An Officer’s Vow by Penny Hampson

An Officer's Vow (Gentlemen Book 2) by [Penny Hampson]

Tired of all the doom and gloom around me, I decided to reach for something that would cheer me and draw me into a different world. I have certainly found it in An Officer’s Vow. It is a classic Regency romance with a pinch of adventure and good dose of genteel humour. In this book you will find everything you would expect from Regency romance: an endearing and feisty damsel in distress, a handsome but somewhat insecure around the opposite sex veteran of Napoleonic wars, greedy and unscrupulous fortune hunters, cold-blooded spies and an array of unforgettable characters. You will hurtle from one misadventure into another at a gallop, with little time to catch your breath.
Hampson is clearly on a first-name basis with the era. She conveys the setting details and the linguistic style of that century with ease. You feel like the book was written two hundred years ago by the likes of Jane Austin.
All in all, I relished every minute of this delectable story.

A Divided Inheritance by Deborah Swift

A Divided Inheritance : Epic historical fiction by [Deborah Swift]

This is a powerful and emotionally captivating story which crossed the boundaries of genre: historical, adventure, romance, tragedy. It is literature with a heart.

I reached for it on recommendation and my expectations were high. The book surpassed them. I found it intriguing to start with and as I went deeper into it I could not put it down.

The story is set in Spain’s Golden Age under Philip the Pious when the country was firmly in the grip of Holy Inquisition and religious intolerance aimed at its Arab population. Moors, once the conquerors, are now persecuted, divested of their rights and property and deported to Northern Africa. In parallel to that, Protestantism has superseded Catholicism in England, and Catholics are forced underground to practise their faith. The persecutors in one country are the persecuted in another, and that irony is not lost on the author. She shows the plight of Moriscos (Arab converts to Christianity) with great empathy. Their rounding up for transportation on ships to Morocco and their futile resistance resonate and bring to mind other similar tragedies in more recent history. The setting of the story in time and place is masterfully delivered.

As are the characters and their personal stories. Swift demolishes stereotypes as her characters develop and leave the comfort zone of what’s familiar and are thrown into the mill of history, misadventure and hardship. I loved the way Elspet transformed from a little English lady into a true heroine. Zachary too underwent his character-building transformation. Two people from two socially irreconcilable backgrounds were ultimately reduced – or rather elevated – to their common denominator, that of just being human.

A wonderful tale.

Devilishly thrilling Dark London (2) short stories collection from Darkstroke

Dark London: Volume Two by [Mark Patton, Angela Wren, Chris Dommett, Alice Castle, Richard Savin, Alan Taylor, Marie Gault, Tom Halford, Denise Bloom, Harper Channing]

Dark London (Volume 2) is a collection of short stories, each unique and distinct, each different and yet all of them have the same common denominator: London. The stories tell a tale of a city that never sleeps, knows how to hide its darkest secrets in the layers of its past, and is made of the tough stuff of its inimitable people.

There are a lot of shades within Dark London, many different eras and a lot of variety ranging from the contemporary and lighthearted cozy crime in Dulwich to the blood curdling horrors. You will find yourself traipsing London on a night bus in the company of highly-principled illegal aliens and you will end up in the middle of the inexplicable, sinister and freakish Gothic show which may not be from this world but it has London written into it.

Suspend belief, bring your own comfort blanket and have a go. You will find yourself devilishly thrilled.

Burke in the Land of Silver by Tom Williams

Burke in the Land of Silver (James Burke, spy Book 1) by [Tom Williams]

We meet James Burke as he fights the rebellion of black slaves in Saint Domingue. At the time he serves a French master, King Louis XIV. Boukman, a legendary rebel leader, accurately foretells his own death and Burke’s fortunes, telling him that he will have hand in building a new nation. And so the adventures of Lieutenant Burke begin.

Fast-forward through the French Revolution to the Napoleonic wars, James Burke is now in His Majesty’s service, dispatched to Buenos Aires on a spy mission against the French. A gentleman, he finds it uncomfortable to take on the role of a leather merchant and having to learn the ropes from the obnoxious O’Gorman. Burke’s discomfort is soothed by the presence of O’Gorman’s beautiful and intelligent wife, Ana.

