Winter pilgrims by Toby Clemens

After some dramatic events in the cold winter snow, Catherine and Thomas both have to leave their secluded monastery in Lincoln on the run for Giles Riven, a local lord with the power to crush them. They don’t know each other and have no clue about the current wars going on outside between the houses of Lancaster and York. The dukes of York and Warwick have just lost the last battle and Warwick’s army is gathering in Calais. By accident, Catherine and Thomas end up there and they join the retinue of Sir John Fakenham and his son Richard. This new alliance will lead them to the battlefields of Northampton and Towton.

Winter pilgrims is the first book in the kingmaker series about two commoners during the Wars of the Roses. 15th century England always makes for a nice setting, but this book doesn’t focus on the kings, queens and politics. It’s about a young man and woman trying to survive and make sense of all this. In that way, it reminded of me of Ken Follett’s approach in his Kingsbridge series.

There’s also a huge focus on some famous battles, so that you can compare Clemens to Iggulden or Cornwell. His battle scenes are gruesome, bloody and confusing. Just as any soldier would have experienced it. Especially the brutality and confusion of the battle at Towton comes alive at the end of the novel.

Winter pilgrims opens fast, setting the scene for the rest of the story. The cliches of a monk turning into a warrior and a nun into a nurse is something that should be overlooked. Another cliche is the evil arch enemy that haunts them during the book. This is foremost an adventure novel with nice characters that you get used to very quickly (only to see them murdered afterwards :D), the plot comes in second. And I’m ok with that because the story certainly was entertaining.

It’s also a book clearly written as the first part in a series. A lot of plot lines are started, but aren’t yet touched in much detail in this book. The end is abrupt and leaves some questions unanswered. The writing is in first person tense, and although that’s a bit strange, it didn’t bother me that much. I liked the focus on the common men and the battles. So, I believe I’m curious enough to read the next book ‘Broken faith’.

Clemens is no Cornwell and this novel was maybe a bit too heavy in pages with an unbelievable plot at some times. But if you’re up for an adventure during this fascinating period, Winter pilgrims will provide you with exactly that.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Do you have a favourite book set during the Wars of the Roses? Do you like to read an adventure novel?

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.

Warriors of the storm by Bernard Cornwell

In the middle of the night thousands of Danes land in the north of Mercia uniting under their new ‘king’ Ragnall Ivarsson, brother to Uhtred’s son-in-law. It’s still unclear if Ragnall wants to overthrow the lady of Mercia Aethelflaed or whether his eye wanders towards Northumbria. In the meantime, Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra is being besieged in Ireland. Uhtred now has to choose between his love for his daughter and his oath as a warrior to Aethelflaed.

This is already the ninth installment in the Saxon series and we meet a much older battle-hardened Uhtred now. The previous book, the empty throne, ended with a sudden surprise for me, so I was curious to see how the story would continue. What I liked about this book is that it offers a great balance between some terrific battle scenes and the rest of the story. Uhtred is always busy in this novel and I in particular liked his small adventure into Ireland. We also finally get an insight into Finan’s past. He’s by far my favorite side character.

Although this certainly can be read as a stand-alone as the story offers a lot of closure at the end (no big cliffhanger this time), I do believe you’ll enjoy it more when you’ve read all the books in the series. There are some characters from Uhtred’s past popping up and we do say goodbye to some of them (which was a bit of a surprise for me but it promises some new characters in the next books).

Another aspect I enjoyed is Uhtred’s relationship with his children which is a big part of the story. As is the constant strive between the Christian God and the old Gods of the Danes. In that regard, I was a bit disappointed by the fast end of the storyline in Mercia. I had hoped father Leofstan would become a bigger part of the story. I also guessed the truth around Mus, but she was a great addition to the cast nonetheless. It made the final battle actually quite funny. Nobody can write that kind of scene as good as Cornwell.

Warriors of the storm was another great read. In the next book, the flame bearer, Uhtred will return to Bebbanburg and yes, aren’t we all looking forward to that?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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.

