The honey and the sting by E.C. Fremantle

The sisters Hester, Melis and Hope try to survive together on their farm after their father’s death. When Hester’s little son, Rafe, turns nine, his father comes to claim him. Rafe’s father is none other than George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Hester decides there’s no other option than to run away and they leave for a hidden cottage in the woods. Melis and Hope join their sister but they also have their own secrets.

Fremantle is perhaps my favourite author. After several novels set in Tudor England, she wrote the psychological thriller The poison bed set at the Stuart court. The honey and the sting is set in the same time period, but this time the link to true events is minimal. George Villiers off course really existed, but the sisters are entirely fictional.

The story is told alternately from Hester, Hope and Felton. The book has some kind of dark edge. Melis has visions of the future and the house they end up in seems haunted, as in the better gothic novel. But this book did something weird with me. It made me feel uncomfortable at times. In the end, everything falls together nicely and I think this is quite a good story. But somewhere I had hoped for much more with Fremantle. I didn’t love the book as I did with all her other work.

I preferred reading from Hester’s point of view because she’s the eldest sister and I could identify with her. She is the caring one, the mother who wants to fight for her child and who blames herself for things that happened in the past (although it wasn’t her fault).

All three sisters are an outcast in different ways. And not only because they are women. Hester is the unwed mother, Melis’ gift is reminiscent of witchcraft and Hope has a different skin colour. It are these kinds of women that Fremantle was keen to put at the centre for once, and I certainly understand that choice.

So yes, the honey and the sting is well written, although with some predictable plot lines. This book did not appeal to me as much as her previous work. I read that her next book will be about the painter Artemisia and am looking forward to reading it. The Queen’s Gambit, my favourite Fremantle novel, is apparently being made into a movie. So still a lot of Fremantle to look forward to. I’m happy about that.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite novel set during the Stuart period?

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The rebel daughter by Miranda Mallins

Bridget and her family move to a country estate in Ely after her father, Oliver Cromwell, receives an inheritance from a deceased uncle. Not much later, Cromwell starts to fight against the Papist king and everything he stands for. Both her father and her older brothers leave for a civil war against fellow countryman. However, Bridget also wants to contribute to the ’cause’ and realizes that a domestic life is not for her. That’s why she accepts the marriage proposal of Henry Ireton, one of her father’s right hand men.

I actually know bizarrely little about the Civil War. But a name like Oliver Cromwell obviously rings a bell. So I enjoyed reading about his family, from the perspective of his eldest daughter Bridget, or Biddie as they call her. Bridget comes from a numerous family and Mallins uses pet names for all the children, which was a little annoying at times.

Bridget is a pleasant main character. She’s a rational person who puts herself in function of her family and later her husband and the war. This sets her apart form her slightly younger sister Betty, who also comes to the forefront in this novel. Betty is fiery, vain and somewhat materialistic. The total opposite of Bridget but at the same time there’s a strong bond between the sisters that I enjoyed reading about.

In the second half of the book there’s a hard focus on all the intrigues within the wars. Not always easy to be totally on board with, especially because of the many characters who also constantly switch sides or opinions.

Bridget’s relationship with Henry is not one of great love, but one of mutual respect, so you certainly sympathise with them. Mallins also wrote a book about the youngest Cromwell sister (‘The Puritan princess’) which I now definitely want to read.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any good books set during the Civil War?

The last protector by Andrew Taylor

Clerk James Marwood is entrusted with observing the illegal duel between the Dukes of Buckingham and Shrewsbury and to report to Joseph Williamson, Under Secretary of State to Lord Arlington. Buckingham still hates Marwood, whom he calls ‘Marworm’, and James only narrowly escapes his henchmen. Meanwhile, Cat, who still feels trapped in her marriage to the architect Hakesby, is approached in the streets by an old childhood friend, Elizabeth Cromwell. Her father Richard, the former protector who was in exile, is back in London and asks her help in stealing an old family secret from the palace of Whitehall.

This fourth book in the series is a bit of an outlier. There’s no murder to solve and therefore it reads less like a mystery. The great fire of London is also not the biggest historical background anymore, as the book already opens in 1668, two years after the disaster. We follow the adventures of Cat and Marwood, who both become entangled in the machinations of the duke of Buckingham and thus encounter each other again. The various plot lines come together again nicely at the end.

I actually liked the fact that the focus of this story is more on the intrigues at the Court of lords like Buckingham, lord Arlington, Richard Cromwell and even the king himself. It was a different approach and it keeps the series refreshing.

Marwood also really grows as a person, now that he has risen through the ranks at Court and is taken more seriously. Meanwhile, Cat struggles in her marriage to Hakesby who has a sudden surge of sympathy for the Cromwells. Something she cannot afford as the daughter of a regicide. I’m glad Cat and James are given an equal amount of ‘screentime’ in this novel, as in the last few books Cat was less present and I had some trouble sympathizing with her. She felt more mature in ‘The last protector‘.

