The Island by Victoria Hislop: A Short Post

I have been struggling to write posts recently. I haven’t been able to settle down to writing after finishing a book, either because I’m too eager to read the next book, or like Heavenali I’ve been so distracted and mithered by other things going on in my life, mostly minor that shouldn’t really bother me, but do, that I am finding it hard to concentrate on writing.

So, that is why I haven’t written about a number of books I read earlier this year. Some of them are books that qualify for the Wanderlust Bingo CardThe Island by Victoria Hislop, The Fellowship of the Ring by J R R Tolkien, The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoë Ferraris and Coffin Road by Peter May. These aren’t the only books I’ve read that need to write about, but it’s a start.

The first one I’m writing about is The Island by Victoria Hislop, her debut novel and one of my TBRs. It’s been on my bookshelves for years and I did start reading it soon after buying it, but I didn’t get very far and put it back on my bookshelves. Since then I’ve read three other books by Victoria Hislop and enjoyed them so I decided to try it again, especially as it fills the Island Square (set in Greece) on the Wanderlust Bingo card. I began reading it in August, when I took it away with me, visiting family, but didn’t find much time to read it and had to set it to one side. After I returned home I went on to read other books until October when I picked it up once more.

It is historical fiction set in Plaka on the island of Crete and in Spinalonga, a tiny, deserted island just off the coast of Plaka. I wasn’t very sure I would like it when I read the first chapter about Alexis Fielding longing to find out about her mother’s past. Sofia had never told her anything about it and all that Alexis knew was that Sofia had grown up in Plaka, a small Cretan village before moving to London. She gave Alexis a letter to take to an old friend, Fotini, promising that through her she will learn more. And once Fotini entered the story I was hooked as she told what had happened to Sophia’s grandmother, Eleni and her daughters, Anna and Maria after Eleni caught leprosy and was sent to live on Spinalonga.

Beginning before the Second World War the story moved between Plaka and Spinalonga and I loved all the details of Elena’s life on Spinalonga, but then when the narrative moved on to describing her daughters’ lives I began to lose interest. Instead of a fascinating historical novel about leprosy it changed into a historical romance, which I didn’t enjoy as much as the earlier part of the book. Overall, I think it’s too long and drawn out, and the ending is a bit too neat. So I’m giving this book 4*, combining 5* for Eleni’s story and 2-5* for both the beginning and the ending.

I’m hoping to write similar short posts for the other three books.

Miss Austen & Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

In January I read Miss Austen by Gill Hornby, but despite enjoying it I didn’t write about it then. And in September I read Godmersham Park. Both are based on Jane Austen and her relationships with family and friends.

Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life – her sister Cassandra. After Jane’s death, Cassandra lived alone and unwed, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister’s reputation. Set in 1840, Cassandra in her ’60s, visits Isabella Fowle following the death of her father, the Reverend Fowle when Isabella is packing up her parents’ belongings so that a new reverend can move in. Cassandra is convinced that her own and Jane’s letters to Eliza Fowle, the mother of Cassandra’s long-dead fiancé, are still somewhere in the vicarage. Eventually she finds the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra reveal the most private details of Jane’s life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?

I was surprised by how much i enjoyed this book as I don’t usually like spin-offs, sequels or prequels of my favourite books, but I really enjoyed this book as Cassandra relives her life with Jane, revealing what life was like for spinsters living in the early 1800s. It is different from Jane Austen’s own novels but still manages to recreate that flavour of her novels that I have loved ever since I first read Pride and Prejudice. It’s very well researched, a novel that held my attention from the beginning right to the end. A definite 4.5 star book.

I didn’t enjoy Godmersham Park quite as much as Miss Austen. It is the fictionalised life of Anne Sharp, employed as the governess to Fanny, Jane Austen’s niece. Fanny’s father was Edward Austen, who was adopted by the wealthy Knight family (Thomas Knight was a cousin), taking their name in 1812. Anne became one of Jane’s closest friends.

Little is actually known about Anne as Gill Hornby acknowledges in her Author’s Note. So the story of her early life before her arrival in 1804 at Godmersham Park is a ‘fiction, fashioned out of the biographies of other, contemporary genteel ladies who found themselves working as governesses.’ But the two years she spent working for the Austen family were recorded by Fanny in her diaries and so Gill Hornby has closely followed her account. Henry Austen, Jane’s favourite brother was a regular visitor at Godmersham and Jane, Cassandra and their mother visited too during those two years.

