Book Review: The Priest and the Lily

I came across Sanjida Kay when I reviewed her first psychological thriller, Bone by Bone. Following subsequent interviews and events I became aware that this was not her fiction debut, that she had already published a number of other works under the name Sanjida O’Connell. I purchased Angel Bird as it was set in Ireland and enjoyed the tale. When she contacted me to offer a review copy of The Priest and the Lily – a new edition of historical fiction originally published by John Murray – I was happy to take the book.

Set in 1865, just a few years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the protagonist of the story is Joseph, a young Jesuit priest. Although firm in his faith, Joseph has a keen interest in evolutionary biology. He works as a scientist at Bristol’s Royal Botanical Gardens, retaining links with the British Museum. For years he has been plotting and planning in hope of gaining funding for a foreign expedition. He has long dreamt of travelling to Outer Mongolia – an interest inspired by boyhood stories of Genghis Khan – and returning with specimens of previously uncategorised flowers, thereby gaining him the respect of revered members of the Royal Society.

From the prologue, readers will be aware that Joseph returned from a perilous journey across Mongolia with a rare lily that brought him the kudos he had so desired. The remaining story is of the expedition, with some backstory to explain why Joseph developed his faith and scientific bent.

The first chapter details his crossing of the border with China, necessary to reach the landlocked destination. It is a shocking opening – a depiction of cruelty that lays bare the attitudes of many men he will encounter. Although distressing to read it provides effective scene setting.

Mongolia harbours a nomadic people whose culture includes a welcome for strangers. Joseph travels with a Mongolian horseman, Tsem – who will manage the pack horses necessary to carry provisions and equipment – and a translator, Mendo, who is a Buddhist monk. The three men, although very different in outlook and ambition, will become friends.

As they travel across the remote mountains and plains, Joseph collects specimens of plants and creatures – killing as he feels necessary. He regards this as important for science. Others regard it as theft. Joseph’s arrogance is that of an Englishman abroad, comfortable in his right to be there. He is willing to learn the language and fit in with cultural miens but regards his work as valuable and worth the plundering of locale.

As well as staying in tents used as shelter by the indigenous population, the trio benefit from hospitality in Buddhist lamaseries. These are under increasing threat from a Warlord whose army proves brutal and pitiless.

Having long regarded Buddhists as peaceable, it was shocking to learn of some of their practices – towards young boys placed in their care and the creatures in their surroundings.

The dangers encountered on the journey – hunger, weather, terrain and vicious people – are not the only aspects that challenge Joseph’s equilibrium. Mendo causes him to ponder aspects of his beliefs.

Events conspire to place Joseph in the care of a small mountain community. Here he meets a beautiful woman, Namuunaa, who will test his vows of chastity. He prays to his god to be delivered from evil, but who in this story is evil?

Although the various dangers added to the sense of place, offering details on the manner in which the Mongolian population lived, the long journeying occasionally felt, well, long. Joseph’s admiration for Namuunaa focused on her beauty – I could have done without the detail of their sexual activities. She was remarkable in so many other ways.

I would emphasise though that the story told has lingered, particularly the imagery. The author is skilled at touching the senses – from her vivid descriptions of the filth of Bristol’s crowded and noisy dockside to the difficulties encountered traversing the Gobi desert. The reader can almost taste and smell each location alongside Joseph as he struggles to adapt and survive.

The story took me to a place I had never given much thought to and brought it to life, adding depth by exploring the attitudes of scientists and religions in a time of change. At its heart is a story of people whose lives have been shaped by their need to adapt to personal tragedy. A tale of choices made and the cost of ambition that proved an interesting and rewarding read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Warlow Experiment

“They err as men do that argue right from wrong principles”

The Warlow Experiment, by Alix Nathan, is set during the closing decade of the eighteenth century. This was the Age of Reason, also known as the Enlightenment, when European intellectuals were debating ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity. The movement instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy and politics, which grew alongside great strides in scientific discovery. It was also a time of social revolution in France leading to numerous wars that took men from their families.

