Review 2038: The Last Protector

It’s 1668. When James Marwood’s boss Williamson sends him to secretly observe a duel between the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Shrewsbury, James is alarmed. He has already come to the attention of the powerful Duke, and not in a good way. He has to do what Williamson asks, but he is observed and must flee for his life.

Cat Lovett has come to regret her marriage to the elderly Mr. Hakesby. As he has become less able, he has begun demeaning her and making demands of her. What she believed would be a marriage of just companionship has turned out not to be so, and she finds it distasteful.

When an old friend, Elizabeth Cromwell, the daughter of the last Protector, Richard, claims her acquaintance and behaves as if they were closer than they were, Cat eventually recognizes she is using her to get the plans for a building called the Cockpit from her husband. She also realizes that Richard Cromwell, who is supposed to be banished to Europe, is in the country. The Cromwells want the Hakesbys’ help to regain a personal possession, they say, but Cat thinks Hakesby is foolishly getting embroiled in treason.

The Last Protector is another fine entry in the James Marwood/Cat Lovett series set during the Restoration. It combines political intrigue with suspense in a realistic seeming historical setting.

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Review 2008: The King’s Evil

This third book in the James Marwood/Cat Lovett series begins with James hearing that Cat’s cousin, Edward Adderly, has found out where she is hiding. Since the first novel, in which Edward raped her and she put out his eye, she has been hiding at the office of Mr. Hakesby, an architect, and working for him as a drafter and maid. James finds Cat on Saturday and warns her she must go into hiding. She finds refuge with Dorcas, a connection of Mr. Brennan, a draftsman she works with.

However, on Sunday Edward Adderly is found drowned in the well at Clarendon House, where Cat was working with Hakesby on a project. Clarendon has recently been removed from his offices at court, and his enemy, Buckingham, has been trying to stir up the public against him. One of James’s bosses, Mr. Chiffinch, tells him to dispose of the body. Cat is accused of murder and a warrant put out for her arrest.

James is charged with finding out who murdered Adderly, but he is also dispatched by Charles II to accompany Lady Quincy, Cat’s aunt, to Cambridge. This errand has to do with fetching a child back to court, but in both his investigation and his trip to Cambridge, James keeps encountering a mysterious man called the Deacon and his fat friend. James begins to believe both his errands are related.

I think this series is proving every bit as good as Sansom’s Shardlake series, and perhaps doesn’t have such a heavy feel to it, although neither main character seems to have much of a sense of humor. James finds himself pulled helplessly into the affairs at court while Cat into the arms of Mr. Hakesby, who has offered marriage. The plots are interesting and complex and the characters believable.

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Review 1884: John Saturnall’s Feast

It’s 1625 when young John Saturnall and his mother are chased up into Buccla’s Wood by religious zealots who term her a witch. She is not a witch but a wise woman with ancient knowledge and stories of a magnificent feast that happened centuries before.

When John’s mother is dying in the wood, she sends him to Buckland Manor in the Vale, the home of Sir William Freemantle. There he learns that his mother worked in the manor before she became pregnant with him. He is taken into the kitchen, where he shows promise of becoming a great cook.

Just as John is becoming a Master Cook and Sir William’s daughter Lucretia is reluctantly betrothed to a wastrel in an attempt to save the Vale, the Civil War breaks out. As the Freemantles are supporters of King Charles I, the household has years of suffering before it.

At the beginning of each chapter is an excerpt from The Book of John Saturnall, written using the culinary language of the times. The novel is lushly written, full of the details of running a 17th century kitchen and household.

I was less interested in the unlikely romance, perhaps partly because Lucretia as a character is poorly defined. However, overall I found this novel deeply interesting.

By the way, the Grove Press edition is beautifully presented, with heavy paper, two colors of ink, and gorgeous woodcut-style illustrations.

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Review 1874: The Fire Court

The second book in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood/Lovett series, The Fire Court begins shortly after the Great London Fire that was the setting of the first book. James Marwood’s father wanders off in his senility and discovers a salacious scene in chambers near where the Fire Court sits—a lascivious painting of a woman dressed like a whore stretched out on a couch.