The fire court by Andrew Taylor

A few months after the fire of London, James Marwood is still working as a clerk at Whitehall Palace when his elderly father falls under the wheels of a wagon and dies. The night before his death, he came home with blood on his sleeves telling a strange story about a women in a yellow dress with red spots. Marwood dismisses the story as nonsense until suddenly a body of a woman in a yellow dress is found in the ruins of the burnt city. This leads him to the fire court, where judges are trying to solve conflicts between landowners and renters about the reconstruction after the fire. A case about a place called Dragon Yard guides Marwood again in the arms of Cat Lovett, daughter of a regicide, who’s now hiding at the house of Dr. Hakesby as his niece Jane Hakesby.

The fire court is the second book in a series of historical mysteries set after the fire of London in 1666. You don’t need to have read the first book ‘ashes of London‘ but I do recommend to do so. When reading ashes of London, it felt like an introduction to the background of the main characters James Marwood and Cat Lovett. The murder mystery wasn’t that big. And that disappointed me a bit.

But in this novel, the mystery is the main focus point of the story and there’s a lot more action. Again, you get to read different chapters from either James’ or Cat’s perspective, but there’s also a third narrator. Jemina Limbury is the rich but troubled wife of Philip Limbury, an important man at Whitehall who also has an interest in the Dragon Yard case of the fire court.

I liked the setting of the fire court, as I had no idea about the details of the reconstruction of London after the fire. Taylor again does a great job in creating an atmosphere where you can smell the ashes from the pages. This setting in combination with a complex mystery made it an enjoyable read. There are some convincing side characters from James’ traumatized father Nathaniel, his servants the caring Margaret and Sam, the one-legged war veteran, to the scheming Jemina Limbury, her loyal maidservant Mary and Gromwell. A man as dark as the man whose name resemblances his own.

I finally felt some connection with Cat, now Jane Hakesby. James Marwood goes through a lot in this story. The death of his father, a personal tragedy when trying to save a victim from a fire and conflicting loyalties towards his two employers at Whitehall. I’m curious what lies ahead for them in the next installment in the series: the king’s evil.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite mystery series?

Catherine Of Aragon, the true queen by Alison Weir

Catalina Of Aragon is the youngest daughter of the Catholic kings, Isabella and Ferdinand, and destined to become queen of England. After a rough sea voyage she arrives in Engeland to marry prince Arthur, heir to the throne. But Arthur is shy and sickly. After only four months of marriage Catalina, now Catherine, becomes a widow. At the court of Henry VII, she sets her eyes on Arthur’s younger brother, the charismatic Henry, to become queen once more.

I must admit I had some doubts when starting ‘the true queen’. In the past I enjoyed some of Alison Weir’s books, but I also disliked her two novels about Queen Elizabeth (‘The lady Elizabeth’ and ‘The marriage game’). But I decided to give this series a try.

Catherine Of Aragon is the first of Henry VIII’s wives and a lot is known about her life. She’s a thankful subject to start off this series. And I believe Weir did a relatively great job. This book is 600 pages long and includes much detail. You can follow Catherine’s story from her first marriage to king Arthur, the years of poverty she had to endure afterwards at the court of Henry VII to her marriage with Henry VIII. A happy marriage at first but of course we all know that after some miscarriages Henry moves away from Catherine when he meets Anne Boleyn.

Having read about Catherine many times before, Weir could still hold my interest about these events. She respects the timeline until the moment that I was waiting on the Mary Boleyn affair. But that didn’t come. Weir’s Catherine is stubborn, devout, caring and naive. She dotes on Henry. But this implicates that she doesn’t know about him having affairs. Even when things start to get worse, Henry is still the loving husband. No one tells Catherine of his many affairs. And this bothered me. Because it just seems impossible that Catherine didn’t know. Especially not with Mary Boleyn who possibly bore him two children. But there were others.

This brings us to the characterization of Henry VIII. I didn’t like his portrayal in this novel. At the age of ten Catherine already finds him attractive (which is bit of perverse, don’t you think?). And from the moment they marry, he can’t do anything wrong. This also makes characters as Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell and especially Anne Boleyn the villains. Reading from Catherine’s point of view, I can understand that Anne is demonized. But that Henry was just a meek man wrongly advised by the people around him (and thus a victim himself) goes a bit too far for me.

