The Bawdy Basket by Edward Marston

23049513The Nicholas Bracewell series by Edward Marston is such a gratifying read with each instalment offering more in terms of richness of plot, insight into regular characters, terrific, witty and meaningful dialogue and immersion in Elizabethan London and, in particular, the theatre scene.

When the novel opens, Lord Westfield’s Men are undergoing something of a renaissance. Everything is running smoothly, their plays are all being well-received, Edmund Hoode, their playwright is in the throes of his muse and penning a masterpiece, the men themselves are getting along and even their cranky, unpleasant landlord has been felled by illness. Of course, this great fortune cannot last. Not far into the book, things start to go awry. Not only does one of the men, Frank Quilter, a relative newcomer to the troupe, reveal a shocking injustice with tragic consequences that’s beset his family and must be avenged, but Hoode, one of the reasons for their continued success, intends to leave the profession and thus Lord Westfield’s Men, throwing all their livelihoods into jepoardy.

Of course, Nicholas Bracewell, the troupe’s book holder, takes it upon himself to help colleagues and friends in crisis. Investigating the accusation that saw Frank’s father hanged for murder, Nicholas finds his loyalties torn. Wanting to help Frank, but finding the other shareholders of the Men are not willing to let Nicholas do so – in fact, they’re considering letting Frank go lest his name tarnish their reputation – Nicholas is in a bind.

When he nonetheless begins investigating the murder Frank’s father was said to have committed, the evidence is stacked against the man. That is, until young Moll Comfrey, a bawdy basket who had a close relationship with Quilter senior enters and says she can prove Frank’s father didn’t commit the crime he’s just been sent to his death for that everything changes.

But it’s a race against time as not only does Edmund’s leave-taking of the Men draw near, depriving the players of their playwright, but those wanting to stop Nicholas looking into the murder, scheme how to end not only his snooping, but the careers of those closest to him once and for all.

Another fast-paced, fabulous read that brings Elizabethan London and all its glory, gore and filth to life with aplomb.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

The Roaring Boy by Edward Marston

I simply adore this rollicking series by Edward Marston that centres around Nicholas Bracewell, the book holder of a very successful acting troupe, Lord Westfield’s Men in Elizabethan England. Formulaic (and I mean that in the most positive sense of the word, a reader knows what they’re going to get and is more than satisfied with the process and outcome) and utterly charming and clever, filled with rich language and wonderful humour and well as clever plotting, these novels just get better and better.

The book opens when 19103100one of Westfield’s Men shuffles off this mortal coil in an untimely fashion, leaving the troupe despondent and the playwright and share holder, Edmund Hoode, questioning his livelihood and blaming himself for the tragedy. Considering leaving the profession at which he excels (which is not unusual for Edmund), it’s not until the basis for a new play, The Roaring Boy, is placed in his hands by the mysterious Simon Chaloner, he reconsiders. It’s a manuscript based on the salacious and true events of a murder and the execution of the perpetrators, but which shockingly claims they were wrongly convicted and hints as to the real villains. Edmund, Nicholas and the rest of Westfield’s Men know they have something dangerous and wonderful in their hands, something worth honing into a performance piece that will not only shine a light on a dreadful wrong, but once again make them the toast of London.

But there are those who will do anything to prevent the play Edmund writes being performed, including murder. After all, they’ve already killed to protect their identity and what they’re really hiding, what’s a few more bodies?

Bringing late Elizabethan London and the grit, grime and calumny of the playhouses to life, Marston excels in this tale of tales, truth, falsehood, varlets and heroes. The dialogue is absolutely cracking, the characters possessed of depths and idiosyncrasies that make them leap off the page, and the plot is marvellous.

Loving this series and so will anyone who likes historical fiction, crime and just well-written stories.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

Unicorn’s Blood by Patricia Finney

imgresThe second book in the David Becket and Simon Ames series, Unicorn’s Blood is a simply wonderful tale that centres around an incriminating diary and death-bed confession that Elizabeth First wrote in a diary with a unicorn on the front when only a teenager, and which was stolen from beneath her pillow.