I’m already looking forward to part five, ‘The royal secret’.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Do you recommend a similar one?

The leviathan by Rosie Andrews

Thomas Treadwater returns to his father’s farm after a year in the army because he has received a curious letter from his sister Esther asking for help. Once home, he discovers the sheep are lying dead in the fields and his father is dying from a stroke. Esther points to their new housemaid Chrissa Moore as the culprit. She is already locked up on suspicion of witchcraft in the village prison.

The Leviathan is set in 17th century Norfolk during the Civil War. Thomas has had a difficult childhood and after a personal incident with his Tutor John Milton (the one from ‘Paradise lost’), he fled into the army. But when his sister Esther suspects one of their maids of witchcraft and incantations, he returns home. Unfortunately, he’s too late to save his father and now must look to Esther and Rutherford, a local witch hunter, to discover the truth. And it seems that there are more powerful forces at play than just witchcraft.

This book sounds like a standard ‘witch hunt’ historical tale, but it’s actually magical realism. And that magic only really comes to the foreground in the second half of the book. Thomas finds a diary fragment from his father that describes a shipwreck in which a mythical creature plays the leading role.

I find it somewhat difficult to judge this book. Andrews sets a strong setting with an interesting cast of characters. Thomas’ struggles with his conscience feel very real. Especially since we follow him at two pivotal moments in his life. The story constantly switches between Thomas as a young man trying to solve the mystery and as an older man looking back decades after the events in a place ‘far away from the sea’.

I felt the tension building up and did enjoy it. In the end, unfortunately, the author lost me. It all becomes a bit bombastic and suddenly goes a lot faster so that the tension falls away and you are just served a story that could have been more. This is however an author with lots of potential. Her writing is effortless and very detailed. I really like her style, so I’m curious to see what Rosie Andrews will write next.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This book reminds me that I really have to start Sarah Perry’s book ‘The Essex serpent’ one day.

Do you like reading magical realism?

The hemlock cure by Joanne Burn

Mae lives alone with her father, the village pharmacist, in the English town of Eyam after her mother and sister Leah both died. Mae’s father Wulfric is strict and doesn’t know that his daughter is secretly visiting Isabel, the village midwife. Isabel was Mae’s mother’s best friend and does not trust Wulfric at all. She has even been branded a witch by him. And then the plague threatens to come to Eyam…

This book is set in 1655 – 1665 during the last major plague epidemic in England. There are three narrative perspectives. One during the epidemic, the diary of Wulfric and short flashbacks from the narrator, Leah.

While the premise really triggered my interest, I found the story a bit all over the place. Leah’s odd perspective had little added value and there are a lot of plot lines that are only slowly dealt with. By the middle of the book, it all feels blended into each other and you have no clue to where we’re going.

The story revolves around Mae and Isabel, two women with an interest in medicine and then the word witch is quickly outed in the 17th century. But we also get to know Isabel’s husband Johan’s backstory. He goes to London where he observes the consequences of the plague epidemic. And then there is Rafe, who lives with Isabel and Johan and whom Mae takes an interest in.

Burn has based her story on real historical events in the small town of Eyam. The villagers prevent an outbreak of the plague in the neighboring towns by a brave decision. The author adds a whole cast of fictional characters to this setting. Her writing style is certainly ok. But this is just a story that won’t stick. It lacked focus, emotion and originality. I feel that I’ve read this story before.

Too bad, because there were enough things to like in this story that could have been worked out better to create a gripping read. And that cover is just beautiful, I must admit that.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

What’s your favourite book set in the 17th century?

The crimson ribbon by Catherine Clemens

Ruth Flowers is a servant in the household of Oliver Cromwell in Ely when suddenly tragedy strikes and she’s forced to leave. She’s sent to London to work for the Poole family. Once there, she quickly becomes friends with the charismatic and outspoken Elizabeth Poole. Elizabeth writes rebellious manuscripts and mean rumours circulate about her, but Ruth doesn’t believe there’s any truth in them. In the midst of Civil War, Ruth and Elizabeth become entangled in the trial of Charles I. When a king might lose his head, nobody is safe.

I borrowed ‘The crimson ribbon‘ from the library not knowing much about it, except that’s a story about women set during the Civil War. A dark period in English history that no so many authors write about it, so I wasn’t familiar with it.

The story opens with Ruth Flowers attending a childbirth with her mother in the charming village of Ely. As the child is born dead and her mother blames Ruth’s mother, the village turns against the two of them. Ruth’s mother is called a witch and hanged by a tree before anyone can stop the crowd. A cruel start that takes Ruth to London.

