The butcher bird by S.D. Sykes

Oswald De Lacy is again confronted with a gruesome murder on his Somershill estate. A baby is found impaled in a thorn bush. The suspicion falls onto John Barrow, a mentally ill man from the village who is said to have caused a large ‘butcher bird’ to escape from his dead wife’s coffin. Oswald gives the man protection, but when his sister’s two stepdaughters disappear, the villagers ask for his head. Meanwhile, the plague has caused his peasants to move to other villages for better wages, while the king forbids Oswald to give a raise.

The Butcher Bird starts a few months after the end of Plague land. At first, it seems like a straightforward murder mystery. A young baby, Catherine Tulley, is found dead and people claim to have witnessed a large bird taking it from its cradle. Soon there is talk of a so-called ‘butcher bird’. Oswald dismisses this as pure fabrication and is looking for the real culprit.

But there is more to the story than this murder alone, there are a lot of other plot lines that intertwine. I definitely recommend reading Plague Land first because some plot lines return. There’s the disappearance of the De Caburn sisters, his sister Clemence giving birth to a son Henry (a new heir for Versey Castle) and the fact that his work force is leaving the village. Eventually, Oswald travels to London, where we get a wonderful picture of this overcrowded, dirty and dangerous city in the 14th century.

In the middle of the novel, I thought to have worked out some things and was even a bit disappointed by some scenes, but Sykes still managed to surprise me in the end. The book felt more mature than I had thought at first. This is a light and entertaining series set in a dark age, but I loved how some more timeless themes were added. Sykes really manages to develop a strong historical setting. I’ll definitely continue this series. The next book ‘City of masks’ will bring us to Venice, a whole different setting.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Do you have other historical mystery recommendations?

The doll factory by Elizabeth Macneal

Iris and her twin sister Rose paint porcelain dolls for the cruel Mrs Salter. They both have an abnormality: Iris has a bone disorder on her collarbone and Rose has a disfigured face since she recovered from smallpox. Iris is looking for more in life and dreams of becoming a painter. When Louis Frost, one of the Pre-Raphaelite artists in London, asks her to be his model, she only accepts if he will teach her to paint in exchange. Meanwhile, we also meet Silas, a taxidermist, who hopes his work will end up at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. While witnessing the construction of the Crystal Palace, he meets Iris and is instantly intrigued by her. But there seems to be a thin line between love and obsession.

This book has been fairly hyped as a good historical fiction debut with a fun Victorian setting. I was really looking forward to reading it. But after 50 pages I really felt like I was reading a different book…

We meet Silas and Iris. Silas is a taxidermist and his profession is also described in great detail. Animal murder/abuse is a big trigger for me so I had some trouble with it. But apart from that, Silas is also an obsessive man with a dark side. His chapters were not easy to read for me. However, I continued because I found Iris an interesting character because of her love for art and her relationships with Louis and her sister Rose. I liked her chapters a lot more.

I also struggled a bit with the writing. Maybe it was the translation (I read this one in Dutch). So, all things together, I didn’t really like this book. Halfway through, the tone changes to a kind of psychological thriller and the ending gets rather cliché and felt not carefully worked out.

I am one of the few people who feels this way about ‘The doll factory‘ so maybe it is just me? I don’t feel the need to pick up anything else from Macneal, also because the blurb of her next book (Circus of wonders) doesn’t attract my attention.

Too bad, I thought I would love this book. A story about art at the time of the Great Exhibition felt like a great setting but I found this story a bit over the top.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Have you ever been disappointed by a book a lot of other reviewers seemed to love?

The damask rose by Carol McGrath

Eleanor of Castile is under house arrest together with her father-in-law king Henry III during the Baron’s War. She’s forced to live in poverty and her young daughter Katherine dies of a serious cold. She blames ‘Red’ Gilbert De Clare who switched sides and took her into his custody. Her husband prince Edward is locked up somewhere else but manages to escape. At the battle of Evesham, Simon The Monfort is killed and Gilbert once again declares his loyalties to Henry III. After the war, Eleanor decides to never be dependent on others again and starts to earn lands in her own name. She goes on a crusade to Acre as a princess, but she will return as queen of England.

