An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

12142746An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a book I resisted reading for a while for the simple reason I thought it a tad too long. There were other books I wanted and needed to read, so it kept being moved to the bottom of a very big pile. Even owning a Kindle was not reason enough to embark on such a journey. Well, more fool me.

An Instance of the Fingerpost (which is taken from a larger quote by Francis Bacon) refers to the way in which a fingerpost points in only one direction and how, when presented with “facts” and “truths” in relation to a situation, humans tend to only see one solution/suspect. So it is with this simply marvellous tale of murder and intrigue set in 1663, during the reign of Charles II, who was restored to the throne on the back of the Interregnum after the death of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and the failure of his son, Richard, to hold power.

Set in Oxford, it basically tells the story about the murder of a university don, a Dr Grove, who appears to have been poisoned. Told in four parts from four different points of view (a Venetian medical student and traveler, Marco Da Cola; a passionate and angry young man, John Prescott who is trying desperately to prove his father isn’t the traitor to the crown he was believed to be; Dr Wallis, a stern and unbending cryptographer and, finally, Anthony Wood, an archivist and historian), the tale unfolds slowly, in detail, allowing time for the reader to understand not only the incredible narrative being told, but the person telling it. Rich in detail, philosophical insights and human observation, other characters become significant, such as the bold and assertive Sarah Blundy who earns the enmity and admiration of people in equal measure, and her injured mother, the so-called witch, Anne. Then, there are also the genuine historical figures who pepper the book such as the Earl of Clarendon, Cromwell’s former spymaster, John Thurloe, scientist Robert Boyle, architect Christopher Wren, Mr Lower, Bennett, the king, and other well-known names from a heady, culturally progressive and violent period.

When Dr Grove is found murdered, all sorts of reasons are given for his death and various suspects and their motives come to light, but without spoiling the story, it’s when someone the reader least suspects confesses, and shocking events follow, that the narrative (and the reader’s heart) quickens.

But Grove’s murder is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Bubbling away beneath the brutal death of this pompous man are plots and secrets aplenty as well as those who fear what the discovery of these might do to a kingdom fractured by religion, potential wars and the lascivious desires of a once deprived and exiled king.

Hidden documents, unfair accusations, half-truths, outright lies, deceptions, decoys, murder and betrayal all feature in this incredibly plotted, wonderfully detailed book that brings an era of suspicion, intrigue, distrust but also wonder to life. The accuracy of the portrayals of real and fictitious figures (though even the fictitious ones are based on real people and events) is breath-taking. I was filled with admiration and so much respect (as well as a healthy does of lexical envy) for Pears who has written a tour de force with this book. When I finally finished, I was tempted to start again so as to really appreciate the way traps were laid, truths and evasions set into place before the big and ultimate reveal.

What a magnificent tome this is. I highly recommend it for lovers of history, mystery and just damn fine writing and stories.

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Book Review: The Tudor Conspiracy by C. W Gortner

While I really enjoyed The Tudor Secret by CW Gortner, I simply loved The Tudor Conspiracy. Picking up a short time after the events in The Tudor Conspiracy (The Spymaster Chronicles, #2)The Tudor Secret, we find Queen Mary upon the throne and negotiations for her marriage well under way. Our hero, Brendan Prescott, and his love, Kate are embedded in Elizabeth’s household at Hatfield. Not for long. Summoned by William Cecil, Brendan has no choice but to journey to London and find employ at the royal court, feigning an allegiance to Queen Mary, the woman he once helped. Though he is sympathetic towards Queen Mary, Brendan is really at court to protect the Princess Elizabeth from the plots and cunning of not only the Spanish delegation, but even Elizabeth’s so-called friend and Brendan’s former employer, Robert Dudley who, though locked in the tower, appears to be manipulating events. With the Spaniards determined to indict Elizabeth for treason and deliver a death sentence and the Dudley’s working for their own ends, Brendan has his work cut out.

Ensconced among the courtiers, Brendan doesn’t know who to trust, or where to turn and is forced to make decisions, decisions that prove deadly and place not just his Princess at risk, but those he loves.

Fast-paced, evocative and well-written, this is a page turner par excellence that takes known history and turns it on its head in exciting and plausible ways. Cannot wait for the next instalment.

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Book Review: The Reckoning by Sharon Kay Penman

Sometimes, it’s really difficult reading the novels of a writer whom you know takes great pains to be historically accurate while still telling a sweeping, dramatic and emotionally fraught tale. So it is with Penman who, in this last book of The Welsh Prince series, brings the story of the struggles of the Welsh prince, Llewelwyn, and the machinations of Edward Longshanks, King of England, to a close.