The protagonist of the story is Herbert Powyss, a wealthy bachelor gentleman with an interest in horticulture. He experiments with the cultivation of non-native plants and trees on his small estate in the Welsh Marshes – Moreham House. An avid reader with an interest in scientific reasoning, he dreams of recognition by the Royal Society in London. Realising that his current interests and occupations may not be regarded as consequential, Powyss decides to set up an experiment centring on a willing human subject. He advertises for a man prepared to live alone, underground, for seven years, permitted no contact with the outside world. The subject will be provided with food and comforts, paid a stipend for life, in return for keeping a journal of his thoughts and activities while in solitary confinement.

“his actions would produce something good, a significant contribution to science”

Only one man replies to the advertisement. John Warlow lives locally with his wife and six children. He is a farm labourer surviving in a hand to mouth existence. From childhood he has taken whatever work local landowners will offer. His home is a small, badly maintained cottage, typical of those available to families in his position. He regards Powyss’s scheme as offering the only chance he will ever have to escape poverty. His involvement in the experiment certainly changes the way the Warlows live, but not in ways they could have envisaged.

Powyss’s first mistake is in kitting out the rooms in which his subject will live to entertain someone like him. There are books, a small pipe organ and writing materials. Warlow is semi-literate and used to days filled by hard manual labour. He is determined to earn his stipend but struggles with how to get through each day. The requirement to write in the journal is one he cannot comprehend.

Warlow’s wife, Hannah, visits Powyss each week to collect her husband’s wage. She is wary of wealthy gentlemen, and with good reason. Women at the time had few rights and little recourse to justice should they be violated. Even the social warriors of the time, advocating for wider suffrage, did not consider women in their campaigns.

Wider social changes are explored through Powyss’s servants. He keeps only a small staff as his needs are few compared to his peers. Some of the servants are more loyal than others. They vary in skills and education. Powyss favours his gardener, even when the man starts spreading sedition.

Moreham House becomes a microcosm of issues being fought for across Europe. Despite Warlow being willingly incarcerated, others regard him as a prisoner of the landed gentry. Powyss is assumed to be taking advantage of Hannah. The gardener, who claims to be fighting for freedom for the oppressed, cannot recognise his own controlling relationship with the maid he becomes involved with. He is angered when she proves herself more capable than him of parsing texts the rebels revere.

Powyss, meanwhile, is struggling with the way his experiment is progressing. The settled and solitary existence he had previously enjoyed has been thrown off kilter by Warlow’s habitation of his cellars. The servants complain that the man rarely changes his clothes – the state of them when he does means they must be burned. With no communication allowed, there can only be conjecture on how he is coping. Powyss had envisaged his experiment as ‘the application of cool reason, of impartial, scientific calculation.’ Unlike his plants, a human subject cannot be disposed of if it fails to thrive or infects those in its vicinity.

The structure of the story allows the reader to follow what is happening from multiple viewpoints. Taken within the context of growing social unrest – including complaints over hunger and conscription – there is pleasing depth in the depiction of all social classes and their expectations of each other’s behaviour. Powyss is educated, has travelled the world, but his naivity is the catalyst for a tsunami of destruction. Throughout, Warlow is being used by all he comes into contact with to further their pet causes, whatever the cost to him and his family.     

This is the first novel in a long time that I have picked up and read cover to cover in a day. The writing is engaging and well paced, going in directions that maintain momentum. There is much to consider around the actions of the varied and well developed characters. Secondary characters are only introduced with good reason.

The author is not afraid to include the consequences of actions, to follow through on threads that cannot end well. Although a multi-layered narrative it flows with ease. A story that can be taken at face value or as an allegory for the price of progress. This is a recommended read.

The Warlow Experiment is published by Serpents Tail.

