The last hours by Minette Walters

1348. A strange and deadly sickness kills whole villages near Dorsetsire in England. When Lady Anne of Develish hears of this so called ‘Black Death’, she decides to bring all the serfs inside the walls, much against the will of her daughter Eleanor and her Norman steward. Lady Anne even refuses her husband Sir Richard entrance when he comes back from a journey and carries the sickness with him. But while in quarantine the social order between serfs and their lords is overturned. A dramatic event and the fear of starvation forces a few of them to leave, unsure about what they will find outside.

I picked this one up in the library hoping to discover an excellent and bulky historical story. Reading about a pandemic seemed appropriate now and the Black Death is one of these almost mythical illnesses we still don’t know a lot about today.

We meet Lady Anne of Develish who was educated by nuns and has different views on social class and hygiene. She is much beloved by her serfs but hated by her daughter Eleanor because she favors the bastard serf Thaddeus Thurkell.

I had hoped this book would tell me more about the plague, but actually the focus is on the little community of Develish and its underlying secrets. I did not really like one of the main characters. Especially Eleanor is the kind of person you want to be the first to perish from this new disease :D. There is also a strong sexual abuse theme and I’m still not sure what to think about that storyline.

Somewhere in the middle of the novel Thaddeus goes outside with five companions looking for food. And from that moment I started scanning through the pages as I found their journey quite boring. I couldn’t get all the names and wasn’t interested in the boys’ childish worries. I did read the parts within Develish as I liked to read about the social order during this time and how the quarantine turned it all over.

The novel has an open ending, the story is not finished yet. Luckily, the sequel ‘the turn of midnight’ is already out, but I won’t read it. I believe I was just too disappointed about the story itself and expected a more gripping read about the devastating consequences of a pandemic.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Have you read a good novel about the Black Death?

Valhalla by Alan Robert Clark

Princess May Of Teck moves with her parents to Florence after they have fallen from grace within the English royal family. The serious May likes Florence and the company of painter Henry Thaddeus Jones. After their return to England, Queen Victoria wants May to marry Eddie, her grandson and second in line to the throne. Against all odds, Eddie and May become fond of each other. But when Eddie suddenly dies of the flu, May’s future becomes unsecure.

I must admit I didn’t know anything of Queen Mary’s life before I read this novel. My knowledge of the British royal family stops at Queen Victoria, apart from the current’s queen of course :). So Valhalla gave me a nice insight in the young May Of Teck and the formidable woman she would later become.

This is a story about love and duty. And the longing for freedom of a young woman not able to make her own choices. It’s about the sad loss of a prince and how it can torn a whole family apart.

I feel I now have a better understanding of Mary Of Teck’s young life, although some of the elements in the novel are fictional or only based on rumors (her love interests for example). Mary is often seen as an ice-queen alongside her husband George V. In this book you get to know the young couple and how they try to keep up appearances. I had hoped to learn more about Georgie’s character and the king he would be.

At first the writing style didn’t really grip me. I just couldn’t always follow who said what. Halfway the book, I felt a connection with May and I just wanted to know how her story would end. At that point, I was used to the writing and I enjoyed the book a lot.

The title ‘Valhalla’ is only explained in the last chapter. I believe it would have worked out better if it had been mentioned earlier in the book. Now it felt a bit artificial.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favorite book about royalty?

The testimony of Alys twist by Suzannah Dunn

Orphan Alys Twist has done well for herself and accepts a position as laundress at the Royal Wardrobe of the new queen Mary Tudor. At court she meets Bel, the tailor’s daughter, and the two girls start an intimate friendship. When the new queen wants a Spanish marriage and a return to the old Catholic ways, rebellion is coming to London and some people speak out in favor of her half-sister, the lady Elizabeth. Alys is sent as a spy to Elizabeth’s household to report back on her.

I previously read two novels of Suzannah Dunn, the first being ‘The queen of subtleties‘ about Anne Boleyn which I disliked and the second was ‘The May bride‘ about a young Jane Seymour that I enjoyed enough to give Dunn another try.

In ‘the testimony of Alys Twist‘ we again travel to Tudor England where the new queen Mary Tudor has just been crowned after the short reign of her cousin Lady Jane Grey. Mary is much beloved by the public and everyone is hoping that this will be the start of a new chapter for England. We meet young laundress Alys who carries a past with her and tries to find her place at the Royal Wardrobe. She befriends Bel and the two of them start to hang around together.