For those who know the history, you understand the ending is not a happy one and it’s this that makes the novel difficult reading. The tale of Llewelyn’s reign, his marriage, love, triumphs and losses, his turgid and troubled relationship with is brother, the complex Davyd, are all explored in wonderful, deep and moving ways. Likewise, Edward’s motivations, the relationship he has with not only his brother and cousins, but also his conscience, which appears to conveniently massage events and consequences to suit his purpose, are all told with such emotional truth, you both delight and ache for the characters and the futures that await them.

I adored this book – as I have all the others in this series and, indeed, by Penman. She is a historical novelist par excellence – in that she manages to balance both the history and the story-telling so very well. Lost in the chaos and turmoil of the era, the bloodshed, treachery and religiosity, the story is also laced with romance, honour, adventure (including pirates!) and betrayal.

As is usual with Penman’s work, she brings the female characters (those often diminished or elided by history) particularly to life, representing them as strong, brave, fully-rounded women who while they may not be on the frontline in the physical sense as battles and politics rage around them, nonetheless form the backbone and emotional rearguard upon which their men (husbands, brothers, fathers, cousins and sons) will rely to succour them.

From Ellen to Eleanor to Nell, they are three-dimensional, amazing women who loved their men – faults and all – and in the end, it’s they who bear the heavy cost of their loyalty and love.

A superb conclusion to a tumultuous and possibly lesser known period of history, I cannot recommend this series (or any of Penman’s novels) highly enough.

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Book Review: The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman

The old adage “history is always written by the victors” holds true – and when it comes to recounting the infamous War of the Roses – the ongoing fight between the houses of York and Lancaster and their bloody battle for the English throne in the fifteenth century – we have the saying enacted. For in the years after Henry VII took the throne, the Tudors (backed by Lancastrians) made a huge effort to both erase and alter the way the two York monarchs: Edward IV and his brother, Richard the III, were remembered. Documents were burned, other were b=changed, and new versions of events quickly scribed and distributed. While Edward was constructed as a man who was powerful, selfish and a womaniser (among other much worse things), it’s his younger brother who is served the cruellest turn by Tudor writers and their re-fashioning of history. Just as Shakespeare turned Richard III into a monstrous hunchback living in the shadows, murdering, plotting and betraying, so too the Tudor historians would have posterity believe that the Duke of Gloucester was a man capable of murdering children in cold blood, breaking oaths to family, poisoning his wife and, basically, any callous, unethical act that one could conceive. That these posthumous interpretations don’t accord with remaining contemporary accounts never seemed to disturb too many and so Richard III has, mostly, been remembered as a King best forgotten – a terrible blight in the royal lineage – and this despite evidence to the contrary.

It was towards the contradictory evidence and contemporary sources of the time that Sharon Kay Penman turned to when she decided to revisit the era and the man and present to us The Sunne in Splendour, a remarkable work that redresses some of the imbalances in the York and Lancaster story.

Covering the period September 1459 to June 1492, and purporting to be a novel about Richard III, Sunne is as much about his older brother Edward and his rise to power and unexpected death at the age of 40, as it is about Richard. A turbulent period full of internecine strife between noble houses that saw England pretty much divided along the lines of Lancastrians or Yorkist supporters, Penman revisions the history of the times and, in doing so  gives us an accomplished, gripping and amazing tale of England and Europe in the late Middle Ages. Sunne explores the politics, swift and terrible  battles, illness, the joy and horror of childbirth, death, faith and, most importantly, the people and the personal relationships behind, beside and on the English throne (and French and other) during this time.

Commencing while Richard is still a child in a large family, the novel allows us to see the changing, confusing world of war, power and petty politics, from his perspective. By introducing Richard while he’s still so young, the reader is also given the opportunity to see and understand him through other character’s eyes and we’re given a glimpse of his formative years and a context for why he becomes the man he does. Contrary to the ugly received portrait, Richard is presented as a young man who, despite the tragedy that affects his early life, is rather an idealist. He’s loyal, ethical, honest, and a victim of his own capacity for forgiveness and occasional flare of temper. That’s not to say that Richard is perfect – far from it. Part of the joy of reading Penman is she exposes characters’ weaknesses and emotional and psychological fragilities as much as she does their strengths – but she always places them within a broad social and individual context so we’re given insights and understanding as opposed to simply judgement. Richard isn’t spared this type of searing and sensitive examination and nor are many other characters – male and female.

