Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Review of Davenant’s Egg and Other Tales by Jemahl Evans

In this slim volume, the reader encounters five tales centred upon the Royalist Siege of Gloucester in 1643. Each is narrated by the author’s roguish character, Sir Blandford Candy, who provides the reader with insights into life both within the besieged city, and without. Notable historical personages make an appearance – Charles I, Sir William Davenant, and Colonel Edward Massey – as well as plausible sundry ordinary folk, such as a couple of gravediggers, trying to go about their everyday business in far from everyday circumstances. Evans thus paints with a varied palette, vividly transporting the reader into the miserable and dangerous reality of the time, but not without a certain admixture of wit.

The author has researched the history underpinning the siege well, which helps lend an authenticity to his stories, and out of the five, it would have to be The Gravediggers, with its slow-witted and yet noble Haystack that proves to be the most moving. However, it is in the last tale – The Red Regiment – that we finally hear Candy speak in his own voice, and what a scurrilous and appealing voice it is. It contains one of the most memorable images encountered within the book’s virtual pages, in which Candy voids the contents of his bowels in a field, before wiping his arse on pages torn from a book of psalms and prayers. In the trilogy of novels associated with this collection, it is Candy who speaks to the reader in the first person, and from what little I have so far read of its first instalment – The Last Roundhead– his irascible and witheringly witty voice comes across as a strongly appealing one, suggesting that the novels make for a more satisfying read. There might lurk within, just the slightest smidgen of Smollett, and that’s no bad thing.

To dip into the tale of another seventeenth-century rogue by the name of Robert Tooley, click here.

We have yet to break free of the mentality of salem

Review of The Crucible by Arthur Miller.

Although I saw the film adaptation of The Crucible upon its release over twenty years’ ago, I have never seen it performed on stage, and it is only during this past week that I finally got around to reading a copy of its script. Whereas many now read this piece in school, it was not on the curriculum all those aeons ago when I studied O Level English, but as a piece of vintage Americana, I certainly preferred this creation of Miller’s to what we had to read at the time: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Miller’s script is powerful, and taut, with the language of its characters providing a plausible facsimile of the forms of English that would have been spoken in late seventeenth-century New England. It succeeds in generating an atmosphere that is suffused with religious mania, sexual tension and bitter personal rivalries, with the tenor and pace of the play being such, that the reader is left feeling emotionally drained at its conclusion.  

The Crucible is quite rightly lauded as a classic for its portrayal of a tightly-knit community in the grip of religiously-inspired hysteria, but although it is closely based upon the historical witch-hunt and trials that took place in Salem Massachusetts in 1692, Miller made it clear from the outset that this work was intended to possess a wider political resonance. His specific intent was to draw parallels with the paranoia of McCarthyism that then held its malign sway over much of US society, with its frenzied hunt for Reds under seemingly every bed. But these observations were not intended to be restricted to the parochial political situation in America in the early years of the Cold War, for they are applicable to any society in which the maintenance of the social order rests upon a framework of values that has at its core a definable ‘other’ against which it defines itself. Thus Miller noted that both the countries of the Communist bloc and capitalist America, possessed opposing contemporary forms of ‘diabolism’, in which citizens in both societies were enjoined to search for signs of the demonic other. In either social system, the simple act of naming, and then accusing, the alleged deviant – Communist or Capitalist – could be enough to destroy the reputation, and livelihood, of the accused. Accusation proved guilt.

Alas, as you might well observe, the situation today is in many regards but little changed, for although the demonological discourses may now run in different channels, employing different labels and expressing different preferences, the psychological and social mechanisms at play remain essentially unaltered. The ‘righteous’ perceive that the world is out of joint with their ideology, and they then seek to change it so that it is brought into conformity. This they attempt to achieve by hunting for those whom they deem to be impure, following the well-trodden path of select, name, stigmatise, accuse, judge and destroy. In America in particular, and to a lesser extent in the UK, a debased and perverted form of liberalism now reigns, which is anything but liberal, characterised by a pathological obsession with identity politics and collective group ‘rights’, rather than the rights of the individual. There is a great crying out for all to join in the chorus of the ‘righteous’, whatever cause they may espouse at a given time, and if anyone does not do so, they are immediately placed under suspicion, for the ‘righteous’ see in this reticence a sign of their diabolical complicity.