Once in Argentina, Burke takes us on a roller-coaster journey through the Andes and many life-threatening exploits. Once you’re there, you will have no option but to press on and turn those pages fast.

Williams’s spy adventure series is a cracking, fast-paced read, rich with historical, military and geographical detail. I can’t wait for book two in the series.

The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath

The Silken Rose: Beware the She-Wolf from Provence ... (The Rose Trilogy) by [Carol McGrath]

The Silken Rose begins on a genteel note: thirteen-year old Ailenor of Provence arrives on the shores of England to be married to king Henry III. We join Ailenor on the journey of discovery of the alien and most fascinating world of 13th-century England. Guided by McGrath, tentatively at first, we dip our toes in the medieval customs, mentalities and sensitivities described with flourish and attention to detail. Soon we find ourselves fully immersed in a time-space bubble.

Ailenor may only be a young girl, and on many levels she acts like one: she enjoys beautiful things in life, the company of her ladies, lavish feasts,

poetry and embroidery. She is eager to please her king and fantasises of becoming Guinevere to his Arthur. She is beginning to awaken sexually. But we soon learn that one mustn’t be fooled by her young age and romantic fantasies. Ailenor is a she-wolf (a term she violently resents). She is ambitious, perceptive, even manipulative. She loves her king romantically but she also has more pragmatic objectives: she must give him an heir and sway his favours to secure her interests. She makes true friends (such as Nell, the king’s sister). She loves them dearly and supports them. But she also knows how to convert friendships into political alliances. She confidently navigates her way among the hostile barons and treacherous rivals. What started as an idyllic fairy tale of a royal wedding and giggling maidens soon becomes a darker, faster-paced tale of intrigue, assassination, betrayal and flights of blinding rage.  In order to survive and protect her children, Ailenor hardens and perfects the art of factional war and smart diplomacy.

MacGrath’s tale has the flowing quality of a powerful river which, once you’ve dipped your toes in, sweeps you off your feet and carries you with the currents, rapids and waterfalls of power struggle and survival.

The Last Free City by Tim Stretton – an escape into a world of intrigue and adventure

The Last Free City (Annals of Mondia) by [Tim Stretton]

The Last Free City is a feast of political intrigue, cunning diplomacy, swordfights and assassinations, love, lust and betrayal – and that’s just for starters!

The story is set in one of the last independent city-republics on a peninsula torn between two expansive kingdoms, that of Emmen and Gammerling. This may be fantasy genre, but the settings have a strong historical flavour of Italy before unification. It’s evident in the names, the architecture and the social hierarchy of the city of Tarantanallos. So despite this being a fantasy novel, you will feel like you’ve travelled back in time. It somehow seems authentic and historically accurate. But there are also touches of sheer imaginary ingenuity by the author who has created a self-contained world in its own right, with its own currency, its law enforcement agency called the Consigli, its ruling elite of Specchio, modes of transport astride gallumphers, and time measured in pursuits and activities. Thus you have the Hour of Evening Repast, the Hour of Secret Deeds, the Hour of Noble Pleasures… And so time flies while you’re having fun doing all sorts good and bad things.

Lord Oricien arrives in Tarantanallos in order to secure the city’s submission to Emmen. Factions of influential elites are formed. Nobody can trust anybody. Fortunes are to be made and lost. Dravadan, one of the most powerful and brutal leaders of the city, works on the alliance and the furtherance of his own interests. His younger brother, Malvazan, nurses his resentments while at the same time polishing his fencing skills so that he can climb the greasy pole of influence despite being the second son. Todarko, a poet and skirt-chaser, tries to ignore politics and follow his heart even though it may lead him into the eye of the political storm. The characters are vibrant, complex and full of surprises. That includes the female characters. They are rich and diverse – from impetuous, through treacherous and manipulative to the most noble ones.

The story is written in elegant prose, full of witticism and laced with brisk, intelligent exchanges. The author attributes the inspiration for Todarko’s sonnets to Shakespeare. There is something distinctly Shakespearean in this story, and it isn’t just in the sonnets. It’s in the language, the vivacity, the settings and the elaborate plot. If you want to lose yourself in a world away from home (especially during lockdown), read this book.

