The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

Last year I loved Nicola Cornick’s time-slip novel, House of Shadows. Her latest book is The Phantom Tree, due to be published on 29 December, another time-slip novel and I loved this one too.

Blurb:

‘My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.’

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait ‘“ supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better’¦ The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past ‘“ it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.

But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows’¦

My thoughts

The plot of The Phantom Tree alternates between the Tudor period and the present day following the life of Alison Banestre (known as Bannister in the present day) as she moves between the centuries trying to find out what happened to Mary Seymour. It is a mystery, based on the true story of Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife) and Thomas Seymour, who she married after Henry’s death.

It’s a fascinating book, as little is known about Mary’s life. What is recorded is that she was born in 1548, her mother died after the birth and her father was executed a year later for treason against Edward VI. She disappeared from the records around about 1550, although there has been speculation that she lived until adulthood. In The Phantom Tree Nicola Cornick has provided another speculation on Mary’s life. As she states at the beginning of her book it is ‘entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination.’

Having read Hilary Mantel’s, Wolf Hall, I was very interested in the setting of Wolf Hall where Mary and Alison, her cousin, went to live in 1557, the fourth year of the reign of Mary I. Mary Seymour was then ten years old and had a reputation for witchcraft. Wolf Hall, a rambling, run down manor house was owned by the Seymour family where Mary and other Seymour children went sent to live.

The time travel element of the book works well. I liked the way the traces of history in the present day are handled and are seen as layers of reality. Alison moves between the centuries, both forwards and backwards in time but then she found the gateway to the past had closed and she was trapped in the present day. She has to find another gateway where the past and the present meet, or some other means of connecting to the past.

I preferred the sixteenth century setting, with its belief in witchcraft slotting so well into the storyline. Mary has visions which are viewed with fear and superstition. Alison, in the future doesn’t know what happens to Mary, or to her son, Arthur, who was taken from her after his birth. She had helped Mary escape from Wolf Hall and in return Mary had promised to help her find Arthur. I think the characterisation is done well – Alison comes across as a rather unlikeable person, in contrast to Mary who is younger and has a gentler nature, although at first they didn’t get on together. I also liked the way the clues in the portrait helped Alison to discover what happened to Mary and Arthur.

My thanks to the publishers via NetGalley for a review copy of The Phantom Tree.  It is a book that seamlessly incorporates mystery and elements of the supernatural into the historical detail as the past and present meet. A most enjoyable book.

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: HQ (29 Dec. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848455046
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848455047

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

Nicola Cornick is a new-to-me author, but she is by no means a new author. She has written many books – see her website for more details. Not having read any of her books I wasn’t sure I’d like House of Shadows, her latest book due to be published on 5 November,  but the publishers’ press release persuaded me to read and review an uncorrected proof copy. I’m glad I did as I thoroughly enjoyed House of Shadows.

Press Release synopsis:

One House, Three Women. And a lie that will change history.

February 1662

On the eve of her death Elizabeth Stuart hands her faithful cavalier William Craven an ancient pearl with magical properties to be kept safe for her rightful heir. Craven, distraught with grief, builds Ashdown Estate in Elizabeth’s memory and places the pearl at the centre.

February 1801

Notorious Regency courtesan Lavinia Flyte is brought to Ashdown House with her protector, Lord Evershot, who is intent on uncovering the Winter Queen’s treasures. Evershot’s greedy pillage of the ancient house will unleash a dark power which has lain dormant for a hundred and fifty years.

February 2014

Holly Ansell’s brother has gone missing. As Holly retraces his footsteps, she discovers that her brother was researching the mystery of Elizabeth Stuart and her alleged affair with William Craven. A battered mirror and the diary of a Regency courtesan are the only clues she has, but Holly is determined to discover the truth: Where is the fabled pearl that Elizabeth gave to William Craven? What happened to Lavinia Flyte? And who is the Winter Queen’s rightful heir?

My thoughts:

This is a successful time-slip novel as I had no difficulty in following each strand of the story. And each is set firmly in its historical context. It’s a fascinating mix of factual history combined with historical interpretation/imagination to fill in the gaps in the records. Elizabeth Stuart, known as the Winter Queen, the daughter of James I of England and VI of Scotland was married to Frederick V, briefly the King of Bohemia, before his lands were taken from him after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. There are rumours from 1660 onwards, but no proof, that Elizabeth either had an affair or secretly married William, the first Earl of Craven.

Once I started reading the House of Shadows I didn’t want to stop as the history of crystal mirror and the Sistrin pearl, a jewel of rare beauty and price unfolds. Both were inherited by Elizabeth from her godmother Elizabeth I. They had previously belonged to Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth Stuart’s grandmother. They were said to hold great magic – the mirror was said to have the power to destroy its enemies by fire, whilst the ring was supposedly a talisman for good. It was reported that Frederick was involved with the Knights of the Rosy Cross and the legend is that the Knights used the mirror and the pearl together in their necromancy to create firewater in which they could both see and transform the future.

There is so much I loved in this book ‘“ the history, all the storylines,  the characters, and the settings against the backdrop of years from the 16th to the 21st centuries. It has mystery, elements of the supernatural as well as being a love story, not just the story of Elizabeth and William in the 17th century, but also of Lavinia in the early 19th century and Holly in the 21st. I loved the details of each period and in particular of Ashdown House, a real house in Oxfordshire that was built by William Craven for Elizabeth. It’s now owned by the National Trust, where Nicola Cornick has been a volunteer guide and historian for the last fourteen years. She has certainly done her research very well and incorporated it seamlessly into her book. The house shown on the front cover is Ashdown House

I also loved the details of Holly’s family history which her brother Ben had been researching before he went missing and how it all linked in to each time line. It’s the sort of thing you hope you be able to would find if you did your own family history.

It is a fascinating book. There is so much packed into its pages, a real page turner in each timeline, making me eager to find out what happened next. If this is representative of Nicola Cornick’s books there are plenty of others that I’m going to enjoy.

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: MIRA; First edition edition (5 Nov. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848454163
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848454163
  • Source: Uncorrected Proof Copy