I’m really curious to see whether this is just the Henry from Catherine’s point of view and that we’ll get a different Henry in each book. If not, I’m not sure how Weir will make from this Henry a wife killer…

This book also gives an insight in Catherine’s relationships with the Spanish ambassadors, her ladies-in-waiting and her daughter Mary whom she loves dearly. Yes, it is a long book with a lot of detail, but that didn’t put me off. I enjoyed this book more than expected. And I’m looking forward to read Weir’s story about Anne Boleyn, hopefully finding a different Henry there.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Which one is your favourite so far?

Queen of the north by Anne ‘O Brien

Elizabeth Mortimer has royal Plantagenet blood and is married to Harry Hotspur Percy, the heir to the greatest earldom in the north. She believes her young nephew Edmund Mortimer to be second in line to the throne after the childless and unpopular king Richard II. But many don’t want another child king and support her other cousin Henry Of Lancaster instead. When Henry sets foot in England again after years in exile while Richard has suffered grave defeat in Ireland, the battle for the throne is on. Elizabeth’s husband and stepfather join forces with Lancaster and abandon the Mortimer cause. Will there ever be Mortimer king?

This is the second book I’ve read from Anne O’ Brien after having enjoyed ‘the shadow queen‘ about Joan Of Kent a few years ago. Queen Of The North is one of the books she has written around powerful women during Henry IV’s troubled reign. The novel opens with Henry of Lancaster returning to England to gather support to defy king Richard II. The Percy army in the north is preparing to join him.

We meet Elizabeth Mortimer, the wife of the famous Harry Hotspur. The Mortimers are the heirs of Lionel, second son of Edward III, but through the female line of Elizabeth’s mother Filippa Plantagenet. This weakens the claim of her eight-year-old nephew Edmund should Richard die childless. I’ve never really understood why the Mortimer didn’t try harder to get on the throne. They have a stronger claim (if you ignore the female part of it), but history will be forever talking about Lancaster and York. So I found it really interesting to read this story from a Mortimer point of view.

Elizabeth is also a Percy and thus future ‘queen’ of the north. We meet her ambitious stepfather, the earl of Northumberland, and her husband Harry “Hotspur” as he is referred to by the Scots. The marriage between Elizabeth and Harry is quite happy, although there are some serious clashes between them in this novel, not in the least about the succession. Their relationship is the most compelling part of the book in my opinion. I really could love and hate Harry at the same time.

I had hoped that the rebellion would be the biggest part of the novel, but it happens quite fast and the second half focuses even more on Elizabeth’s development as a traitor to the crown. Near the end of the story, I had more and more sympathy for her feelings.

We also meet Queen Joan Of Navarre and Constance Of York in this novel. About both women O’ Brien has written a separate novel. I have the one about Constance ready on my shelves and am curious if I will like her more than in I did this book.

O’ Brien focuses on the story of women, this also means that the main character is far from the action that happens at the battlefield. There are also some serious time jumps adding to the pace of the novel. All things together, I find O’ Brien’s writing style a bit too dry and distant. She lacks the flair of a Joanna Hickson or Elizabeth Fremantle for example. But she writes about forgotten women with a unique story, so I’ll continue to read her books.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any books set during Henry IV reign?

The forgotten orphan by Glynis Peters

Maisie Reynolds has grown up at the Holly Bush orphanage in Southampton. At the age of 17, she realizes she’ll never be adopted. Separated from her twin brother Jack at the age of five and with no memories from her parents, Maisie is looking for answers about her past. When WOII arrives in Engeland, all the orphans except Maisie are moved from the city. The building will be turned into a care home for wounded soldiers. Maisie’s future is unsure. Will she be able to set up a life on her own? Can she find her brother?

I must start with the fact that this wasn’t a book for me. It is astandard WOII fiction novel, a genre that dominates the book store shelves. These kind of books tend to feel like they are all the same.

This is a coming of age story with good character building. Maisie is a young naive girl trying to make the best of the situation. She has some lovely friends in Charlie and Joyce. I enjoyed to read about all the secondary characters and their lives during the war. But the plot is just too thin for my liking. Especially the mystery around Maisie’s family is too far fetched and there are too much coincidences in how the revelations slowly unfold. There is also a heavy romance plot line in the form “boy meets girl and they are instantly in love”.

Britain in times of war made for a fine scenery. In times when the world outside comes to a halt due to a global pandemic, it’s strange to read about normal life going on through the bomb attacks of the Germans.