His father comes home with blood on his sleeve babbling about what he has seen, but James thinks he has experienced a senile delusion. However, a few days later the body of a woman is discovered nearby in a pile of rubble. She is dressed up like a whore, but she is not one. She is Celia, the widowed niece of Mr. Poulton, a client of Mr. Hakesby.

Hakesby has given refuge to Cat Lovett, who has fled her family. She is now going by the name of Jane Hakesby, supposedly Mr. Hakesby’s cousin and servant. But Mr. Hakesby is very frail, suffering from an ague. Cat has been helping him with his architecture work, and he badly needs the custom of Mr. Poulton, who has a case before the Fire Court.

The Fire Court’s mission is to make decisions quickly about competing rights of property so that London can be rebuilt. Mr. Poulton wants to develop some property called Dragon yard that is mostly owned by himself and his niece Celia, and Hakesby is drawing up the plans. But Philip Limbury, an upperclass personage with influence at court, has some rights to Dragon Yard and also wants to develop it. Marwood is sent to look into the death of Celia, and he soon realizes that his father must have seen her murdered in the apartments of Mr. Gromwell, his father’s description of where he went being so vivid. Marwood begins to believe there is some sort of conspiracy going on involving the Fire Court, and both he and Cat are soon in danger.

Although I felt the characters in this book took too long to realize they were involved in real estate conspiracies, this was another complex and interesting novel in this series. The 17th century setting seems convincing, and James and Cat are interesting characters.

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Review 1837: The Ashes of London

London is in the midst of the Great Fire of 1666. James Marwood is on an errand for his master when he stops to watch St. Paul’s burn. He is barely able to stop what he thinks is a boy from running right into the fire. When clothes begin to burn, the resulting dishevelment reveals a young woman rather than a boy. James puts his cloak around her, and she runs off still wearing it.

The girl is Cat Lovett, whose father is an attainted traitor as a result of the Restoration. She was supposed to meet him next to St. Paul’s. She has been living with her uncle’s family, the Alderleys, but they are trying to force her to marry Sir Denzil Croughton, a man she dislikes. She is hoping her father can help her. That night, though, her cousin Edward rapes her, and she stabs him in the eye, so she runs away with the help of her servant Jem to Jem’s sister.

James is also the son of a man who was on the wrong side of the Restoration. His father is a member of a sect called the Fifth Monarchists, who believed that after the King was put aside, Christ would be King. Now frail and senile, he keeps saying things that are deemed traitorous.

James works for the publisher Williamson, but soon he is asked to meet Mistress Alderley. She wants James to find her niece, and later he is asked by government officials to try to find Lovett.

There is also the matter of two bodies that have turned up. They both have their thumbs tied together behind their backs and have been stabbed in the neck.

I decided to read this series after the strong recommendation by Helen of She Reads Novels. I found it to be engrossing and entertaining. The atmosphere of burning London is well done as is the general paranoia following the Restoration. James and Cat are both appealing characters. Although it is quite a long novel at 400+ pages, it went very quickly. I’ll just have to look for the next one.

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Review 1805: The Mercies

A freakish storm kicks up one day in 1617 and drowns all the men on the island of Vardø who are out fishing. Only young boys and old men are left. There is no one to help the women, so they have to learn to fend for themselves, including fishing, which is considered unwomanly. Maren’s fiancé and her father and brother are all gone, so she must try to take care of her mother, her brother’s Sámi wife Diina, and her little baby nephew.

In Bergen, Ursa’s father has made one poor decision after another since her mother died, leaving the family relatively poor. She is happy taking care of her invalid sister, but soon she learns her father has betrothed her to Absolom Cornet, a Scot he hardly knows, who has been appointed the Commissioner of Vardøhus, the rarely occupied fort on Vardø. Her father thinks he has done well for her, but they have no idea that Cornet is being sent to root out witchcraft.

Ursa is taken aback at the primitive conditions she finds in Vardø, in remote Finnmark, and she knows nothing about keeping house. When Maren brings her some skins the villagers have prepared to keep the cold from coming up from the floor, Ursa asks her to teach her how to take care of the house and cook. Thus begins a deep friendship.