Book Review: Inside the Beautiful Inside

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Bethlem Hospital began as a priory, founded in the 13th Century. By 1400 it had become a refuge for strangers in need. Over time, Bethlem specialised in caring for those considered insane. By the 17th century, the asylum was well-known enough to appear in dramas and ballads – used as a way to explore the popular question of who was mad, who was sane, and who had the power to decide.

When the second version of the hospital was constructed, in 1676, it was unlike any asylum seen before. Its opulent exterior was compared to the Palace of Versailles. However, the hospital was built on rubble – it didn’t have proper foundations. Because the ornate façade was so heavy, it immediately cracked at the back. Whenever it rained, the walls ran with water.

The new hospital was, quite literally, putting a pretty face on what many Londoners saw as a messy, distasteful problem. Visitors would pay to view the inmates and wonder at the grimness of their lives. Going to the hospital was meant to be an instructive reminder to keep baser instincts in check lest they too be committed.

Inside the Beautiful Inside is set in the crumbling Bethlem during its final decades, before it was torn down and rebuilt again elsewhere. The protagonist is an American marine, James Norris, a real life seaman who was an inmate from 1800 to 1815 – he was incarcerated for an unnamed lunacy. In this fictionalised account of his life, Norris served under Captain Bligh – of Mutiny on the Bounty fame – and was a friend of Fletcher Christian. The story opens with Norris saving Christian’s life whilst at sea.

The timeline then jumps forward to the day Norris is taken to Bethlem. Here he must endure under the cruel regime of the keepers and a drunken surgeon, tasked with patient care. Convinced that Christian is also an inmate, Norris is determined to wreak revenge on the man he now blames for ruining his chance of a happy life with a woman he spurned.

The appalling conditions in the asylum are brought to vivid life in the narrative. Norris survives by going inside his memories, particularly of happier times with a young Welsh woman, Ruth, who he hoped to marry. He has, over the course of his life, lost all those he cared for: mother, brother, lover, friend. By reliving his key memories, the reader learns of each of these relationships, albeit in fragments.

Norris’s eventual outcome was determined by three prominent reformers who were concerned by the condition and ill-treatment of patients in lunatic asylums. They used an illustration of Norris – mechanically restrained in an extraordinary device designed specifically for him after a series of violent incidents – to garner public interest and thereby orchestrate change.

The reasons for these incidents are used in the story to add depth to Norris’s character and subsequent actions. Told from his point of view, veracity is always in question. Norris holds tight to his memories as they are all that keep him going through the pain and degradation inflicted on him and his fellow inmates. Over the course of his time in Bethlem, Norris’s grasp on reality is severely tested.

Fascinating though it is to travel inside the head of someone living through such appalling circumstances, this was not an easy read. The memories Norris shares add colour and credence to his actions but life in Bethlem remains unremittingly grim. Although not a long book, I was eager for it to end. The denouement made more sense when I looked up what happened to Norris in reality.

The author has chosen to make Norris a victim who survives in part due to strengths derived from his life as a hardened seaman. That he hankers after a more domestic existence – one he eschewed due to jealousy and pride – made his predicament poignant but, in some small measure, self-inflicted. His time in captivity brought to the fore his regret at not valuing what he could have had.

The story offers an interesting history but not so much the psychology I had expected from the synopsis. The voice adopted for Norris garners sympathy – how could it not – but too often comes across as disjointed. Perhaps my not entirely favourable reaction is down to unmet expectations derived from the book’s publicity material – that and my lack of engagement with the style of writing.

Any Cop?: The treatment of those society regards as insane has a long and shocking history. I feel I learned more about Bethlem in general from this tale than about the inmate narrating.