Anne had no experience of teaching, but was left with no alternative as her mother had died and she had to find employment. She found it difficult – treated neither as a servant nor as one of the family, she risked dismissal if she overstepped the mark. Similarly she found that Henry Austen’s attention put her in the most awkward situations. But when Jane visited she was able to relax in her company and the two struck up a friendship.

I can’t quite put my finger on why I find this novel not as good as Miss Austen. But it moves at a slower pace and apart from the mystery that surrounds Anne’s father, I didn’t find it as absorbing – there’s that anticipation in Miss Austen of will Cassandra find the letters and what will they reveal. In parts Godmersham Park came over to me as just a tiny bit flat and I never grew as fond of Anne as I did of Cassandra. Having said that, I did enjoy this book enough to give it 3.5 stars.

Undercurrent by Barney Norris

This is another short review of a book I read in the summer and didn’t manage to review before I went away on holiday. I really enjoyed it.

Random House| 25 August 2022| 257 pages| e-book Review Copy| 4*

Blurb:

Years ago, in an almost accidental moment of heroism, Ed saved Amy from drowning. Now, in his thirties, he finds himself adrift. He’s been living in London for years – some of them good – but he’s stuck in a relationship he can’t move forward, has a job that just pays the bills, and can’t shake the sense that life should mean more than this. Perhaps all Ed needs is a moment to pause. To exhale and start anew. And when he meets Amy again by chance, it seems that happiness might not be so far out of reach. But then tragedy overtakes him, and Ed must decide whether to let history and duty define his life, or whether he should push against the tide and write his own story.

Filled with hope and characteristic warmth, Undercurrent is a moving and intimate portrait of love, of life and why we choose to share ours with the people we do.

A few years ago I read Turning for Home by Barney Norris and thought it was a moving book with emotional depth. Undercurrent has very much the same tone, plumbing the same depth of emotion, as he tells the story of a family’s grief and loss as well as love.

The main story centres around Ed and his immediate family, but the narrative includes the stories of his grandparents and great grandparents. He had a troubled childhood, living on a farm in Wales with his mother, stepfather and stepsister, Rachel. His mother wants him and Rachel to take over the farm when she dies, but neither of them want to, which leaves Ed feeling guilty and frustrated. But when his mother becomes seriously ill and dies he has to make a decision.

It’s also the story of his grandparents and great grandparents, beginning in 1911 in India when Arthur, an Englishman met and later married Phoebe a young Indian teenager. When the First World War broke out they moved to England and Arthur enlisted in the navy. She never got over leaving India and sank into depression and melancholy. Their son, Leo, was greatly affected by his mother’s mental illness and caring for her and the farm became too much for him, resulting in tragedy. The women in the family followed the same pattern as Phoebe – following the men, their lives changing for better or worse.

I don’t feel I have done justice to this novel, finding it quite difficult to review. It’s a quiet thoughtful book that explores the nature of our relationships and emotions. The central theme is the pull of home, that sense of belonging, of attachment to a place, and how our past has shaped our lives. Alongside this there is the desire for a new life, and new experiences. It is beautifully written.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is the second of several short posts as I try to catch up with writing reviews of books I read earlier this year.

White Forest, Black Rose by Eoin Dempsey is a World War 2 novel which is different from other books set during the War that I’ve read before, told from the perspective of a German who opposed the Nazis. It is set in the Black Forest, Germany in 1943, where Franka Gerber is living alone in an isolated cabin, having returned to her home town of Freiburg after serving a prison sentence for anti-Nazi activities.

It is December and the Forest is blanketed in deep snow when she discovers an unconscious airman lying in the snow wearing a Luftwaffe uniform, his parachute flapping in the wind. Taking him back to the cabin she saves his life, but whilst he is unconscious she hears him speak in English and so it seems that he is not who she first thought he was. Both his legs are broken and, having been a nurse, Franka is able to set the bones, and tries to discover his true identity. Trapped in the cabin they both gradually reveal details of their past lives and learn to trust each other.

It is a tense, claustrophobic novel and as soon as he is able to walk they decide to leave the cabin and so begins a race against time, as they are hunted by the Gestapo. Can they trust each other enough to join forces on a mission that could change the face of the war and their own lives forever?