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath

A beautifully spun historical yarn with multiple layers of fact interwoven with just enough fictional adornment to produce an utterly engrossing story.

Handfasted Wife is the script equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry. It depicts one of the most momentous happenings in British history: the brutal and bloody clash of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman worlds. Harold’s defeat at Hastings marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. Within that rift in the flow of history sits the story of Harold’s handfasted (today: common law) wife, Edith Swanneck. Her personal strife to preserve her pride and her family is compellingly conveyed. McGrath looks at the rapidly unfolding events through Edith’s eyes and responds to them through her actions and ingenious political manoeuvres. Edith comes across as a strong, intelligent and pragmatic woman who nevertheless is possessed of great passion for both her children and her husband. She understands and accepts the demands history places on them and at the same time fights for what she considers to be rightfully theirs. She makes great sacrifices and remains steadfast and faithful to a husband-king who is obliged to reject her in the name of vital political alliances.

McGrath paints a vivid picture of the political intrigue immediately prior to the Norman invasion and thereafter. The cruelty of the victors, their savagery and greed are powerfully conveyed. The conquered nation is also shown are diverse and multi-dimensional: there are traitors aplenty as there are the most devoted servants, loyal to the bitter end. Women in particular hold the centre stage in this fantastic tale. History told from their perspective is no less exciting than its masculine version, but it is much more intimate and intricate.

I loved The Handfasted Wife and will read the rest of the trilogy. I would recommend it to anyone wishing to be swept away in the currents of history populated by living, breathing characters fighting for survival, power and dignity.

A Crown in Time by Jennifer Macaire

Jennifer Macaire has a knack for transporting the reader in time, alongside her characters. In A Crown in Time she brilliantly depicts the raw and unforgiving era of the Crusades. The moment you step into the story, your senses are assaulted with images, odours, sounds and textures that all come together to sweep you off your feet and take you right into the black heart of the Dark Ages. Macaire knows her stuff. She comfortably navigates the era when and the areas where her book is set, and you as a reader know that you’re in good hands. Gone is the vague romanticism of the Crusades and in comes the stench of death, dysentery and unwashed bodies.  The sea crossing to North Africa and back left me reeling with sea-sickness. The brutality of human interaction in those days made me thank my lucky star that I was born eight hundred years later.

Then there are the characters. Isobel, the woman who travels from 2900 to save the French dynasty, isn’t a pre-progammed robot. She is fallible. She makes mistakes. She is unsure about her task. The threat of time-erasure hangs over her head and she doesn’t quite know how to avert it. Things go constantly wrong and she responds as best as she can. You can tell she is lost and that she is on her own. She not only needs to fend for herself (and that’s not an easy task even for her medieval contemporaries), but she also takes it upon herself to take care of Charles, her streetwise orphan sidekick. And of course she is tasked with protecting Jean, the future father of the kings. She invests herself in that task on more levels than one. And it doesn’t quite go to plan. But she has to go on and every new chapter is filled with new challenges.

A visceral read, full of passion and heart.

 

The Brothers York by Thomas Penn

A work of non-fiction treating about the controversial and frequently vilified York kings, Edward IV and Richard III. The book was packed with historical details and analysis, but it had moments when it read like fiction especially when the author dived directly into specific events and let the course of those events take over the narrative.
I found it absorbing, with several interesting propositions and revelations about historical mysteries such as the Princes in the Tower.

The language was accessible.
Informative and intriguing!

The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman

P1070674

The Light Between Oceans is an exquisite exposition of human vulnerability. It is about the insurmountable need to give love to a child, and the intricately linked selfishness and selflessness involved in this act.
The story of Isabel and Tom and little Lucy the ocean brought to their doorstep is set against the sweeping background of the interwar period in Australia. The Great War plays its part in influencing Tom’s actions, or rather reactions.
The writing flows effortlessly and takes the reader with it on a sea voyage into the depths and complexities of human heart.
This book is a rare gem.