But when the new queen is looking to Spain for a marriage and wants to reinstall the Catholic faith, tensions start to rise with the protestant fractions resulting in the Wyatt Rebellion. Mary’s half-sister and heir to the throne Elizabeth is named as a conspirator. Alys gets charged with going to Ashridge to spy on the princess. As a laundress nobody is taking any notice of her and she can report back on what is said and done within the household.

I loved to read about Mary’s reign, as she is mostly overlooked in favor of her sister Elizabeth. From the Wyatt rebellion, the dramatic marriage with Philip of Spain to the burnings, you can feel how her people are having a hard time to accept that the new queen wants to turn back time.

Alys is a bit of a strange main character. As a laundress she can easily move within a royal household but she isn’t a real part of it. She’s still far from the action. Therefore, there’s a strong focus on her own story and for me Alys’ story was a bit of mess. She has a past she wants to keep secret at any cost, she falls in love with the wrong person and she doesn’t know where her loyalties lie—with the queen or the princess?

Also the whole spying on the princess thing turns out a bit different from what I thought it would be. I had hoped to get more of an insight into Elizabeth’s character and how she copes with her arrest and consequent house arrest at Woodstock. But Alys only comes occasionally into her room to pick up the dirty laundry.

All this results in a sudden ending of the story and too many loose ends. Dunn also uses very modern language, something that already bothered me in her previous works, but it doesn’t really feel like an issue here. I think I’m simply disappointed in the story itself. If you want to read something from Suzannah Dunn, I heartily recommend ‘The May Bride’, as it is still the better novel I’ve read from her.

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

1666. London is burning. In the midst of the chaos a body is found at St. Paul’s. James Marwood, the son of a convicted traitor during Cromwell’s Glorious Revolution, is charged with finding the murderer. And time is running out. A few days later a new victim is found, murdered in the same way. During his investigation the name of Catherine Lovett always pops up. She has left her aunt’s house after the first murder and is looking for her father, a regicide on the run.

I do love a good historical mystery and this has been on my list for some time. I’m really intrigued by The Great Fire of London and the premise of a murder investigation during this disaster caught my attention.

The story opens with James Marwood, an anonymus clerk living outside London to hide his ill and traitorous father from the world, standing in the crowd before St. Paul’s cathedral to watch it burn. He saves a young boy running into the fire. But the boy turns out to be a girl! Before he can talk to her, she bites him and runs off with his jacket. A few hours later James is told a body has been found inside the church, with his thumbs bound behind his back.

A few chapters later we meet Catherine Lovett, a young heiress who is forced to marry an older man she doesn’t like by her aunt and uncle. She’s looking for her father and leaves the house, just before Marwoord arrives to inform the family the body in St Paul’s was one of their servants.

The story switches between James and Catherine both looking for the murderer and each other. Step by step, you discover what happened. I had hoped to read a good murder mystery, but the hunt for the killer isn’t the real focus of the novel. It’s all about the historical setting and the background stories of James and Catherine in the light of the still recent rebellion and Civil War. Even the king himself meddles in the case. And there is the fire. During the whole book we walk through a burning London. You can smell the ashes through the pages.

It took some time before I could empathize with James and especially Catherine. The revelations are slow and the whole book felt like an introduction to the coming books. The ending didn’t really give an explanation for all the murders but I liked it nonetheless. And as I read in other reviews that this series gets better and better, I’m inclined to give the second book ‘the fire court‘ a chance.

The ashes of London gives a nice and dark insight into the greatest natural disaster on British soil in the aftermath of the Restoration. But for real suspense, you’ll need to read some else.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Or any other books about the Great Fire or Restoration?

The poison bed by E.C. Fremantle

The beautiful and ambitious Frances Howard is locked in The Tower after having confessed the murder of Thomas Overbury, her husband’s best friend. That husband is Robert Carr, the personal favorite of king James I. Robert himself sits also behind bars in the Tower, suspected of the same murder. One of them is the murderer. The other will go free. Who speaks the truth?