The damask rose is the second part in McGrath’s she wolves trilogy about three medieval queens of England who weren’t popular with the people and the nobles. I did enjoy ‘The silken rose‘ about Alienor of Provence, so I couldn’t wait to learn more about the next queen called Eleanor. She was the wife and queen of Edward I. It was a love match but with a Baron’s War, a crusade and a lot of their children dying young, the couple did endure much together.

Eleanor wasn’t the loving mother, which makes her a bit of a cold character sometimes, but I could understand why she was afraid to get too close to her children. She lost so many of them and just wasn’t the maternal type. However, I did like Eleanor’s character in this book. She was an engaged queen and trusted her guts to like or dislike the people around her. She starts building up an inheritance of lands, which might have made her unpopular. But I don’t think we can really call her a she-wolf.

The novel isn’t only told from Eleanor’s perspective. We also meet Olwen, a lady herbalist who treats the royal family. She travels with them to Acre to discover new plants and herbals and when she returns she starts to plant new herbal gardens at every royal domain. It was fascinating to read about Eleanor’s intentions to improve the royal residences and their gardens.

Olwen is a fictitious character but I liked her. She offers another insight into the royal court and the politics of the time. Her relationship with both Guillaume and Eugene felt real. Also, Alienor of Provence is still present in this novel. I liked to see how the relationship between the two Eleanor’s progressed. I also got to see another side of Edward I who is often depicted as a ruthless king. McGrath succeeds in building a believable and engaging historical story.

Now I’m definitely looking forward to the third book about Isabella of France, a queen I know much more about than the two Eleanors.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything about Eleanor of Castile before? Who’s your favourite queen?

World without end by Ken Follett

In the forest just outside Kingsbridge four young children witness a battle between the young knight Thomas Langley and his two pursuers. Langley is saved and decides to take the vows in Kingsbridge priory. In the coming decades, Caris, Gwenda, Merthin and Ralph all try to find their way in the world, never talking about the incident again. Caris desperately wants to become a doctor after her mother’s death but only monks can study medicine. The younger brother Ralph becomes a squire into the household of a knight while the older Merthin is left behind to be a carpenter’s apprentice. And Gwenda is trying to make end’s meet while pursuing an impossible love.

This is an epic story following the descendants of the characters we know from ‘Pillars of the earth’ through the cruel 14th century. The fictitious town of Kingsbridge is again the setting of the book where the cathedral is still towering above everything but the first flaws are discovered in the structure of the building.

Edward II has just been deposed and possibly murdered by his queen Isabella of France in favor of her son Edward III. A war with France is looming around the corner. Serfs are working the fields for their lords. If the harvest is poor, many of them will die of starvation. And then there’s a pandemic which we now refer to as the Black Death. These really are the Dark Ages. Full of war, filth and disease.

If you’ve recently read Pillars, you will discover the characters of World without end are very alike. A character is either bad, like Ralph or Godwyn, or good, like picture perfect Merthin. There seems no in between. Caris and Merthin remind us of Jack and Aliena, but in some way these characters felt more lifelike. Especially Gwenda who suffers a lot, she was my favourite of the lot.

I read Pillars years ago, so I didn’t mind the similarities. Follett uses the same recipe but it works for me. I was absorbed in this cleverly built medieval story about four people and their families. I read Follett for the first time in English but his writing is so easy to read that I was looking forward to my reading time at night. It’s a big book but it didn’t feel like that at all. I wish there were more books like this.

The next book in the series ‘A column of fire’ takes place during Tudor times and is already sitting on my shelves.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Ken Follett?

Captive queen by Alison Weir

Eleanor, duchess of Aquitaine, is stuck in a loveless marriage with the French king. When she meets young and charismatic Henry Plantagenet, she falls in love instantly. After her divorce from Louis, she doesn’t hesitate to marry Henry. When he becomes king of England, the two of them together hold a realm from England all the way to the Spanish border. But Henry is no loyal husband and doesn’t want to share his power. Not with Eleanor, but neither with their sons. And when the cubs shall awake, rebellion looms around the corner.

I heard some rumours that a tv series about Eleanor was in the making based on this book. I’m usually no fan of Weir’s older historical fiction books (‘Innocent traitor‘ about Jane Grey being the exception) and I had heard that Captive queen wasn’t good. But I still wanted to see what kind of Eleanor is represented here, before watching the tv series.