But Ursa’s husband has already begun looking for witches. The first names that come up from a vicious bunch of pious women are Maren’s Sámi sister-in-law, an older woman whose large house is a target of envy, and Maren’s bold and unconventional friend Kirsten.

The Mercies is a deeply involving fictionalization of true events in early 17th century Norway. Seldom have I felt such a growing feeling of dread as when I read this novel. It is truly gripping. It seems well researched and has believable characters.

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Review 1804: Beheld

In the Afterword to Beheld, TaraShea Nesbit says she wrote it because she wanted to hear the women’s voices she missed in reading about Plymouth Colony. Certainly, the voices we hear in the novel are mostly those of the women or the dispossessed.

Beheld focuses on some of the stories we never heard about Plymouth, particularly the divide between the Puritans and the other residents—indentured servants, farmers, carpenters, and the other people meant to do the work and who do not share the Puritans’ beliefs.

Alice Bradford is the second wife of the governor, William Bradford. His first wife was her beloved friend Dorothy. But Dorothy died upon her arrival in Plymouth under circumstances Alice doesn’t understand, and shortly after Alice’s own first husband died, William sent for her to be his wife.

John and Eleanor Billington signed contracts to work for seven years as indentured servants in exchange for a parcel of land for each male in their family in the proposed colony in Virginia. But first the Puritans’ boat The Speedwell sprung a leak and the Puritans forced themselves onto The Mayflower. Then the boat went north to Massachusetts instead of Virginia. The Puritans took charge of the colony, not allowing the same rights to other men, not allowing anyone but themselves to trade with the natives, giving themselves the best parcels of land, and finally cheating John out of his son’s parcel.

This is an interesting novel that depicts the Puritans as self-righteous and self-serving. Of course, most of us who have studied this period and place since grade school know this, but perhaps not how much. Miles Standish is shown as greedy and violent. I felt this novel was quite eye-opening.

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Review 1774: The Silent Companions

In the mid-1800’s, a badly burned Elsie Bainbridge is confined to an asylum. She is said to be dangerous. She cannot speak and has not been able to tell what happened to her. Her doctor suggests that writing her version may save her from being executed.

In 1635, Josiah and Anne Bainbridge excitedly begin preparing for the arrival at their home, The Bridge, of King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria. Josiah decides, however, that their daughter Hetta will not participate in the festivities. Hetta was born with a deformed tongue, and Anne blames herself, because she took herbs to conceive when her doctors said she could not.

Elsie’s written account begins when she arrives at The Bridge to live there after her husband’s unexpected death. She finds the house decrepit and the people in the neighborhood unwelcoming. Then she and her companion, Sarah, find the silent companions, some wooden cut-out figures that appear lifelike.

This novel seemed as if it was going to be a good old creep fest. It was certainly a ghost story, but I prefer something—I was going to say that could actually happen, but that’s silly. I guess I prefer something more subtle without freakish gory events.

As far as the approach taken to the material is concerned, although all the chapters except the ones set in the asylum are supposed to be written, the later ones as Elsie’s account and the earlier as a diary, neither of them are convincing as such.

Although I make a final caveat that I don’t believe the doctor’s treatment reflects psychiatric treatment of the times, I am not saying I disliked this novel. I thought both stories were compelling, but not so much so that I didn’t think of these things while I was reading it.

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Review 1741: Classics Club Dare 2.0: The Bride of Lammermoor

If you’re not familiar with the plot of The Bride of Lammermoor, you might be wondering why I picked it for the Classics Club Dare 2.0, Time to Get Your Goth On. It’s not a gothic horror story common for the time but one of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels about a doomed love. However, the ending, which I’m not revealing, puts it in a more appropriate category as do the dark local legends and prophesies of withered old dames (perhaps witches), not to mention the ruined tower.

Edgar, Master of Ravenwood, is from a proud Scottish family of distinguished lineage. His profligate father, however, did his best to waste the family estate and finished things off by fighting on the wrong side of the revolution. With other parties in power, lawsuits filed against the estate by William Ashton, Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland, have resulted in almost all of the Ravenwood property being turned over to Ashton and in an early grave for Ravenwood’s father. The impoverished Master has sworn vengeance against Ashton.