I absolutely loved Elizabeth Fremantle’s Tudor novels. I read them all, except ‘Watch the lady’, as I’m saving this for a special moment :D. I love the fact that she always includes different perspectives, both from real historical figures and fictional characters. I must admit that I was disappointed when I heard her next book would a historical thriller in Jacobean times, published under a slightly different author’s name. I was afraid this story would be too different from her previous work. Luckily, I was wrong as ‘the poison bed’ is one of my favorite reads of 2020 so far!

The poison bed, being the first written as E.C. Fremantle, tells the story of the infamous murder of Thomas Overbury in The Tower Of London. It was at the time itself a real political scandal, and this unsolved murder still intrigues us centuries later.

The story opens with Frances imprisoned in The Tower with her baby daughter and Nelly, a wet nurse. Frances has just confessed and recounts her side of the story to Nelly. She starts with her first marriage to the earl of Essex and slowly we discover how she and Robert Carr fell in love. At the same time, we get to know Robert’s story. His friendship with Overbury, his relationship with king James and his first meeting with Frances.

Slowly events are unfolding and you get some clues why Overbury was murdered and who could be behind it. But at the same time Fremantle waves other historical topics into the narrative. The Jacobean court comes alive with tensions between the catholic and protestant fractions at court, the witch hunts, a king that has some personal secrets…

Halfway, the novel’s atmosphere changes and it all becomes darker. It is a historical thriller after all. The ending lingered on for a while in my mind. If only we could travel back in time to discover what really happened ;).

Fremantle’s writing style is gripping and the short chapters make it a real page turner. The chapters switch between Frances in third person tense and Robert in first person narrative. I found Frances’ perspective more interesting than Robert’s story. Robert was too soft and passive for my liking.

It’s such a shame that I haven’t yet read more books set during the Stuart reign. Fremantle proves not only The Tudors make for a good story.

The poison bed is a story about love, treason, lies and murder. For all those that love a good mystery novel or a compelling historical story. This book has both.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Do you like reading historical thrillers? Which one is your favorite?

The silken rose by Carol McGrath

At thirteen, Ailenor Of Provence travels to England to wed king Henry III, who’s a lot older than herself. Against all odds, the couple does find happiness and affection together. But as a foreign queen, Ailenor is not liked at court and is seen as a ‘she wolf’ when her Savoyard relatives get high positions at court and in the clergy. Luckily, she finds friendship with two remarkable women. Rosalind, a young embroideress and Nell, the king’s sister. Nell’s love interest is none other than Simon De Monfort, but she’s not free to wed since she has taken a vow of chastity after her late husband’s death. Ailenor sees her chance to act as a modern Guinevere and decides to aid the lovebirds.

The silken rose is the first part in a trilogy about three of England’s medieval queens who were seen as she wolves in their time. McGrath wants to give them a more human voice. This books tells the story of Eleanor Of Provence, Henry III’s queen, but McGrath uses the spelling ‘Ailenor’ to distinguish her from all the English Eleanor’s (it was quite a popular name back then).

I liked to read about Henry III’s reign, as he’s a forgotten king stuck between his father ‘bad’ king John and his son Edward Longshanks, who have both gotten more attention in popular culture. But Henry’s reign was a long one and during all that time Eleanor sat faithful at his side on the throne, so the two of them certainly deserve more attention. I did know something about Eleanor. In particular that she has three sisters who would also make important marriages. Her eldest sister Marguerite becomes queen of France, thus bringing the sisters to opposite sides of the European power struggle.

The book opens with Ailenor traveling to England during a cold and wet winter. She likes her husband immediately but he finds her yet too young to consummate the marriage. Ailenor quickly makes friendship with the king’s sister Nell, who is widowed and has taken a vow to never marry again. Determined to be a good queen and smitten with tales of king Arthur and Guinevere, Ailenor develops a love for poetry and embroidery. She offers Rosalind, a very talented embroideress, her own workshop at Winchester. At the same time she petitions the king to help Nell, who has fallen in love with Simon De Montfort but needs the Pope’s blessing to wed again.

We discover court life through the eyes of this three different women. Rosalind is the only one not based on a historical character and although she has quite an interesting story herself, I liked the focus on Ailenor and Nell more.