 

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: The Tower of Fools

‘The Tower of Fools’ has the same translator, David French, as Andrzej Sapkowski’s ‘Witcher’ series, and the narrative voice is undoubtedly the same. However, unlike the ‘Witcher’ books, this first instalment in Sapkowski’s ‘Hussite War’ trilogy is much heavier on the historical than the fantasy. I enjoyed the insight into a period of history I know little about – but unfortunately, as the novel continues, the constant references to more and more historical figures become a little draining. It’s like reading ‘A Game of Thrones’ for the first time magnified by ten – it’s impossible to remember who each character is.

The novel follows Reinmar of Bielewa – known as Reynevan – a scholar and physician from Prague who fled after the invasion of the Hussites. Now safely ensconced the other side of the border, he makes the mistake of having an affair with a nobleman’s wife. The nobleman’s family are enraged, and Reynevan is forced to flee. Thus begins a story in which Reynevan runs from town to town, makes generally bad choices, and survives thanks to good luck and much smarter friends.

Reynevan has great potential as a character. An accomplished physician – and secretly, a far less accomplished mage – he comes across as a generally nice man (unless women are involved). Unfortunately, his constant terrible decision making makes him a very difficult character to like. He’s rash, hot-headed, and – unless medicine is involved – generally a bit clueless about everything. I have no idea how he’s ended up with so many useful and helpful friends without picking up a lick of common sense himself.

The cast of supporting characters evolves, but some of the most interesting are Scharley, Samson, and Urban Horn. This is a plot-driven rather than character-driven novel, and all three characters are left mostly mysterious, but hopefully more will be revealed in book two – especially about Samson, who is far more than he seems.

The fantasy elements are mainly the existence of mages – of which Reynevan is an amateur, but far more accomplished mages and witches are encountered – demons, and mysterious shapeshifting creatures, including one known as the Wallcreeper. There’s no specific magic system, but each element is worked neatly into the story. The Wallcreeper appears to be the true overarching ‘enemy’ of the trilogy, but remains a peripheral figure in this first instalment. The witches are brilliant and, whilst they only make cameos, deserve their own book.

The main issue I have with this book is one that I also have with the ‘Witcher’ novels, and that’s the attitude towards women. Of course, ‘The Tower of Fools’ is a historical (15th century) book written through a man’s perspective, so misogyny is to be expected – but that doesn’t make it pleasant to read about for 500 pages. Sapkowksi appears to try to make Reynevan marginally less misogynistic than his peers, but his thoughts about women are regularly unpalatable. Overall, this is a solid historical fantasy novel that will likely appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell-esque historical fiction, Sapkowksi’s Witcher novels, and fantasy novelists like Mark Lawrence – but perhaps not fans of more modern fantasy that’s moved past medievalist fantasy tropes.

Published in the UK by Gollancz
Paperback: 27th October 2020

(Originally published in Polish in 2002)

Robyn Reviews: The Betrayals

‘The Betrayals’ is gorgeous, atmospheric, character-driven historical fantasy at its finest. It’s slow-paced, but there’s a constant underlying sense of danger that keeps it engaging throughout.

Unlike the majority of readers, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Collins’ adult debut, ‘The Binding’ – it started far too slowly, without the atmosphere to back it up. However, it grew into itself as it went on, and I had high hopes that Collins’ sophomore effort might have fixed the teething issues. These wishes have been fulfilled. The characters are far more engaging and likeable, the atmosphere more effective, the pacing perfectly balanced. There are minor quibbles, but this is a much more enjoyable read.

‘The Betrayals’ is set at an exclusive college, Montverre, dedicated to studying the national game – the grand jeu. This mysterious game is part mathematics, part music, and – it could be claimed – part magic. Léo Martin won the Gold Medal for his grand jeu as a second year – an almost unprecedented achievement – but subsequently left academia for politics. Now, disgraced from the ruling political party, he finds himself exiled back to Montverre. But things have changed in the last ten years, and there are many parts of Léo’s past – parts he hasn’t thought about in years – he doesn’t want coming back to haunt him.