And so, we have yet I am afraid, to break free of the mentality of Salem, for all too often, accusation is taken to be synonymous with guilt. We have need of greater scepticism, rather than of greater faith.

Miller’s play may be previewed and purchased by clicking here.

the spectre of the Fifth Monarchists stalks Restoration London.

A review of The Ashes of London, by Andrew Taylor.

Old St Paul’s Cathedral stands at the centre of this complex historical murder mystery that vividly transports the reader to the London of the Great Fire and its immediate aftermath. Its first chapter literally – pardon the pun – crackles, as the old edifice is reduced to ruins and ashes amidst the roaring of the flames. This is where the novel’s dual protagonists – James Marwood and Catherine Lovett – encounter each other for the first time, and not for the last. It is a novel that plays with identities, real and assumed, weaving fictional characters into the lives of historical personages, with deception and subterfuge at its heart. Rape, murder, greed and religious fanaticism are given free rein to wreak their bloody work, whilst the spectre of the Fifth Monarchists stalks the world of Restoration London.

Both Marwood and Lovett have familial skeletons in the cupboard that leave them vulnerable to manipulation from without, and the reader’s sympathy is engaged as they attempt to find a place in the world for themselves whilst being employed as tools in the stratagems of others. Catherine Lovett makes for an unusual female lead, being possessed of a taste for architectural drawing, but proving to be as free and easy with the knife, as she is deft with the pen.

The book is lengthy, but the shortness of the chapters and the pace of the prose ensures that the reader’s attention is not lost. It is likely, however, to appeal more to readers of historical fiction than to those with a taste purely for crime and mystery, and although I have seen comparisons drawn between this volume and the works of C.J. Sansom, I must say that I prefer this one. That said, that may, at least in part, be down to my personal preference for the world of Restoration England over its Tudor equivalent, a preference expressed in my forthcoming novel The Gwennel Girl: A Cornish Mystery (to be notified of its discounted release, please click here to sign up to my mailing list).

Emma Darwin on Writing Historical Fiction

This is the second volume that I’ve read devoted specifically to the subject of writing historical fiction, and it is the better of the two by far. It provides a good practical nuts and bolts approach to the crafting of stories in this most demanding of loose and baggy genres, focusing primarily upon the novel. If exercises should be your thing, then Darwin provides plenty of them peppered throughout the text to get your creative juices flowing. Her lengthy experience as both a tutor of creative writing and a novelist truly shows through here, and whereas some other books I’ve read on the practice of writing tend to contain a fair amount of waffle, this one doesn’t. It is packed with useful suggestions, and would likely be useful to anyone looking to write in a different genre.

One of the many things that I liked about this book was that it cautioned against the slavish following of advice dished out by any one author, as every writer has their own stylistic bent, and what is ‘right’ for a predominantly American readership might grate with some UK readers and vice versa. Every author has to find their own individual voice, as well as their readership, with the latter being one of the hardest tasks of all, not least because of genre constraints and expectations. Darwin touches upon several of the subgenres of historical fiction such as adventure and thriller, crime and mystery, and comedy to name but three, but alas she does not touch upon my own: the rather idiosyncratic combination of ‘horror’, historical fiction, and, more often than not, comedy.

As with every book I have read on writing and publishing, she emphasises the importance of submitting your manuscript to professionals in the sphere of copy editing and proofreading, although her text in the final two chapters provides ineloquent testimony to their fallibility in the form of a considerable number of typos, as well as a completely mangled and nonsensical sentence.

Emma Darwin’s book Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction may be viewed by clicking on the book title.