White Rose, Black Forest is a novel inspired by true events, although the author doesn’t clarify what is fact and what is fiction. I enjoyed it, especially the historical aspects. The White Rose movement in Germany was a non-violent intellectual resistance group in Nazi Germany, who conducted an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign that called for active opposition to the Nazi regime.

It slots into the Forest box in the Wanderlust Bingo card and is also one of my TBRs, a book I’ve owned since 2018.

Nucleus by Rory Clements

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Zaffre| January 2018| 453 pages| Hardback| My own copy| 5 stars

Nucleus by Rory Clements is the second book in his Tom Wilde series (the full list is at the end of this post). I have been reading them out of order, as I came across them. I think I’d have understood the relationship of the characters better if I had read the series in order from the start, but that has not stopped me from enjoying them.

Blurb

WINNER OF THE CWA HISTORICAL DAGGER 2018.
The eve of war: a secret so deadly, nothing and no one is safe

June 1939. England is partying like there’s no tomorrow . . . but the good times won’t last. The Nazis have invaded Czechoslovakia, in Germany Jewish persecution is widespread and, closer to home, the IRA has embarked on a bombing campaign.

Perhaps most worryingly of all, in Germany Otto Hahn has produced man-made fission and an atomic device is now possible. German High Command knows Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory is also close, and when one of the Cavendish’s finest brains is murdered, Professor Tom Wilde is drawn into the investigation. In a conspiracy that stretches from Cambridge to Berlin, and from the US to Ireland, can he discover the truth before it’s too late?

I’ve found this quite a difficult book to summarise as there are various elements to the plot. I think the publishers’ blurb merely skims the surface, but to go into detail would give away too much. With several plot lines, this is a mix of historical fact and fiction, set in 1939 when England and Germany are on the brink of war. It is a fast-paced and gripping book, involving murder, IRA bombers, and espionage, with many twists and turns

In Nazi Germany Jews are in fear of their lives, trying to leave the country. Some have made it to England and America. In both countries the race is on to develop an atomic bomb.

There’s a large cast of characters – the main one being Tom Wilde, an American professor of history at Cambridge University, who has returned from America after a meeting with President Roosevelt. There he was asked to liaise with two Americans in England, Colonel Dexter Flood and also to keep an eye on Milt Hardman, an American millionaire who is staying at Old Hall in Cambridgeshire with his family.

And so Wilde is drawn into Hardman’s world, meeting a Hollywood actress, drinking champagne, playing tennis, and partying. And then he soon finds himself having to deal with an increasingly complex situation when one of the Cavendish scientists, an introverted genius who was due to move to America to work with Oppenheimer, is found drowned in the River Cam, and then another one goes missing.

Meanwhile Albert, Eva Haas’ young son is also missing, apparently having been abducted from a Kindertransport train. Eva is a German Jewish physicist, who along with Arnold Lindberg, an elderly scientist rescued from Dachau, has arrived in Cambridge. Lydia, who is Tom’s neighbour and lover is a friend of Eva’s. She was to meet Albert in England and goes to Berlin to try to find out what has happened to him. There she is helped by Bertha Bracey and Frank Foley (real-life heroes). Bertha was working to rescue German Jewish children, organising Kindertransports, finding homes and schools for the children in Britain, and Frank, who was MI6’s top spy in Berlin. He broke all the rules to make sure as many Jewish people had visas to leave the country, saving many thousands of people.

I was totally immersed in the plot. It’s full of danger and action, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I learned much – not only about atomic fission, but also about the situation in Germany leading up to the Second World War – I hadn’t heard of the work of Bertha Bracey and Frank Foley before.

I’ve read three of Rory Clements’ books in his Tom Wilde series, with links to my posts:

The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk

Random House UK, Transworld| 9 June 2022| e-book, print length 355 pages| Review copy| 4*

Synopsis from Amazon

In 1754, renowned maker of clocks and automata Abel Cloudesley must raise his new-born son Zachary when his wife dies in childbirth.

Growing up amongst the cogs and springs of his father’s workshop, Zachary is intensely curious, ferociously intelligent, unwittingly funny and always honest—perhaps too honest. But when a fateful accident leaves six-year-old Zachary nearly blinded, Abel is convinced that the safest place for his son is in the care of his eccentric Aunt Frances and her menagerie of weird and wonderful animals.

So when a precarious job in Constantinople is offered to him, Abel has no reason to say no. A job presented to him by a politician with dubious intentions, Abel leaves his son, his workshop and London behind. The decision will change the course of his life forever.