There are three POV characters – Léo, the disgraced politician; Claire, the first female Magister Ludi in history; and the Rat, a mysterious figure who hides in the passageways of Montverre. There are also regular interludes – written in first person, unlike the rest which are in third – from Léo’s diary as a student at Montverre. I’m not always a fan of the first person, but these were some of my favourite parts – Léo now is a politician for a fascist party and a resounding misogynist, whereas Léo then was a bully, but had many more redeeming features. The complexity of those entries turns him into a character you can understand and empathise with.

Claire is an intriguing character. Montverre is an all-male institution, and as the first female Magister Ludi she has a point to prove. She’s strong and clever, but can be abrasive. Her interactions with Léo are intricately written, and I suspect I’ll appreciate them even more on a reread.

The Rat is my one major quibble with the book. She’s not a bad character, but she doesn’t fit well with the rest of the story – I feel like she could be removed and the tale told just as effectively, and possibly more tautly. At its heart, this is Léo and Claire’s story – the other characters are almost superfluous distractions.

This is a character-driven story, and whilst the plot is clever, it’s less important than the intersecting relationships and character dynamics. It’s almost like crossing Collins’ debut with ‘The Secret History’ – a mashup of historical fantasy-lite with dark academia and a generous helping of male egotism. The atmosphere and writing style should appeal to fans of both.

Overall, this is an excellent historical fantasy and a chance to see Collins’ writing and imagination at their best. Those who weren’t so fond of her ‘The Binding’ may want to give her a second chance, and those that loved her debut should find plenty to enjoy here. Recommended.

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 12th November 2020

Robyn Reviews: Witch

‘Witch’ is a relatively short novel, coming in under 300 pages, with a simple narrative; Evey and Dill’s mother, the town witch, is murdered by witch-hunters, and Evey vows to enact revenge. The language used reflects the historical setting and Evey’s young age. Many will love this as a quaint, atmospheric tale – but I found myself irritated by Evey and put off by a narrative style which made the story feel very superficial.

Evey is, to be quite frank, not a very nice person. Much of this can be forgiven due to her young age and the shock of watching the death of her mother – but she spends the entire story either complaining or making horrifically rash decisions, and it gets quite tiring to read about. Her interactions with her sister, Dill, are believable – they fight like real siblings, with true sibling grievances – but the pettiness of it all isn’t fun to read. In a novel where everything else is kept deliberately light and whimsical, the protagonist needed to be a strong anchor – Evey isn’t that person.

Most of my grievances with this book say more about me than the novel itself. I prefer my magic systems explained, with clear rules and limitations – the witchcraft in this book is a mysterious thing with no clear rules, and is also far less prominent than the title might suggest. I like character-driven fantasy – this is definitely plot-driven, with Evey never developed as a character beyond her base motivations. I prefer difficult situations to be solved by brains rather than fortuitous coincidences – this book has nothing but fortuitous coincidences. My difficulties with this book almost exactly mirror my issues with another whimsical fantasy from earlier this year, Feathertide – so if you enjoyed that, you might find this up your street too.

I should mention that, while this is written in a very light style, it touches on some dark subject matter. Despite the child narrator, it’s definitely a more adult novel with adult themes.

What about the positives? This is a quick read, easy to consume in one sitting – but also easy to consume in small bites, the narrative simple enough that nothing will be forgotten. It’s also an interesting exploration of attitudes towards witchcraft – people decrying it in the daylight but turning to witches when things get tough. It’s enlightening peering back to a time when witch trials were commonplace; for most of the novel, the historical fiction is more prominent than the fantasy.

Overall, this wasn’t the book for me – but I’m sure plenty of others will enjoy the style it’s written in, and it’s nice delving into a shorter novel amidst the trend for increasingly long fantasy stories. Recommended for fans of atmospheric, whimsical books, historical fantasy, and child narrators.