Like the first book, Firedrake’s Eye, this novel revels in the detail of London of the period – whether its navigating the ice-bound Thames, emptying the nightsoil buckets in the palace, enduring the pillory in a prison yard or fleeing through stinking streets, this London is one you can live and breath with each and every character. Finney’s prose is rich and alive and dances off the page.

The political machinations of those wishing to control the queen and the outcome of the long investigation into Mary, Queen of Scots, and her loyalty to the English throne form the background to this book that, interestingly, has as an omniscient narrator, the Virgin Mary. Such an original touch and done so well.

While Becket and Ames feature in the narrative, their roles take a backseat to the diary itself and Thomasina, the Queen’s dwarf and fool who is commissioned to search for the diary and to do so is forced to disguise herself and enter places she might never be able to leave. Also looking for the diary, but with very different intentions, is a major figure in the Queen’s court. If the tome lands in his hand, then England will never be the same again.

The reality for women in this period, especially those who found once Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries that their home and livelihood were stolen, is grim, as is the fate of those who capitulate to bodily desires and find themselves with child – in many ways, a theme of this novel. From former nuns, to laundresses, to the women of the bedchamber, to Elizabeth herself, we’re given a glimpse into female desire and consequences and the overt display of male power and authority and how this was achieved most often at women’s expense.

This is a rollicking read that doesn’t require its sequel for understanding or pleasure – it’s a terrific stand-alone as well. It’s a nail-biting and wonderful weaving of fact with speculative fiction and extraordinary at every level.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

Book Review: The Book of Life, Deborah Harkness

The final book in the All Souls Trilogy, The Book of Life, had a great deal to live up to in terms of storylines, characters, plot reveals, reader expectations and, in many ways, it doesn’t disappoint. Whereas the second book, Shadow of Night, had vampire, Matthew Clairmont and witch, Diana Bishop, roaming the streets of Elizabethan London and encountering a veritable roll-call of historical icons, the third book is very much set in the present, even if it’s global in scope and enormous in execution. Characters from previous books return, new ones also appear and the tension and hostility between warring factions within families, supernatural races and members of the Congregation finally come to a head. Vengeance is either meted out or channelled into areas that are more productive and the power that we knew Diana Bishop held within and was struggling to control is finally unleashed.

Matthew and Diana’16054217s relationship is tested – not their faith in or love for each other, but through separation and the tasks they must undertake individually to save the family and bloodline from potential extinction. Playing on the themes of power, control, miscegenation (probably the paramount themes of the book if not the series and references to the Holocaust and the attempted genocide of the Jews underpins this), betrayal, genetics, science, knowledge, as well as love, family, understanding and tolerance, Harkness concludes this series in a mostly very gratifying way.

In terms of the writing, apart from some repetitive scenes at the beginning, it is lovely. The descriptive passages are eloquent and the ones where Diana gets to wield her power can be masterful. The more grisly scenes (and there are some really horrendous torture scenes unpacked for us) are horrible because they are so well written if somewhat graphic – but hey, this is about supernatural creatures. You can almost feel the flesh being flensed, every moment of the pain being inflicted and it physically hurts to have characters you care about rendered so impotent if not destroyed (though we don’t feel nearly the same degree of compassion or revulsion when it’s a Bishop-Clairmont enemy).

Having said that, offsetting these are scenes of utter joy – such as childbirth. But, I do think they became a bit twee and went on a bit long, especially in a book dedicated to vampires, witches and daemons. There’s also the sexual politics in the book where Matthew, as a vampire (along with other male members of his clan), impose their will upon and try to subordinate the females. Diana offers a challenge to this anachronistic patriarchal viewpoint and it’s to Harkness’s credit that she doesn’t succumb to political correctness, but both explores the animalistic nature of the vampires, their desire to protect a “mate” and also contemporary attitudes to gender roles, and has characters negotiating around these. In the end, the male vampires concede they need to change their approach and the feeling the reader is left with is that this is genuine and marks a real shift in the gender dynamics. Though, I confess, I was worried Harkness had come over all Twilight on us for a while – first with gender roles and then with cute babies that are powerful – fortunately, she hadn’t.