Since his accident, Zachary is plagued by visions that reveal the hearts and minds of those around him. A gift at times and a curse at others, it is nonetheless these visions that will help him complete a journey that he was always destined to make—to travel across Europe to Constantinople and find out what happened to his father all those years ago.

With a Dickensian cast of characters that are brilliantly bonkers one moment and poignant the next, Sean Lusk’s debut will take listeners on an immersive journey into the wonders of the world of Zachary Cloudesley.

I’ve enjoyed novels about clockwork and automata inventions before, so I was hoping Sean Lusk’s debut novel, The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley would be just as enjoyable – and it is. It’s a mixture of historical fact and fantasy set in the 18th century, in London and in Constantinople.

It follows the events in Zachary’s life from his birth in London, brought up two strong-minded women, surrounded by the clocks and clockwork automata in his father’s workshop, to his teenage years, when he travelled to Constantinople in search of his father, Abel. Zachary, an intelligent and gifted child, who had visions of future events, had an unusual most unusual life – as indeed, did Abel.

For me this book was as much about Abel as about Zachary and I loved the rich descriptions and all the detail that Lusk packed into his book. It did slow the action down at times, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all. The characters are fabulous, the settings are beautifully described and the historical background is fascinating.

Lusk begins his book with an extensive note about Ottoman heirachy in the mid eighteenth century and ends it with a section of Historical and Other Notes explaining that his inspiration to write his novel came when he discovered an eighteenth century Ottoman clock made in England, in a shop in Istanbul. He finally produced his book after several years of research into clockmaking, Anglo-Ottoman relations and other 18th century matters, and having spent numerous hours in the British Library. He also includes a list of books for further reading. It is a remarkable book on a grand scale that entertained me enormously. I’m looking forward to reading more books by Sean Lusk.

About Sean Lusk

Sean Lusk is an award-winning short story writer, winner of the Manchester Fiction Prize, the Fish Short Story Prize and runner-up in the Bridport and Tom-Gallon Trust prizes. He has lived in Greece, Pakistan and Egypt, working variously as a gardener, speechwriter and diplomatic official. He now lives near Forres on the Moray Firth. The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley is his debut novel.

My thanks to Random House, UK for a review copy via NetGalley.

The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

Penguin UK| 13 January 2022| 283 pages| e-book| Review copy/4*

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Synopsis:

I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unravelling from an upper window, and the terrace bathed in a hectic orange light…. Now I see that the decision I made at Polneath was the only decision of my life. Everything marred in that one dark minute.

By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still.

For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free.


From the award-winning author of The Witchfinder’s Sister comes a captivating story of burning secrets and buried shame, and of the loyalty and love that rises from the ashes.

My thoughts:

The Key in the Lock is Beth Underdown’s second book. I read her first book The Witchfinder’s Sister (my review) and enjoyed it immensely, so I had high expectations that I’d enjoy this book too – and it fully met my expectations. It is historical fiction set between two periods 1888 and 1918 in Cornwall.

It captures both time periods, reflecting the society both before and after the First World War showing the changes that the war had made. I loved the slow pace of this book as the secrets surrounding the death of William, the seven year old son of Edward Tremain in 1888 in a fire at Polneath, and that of Ivy’s son, Tim, on the battlefields of France are gradually revealed.

Both stories are shrouded in mystery as the circumstances of how William and Tim died are by no means clear. Ivy is devastated by Tim’s death and is determined to discover what actually happened to him, the letter informing them of his death was not phrased in the normal form of words. She wondered why.

It brought back painful memories of little William’s death. The fire at Polneath had started at night when everyone had gone to bed. William had been in the maid’s room, not his own bedroom when he had died. The postmortem revealed that he had died from asphyxiation by inhaling the smoke. Found under the bed, with paint from the door under William’s fingernails and bruised hands, it appeared that he must have been locked in and yet when he was found the door was standing open. The conclusion was that at some point the door had been locked – and later unlocked by a person or persons unknown.

The events surrounding each death are gradually revealed and there are plenty of secrets that come to light. It is described as a ‘gothic’ novel, but apart from the setting in an old isolated house, that had once been an ancient manor house, I didn’t find it gothic at all. It is a complicated story and at times I had to go back to make sure I’d got the facts right. I really liked Ivy and I liked the way her character is shown to develop with the passage of time. I loved the details about the attitudes to the First World War and the change from the earlier period. This is a novel full of grief and the circumstances surrounding both deaths provide an element of mystery. I loved the way the two time periods were interlocked as the novel progressed. I was fully engaged in it and I’ll be looking out for Beth Underdown’s next book.