Thanks to NetGalley and Head of Zeus for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Head of Zeus
Hardback: 1st October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Devil and the Dark Water

‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ is part mystery, part horror story against the background of a trading ship in the 17th century. An eclectic group of people – the governor general of Batavia, the world’s greatest detective, a loyal bodyguard, the greatest navigator in the East India Trading Company, a healer, the last Witchfinder – have all ended up on the Saardam, a ship travelling from Batavia (now Indonesia) to Amsterdam. However, their voyage appears cursed – and as demonic symbols and strange events start to strike the ship, they must all band together to solve the mystery before it kills them all.

The key part of any mystery novel is the reveal at the end, and whilst this is very clever – it’s difficult to guess the key players right until the end, with red herrings left right and centre – the final chapter isn’t entirely convincing. Nonetheless, this is a great read filled with solid characters, and the narrative spins in different directions throughout. There are plenty of historical fiction tropes – forbidden romance, clever women stifled by men, the seductress wanted by every man she meets – but they’re written well, adding to the narrative rather than detracting from it.

The highlights are undoubtedly Arent Hayes – the gruff bodyguard of renowned detective Samuel Pipps, who is heading to Amsterdam in chains to face judgement for an unknown crime – and Sara Wessel, the wife of the governor general who hates her husband with the ferocity of a wildfire. Arent is a genuinely good man, one who became a soldier out of a lack of options but is now so good at it he doesn’t believe he’s good for anything else. Sara is a smart woman who knows there’s no place in the world for smart women and will do everything in her power to keep her even smarter daughter out of harms way. This unlikely pair lead the search for answers – Arent with his fists and his sword, and Sara with her brains and sheer determination. It’s impossible not to root for them both, and to feel deeply for how they’ve been scarred.

The ship makes an excellent setting for what, at its heart, is a locked room mystery. It’s filled with stark divides – rich and poor, passengers and crew – and these dynamics deeply affect each part of the novel. The look into life at sea is fascinating, if regularly horrifying. Stuart Turton never flinches from the stark reality of sailors’ lives, and the imagery he creates is visceral.

Overall, this is a solid historical thriller with an intriguing and varied cast, brought to life by its setting and the vivid language. The ending could have been more satisfying, and some of the characters more original – but this is still a great story. Recommended for all fans of historical fiction and closed-room mysteries.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for providing an eARC – this in no ways affects the content of this review

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 1st October 2020

Robyn Reviews: Divine Heretic

Divine Heretic is the story of Jeanne d’Arc, more commonly known in the UK as Joan of Arc. Jeanne is a saint of the Roman Catholic church for her role in the Hundred Years War, a battle between the French and the English for dominion over France. Jeanne claimed to have visions of angels – specifically the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine – instructing her to support the incumbent King Charles VII in his quest to reclaim France. Her actions aided him in ascending to the throne, but she herself was captured by the English and burnt at the stake for witchcraft.

The book more or less follows the common story, but diverges on Jeanne’s opinion of the angels. Here, the angels are more like demons who plague her. It starts with their first visit, when Jeanne is five, and follows as they torment her, cursing her with pain and horror for her family until she agrees to carry out their will. They claim she is the fabled Maid, but Jeanne doesn’t believe herself to be the Maid – she’s just a peasant girl. As time passes, the control these demons have over Jeanne appears to wax and wane – but they’re determined to ensure she fulfils her destiny no matter what the cost.

Jeanne is an intriguing protagonist. She’s exceptionally devout, but equally sure that these beings are not divine. She’s a strong character with clear desires – even when she seems powerless to achieve them. Her life is regularly awful, and she hates the demons she blames this on with burning passion. There’s a certain level of detachment between her and the reader – this seems to be common in historical novels – which can make her hard to connect with, but it’s hard not to sympathise with her inability to control her own life.