Henry’s relationship with Nell’s husband Simon De Monfort is a complex one. Especially when events in Gascony are escalating. Eventually it will lead to rebellion, but those events are not included in this book. That may look as a strange choice, but I do understand that McGrath wants to focus on Ailenor’s story and not on the quarrel between two men.

There are many more things going on in this novel, such as the third crusade, the struggle between Ailenor’s Savoyards and the English nobles, witchcraft, Henry’s second family the De Lusignans causing unrest… You get a full insight into the politics and royal intrigues of the 13th century.

I really liked how the relationship between Ailenor and Henry was portrayed. They have a strong affection for each other, but Henry is a volatile king and the couple knows many ups and downs. Ailenor dares to stand up to Henry, which is not always appreciated.

I’m looking forward to read more about Eleanor Of Provence, and to continue with McGrath’s Rose trilogy as I know almost nothing about Eleanor Of Castile, the main subject of the next book in the series.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Boleyn bride by Emily Purdy

At sixteen Elizabeth Howard hopes to become lady-in-waiting to the new Spanish queen, Catherine Of Aragon. But her ambitious father marries her to Thomas Boleyn, a low-born but rising star at court. Elizabeth loathes him but has no choice than to obey her family. The Howards are after all one of the most powerful noble families. The match will produce three children: beautiful Mary, beloved George and ugly duck Anne. All three of them will play a vital part in Engeland’s future, and Elizabeth herself will also catch king Henry’s eye.

I’ve set myself a goal to still write reviews of all the books I’ve read in the first half of 2020 (thus before I started this blog), with the exception of some last parts in a series. The Boleyn Bride was one of the oldest unread books sitting on my shelves. I bought it maybe 10 years ago at a book fair for 2 euros. There’s another edition of this book where the author’s name is Brandy Purdy instead of Emily by the way – it confused me also.

I had no high expectations of this book, knowing it would be another story about the dramatic rise and downfall of the Boleyn family. But I had hoped that the perspective of their mother Elizabeth Howard would provide an original point of view. Historians are still in doubt whether Elizabeth encouraged her daughters to enter the king’s bed or whether she was against it.

This is hard review to write because actually there is little I liked about ‘the Boleyn bride‘. The biggest problem is the characterization of Elizabeth herself. She’s a total bitch. Vain, selfish, ambitious and annoying. She has no love for her family or husband, not even for her children. Her constant hate of Thomas, whom she refers to as ‘Bullen, oh no Boleyn’ bored me to pieces.

The book covers her story all the way from her marriage to Thomas until Anne’s downfall, but the most important events are told in a few pages, a few lines even. The author finds it more interesting to talk about her love affair with Remi, a fictional character, or how Elizabeth tries to hide her wrinkles. Elizabeth complains about almost everything, except herself. She’s a very passive character and has no influence on what happens to first Mary, than Anne. As their mother she’s more a silent observer who just tells the reader what happens to her children. I found that most unconvincing.

I can see past a horrible main character, but the other characters are even worse. Thomas Boleyn is a devil, Anne ugly from the day she’s born, Mary is beautiful but stupid… There was nobody I cared for in this book. Only Catherine Of Aragon seems a good person, which is a bit strange as she and Elizabeth will not have been best friends if you know what happens…

Purdy also makes some serious historical errors or bad choices, especially with the timeline (Anne’s romance with Henry Percy for example is set wrong) or the whole thing about Anne having six fingers (for which there is no evidence whatsoever). I can understand why authors of historical fiction sometimes make changes to the timeline or choose to go with a certain story or legend, but in this novel it serves no purpose at all except making it more unbelievable.

I’m quite picky when it comes to Tudor fiction, since I’ve read a lot of novels about this period already and I am familiar with the historical facts. Especially with the Boleyns, I find it important to do them justice and I cringe with how some authors chose to represent them. So maybe you will enjoy a lighter story such as these and this book might work for you. But I won’t take up a next book from Emily/Brandy Purdy.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Which book disappointed you most in 2020 so far?

Shadow on the crown by Patricia Bracewell

As sister to the Norman duke Richard, Emma gets betrothed to the English king Aethelred II. Aethelred has just lost his wife in childbed who gave him already three daughters and six sons. His marriage to Emma is a pure political one as her brother promises to help defend England against the Danes. But the allegiance comes with a prize: Emma gets a crown and the title Queen of England.

