanding research and his focus on historical details and events that are often not part of the public consciousness.  I can think of no better way to highlight this then to mention that while I was doing a post-Roman Britain archaeology course at university, my lecturer actually included several books from The Last Kingdom series on his suggested reading list among the usual textbooks and scholarly articles.  The previous books have all featured major battles or political events that helped decide the future of England, and his fictional point-of-view character often finds himself discussing the events with significant historical figures.  Smaller details, such as the traditional names and spellings of historical people and places, give all of these books an incredibly authentic feel and really make the reader think they are back in this time period.  As a result, these books are extremely intriguing for those fans of history and I cannot speak highly enough of the level of historical detail or insight Cornwell shows in his work.  Cornwell continues his trend of interesting historical features in War of the Wolf, as he examines several key events during this period.  This includes the annexation of the Kingdom of Mercia by King Edward of Wessex following the death of his sister Æthelflæd, the Queen of Mercia, and the subsequent rebellion by the Mercians.  There is also focus on the submission of King Sigtryggr of Northumbria to King Edward, and focuses on the events that led up to it.  Uhtred also finds himself embroiled in the politics around who would rule Sussex following the future death of Edward.  All of this is incredibly fascinating and form an amazing background for the rest of the book’s story.

Intense action sequences have always been a major part of this series, with the large-scale fight scenes between the various warring factions battling around the British countryside.  Cornwell does an excellent job replicating the battle tactics and techniques of the Saxons and the Danes, especially the standard technique of the shield wall, where the two opposing sides line up their shields and advance at each other.  The battles are always incredibly detailed and pull no punches when it comes to the gruesome realities of war and combat.  War of the Wolf in particular has quite a few great battle sequences, including one extended siege sequence towards the end of the book at an old Roman fort.  I also loved the inclusion of the úlfhéðnar, the fabled wolf berserkers, who become a major part of the story, as Uhtred and his soldiers must find a way to overcome these dangerous opponents.  It was quite interesting to see how these sorts of legendary historical fighters would actually fare in battle, and the author presents both the advantages and disadvantages of using them.  Special mention should also be given to the dual between the two opposing ‘sorcerers’ during the climactic battle that was extremely entertaining and one of the more amusing parts of the entire book.

Cornwell has once again delivered a five-star classic piece of historical fiction with the latest book in his bestselling The Last Kingdom series.  Filled with fantastic action, amazing historical context and focusing on a well-established and amazingly fleshed and complex protagonist, War of the Wolf is an incredible read that comes highly recommended.  Even after 11 books, this is still one of my favourite series and I’m very excited to get the next edition.

My Rating:

Five Stars