Unfortunately, the secondary characters are particularly two-dimensional. Her Grand-mere is an intriguing character – chosen to be the Maid before Jeanne until circumstances prevented her from fulfilling her destiny – yet this thread, and the impacts on her character, are never explored. Jeanne’s sworn protector, Ethan, also has brilliant potential – mixed-race in an era and place where that’s uncommon, he’s a strong knight with a heart of gold. However, he’s reduced to the cardboard love interest, never doing anything for himself. This would be a much stronger story if anyone except Jeanne felt like a real person.

I enjoyed the plot – despite telling a well-known tale it maintained interest, with less predictable twists thrown in alongside the predictable ones. However, I disliked what was done with the ending. It felt unnecessary – after the darkness of the rest of the book, throwing in fluffiness felt trite.

I struggle with historical fiction more than many other genres because it’s often written in a very detached style, and I need to connect with the characters to really enjoy a story. This is no different. It’s well-written, but the impersonal nature of it lessens its appeal. Fans of historical fiction and plot-driven novels likely won’t mind this, or may even prefer it – but I want it to delve deeper.

Overall, this is a solid historical fiction novel about an interesting, well-known figure that takes a slightly different spin to what is often portrayed. Recommended to fans of historical fiction, especially Roman Catholic history, and strong female characters.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Quercus for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

 

Published by Quercus
Paperback: 20th August 2020

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Katheryn Howard

“she had been in her tender youth, too frail to resist her wanton appetites, too greedy for carnal delights. How blind the young can be!”

Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen, by Alison Weir, is the fifth installment in the author’s Six Tudor Queens series. Like its predecessors, it is a fictionalised biography of one of Henry VIII’s wives based on extensive factual research. Written as a story, it offers a window into the life of a young woman raised in privileged households. Katheryn is always aware that she is a Howard and that her family are both wealthy and influential. She was regarded as very beautiful but is not portrayed as particularly bright.

Opening in 1528, when Katheryn was seven years old, the tale begins with the death of her mother in childbirth. Katheryn is sent to stay with a kindly aunt, along with her half-sister, Isabel, who will become a lifelong friend. Katheryn’s father lives beyond his means and goes on to marry wealthy widows. He is not well regarded by the wider family but they are still willing to help raise his children.

In 1531, Katheryn is sent to live with her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Unhappy with this change, Katheryn’s stepmother comforts her by explaining why.

“It is quite usual for noble children to be reared in great households, and you are now of an age for that. Under the Duchess’s rule, you will learn the skills and graces that will help you to make a good marriage or even obtain a place at court.”

Being a Howard, Katheryn is given her own room, unlike the other young ladies placed in the Duchess’s care. They must sleep in a dormitory where they get up to all sorts of shenanigans, including sexual antics with the young men of the household. By the time Katheryn is a teenager, she is joining in.

This activity is preceded by a crush Katheryn has on her music master. The sections describing their affair – when they would ‘pleasure’ each other in secret – were disturbing to read.

Katheryn’s regular fumblings and tumblings during the years she lived in the Duchess’s house grew tiresome to read due to repetition. There was little attempt at discretion during lascivious activity, much to the chagrin of some of the young ladies who were forced to bear witness. There is risk but this only adds to the frisson.

In 1539, Katheryn’s father dies. Following this, she is finally found a place at court serving the King’s latest wife, the Lady Anne of Cleves. Although basking in the opulence of the royal palaces, and enjoying the sumptuous gowns she is given, Katheryn grows bored by the quiet manner in which the new Queen mostly lives.

When it becomes clear that the King no longer wishes to be married to Anne, Katheryn’s powerful uncles concoct a plan to place her on the throne. She must present herself as virtuous, keeping secret the life she led while under the care of the Dowager Duchess. The King is smitten by her youth and beauty, and she grows fond of him.

Once again, Katheryn’s sex life is described in repetitive detail – key to her role as Queen is that she produce a royal heir. When she rekindles an affair with one of her previous lovers, it is frustrating to read of the foolish risks she takes. Yes, she is young and vivacious, but her actions were always bound to lead where they did.