On her way to London she meets Josep Oakes, a former soldier in The Civil War. He gives us an insight into the cruelty that soldiers have witnessed during some of the battles. Ruth and Joseph loose sight of each other when they arrive and Ruth goes to live with Elizabeth- Lizzie- Poole. Ruth is immediately taken with her. Even when people in the streets start to call her a whore and a witch, Ruth believes in her mistress’ innocence.

Ruth Flowers is a fictional character, but Elizabeth is a true historical character. She played a role in the trial of Charles I where she testified about her visions given by God. Elizabeth was a highly religious person and it is said she was used by Oliver Cromwell to get what he want. Except from her testimony, we don’t know much about Elizabeth’s real life or death. In this book, Clemens tries to reconstruct a believable story.

I didn’t like Elizabeth’s character at all and I believe this was the author’s meaning 😅. She’s selfish, fickle, vain and highly ambitious. She doesn’t care about Ruth’s feelings and I couldn’t always understand why Ruth is so good and patient with her. However, this characterisation does fit in my opinion to the profile of a seer with a self-declared gift granted by God.

The Crimson Ribbon includes an insight into the personality of Oliver Cromwell. This was a different Cromwell than he’s usually represented. It also talks about the gruesomeness of the war, the unrest in the streets of London and the witch trials on the country. For me, this novel gave a fine introduction into the 1640’s and I hope to read more about the Civil War in the future.

Apart from the historical setting, there’s a heavy sapphic romance in this book which felt unhealthy and a bit forced at times. It’s a big part of the storyline and I would have loved to read more about Joseph and his friends for example than having to discover Lizzie’s next love interest.

This was Catherine Clemens’ debut novel. It isn’t the most unique historical novel I’ve read. Some plot lines felt familiar from other books. But she introduced me to a new period. She created a wel-written and engaging story with intriguing characters.

This book 2 for #20booksofsummer

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Do you have any recommendations on the Civil War?

The king’s evil by Andrew Taylor

In Clarendon house, the home of one of the most important courtiers of king Charles II, the body of Edward Alderley is discovered drowned in a well. Suspicion soon falls onto Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide, now hiding as Jane Hakesby. James Marwood is charged with the investigation of the murder by the king himself. He is determined to prove Cat’s innocence, but is she truly innocent? Since the murder, Cat has fled her home at Henrietta street.

This is the third book of Andrew Taylor’s excellent Marwood and Lovett series. I recommend to start with the first one ‘Ashes of London‘ if you want to fully comprehend everything that is happening. For example the book opens with a conversation between James Marwood and Olivia, lady Quincy whom we met in the first book. They are watching a ceremony of king Charles II where he’s healing people suffering from the king’s evil with his touch. Marwood has always been attracted to Lady Quincy so when she asks him to warn her cousin Cat Lovett that Edward Alderley wants to kill her, he does her bidding.

A few days later Edward Alderley is found murdered in a well and Cat has disappeared. Marwood is charged to go to Clarendon house to inspect the body. Lord Clarendon is the father in law of James, Duke of York, the king’s brother and one of the mightiest courtiers at the moment. Alas, Clarendon house hasn’t survived the wheel of time, otherwise I would have jumped on a train to London to visit it. It’s a great setting for this book.

It’s the first time that James Marwood really becomes entangled in the court intriges and the king’s own affairs. The effects of the Great Fire are still part of the story, but aren’t the focus of the plot this time. His relationship with Cat doesn’t become any easier. She’s still a big part of the story, but we read more chapters from Marwood in this novel.

I had never before heard about ‘the king’s evil’. This is a disease called scrofula, which is a form of tuberculosis that causes swellings in the neck, especially with children. At the time, it was thought only the touch of a sovereign could cure you (which gave it the name ‘the king’s evil’) and public touching ceremonies were organised.

Taylor intertwines real historical events with a gripping murder mystery. In this book there are a lot of different plotlines coming together. I’m always curious to see how everything will fit in at the end. That’s why these books feel slow at times, but you’re also really flying through them in some way 😅. I’m looking forward to see what the future has in store for James and Cat in ‘The last protector’.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Do you recommend a similar one?

The mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Christmas Eve 1617. A sudden but deadly storm takes the lives of 40 men in a small community at the Norwegian island Vardo. Maren loses her father, brother and fiancé in one night. The women on the island are forced to look after themselves. When a new supervisor arrives with his young wife Ursa from Bergen, things start to change. The Christian women start spreading rumours about former friends who still hold onto old beliefs. Ursa and Maren quickly become friends but they don’t know about the dark reputation of Ursa’s husband.

I was looking forward to reading ‘The mercies‘ and was happy to find it available at the library. The blurb reminded me about ‘The glass woman‘, another novel set in a small community in the north of Europe that I loved instantly. But this turned out to be a different read. Less gothic, more some kind of dramatic love story woven in with historical events.