Review of The Lost Village by Neil Spring

In this book, Neil Spring succeeds in creating moments of genuine horror that will make the reader flinch, but there were occasions, I’m afraid, when I flinched in horror for very different reasons altogether. It is a book that purports to have at its heart a supernatural mystery, specifically the haunting of the abandoned village of Imber, so I must make it clear that I have no problem with suspending disbelief in such phenomena for a story of this nature, but there were elements of this novel that simply stretched credulity beyond breaking point. From his description of Imber, for example, gripped by frost and covered in snow, you would think that he had set this tale in the middle of a harsh English winter, but the action unfolds at the end of October. Such weather at this time of year is atypical even for the lofty heights of the Cairngorm Mountains, let alone for Salisbury Plain. He even refers to it being ‘winter’ at one point, even though it is spelt out that the action is taking place around Halloween. Earlier in the story he describes the art deco fixtures of a cinema as being ‘old’, even though the character making this observation is reflecting on their ‘oldness’ in 1932, when Art Deco was the style of the moment.  

With respect to this self-same cinema, he makes mention of his characters hearing the wind whistling around outside whilst they are stood in its auditorium. Can anyone hear the wind when standing in the auditorium unless it should be issuing from the cinema’s speakers? No. To think that this could be the case is ‘a big ask’ on the part of the author, who places this anachronistic ‘big ask’ phrase into the mouth of his twenty-something heroine in the autumn of 1932. I can recall the jarring effect of hearing someone speak this phrase for the first time a few years ago, and concluded that it must have been a recent Transatlantic borrowing smuggled into English to displace the more restrained native ‘it’s a bit much’. Other Americanisms cropped up in the prose of this Welsh writer, slipped into the speech of his 1930s English characters, presumably to appeal to a contemporary American readership. The result left his prose bobbing about in the turbulent and choppy waters of the mid-Atlantic, but appearing far more artificial than the once well-known drawl of Masterchef and Through the Keyhole presenter Lloyd Grossman.  

I found that I warmed neither to his protagonist – Sarah Grey, anachronistically placing career before family – and her erstwhile employer/foil, the ghost hunter Harry Price, who came across as some sort of American gumshoe detective. On the plus side, the story did deliver an interesting twist at the end, but the central premise of the book simply didn’t ring true to me, as the author seemed to be projecting contemporary social norms regarding inheritance law into the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The gentry could, and would, pass on the bulk of their estate to their eldest son, even if he did have older sisters; the existence of such sisters would not hinder this practice, and thus the central motivation for the frankly deranged and utterly unbelievable actions of the novel’s antagonist are removed at a stroke.  

Having said all of this, I might be seeming a little harsh, but my remarks and quibbles are intended to highlight how this could have been a better book. Many readers will find it to their taste and like it just as it is, but for me, it could have benefited from the attentions of a more competent copy editor, and a sharper and more-focused plot. It read more like a storyboard for a Hollywood movie than a novel, and I can imagine it making for a diverting enough 90 minutes or so on ‘film’. Don’t be surprised if reading this book summons up the unnerving spectres of Scooby and Shaggy: ‘If it weren’t for those pesky kids!’

The Ghost Hunter by Neil Spring may be purchased here.

Review of ‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown

There are few episodes in English history that rival the notoriety of Matthew Hopkins’s reign of terror as Witchfinder General in East Anglia, nurtured by the social turmoil of the Civil War. During the relatively short period of 1644-47, he, and his associates, are estimated to have been responsible for the hanging of around 300 women for witchcraft, approximately 60% of the total executed for this crime between the end of the fifteenth and the early eighteenth centuries when the crime of witchcraft was removed from the statute books. The woodcut image from the frontispiece of his book The Discovery Witches is a familiar and chilling one, showing Hopkins himself observing two witches naming their pictured familiars. Although Hopkins died at the age of 27 in 1647, he has enjoyed a lengthy afterlife in the popular imagination, spawning verse, a number of books, and, perhaps most famously, the film Witchfinder General in which Vincent Price played the eponymous role.  