Portrayed as an admired young woman who has been offered little moral guidance growing up, Katheryn’s behaviour can be understood despite its repercussions. In this marriage at least, Henry appears the victim.

I enjoyed the historical aspects of the novel – the lives led by the noble families of the time and those who served them. Political maneuvering was ruthless and added interest. It is a shame that, while understanding it was Katheryn’s sexual antics that led to her undoing and therefore they had to be included, the many pages devoted to describing them became tedious.

Katheryn was young, fell easily in love, and was used by those looking for preferment. That she couldn’t control her urges, despite being adored by her aging husband, makes it harder to sympathise. Nevertheless, the author does a good job of presenting choices made through the lens of desire – which has, after all, caused regret in many.

An author’s note at the end explains the facts she used as the basis for the story and where she chose to use her imagination. Having read each of the books in this series, I am glad to have read this one for completeness. I do, however, hope that the final installment will contain less carnal content. I look forward to learning more about Henry’s final Queen.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: The Blackbird

Liverpool Cathedral was built over the course of the 20th century. As may be expected for such an impressive structure, it took many decades to complete. Progress stalled during both World Wars due to shortages of manpower and materials. The cathedral now ranks as the fifth-largest in the world. Built on St James’s Mount, the shape of the site required that the nave be oriented north to south rather than, as is traditional, west to east. Some believed this would bring bad luck.

The principle characters in The Blackbird certainly suffer their share of misfortune. Across alternating chapters, the story has two main timelines. It opens in 1941 with an accident on a building site where a much reduced team of masons are constructing the tall, central tower of a cathedral. As a result of the incident, a young man is grievously injured. Will Jenner, the on-site manager, blames himself for being persuaded to set the men to work.

Will is married to Mary and they have an eight year old daughter, Hope. The family moved to the city, away from family in rural Derbyshire, when offered the prestigious job opportunity. Will expects his wife to share with him every detail of how she spends her days. When she takes an interest in the hospitalised worker, Will grows suspicious of her motives. He requires that she be quietly obedient, becoming angry if she acts in any other way.

The growing cathedral, and Will’s behaviour, cast a shadow over his family. This is exacerbated by regular, night time aerial bombing raids. Homes have been razed and many killed. People must continue to function despite fear and sleep deprivation.

Moving to 2014, a young mother, Louise, has recently moved into a new flat with her toddler son, Jake. It is a fresh start and one she is content with. Jake’s father, Benny, broke her heart when he left them. Now she is in a relationship with an old friend, Carl, although still relishes her independence. When Benny shows up on her doorstep expecting to be taken back, Louise rejects him. Angered by her reaction, Benny refuses to leave them be.

There is a linking character across the two timelines – Hope – who in 2014 is struggling to care for her elderly husband; Robert has dementia and his behaviour is deteriorating. Through Hope’s thoughts and recollections the reader gains a different perspective on the events her father had to deal with through the war years and beyond.

Undercurrents of male violence percolate along with the limitations in agency women suffer due to their circumstances. The veracity of memory and perceived impact on subsequent decisions is explored and queried. Characters’ choices not to share their reasoning and personal justifications with those around them have damaging consequences. Jealousy and blame pervade.

It took a few chapters before the quality of the writing gripped me. What at first appeared an unremarkable if smoothly told tale established pleasing depth. The plot, whilst engaging, became secondary to my interest in character development. The impact of experience and situation are used to particularly impressive effect.

The structure is well balanced between detail and flow. This was a story I was eager to get back to each time I had to break away. Layered and nuanced yet never heavy, a good read that I am happy to recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Henningham Family Press.

This review is a stop on The Blackbird Blog Tour 2020. Do check out the other fine posts, detailed above.

 

Giveaway time!

The publisher has kindly offered to send a copy of this book to one lucky reader who enters my Twitter giveaway. Follow me here and RT the relevant tweet (from around 8am today) to be in with a chance to win (UK only, ends 5pm BST 31/7/2020).