I can already admit that I understand why people don’t like this portrayal. The book opens in the French court where Eleanor is trying to get a divorce since her husband the king doesn’t visit her bed too often, the result being only two daughters and no heir. She meets Henry Plantagenet, son of her former lover Geoffrey, count of Anjou, and instantly wants to bed him. In the first 150 pages there is sex everywhere.

Eleanor is portrayed as a sensual but also human woman. She makes mistakes, a lot of them. She’s too trustful and naively in love with her second husband. This is a refreshing take on her, but also far away from the strong and independent woman we know. We get an Eleanor making decisions based on her lust feelings rather than her wit.

Henry is at first a young and ambitious boy who adores his queen, but soon he grows into a forceful and short tempered man. The novel focuses on their relationship, with all their heights but also heavy arguments. The problem is that when at times Henry and Eleanor are not together, Weir struggles to write a story.

The writing is bad. There’s a lot of bad dialogue, too many sex scenes, strange changes in perspectives and almost no character development apart from the two main characters. During both the conflict with Becket and her imprisonment after the rebellion, Eleanor is too far away from the action and Weir has to turn to the ‘as you know Bob’ tactic.

I can’t help but compare this book to Chadwick excellent’s trilogy about Eleanor and come to the conclusion that ‘Captive queen‘ can’t live up to that. The only thing I did like is that there is no heavy focus on all of her pregnancies and births. Weir is more creative in handling all the children, although we don’t miss their conception ;).

But still, I enjoyed some parts of the story. This book is not as bad as some people say. I can handle some sex and detail. But I just couldn’t sympathize with this Eleanor as much as with Chadwick’s. Weir is not the best fiction writer. However, I did like her book about Catherine of Aragon enough, to continue the Six Tudor queens series.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

What’s your favourite book about Eleanor of Aquitaine?

Plague Land by S.D. Sykes

Oswald De Lacy returns to his elderly home at Somershill manor after the plague killed his father, his two older brothers and half of their tenants. At eighteen, he’s to become lord of the estate. But raised in a monastery, he’s untrained in the many responsibilities such an office holds. When a young girl is found murdered in the woods and the local village priest is talking about dog hounds and the devil, Oswald starts looking for the real murderer. A few days later, a second girl goes missing.

Plague land is the first book in the Somershill Manor Mystery series and introduces us to Oswald the Lacy, the third son of a noble family in Kent. It’s 1350 and the Black Death has been killing peasant and lord alike. The whole estate now turns to Oswald as their lord and after the body of Alison Starvecrow is found, Oswald is charged with finding the culprit (as the constable himself has also died from the plague).

Oswald is inexperienced in many things but gets help from his mentor brother Peter, who has a drinking problem. There’s a wide range of other characters, such as Joan, the local village whore, Oswald’s talkative mother and his sour sister Clemence. Apart from the characters, the medieval atmosphere also comes alive. You can smell the filth and disease from the pages. There’s a lot of superstition and talk of the devil and witches. These really were the Dark Ages.

I had my suspicions regarding the murder mystery but there are enough turns and twists to keep you hooked until the end when everything is revealed. This is not the best historical mystery. Sykes is no Sansom. But it’s entertaining and Oswald has a lot of potential as a main character for the coming books. He will have a lot more mysteries to solve it seems. And I’m looking forward to meet him again in ‘The butcher bird’.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Any other medieval mystery recommendations?

The last daughter by Nicola Cornick

Eleven years ago, Serena’s half sister Caitlin disappeared between the old ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Unfortunately, Serena can’t remember anything from that night. Then suddenly Caitlin’s body is found during archeological research in strange circumstances. Serena travels back to Oxfordshire determined to uncover the truth. In the fifteenth century, Anne Fitzhugh is betrothed to Francis Lovell, a close friend to Richard of Gloucester. She discovers the existence of an ancient old relic, the Lovell lodestar, which is said to have magical powers.

I was happy to get the chance to read ‘The last daughter‘ as it was my introduction to Nicola Cornick’s work. She is known for her dual timeline novels with an interesting historical perspective and a bit of magical or science fiction elements woven into the story.

The novels opens in our century when Serena receives a call from the police while on a visit to her aunt Polly in America. The remains of her missing twin sister have been found, close to the place where Caitlin disappeared all those years ago. Minster Lovell Hall is a medieval manor, where her grandparents lived and Serena and her sister spent their holidays. Her grandfather Dick is suffering from dementia and has moved to an elderly home. Their house has been sold and is now a tourist museum. Serena travels to Lovell Hall to see if she can remember anything from that dreadful night.