In her debut novel The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown has approached Hopkins and his deeds through the eyes of a fictitious sister, Alice, which allows her to present the reader with the domestic Hopkins, as well as the public figure. She has taken the fragments of what is known about his life, and imaginatively fashioned a plausible Hopkins, who plays upon biblically-rooted popular fears and prejudices about women to unleash a wave of persecution that brings some solace to his damaged self.  

Written as a first-person memoir, the style is detailed and intimate, with a great deal of atmospheric description that is at once one of its strengths, as well as one of its weaknesses, for if I have any criticism of this novel it is with respect to its pace, which is as sluggish as the waters of an East Anglian river. That said, this novel manages to produce an appropriate sense of suffocating entrapment, paranoia, and fatalism, and delivers an ending with a suitably satisfying twist.

Review of The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

Yorkshire gothic this may be, but a ghost story, it is not.

Katherine Clements has in this book managed to achieve something quite remarkable: she has written a ghost story in which there are no ghosts. It is true that there is mention of malign spirits, hauntings, and the wicked deeds of the forgotten pagan inhabitants of the bog-strewn heathered heights, but beyond that, the reader is left with the dark imaginings of its claustrophobic cast of characters, as lust, family secrets, and deception, tear apart the lives of a household on the Yorkshire moors. There is mention of witchery and suggestions of the supernatural, but there are no actual ghosts.

The strengths of this book lie elsewhere: it is brooding, evocative, and highly knowledgeable about the traditional husbanding of sheep in England’s bleak northern uplands. It contains the best descriptions of the ‘fly-blown’ backside of a sheep that I have read, and I challenge you to find better. Likewise, I have read no more convincing descriptions of the mutilated carcasses of sheep and lambs than are to be encountered here, but each time one of these vaguely queasy images manifested itself, I found myself thinking not about ghosts, but the peculiar phenomenon of cattle mutilation so beloved of a certain sub-sect of UFO enthusiasts. In a similar vein, repeated references to a ‘slaughtered lamb’ conjured up images not of horror, but of the fictitious Yorkshire pub in An American Werewolf in London. And whilst we’re at it, do androids dream of slaughtered lambs? Probably not. Thankfully, I didn’t either.

The novel is born amidst the visceral symbolism of birth begetting death, and decline, madness, and death form the threads that weave through the warp and weft of the novel’s plot, from its misty and bloody beginnings, to its snowy and even more bloody end, and you’d best be warned that it takes a bloody long time to get there. Gloomy atmospherics are its strength, pace is its limping, and often absent, companion.

Its overall tone struck me – if the screaming mob slinging stones and excrement whilst occasionally yelling ‘witch’ is excepted – as being more suitable to the Victorian period than to that of the Restoration, which is a pity. Moreover, its sense of place, or more specifically, its sense of ‘Yorkshireness’, was largely lacking. It was so unlike, in this respect, the highly engaging and regionally-anchored The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood, which deploys the Yorkshire accent and dialect to such powerful effect in her Victorian gothic creation. That said, I sympathise with Katherine Clements in her decision not to employ dialect, as so many readers, particularly ones living in the US, aren’t keen on English regional dialects and accents, to put it mildly, which is a shame.

I do not wish to sound too harsh, as I did enjoy the tale, especially its descriptive passages, but I felt that it wasn’t quite what it was billed. As with The Essex Serpent, it would have benefitted from some judicious editing, slimming the manuscript by a quarter, to a third, leaving an altogether leaner, and meaner, novel. To view The Coffin Path on Amazon, click on the image above, or here. For an alternative excursion into occult mystery on the Yorkshire moors, dare you set foot here?

Review of ‘The Hidden People’ by Alison Littlewood

An Adult Fairy Tale without a Fairy-tale Ending.

Every now and again, I read a book by an author new to me that makes a real impression, and I wonder why their work, being so well crafted and written, is less lauded and well known than that of many other contemporary authors. The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood was one such book, and if you’ve not read it, and have a taste for the Gothic and folk horror, then I heartily recommend it.