At times a breath-taking picture of war and bloodshed and the sacrifices men and women make for power, the novel is also a love story in the grand tradition. Central to this is the tale of Richard and his beloved, Anne Neville – his childhood companion, cousin and later, wife. The other grand love story, though one that’s tainted by the strong and oft-times unpleasant and haughty personalities of those at the core, is that of King Edward and Elizabeth Woodville. Both renown for their striking physical beauty (Elizabeth was considered one of the most gorgeous of English queens – even those who despised her family, could not help but acknowledge her beauty), Penman describes not only their often dysfunctional relationship, but the mutual understanding and deep feelings (and attraction) they bore for each other and which transcended behaviours and actions that would have destroyed a lesser couple as well. Elizabeth particularly is represented as a mostly heartless character who remained aloof when it came to her children and those closest to her and who did whatever she could to retain control – over her life and that of her children’s as well as the reigns of authority. It’s only much later in the book that the reader begins to understand her motivations, her drive to retain what little dignity and power she can muster, that her earlier machinations are cast in a different and more sympathetic light.

But for all the other amazing characters that sprinkle this very long novel –  from Edward and Richard’s other brother, the foolish and possibly mad pawn, George Clarence, who is alternately charming, cruel and capable of great treachery, to Richard’s steadfast and not so loyal friends, Will Hastings, Jack Howard, the Duke of Buckingham and many others, including a host of Archbishops, Mayors, foreign kings and the ever-burdened and changeable populations of London, York, English towns and countryside – it’s Richard whose belief in social justice, capacity for great kindness and stern retribution as well as unconditional love, who shines.

There are not many novelists who can grip a reader for nine hundred plus pages and, while it took me a while to read this book, it’s because I didn’t want to miss one word of this sumptuous, heart-breaking, triumphant and tragic tale about such a significant period of English history. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think how a fantasy writer would be hard-pressed to invent such a plot, conceive a host of characters and their actions like these. The devil is in the detail, and detail is what Penman has provided – from meals, fabrics, weapons, physical descriptions of characters, buildings, battles and weapons, to letters, dispatches, prayers, songs, dates and times – without sacrificing pace or story. This really is historical fiction at its finest: a magnificent read that recreates thirty-three years in livid and loving words, bringing to sumptuous and gory life the time the York’s shone – the moments when they were the sunne in splendour – before quickly waning under the might of the Lancasters and Tudors and the treachery of those they thought allies.

This was a treat in every sense of the word. It plunges you into the period and does not release you until the very last page. For anyone who loves history, quality fiction and a fine read – this is the book for you.

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Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

After feeling a little ambivalent about Wolf Hall (in that, I adored the subject matter, Thomas Cromwell: his life, family, rise to power and the machinations in the court of Henry VIII, but found the style of writing and point of view hard to adjust to – mainly because of the proliferation of the personal pronoun “he” which meant I sometimes had to re-read conversations to get the gist of who “he” (usually Cromwell) was – the result being a frustrating reading experience), I approached Bring Up the Bodies with a healthy amount of scepticism but also a desire to like the book.

I did. Very much.

Whether it’s because I grew used to Mantel’s unusual story-telling method – again, the personal pronoun “he” features (but, this time and very helpfully, it’s often followed by “Cromwell” so you know to whom it refers) or because I was swept up in the tale is irrelevant. The fact is Bringing Up the Bodies is a unique and fascinating take on a very well known period of history: namely, the swift decline in the relationship between Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and the consequences the English court must face (as well as Cromwell professionally and personally) after supplanting a lawful Catholic Queen with a protestant substitute. The politics, the religious and international stakes, the jostling for power of the various nobles, the developing factions, the role of class, and the importance and potential betrayal of family are all explored in this book.

As Anne Boleyn’s power and thus status at court declines and those whom she trusted turn on her, and her every word and gesture is endowed with meaning, we’re given insight into Cromwell’s role in this – the way he strips himself of emotion in order to perform his king’s will, but not, one feels, compassion for the queen he ultimately topples. Cromwell has never been more powerful nor, he recognises, in more danger when, as a former working class man’s son, he is able to shake the highest limbs on the class tree and lop them as well. Thus the reader is left with Cromwell’s prescience of the fate that awaits him and which, no doubt, Mantel will explore in the third book in this series.

Knowing this period of history as well as I do didn’t spoil this read for me, on the contrary, it added a particular frisson and that might be the reason I may stop with this book. Cromwell, as a historical figure, was rather black and white – he was bones without flesh, lines without intonation, a figure without heart. Mantel has changed all that. As a character in her books, he lives and breathes and we understand his reasoning, his nobility, his barely repressed propensity for violence and, above all, his empathy and loyalty. I have enjoyed his rise so much, I don’t want to watch him fall – something that’s as inevitable as the seasons. It’s testimony to the power of Mantel’s prose and her take on this history, that in relation to Cromwell, I wish she would change it!

Wonderful, powerful and poetic.

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