Traitor in the Ice by K J Maitland

Headline Review| 31 March 2022| 461 pages| e-book| Review copy| 2*

I don’t have very much to say about Traitor in the Ice, the second Daniel Pursglove book, by K J Maitland. It is set during the Great Frost of 1607-8 in England, when the Thames and many other rivers were frozen solid, but the countryside was the hardest hit. I preferred the first Daniel Pursglove book, The Drowned City.

It is a dark historical novel, describing life in England under the new king, James I of England and VI of Scotland. Daniel is continuing his search for the mysterious Spero Pettingar, suspected of plotting another conspiracy to kill James and reinstate a Catholic monarch and is sent by the Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, to Battle Abbey, near Hastings, in Sussex, a Catholic household, suspected of sheltering Catholic priests.

Daniel is an interesting character, needing all his determination and courage to discover what has been going on at Battle Abbey. It’s made even more difficult as it seems that everyone has something to hide, not just their politics and religious dissent, but also murder. A little bit more of his background is revealed in this second book, but he still remains a mysterious figure. And Spero Pettingar is an even more mysterious character, who is he – is he hiding at Battle Abbey? And will Daniel uncover all the secrets concealed within the Abbey?

But I enjoyed K J Maitland’s Author’s Note and information she gives in ‘Behind the Scenes of this Novel’ more than the novel. The details of her historical research are fascinating, with information about the real people behind her characters, such as Lady Magdalen, Viscountess Montague who did live at Battle Abbey. And the Glossary at the end of the book is also most helpful explaining a lot of the terms in the book I hadn’t come across before.

However, the book failed to hold my interest throughout as the wealth of detail she has put into the novel slows the action down and took away much of the suspense and tension – I felt like I was drowning in description. And at times I wasn’t really sure what was happening, especially at the end of the book – the Epilogue is mystifying.

My thanks to Headline Review for a review copy via NetGalley

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

I have an old hardback copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (first published in 1831) in a very small font, too small for my eyes to cope with these days and a 49p e-book that I downloaded years ago when first got a Kindle. But I didn’t start reading it until a few months ago when FictionFan mentioned she was intending to read it and hold a Review-Along on her blog. I knew next to nothing about the book, not having seen any of the many films or TV versions, but I had read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables back in 2008 and enjoyed it very much. So, I had high expectations that I would enjoy this one too.

But when I began reading my e-bookI was so disappointed – I thought it was so boring and it was hard to read, the sentences stilted and stumbling and obtuse with no flow. I was tempted to abandon it, after all it is a long book, and there are plenty of other books I want to read. However, I persevered, thinking surely it would get better. It didn’t, so then I wondered if it was me or the translation and began to look for another edition and I ended up with the Oxford World Classics edition, translated and with an introduction by Alban Krailsheimer, Notre-Dame de Paris, which is so much better, so much easier to read!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The English title is so misleading – this book is not just about the hunchback Quasimodo, the bell-ringer of Notre-Dame, it is historical fiction on a grand scale, with a large cast of characters. It revolves around four main characters – the beautiful gypsy dancer, Esmeralda who fell hopelessly in love with the handsome womaniser, Captain Phoebus de Châteaupers, who has no intentions of marrying her. She in turn is loved by Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre-Dame and by Quasimodo, the deformed and deaf bell-ringer of the cathedral of Notre-Dame.

But that is not all – it is also the story of the cathedral itself, Notre-Dame de Paris, and Hugo describes it at great length, focusing on the Gothic architectural elements of its structure, particularly its use of the pointed arch and including its flying buttresses, clerestory windows, and stained glass. He was a great advocate for the preservation of its Gothic architecture and was also extremely upset about the changes to the cathedral, the repairs and additions that had been done over the years. And it is not just the cathedral, Hugo also devotes many pages to describing Paris, seeing it from a bird’s eye view and also to the invention of the printing press and its effect on culture, described by Hugo as ‘the greatest event in history’. These digressions were not what I expected to read – I just wanted to get on with the story. I was impatient with the digressions, but looking back at Les Mis, that is exactly what he had done in that book too, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.