Soon Emma discovers she has few friends at court and her husband bears her no love. Aethelred is plagued by a childhood drama and mistrusts everyone, including his beautiful but Norman queen. It is clear Emma must look elsewhere for love, but at first she gets none from the king’s eldest three sons. As queen she, and any male issue she begets, becomes a rival for the throne should Aethelred die. Elgiva, the daughter of a northern lord, had herself the ambition to be queen and blames Emma for her destroyed hopes. Yet another face she cannot trust.

This book was my first ebook on Kindle ever. I don’t know exactly why I chose this particular one, I just wanted to read something about Saxon England. Emma of Normandy is a queen I didn’t know anything about, but her name is often mentioned in historical podcasts. So I thought I might give this book, which is the first part in a trilogy about her life, a try. And I’m so glad I did, because I love this book.

The novel is written in the third person narrative from four different perspectives: Emma (the main character), Aethelred, Aethelstan (the heir to the throne) and Elgiva. This was definitely a surprise, as I thought the story would mainly be about Emma. I always like to read from different perspectives and the fact that you also get an insight in the troubled king’s mind really contributed to the story. Aethelred was not my favorite character, but reading from his point of view made hem feel more human, although I didn’t agree with his choices.

I did like the perspectives of Aethelstan and Emma the most. I could feel Emma’s insecurities and fears of a king rejecting her love and even her existence at some times. She was quite alone, except for her Norman ladies, at a strange court. Stepmother to sons who are her age and who don’t want to see her pregnant because that child will become a competitor for the throne itself. And then you have Elgiva, a vain noble girl who loathes Emma and is used by her family to grab power. I hope that her story becomes more balanced in the coming novels.

The battle with the Danes and the massacre at St. Brice’s Day are key events in the story. The Danish treat comes from Swein Forkbeard and his son Cnut. I feel we will see more of them in the next books. I found them very interesting side characters.

Bracewell crafts a believable story, but it’s important to note that there aren’t many facts from Emma’s early years as queen to start from. Some chapters of the books start with an ancient text from the Anglo-saxon chronicle, which was always a nice introduction. But sources from that era are scarce.

The author takes some liberties and also adds a romance, but it didn’t bother me at all. Bracewell even includes quite ‘modern’ themes such as panic attacks and claustrophobia. I liked her writing style, I loved the different characters (apart from Elgiva) and I look forward to reading the next part. I want to discover more of Emma’s life.

As this is Bracewell’s debut novel, I’m even more impressed. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The empty throne by Bernard Cornwell

Lord Aethelred, the ruler of Mercia, is dying. Leaving no heir to the already weakened kingdom. King Edward of Wessex and his father-in-law, the cunning Aethelhelm, desire to fulfill Alfred’s dream of a united England, while his sister Athelflaed is fighting the Danes in the northern part of the realm. As Aethelred’s widow, both Edward and the Mercian lords would see her retire to a nunnery. Meanwhile, her warrior and lover, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is still recovering from wounds inflicted by Cnut’s sword. Who will lay claim to the empty throne?

If you would’ve told me a few years ago that one of my favorite book series would be about bloody battles between the English and the Danes, I’d not have believed you. And I admit that it was only after watching the first season of the BBC-series The Last Kingdom that I found my way to Cornwell’s epic tale about Uhtred, a christian war lord raised by Danes.

The empty throne is the 8th installment in the Saxon series, currently used to shoot season 5. But I loved it again every bit. Yes Cornwell uses the same recipe, but it’s a proven one. And he dares to surprise you, as he does with the prologue in this book.

Uhtred is no longer young and weakened after the last epic battle at the end of The pagan lord. A new generation of ambitious man preys on his postion as Aethelflaed advisor and war lord. And his children will play their part. But as you could expect, Uhtred may not be as sickly as they think.

This may not be my favorite part from the series, as it is less action-packed. It lacks a grand battle finale. But the political schemes about the succesion of Mercia are intriguing, as is Uhtred’s excursion to Wales to find a sword—what else? And the ending might still surprise you. It certainly did surprise me. Uhtred is not out of trouble yet… I’m looking forward to read Warriors of the storm very soon!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Did you read any of the Saxon series? Or do have you some recommendation about the viking era?