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 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?

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.

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 Foundling by Stacey Halls

Bess Bright sells shrimps with her father in the city of London. When she gets pregnant by accident, she has to leave her daughter Clara behind at the Foundling hospital where she will be cared for and learn a trade. Determined to get her daughter back, Bess saves every penny. But when she returns six years later, they tell her that her daughter has already been claimed years ago by herself. The woman who took her even knew about the token she left with Clara, a half heart of whalebone.

A few streets further a woman plagued by a childhood trauma forbids her young daughter Charlotte to leave the house. The only exception is their weekly trip to the chapel where they have a chat with Doctor Mead, a friend of Alexandra’s late husband.

I read Stacey Halls other novel, The Familiars, and I loved it. So it didn’t take me long to read The Foundling also. It’s a total different setting. This story takes us to Georgian London where me meet young Bess who is living with her father and brother in poor circumstances. She has just made the most terrible choice a mother can face: she is going to leave her infant daughter in the care of the Foundling hospital.

At the same time we are introduced to Alexandra, a widowed mother who has all the financial means she needs to take care of her household, her daughter and herself. But there’s one problem: she doesn’t go out, nor does her daughter. They only leave their house by carriage on Sundays to attend mass at the chapel only a few streets further. A long-time friend convinces Alexandra to take in a nursemaid to look after the welfare of her daughter.

As you can guess this two women are connected in some way and slowly we discover their background stories. I liked the Bess parts, but I had a better connection with Alexandra. She has placed herself in some kind of self quarantine and is troubled by mysterious fears. I don’t know if being in lockdown myself made me sympathize more with Alexandra, but I looked forward to her parts.

There are some other colorful characters in this story, particularly Ambrosia and Lyle. Halls brings the different layers of Georgian society to life. From the smelly and dirty fish market to the golden cage of Alexandra’s home. We also get an inside look in the Foundling hospital that really was a child’s home for deserted young children in the 18th century. This book reminded me that I should visit the Foundling museum next time I’m in London.

The revelation at the end is a bit rushed. I would have liked a more in-depth confrontation between Bess and Alexandra. But I did get an answer to all my questions. The Familiars is my favorite Halls novel so far, but this one is also a good choice if you want to discover her solid writing style.

I’m eagerly awaiting Stacey Halls next book as I don’t doubt it will have an interesting premise as well.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any of Stacey Halls novels? What’s your favorite story about Georgian London?