If you love WOII fiction with some drama and romance, this might be the perfect holiday read for you.

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Before the crown by Flora Harding

In 1943 war is raging through Europe and Prince Philip of Greece is an officer in the English navy. His Greek royal family is in exile and his sisters are wed to German officers. At Windsor Castle, seventeen-year-old princess Elizabeth, heir to the English throne, is eagerly awaiting Philip’s visit to court. She fell in love with the prince some years before and hopes to win his affection. But in times of war not everyone is fond of Elizabeth marrying a foreign prince.

I must admit that I haven’t read many books about the Windsors before, I haven’t even started watching ‘The crown’ yet. But this ensured I could start this book without expectations.

The novel is written from both Elizabeth’s and Philip’s point of view and opens with the two of them meeting at Windsor during the War. Elizabeth has been smitten with Philip for some years, and the two of them write letters to each other on a regular basis. Philip hasn’t formed an attachment yet but his Mountbatten relatives have made clear that a match with the English throne would be advantageous for him and his family.

It seems strange to read a historical novel about people still alive. If felt wrong to get an insight into their private lives. Harding writes some very real and convincing dialogues. You immediately discover there’s a difference between Elizabeth’s confined life at court and Philip’s worldly views. Philip never had a home, as the Greek royal family lives in exile and his parents chose to live apart. I didn’t know much about Philip’s family and I found it very interesting to get to know his uncles, parents and sisters.

I also loved the representation of the Queen and King, both not destined for the throne but determined to make the best of it. Elizabeth is a more passive character. She’s clearly in love but has learned to restrain herself. She places herself in the shadow of the more lively and extraverted Margaret. Sometimes that made me shout at her to stand up for herself.

The couple will face some serious challenges before their marriage, but the reader knows they will overcome them in the end. There is some romance involved of course, but the focus of the novel is more on England during and after WOII. It will never be my favorite period, but Harding has certainly surprised me with this sweet and interesting story.

Thanks to Netgalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia to provide me a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion. Before the crown is now worldwide available.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Sovereign by C.J. Sansom

One year after the dramatic downfall of Thomas Cromwell, Matthew Shardlake is mourning his father. He receives a summons from archbishop Thomas Cranmer to go to York to bring legal petitions before the king during his Progress of the North. Shardlake accepts as this is a chance to settle his father’s debts and he travels to York with Barak. But Cranmer has also another task for Matthew. A dangerous prisoner needs to be brought safe and sound to London for interrogation in the Tower. Once in York, Matthew witnesses a murder on a glazier while at the same time a young girl is determined to form an attachment with his only friend Barak.

I love this series! After some disappointing reads, I was happy to wander again through Tudor England with my favorite crookback lawyer. The setting in Sovereign might be my favorite so far. We are 1941, a few years after the Pilgrimage of The Grace when a new conspiracy is discovered in the north of the country. The aging and obese king Henry VIII decides to go on Progress to the north together with his new teenage queen, Catherine Howard.

As this novel counts over 600 pages, some readers may find it slow. But this isn’t your standard murder mystery, this is also a terrific novel about Tudor England. The details about the Progress, the hostile atmosphere towards southrons and reformists in York, the queen’s secret.. it all adds to the drama.

The murder mystery is about a glazier that has been pushed from a ladder. When Shardlake and Barak find a box full of discriminating documents about the king himself, they are in grave danger. But before they can read the papers, someone has already stolen them. Someone within the court in York. The mystery will take us back to the Wars of The Roses and although I guessed what would be the basis of the documents after seeing the royal family tree, I was still curious how it would all play out in the end. There are a few red herrings and for once I was in doubt what to believe and who to suspect.

There is more than the murder alone. Barak and his love interest Tamasin get in trouble with Lady Rochford and the queen. The prisoner Broderick receives help from someone inside. Richard Rich is on war with Shardlake to drop a case in London. As always all the plot lines will come together in the end. I didn’t even miss Cromwell, as Cranmer and Rich fill his shoes perfectly.

This is the best book in the series so far. You can read it as a standalone, but I would suggest to start with ‘Dissolution’ first, as you will understand some relations better. And both ‘Dissolution‘ and ‘Dark fire‘ are great reads too.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.