Harkness uses a shifting POV in this novel, including segueing from first to third person and, because this is the only novel in the series to do it, I am not sure it is as successful as it could have been had it been used throughout. It’s a wrench, occasionally, to move from one POV to the other and I generally love that kind of approach (think of Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor etc; I also use it in some of my own novels). While it does give the reader a specific insight into Diana’s thinking, Harkness’ control of her subject and character was already so good, I am not persuaded this was necessary.

While I found the initial chapters a little confusing (often the way between books in a trilogy) once Harkness hits her stride, so does the reader and there were parts of the book I couldn’t put down. Intelligent, considered, even poetic and able to make the alternate worlds of the vampires, witches and daemons, their politics and the science they want to uncover, let alone the nature of The Book of Life, believable is a monumental task and I think Harkness more than succeeds. Certainly, it’s one of the finest trilogies involving supernatural creatures around and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.


Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

Book Review: Prophecy by SJ Parris

The second book in the Giordano Bruno series is set in 1583 and finds the Italian heretic and former monk, Bruno, ensconced in the French Prophecy (Giordano Bruno, #2)Ambassador’s residence in London, where plots against Queen Elizabeth’s throne fly thick and fast. Still working for the spymaster and queen’s secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, Bruno keeps his ear to the ground, discovering unlawful correspondence and Catholic conspirators everywhere he turns… Or are they? Told to rely on another of Walsingham’s men, Fowler, for help, Bruno finds himself reluctant to share information. On the one hand, he is uncertain just who is inciting treason and who isn’t and wants to be sure before he accuses, on the other, he wants to deliver the culprit to justice himself. At the same time, celestial events are attracting a great deal of attention and Bruno is drawn into Her Majesty’s conjurer, Dr John Dee’s, strange practices, and the notion that a prophecy that predicts the downfall of the queen draws nigh.

As the book opens, however, Bruno’s position as both spy for Walsingham and member of the Ambassador’s household, becomes even more complicated when a young woman and one of the queen’s ladies is found ritualistically murdered in the palace. The way her body has been displayed indicates not only occult involvement, but also connections to the French Ambassador’s home and Dee’s predictions. As the body count grows and the signs point more overtly towards the French and the fulfillment of a prophecy, Bruno knows he has to act. But just as Bruno watches those who he suspects of terrible intentions, there are those who watch him and will stop at nothing to make sure their plans succeed.

Parris has really done her homework here, using known events and a documented conspiracy as a backdrop for this exciting, fast-paced novel. Just as Bruno is a real historical figure, so too are most of the characters, the plots and the correspondence that’s used in the tale. That a mole working for Walsingham dwelled in the French Ambassador’s residence throughout this period is also known. Going by the name Henry Fagot, he did indeed alert Walsingham and thus Cecil to the dire goings on and plans between the French, Scots and even the Spaniards, providing invaluable information. While Fagot’s real identity is unknown, Parris clearly inserts Bruno in this role (and some historians believe it could well have been him) and it works wonderfully well.

The French Ambassador had a reputation as a fine host whose table not only provided delicious food but also scintillating conversation, something Bruno particularly was expected to provide. It’s no surprise then that Parris dedicates quite a bit of the story to table conversations, recreating the dangerous and witty repartee with flair, as well as the religious schisms, strange beliefs and fears and cunning of desperate men and women. Not only that, Parris breathes life, ghostly, smelly, exciting, deadly, into Elizabethan London, making it is as much a character in the novel as Bruno.

A highly superstitious era that both loved and feared all things prophecy and magic (both were illegal as well), Parris weaves the precarious position of Dr Dee and the gruesome murders into her tale to create a tense and forbidding atmosphere where shadows, double-speak, ciphers, codes and mists rule. Nothing and no one is as they seem and it’s against this backdrop that Bruno must solve the murders and uncover the truth of the plots against the crown.

A terrific novel that any lover of mysteries, crime, and historical fiction will appreciate.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments