Heresy by S J Parris

Heresy: The breathtaking first book in the the No. 1 Sunday Times bestselling historical crime thriller series (Giordano Bruno, Book 1) by [S. J. Parris]

On the run from the Holy Inquisition, Giordano Bruno arrived in England and travelled to Oxford, seeking professorship with Oxford University. SJ Parris used these historical facts to spin a fast-past and intricate crime thriller set in 1583 – during the turbulent reign of Elizabeth I when assassination plots, religious persecutions and political intrigue ruled the day.

Bruno is recruited by Walsingham to act as his spy and to uncover any catholic conspiracies against the queen. It is suspected that such conspiracies are operated by those of the prestigious Oxford academia who secretly adhere to the old faith and refuse to recognise Elizabeth’s legitimacy. Bruno has his own personal reasons to visit Oxford University library – he is searching for a prohibited occultist manuscript he believes may have found its way to England.

As soon as Bruno sets foot at the College a body of one of the Fellows is found mauled viciously by a diabolical dog, the death disturbingly resonant of the martyrdom of St Sebastian. At the insistence of the College Rector, the death is dismissed as an unfortunate accident. But soon another death follows and its similarity to yet another martyred saint cannot be ignored. Bruno is requested to investigate. He ventures into the secret world of sectarian Oxford and over the next few, action-packed days, risking his own life – and heart – follows the clues to make stunning discoveries and not only find the killer but also learn hard-hitting truths about devotion, love and passion, obsession and the all-destroying power of religious convictions.

The historical setting of the tumultuous Elizabethan era in general and the scholarly Oxford in particular provides a rich and intriguing background for a gripping thriller with a multi-layered and complex plot, vivid characters and a historically accurate theme. Bruno is an interesting protagonist: a man possessed of an open mind in the world rife with bigotry and dogmatism, a humanist and scientist, a survivor and a pragmatic idealist. I will be reading more of this series.

The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

We meet Eleanor of Castille, wife of Prince Edward – the future king of England, as she is taken hostage by Gilbert de Clare, lord of Gloucester. It is the perilous time of the Second Barons’ War against King Henry III. The leader of the pack, Simon de Montfort, controls most of the country and holds the king and his supporters checkmated. Separated from her beloved husband, Eleanor is forced into penury and swears revenge. This is a dynamic and tense introduction to the heroine of Carol McGrath’s biopic novel, The Damask Rose.

The story of her life unfolds in dramatic episodes that defined her and Edward’s rule: the defeat of the barons, his coronation, a crusade and retaking of Acre, an attempted assassination and a whole array of political and diplomatic machinations on the domestic and international front. The main players of the era, such as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, enter the scene. The settings extend beyond the shores of Britain and into France and Italy. European socio-economic dynamics form the backdrop to Eleanor’s story.

McGrath is sympathetic towards Eleanor, but that doesn’t prevent her from being honest about who she was: a smart and tough businesswoman who accumulated an extensive property portfolio and handled it with cunning expertise. She was also a mother who wasn’t motherly, but then again the mortality rate of newborn and young children didn’t allow much room to form emotional attachments, at least not until her children were older. Eleanor of Castile did not bow to the stereotypical female models of the Middle Ages – her strong personality and life skills would stand her in good stead were she to travel in time to the twenty-first century. She could brave our reality with no difficulty, I imagine.

There is another heroine of this story, Olwen. She is a humble herbalist and Eleanor’s companion, confidante and on occasion even her spy. Her loyalty to her mistress is unsurpassed, but she also has her own story which flows in parallel to Eleanor’s but somewhat more idly and with greater intimacy. After all, Olwen doesn’t hold the weight of a whole kingdom on her shoulders.

The Damask Rose is written in beautifully stylised prose. I found myself fully immersed in the language and in Eleanor’s tumultuous life punctuated with many dramatic climaxes. The period detail and descriptions are totally absorbing. McGrath created a sense of immediacy with her heroine and took me on a journey of discovery that will stay with me for a while yet.