The story of the main characters’ relationships is told in a complicated way, going forward and backward in time, filling in the background of the characters, whilst revolving around the events of 1482, during the reign of Louis XI (who makes an appearance in the book). And it is melodramatic, playing on all our emotions. Quasimodo was so named because he was found, abandoned on Quasimodo Sunday (that is the second Sunday after Easter) when he was four years old. He was ‘adopted’ by the sinister Archdeacon, Claude Frollo, and grew up in the cathedral, isolated by his deafness caused by all the years he’d spent ringing the bells, and feared because of his hideous appearance.

This book has everything! It is by turns a farcical comedy, a tale of obsessions and unrequited passions, of love and lust, of a terrible miscarriage of justice, of outsiders, of violent mobs, of cruelty, arrogant men, silly women, of monsters, of alchemy, of intolerance, of prejudice, jealousy, fury, torture, corruption and above all of tragedy. And it has a cast of colourful and distinct characters, that I either despised, loved or hated, including Esmeralda’s little goat Djali, who could dance and do tricks and spells (I loved Djali). It is difficult for me to love the book and equally as hard to dislike it as a whole, set firmly in its medieval time frame, against the dramatic backdrop of the cathedral (even though I grew impatient with all the architectural details). But I was convinced by the end of the book that Hugo had successfully brought the place and the people of 1482 dramatically to life for me.

My apologies to FictionFan for being nearly a week late to her Review-Along and thanks for nudging me into reading Notre-Dame de Paris at long last. I am glad I read it even if I can’t give it more than 3 stars – I  liked it, a good, enjoyable book.

The Drowned City by K J Maitland

Headline Review| 1 April 2021| 495 pages| e-book| Review copy| 3*

1606. England stands divided in the wake of the failed Gunpowder Plot. As a devastating tidal wave sweeps the Bristol Channel, rumours of new treachery reach the King.

In Newgate prison, Daniel Pursglove receives an unexpected – and dangerous – offer. Charles FitzAlan, close confidant of King James, will grant his freedom – if Daniel can infiltrate the underground Catholic network in Bristol and unmask the one conspirator still at large.

Where better to hide a traitor than in the chaos of a drowned city? Daniel goes to Bristol to investigate, but soon finds himself at the heart of a dark Jesuit conspiracy – and in pursuit of a killer.

My thoughts:

I didn’t realise when I began reading The Drowned City that K J Maitland is Karen Maitland, an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. It is the first book of a new series featuring Daniel Pursglove, set in Jacobean England under the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland. It is an historical thriller set in 1606, a year after the Gunpowder Plot failed.

It begins dramatically as a huge wave surges up the Bristol Channel, flooding the surrounding countryside in south-west England and parts of South Wales causing devastation and loss of life. The drama continues with Daniel Pursglove’s arrival in Bristol sent on the orders of King James to find Spero Pettingar, one of the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot. King James is fearful of his life as there are rumours of more Catholic uprisings and plots to assassinate him, especially if the flood is taken as a sign of God’s anger, revenge for the executions of the conspirators.

Daniel is an interesting character, but there is a mystery about him. He was in Newgate prison at the start of the book, but no details are given about what crime he had committed, and little is given about his family background. He is offered his freedom if he finds Spero, or torture and death if he doesn’t. King James is an expert on witchcraft and also fears the flood was caused by enchantments, by witches and sorcerers paid by Jesuits to wreck the King’s ports and open the country to an invading army.

Daniel’s real name is not Pursglove. He’s skilled at opening locks, described as a ‘crossbiter’ meaning a trickster, and hints are given about his origins – we know he had been educated as a nobleman and brought up to act the lord, but without money, title of position, raised in Lord Fairfax’s Catholic household. He is also a most determined and courageous investigator and he needs all his skills during his visit to Bristol, as his life is in danger more than once.

I like description in a novel but it is excessive in the this book, so much so, that it slowed down the narrative almost to a standstill in places and I had to really concentrate to keep track of who was who and even what was actually going on. The detailed description makes it a long book.

There is an extensive Glossary at the end of the book that explains many of the terms that puzzled me and was unable to find in a dictionary – I wish I’d discovered it when I began the book, rather than in the middle. Maitland’s historical research is impressive but at times I felt I was reading a history book rather than a novel. However, overall I enjoyed reading it and I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the series, The Traitor in the Ice.