The story is told from both Maren and Ursa, two young women struggling to find their place on the island. The first few chapters are told from Maren’s perspective and talk about the dramatic storm that takes away many lives. It’s a strong start, although I couldn’t really empathize with Maren. Hargrave writes metaphoric and with much detail but this makes the character development less prominent.

I had a better bond with Ursa who is forced to marry an older man she doesn’t know. Absalom takes her away from everything she knows to a cold place. But the underlying friendship between Ursa and Maren felt artificial. And I also missed some depth in the relationship between Ursa and her husband Absalom. You never really get to know him.

After the storm, the plot evolves slowly. Not much happens. The unrest in the small villages grows and I was in particular interested in some side characters such as Diinna, Maren’s sister-in-a-law and a Lapp, or Kirsten, a free-fought woman not scared to get to work. As the tension is built up, you are waiting for the next big events but they are rushed in the last chapters. The ending is quite dark, I am not too sure which point the author was trying to make with it.

This is certainly no feministic book in my opinion, as women are wronged in all kind of ways in this story. I loved how the novel is built around some true historic events (the storm and witch hunts), but for me the drama around the two main characters didn’t feel quite right. I had expected more from this one. I did enjoy reading ‘The mercies’, but it’s not the kind of story that will stay with me for long.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

What’s your favorite book with a cold setting in the north?

Rags of Time by Michael Ward

Wool merchant Joseph Venell is strangely murdered on the countryside near London. Spice trader Thomas Tallant, just returned from India, is asked for his opinion on the case by an investigator. Against his will, the suspicion falls on him, even more when Venell’s business partner dies at the house of his parents. How can he prove his innocence? Luckily, Thomas gets some help from the intelligent but mysterious Elizabeth Seymour and his best friend Edmund.

The cover states that the murder was just the beginning of the affair and actually this is a great description. The story has many different plot lines that have nothing to do with the murder mystery. 17th century England under the reign of Charles I comes alive in this new historical mystery series (as I suspect there will be more books with Thomas and Elizabeth as main characters).

The 1630’s isn’t exactly a time period that I know a lot about. There’s a lot of historical context in the other plot lines, such as the religious uproar between the puritans and the Anglican followers of bisshop Laud, the protégé of the queen. We also get some insight in the world of the merchants working for the East-Indian Trading company. I especially loved the description of London, a city full of possibilities by trade. As a result many people move to London and the city is overcrowded, full of disease and with a strong stench of human filth.

There’s an enormous cast of characters. I liked Thomas Tallant, he’s no ordinary detective as in many mystery novels, but a spice trader who becomes involved in a series of strange events. This is quite an original starting point for the whole affair as Thomas doesn’t have any particular skills on how to catch a killer. However, he does have the skill to get himself into trouble 😅.

Elizabeth Seymour has a lot of potential as a character. She’s beautiful and witty, way ahead of her time and interested in science. She also has a gambling problem. But I believe she didn’t get enough ‘screen time’ in this novel to really flower.

At the end, it all comes together. For me the revelations felt a bit messy sometimes, especially the action scenes. I’m not yet sure if I’ll read any sequel though. Rags of time is an entertaining mystery novel with a great cast and an interesting historical setting.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Thanks to Michael Ward for a copy of his book in return for my honest opinion.

The strange adventures of H by Sarah Burton

H. has never known her full name. After her father has died, her five sisters all go their own way. H. and her sister Evelyn go to live with their caring aunt in London. Once there, her nephew rapes her and a deadly plague strikes down, killing one third of the town’s population. Orphaned, homeless and pregnant H. needs to survive on her own strength. But her adventure has only just begun.

The strange adventures of H. is a fun historical novel with a modern twist. We follow the adventures of H., a young Englishwoman born into poverty who, after some dramatic personal events, needs to sell her body to survive. And 17th century London proves quite a challenge: from a devastating plague summer, the Great Fire of 1666 to the Shrove Tuesday riots. This novel offers a vivid historical setting for anyone interested in the Restoration period.

But what I liked most about this book wasn’t the setting. The characters make this book. They are almost caricatures, whereas the plot is a web of coincidences. The narrator even admits this during the story and jeers at the implausibleness of certain events. Normally, this would put me off. But Sarah Burton possesses such an own voice in her writing that it kept me hooked until the end.

The book is divided into three parts corresponding the development H. goes through as a person: the shy H., seductive Doll and confident Halycon. I liked H. most of the times, despite being very naive (but she’s still so young in the biggest part of the book). ‘Her adventures’ bring her in touch with many different persons. Some you’ll love instantly, others you’ll loathe. I was quite satisfied with the ending and am curious if Burton plans to write another novel about one of the other sisters.

This isn’t the story I’ll remember for ages. But I’ll look out for more books of this author in the future. She’s a new voice in the genre who offers straightforward historical entertainment. And sometimes that’s all you need (especially during a global pandemic).

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher to provide me with a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.