Ashton, however, is a politician, and he hears that the political situation is changing. Things may be looking up for the Marquis of A___ and thus for his relative, the Master. After the Master saves Ashton and his beautiful daughter Lucy from a wild bull, Ashton tries to befriend him, even encouraging him to spend time with Lucy and Ashton himself considering the benefits of a marriage between the two. Against the Master’s better judgment (and supernatural warnings), he begins to fall in love with Lucy. They become betrothed, but Lucy wants it kept secret from her family.

Some meddling from a neighbor who is not a friend of the Master’s leads Lady Ashton, staying with friends away from home, to hear the rumors that her daughter is engaged to him. She is his implacable enemy, so she swoops home to Ravenwood Castle just as the Marquis of A___ comes for a visit. The Master has been residing there at Ashton’s invitation, but Lady Ashton unceremoniously throws him out. He has already agreed with Lucy, however, that he will consider himself betrothed until she herself releases him. Then he goes off to make his fortune.

This novel was quite hard going for me at times, particularly in the sections and whole chapters that are in Scottish vernacular. These are the parts concerning the common people, and some of them are supposed to be funny, especially the ones about the machinations of Caleb Balderstone, the Master’s only servant, as he tries to hide what everyone already knows—that his master is destitute. I just felt they slowed down the action as well as being hard to understand and not that funny.

The action, however, eventually gets going and really picks up toward the end of the novel. I read the second half twice as quickly as the first.

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Review 1695: The Bridge of the Gods

A friend who knew I was writing a story set locally before the arrival of white men gave me The Bridge of the Gods, which was written in 1899 as a result of Balch’s years of collecting Native American folklore and customs in Oregon. The novel is based on a legend about a bridge of stone across the Columbia.

The novel begins in 17th century Massachusetts, where Reverend Cecil Grey feels the mission to preach Christianity to the indigenous people of the West and dreams of a huge stone bridge over a river. His wife having died, he sets off to do just that, accompanied by his Native American nurse.

Eight years later, Multnomah, chief of the Willamette tribe, decides to test his allies. His tribe is the leader of a confederation united against their enemies, the Spokanes and the Shoshoni. The ascendancy of the Willamettes is prophecied to last until the Bridge of the Gods, a massive stone arch over the Columbia River, is destroyed. However, Multnomah has been hearing that some tribes want to leave the confederation. He decides to summon all of the tribes for a great council on Wappatta Island (now Sauvie Island).

Multnomah has a beautiful daughter, Wallulah, whose mother was an Asiatic princess shipwrecked at the mouth of the Columbia. Multnomah wants to betroth her to Snohomish, chief of the Cayuses, to cement their alliance. Wallulah, having seen Snohomish once, is not averse—until Cecil Grey comes on the scene.

I didn’t expect much from the attitudes of this book, considering when it was written, and I didn’t get much. Despite the young Balch having been interested enough to travel around and interview indigenous people, they are referred to constantly as savages, their traditions are treated with abhorrence, their villages are described as degraded, they are shown as violent and cruel. Even Multnomah, who compared to Snohomish is a good guy, is depicted as obdurate and cruel. Grey’s faithful nurse doesn’t even have a name.

Only Wallulah escapes this treatment, but note that she is half “Asiatic” (and a confused half at that, for her mother is said to have taught the Willamettes something about Buddha but calls god Allah). Her mother is described as white. Wallulah is herself a typical late 19th century romantic heroine, fragile and weak and a completely unlikely indigenous woman.

Although this novel is billed as a romance, Grey’s struggle is between his mission and Wallulah (even though they do not seem mutually exclusive), and since Grey is a zealot, Wallulah doesn’t have much of a chance. This is actually a romance in the older sense of the word, an adventure novel.

Since Balch went to so much trouble to personally speak to indigenous peoples and collect stories, I was hoping this book would be a little more enlightened—say, perhaps, written by someone who actually liked the people. It wasn’t. If you’re interested in an older book based in the life of indigenous peoples, I recommend The Loon Feather.

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