The historical timeline is told from Anne Fitzhugh whose mother was a Neville, brother to Richard Neville, earl of Warwick and kingmaker. Her parents become involved in the rebellion against Edward IV and Anne is married to Francis Lovell, one of Warwicks wardens. Francis is a close friend to Richard of York, the king’s younger brother. As you can tell, we’re in the middle of the Wars of the Roses so Anne and Francis will be in much trouble.

The whole mystery surrounds around Minster Lovell Hall, Francis’ family home. It is said it contains a so called ‘lodestar’ that can make you fall through time. We learn about the story of the mistletoe bride who disappeared on her wedding night and of course Francis Lovell himself vanishes after the battle of Stoke field.

I did like both perspectives, but I think I enjoyed Anne’s most. It’s set in one of my favorite periods and I believe Francis Lovell is a great main character to depict the events as he was in the midst of it all as Richard’s closest friend and advisor. However, when the story progresses towards the disappearance of the princes in the Tower, I had my doubts about the plot. In one chapter, Anne and Francis are against the princes, proclaiming them as bastards. In the next, they try to protect them together with Elizabeth Woodville. This felt a bit artificial.

I also enjoyed the magical elements and legends surrounding the lodestar. This is a light read and the focus isn’t really on the history but rather on the mystery surrounding all the disappearances and especially Caitlin’s. I’m sure I’ll pick up one of Cornick’s earlier works now.

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

This is book 9 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Nicola Cornick?

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

Cecily Neville is a highbred noblewoman and a distant family member of the weak king Henry VI via her Beaufort mother. She’s married to Richard, earl of York, whose father was executed as a traitor under Henry V because he had a claim to the throne. But the loss of France in the Hundred Years War, the bad choice of his advisors and the inability to provide an heir for the throne makes Henry unpopular with his nobles. Richard and Cecily must choose to stand with him or risk everything (their position, family and life) and start a rebellion.

Cecily Neville is one of those perfect female perspectives to talk about the Wars of the Roses. She experienced the conflict from the beginning to the very end. This makes her a popular main character. I already read about her in ‘Red rose, white rose’ by Joanne Hickson (I loved it!) and recently Anne ‘O Brien published ‘The queen’s rival’ which I haven’t read yet. Annie Garthwaite is a new voice in historical fiction and I was curious to see what she would do with Cecily’s story.

The books opens with the burning of Joan d’Arc. King Henry VI is on the throne and the Wars of the Roses still seem far away. It’s always interesting to discover which starting point an author takes for this complex conflict. It’s certainly so that one of England’s greatest triumphs in the Hundred Years War can be seen as the beginning of the end for England in France.

This also means that two third of the book is set before the first battle and I liked that. I’ve read so many times about the Wars itself that we tend to forget the period before it where the seeds of the conflict are planted. We follow Richard and Cecily to France and Ireland. Learn more about the key advisors around the king that caused unrest. About the different fractions and the difficult family ties. The story really focuses on Henry VI reign and I definitely learned some new things.

We get an insight into the relationship between Cecily and Richard. She bore him twelve children. Seven would survive and make great marriages. Two would become king. Cecily is set as a formidable and highly intelligent woman who is a central character in the political game and a true advisor to her husband. I understand this feministic choice and I do believe that Cecily was a smart and cunning woman. However, this forces Richard into a more passive and weak role. Towards the end, Cecily even loathes him for it. This irritated me a bit.

You also learn about Cecily’s family (her mother, uncle and brother), her relationship with Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Isabel of Burgundy and of course queen Margaret of Anjou. I really appreciated that Garthwaite chose a human Margaret of Anjou which can’t have been easy when you write from the perspective of her enemy. Margaret is so demonized during history, I’m still waiting on a book from her viewpoint (let me know if you know of such a book).

The writing is bit rational and descriptive. For me, it lacked some emotion to really get me involved in the characters. I also would have liked to read from different perspectives. Cecily was so strong a character, that she needed to stay strong even in times of peril. I wasn’t engaged in this book as I was with First of the Tudors (both books cover more or less the same period but from a total different viewpoint).

Still, I would recommend ‘Cecily‘ to every history buff or to people who want to discover the early days of the Wars of the Roses.

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

This is book 4 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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?