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library series Book 1) by [Genevieve Cogman]

The Invisible Library is a mystery of a missing book, an extraordinary edition of The Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales. The book, which is a unique collector’s item, has been stolen and its owner murdered. Irene (a librarian-cum-spy) and her assistant, Kai, travel to Victorian London to search for the book.
Until this point, a potential reader would be justified in thinking this was yet another historical mystery. But Victorian London is only one of many versions of itself. Cogman’s world consists of many such alternatives. Each universe features an array of beings other than humans: vampires, fairies, shape-shifting dragons, to name just a few. Zeppelins fly overhead. Robotic caterpillars, remotely operated alligators, silverfish and all manner of bizarre creatures get in the way of the investigation. However, finding the book is a matter of life and death, and the librarian’s nemesis, Alberich will not hesitate to resort to trickery, murder and corruption to get his hands on the book. Ancient Language and magic are used, alongside more conventional methods, by all sides to defeat the competition. Alliances are formed slowly and mistrust has to be overcome in action.
I enjoyed the quest aspect of The Invisible Library and found the concepts of the many alternatives of real places and times very intriguing. The idea of magic being a by-product of destructive chaos is original and curious.
I would have liked Cogman to have perhaps fewer magical creatures, but to develop each of them in greater detail and give them more distinguishable features. As it is the vampires are not that different from the fairies, or indeed the dragons.
Overall, a pleasant fantasy read.

Bitter Sky by Tim Stretton

There is something distinctive and distinguished about Tim Stretton’s books. It isn’t just the elegant and precise prose that instantly takes you out of your present location and throws you into something rich, luxurious and intriguing. It is also the setting in time. You open the book and instantly find yourself in an alternative universe and living through alternative history – alternative but very real and believable.

“Bitter Sky” is a steampunk fantasy, but again the setting feels as if it is a snapshot from history – it feels authentic though you can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment in time where it comes from. Despite that, you have this distinct impression that you read about it or studied that period in school. You find yourself somewhere in Germany, perhaps at the turn of the twentieth century. There are hydrogen-powered airships and steam trains/carriages. They would have been experimental in those days, but in “Bitter Sky” they are fully-functional, tried and tested weapons. There is the strife of a small territory to secede from the powerful and dominant empire, to reject tradition and monarchy, and establish its own identity. The small territory, Lauchenland led by its revolutionary elite called Volksbund, has ambitions beyond mere independence: it declares war on the Beruz Empire. The Empire strikes back. I was fascinated with how the author built that world from fragments of history. I delighted in detecting nuanced references to the unification of German states under imperialistic Prussia’s rule, or the degradation of  the lofty principles of freedom and equality of people in the reign of terror and bureaucracy that followed the French and Russian revolutions. “Bitter Sky” is full of historical analogies cleverly dressed as fantasy and presented in a vibrant, action-packed fashion.

“Bitter Sky” is a pacey and dramatic war romp, complete with air battles, morally questionable bombings, tragic casualties and grand victories. But there is more to it. There is the human factor. The von Eck siblings, Erich and Saskia are torn between their aristocratic loyalties to the Empire and their citizen duty to fight for their country, Lauchenland. Erich joins the fusiliers on the side of the Empire and Saskia becomes an airship navigator with Lauchenland Air Corp. Again, historical references spring to mind where nations divided by borders found their people fighting – and killing – each other on the opposite sides in the Great War and WWII. Stretton captures that torturous dilemma between duty and loyalty, between following and questioning orders and between glorifying and dehumanising war. He doesn’t idealise or side with anyone. The Empire has its faults as does the belligerent republic of Lauchenland. There is a thin line between good and evil, victory and defeat.

The conclusion of this book was ingenious – tense and ultimately, very satisfying. It tied together all the loose ends, linked to the opening chapters and neatly encased the story. Tragedy and fatalism, black magic and characters caught up in events beyond their control bring to mind the dark fairy tales of yesteryear. If Hans Christian Andersen was to write a tale for adults, he could well have written “Bitter Sky”.

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.