In The Hidden People, Littlewood has woven a lyrical tale of enchantment, delusion and jealousy, in which urban Victorian rationality collides with lingering rural folk belief, with neither emerging unscathed. Whereas the much-lauded The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry aspires to explore these themes and fails to deliver upon its promise, this cannot be said of The Hidden People, for it is by far the better-written and more satisfyingly plotted book of the two. It is a novel steeped in the Gothic, in which the wild and outlandish sentiments of the uneducated country folk are rendered in a rich Yorkshire vernacular, which contrasts with the staid speech of the middle-class London protagonist, Albert Mirralls, whose presence is at best viewed as an unwelcome intrusion into what appears to be an everlasting bucolic summer.

Fairy lore and the spirit of Wuthering Heights loom large in this story, where the power of belief in the malign power of the fairy folk and changelings is convincingly portrayed, leaving the reader guessing as to what is real, and what is not, in a world refracted through the first-person narrative of ‘Albie’ Mirralls. It is his obsession with his cousin, Lizzie Thurlston, that provides the thread which the reader must follow with a compulsive zeal until the final revelation with which the book concludes. There is also a powerful underpinning theme of loss and yearning, which is expressed through the blindness of the central character to what he has, whilst he remains locked into the pursuit of his idée fixe, to the detriment of himself, and to those closest to him. It is a novel sure to appeal to those with a taste for historical fiction, mysteries, and psychological horror. That said, if forced to pigeonhole this work into a single genre, its best fit would be folk horror with a pronounced Gothic streak.

Another historical tale set in Yorkshire and drawing upon local folklore that might be to your taste is the occult mystery Upon Barden Moor, in which an Edwardian summer’s day swiftly yields to something altogether darker.

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Review of ‘Monk’s Hood’ by Ellis Peters

The edition of the book that I read, dating from 1990 (ten years after its initial publication), is riddled with typos, with the first one being displayed on the cover: Monks Hood rather than Monk’s Hood.  Still, despite these minor niggles, the story told by Peters is engaging enough, with Brother Cadfael emerging as a sympathetic and highly unconventional sleuth, for I must own to not knowing of any other twelfth-century Benedictine herbalist protagonist fulfilling such a role. The period detail was very well done, but I found the prose a little lumpy in places. It was well plotted with plenty of potential suspects to divert the attention of the reader, but following the ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ rule I sensed that the appearance of a certain character very early in the story, and his subsequent absence until the latter stages of the book, pointed to him being the culprit. Was he? Well, if you want to find out for sure, you should read it yourself.  

All in all Peters needed a better editor for this book, but for all I know the issues that I have enumerated may well have been addressed in later editions.

Review of ‘Jamaica Inn’ by Daphne Du Maurier.

An atmospheric classic that manages to capture some of the wild lawless spirit of early nineteenth-century Cornwall. Du Maurier seems to have been clearly influenced by Wuthering Heights both in her choice of a bleak moorland setting and the character of the overbearing and violent Joss Merlyn, who makes Heathcliff seem like a civilised gentleman in comparison. The cast of characters who frequent the inn itself are an ensemble of disagreeable lowlife, and as such, make for good entertainment, not that I would go so far as to recommend wrecking, smuggling and murder as suitable pastimes. Still, this made me wish to bodily shake the heroine Mary Yellan for her bizarre insistence upon staying at her uncle’s inn rather than simply decamping elsewhere, but if she had done so, it wouldn’t have made for a very good story. 

The novel ends with a suitable twist, amidst the evocation of the obscure pagan past of Bodmin Moor. If I have any gripe with the book, it relates to Du Maurier’s slip in portraying what it is like to be out alone in the darkness of Bodmin Moor in the depths of night with a storm raging. Anyone who has stood upon the West Country moors at such a time at a far remove from modern street lighting knows that you can’t so much as see your hand in front of your face. Mary Yellan, it seems, was part cat.