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?

Milady by Laura L. Sullivan

Clarice is living with her mother on the English countryside when suddenly her father decides to take her to the court of James I. But first she gets a training in court etiquette and lovemaking together with George Villiers. Slowly, we discover the story of this formidable woman who will become Milady The Winter, one of France’s most notorious and feared spies.

Let’s start with the fact that I’m a huge ‘the three musketeers’ fan. I loved the book by Dumas and the BBC series ‘the musketeers’ is one of my favorite series that I could watch over and over. But my all-time favorite character of Dumas’ universe is definitely Milady. She’s the perfect female antagonist. I admire her strength, courage and wit.

So I needed to read this book. I hadn’t heard of Laura L. Sullivan before and this appears to be her first adult novel. She has written Milady’s story with tons of respect for the original plot. You feel that she has done a lot of research into Dumas’ story and the history behind it. The novel has two different time frames. We learn Milady’s story behind the events in ‘the three musketeers’, but Sullivan also takes us to her past as Clarice, a young Englishwoman.

I loved the first setting at the English court where she and George Villiers try to make their place at court. I also enjoyed to read about her relationship with Athos, the compte de la fère. But there’s also a setting in the middle of the novel that I enjoyed less. In the convent Sullivan lost me at times, as not every element of the plot contributed to the story in my opinion.

Sullivan hasn’t changed the character of Milady, she just made her more human. A young naive girl in a man’s world. A girl that grows into a villain, a murderess and a spy because of all the men that have abused her in so many ways during her life. She’s a woman that has learned her lessons the hard way. But she still does evil. And she doesn’t hide from the consequences of her misdeeds. You can love and hate her at the same time and so you understand what Athos must be feeling towards her.

Milady is a great retelling of one my favourite classics. It made me want to reread the three musketeers immediately, as I felt that I’ve missed some of the details. And maybe I should reread this book too after finishing Dumas’ masterpiece! Milady has once again stolen my heart. Highly recommended if you loved the original story.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite retelling?

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?