historical fiction

Death of Kings – Bernard Cornwell

Title – Death of Kings

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2012

Genre – Historical Fiction

There isn’t much need for preamble to this review – I pressed straight on with this book after finishing The Burning Land. Feeling on a bit of a roll after getting caught up on the action in book 5 of The Saxon Stories I thought I would strike while the iron was hot.

As you might guess from the title this is the book which sees the death of King Alfred, a moment which he and Uhtred have believed would be a catalyst for action by the factions looking to secure the throne for themselves.  However, the book is mostly about more political shenanigans, partly as the new King needs to find his feet and figure out which of his many advisors he should trust. The rise of Christianity has been a theme in the series but it feels as if this book may have seen the tipping point in its importance.

Uhtred is frustrated by King Edward’s reluctance to attack the Danes and puzzled by the Danes lack of attack. The lack of action was a bit frustrating for me as a reader too. There are some small skirmishes but it felt like a lot less happened in this book than in its predecessor. The main action is saved until the very end of the book in what is a great set piece with a real feeling of tension.

Not as fast-paced as its predecessor and pleasingly (for me) there was less attention to the memoir aspect of the story – less foreshadowing of future events by Uhtred.

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The Burning Land – Bernard Cornwell

Title – The Burning Land

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2009

Genre – Historical Fiction

I’ve been a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s for a long time (although oddly not the Sharpe series) but have fallen well and truly behind. He was writing (with the exception of Sharpe) standalones or trilogies but now some of the other series I was reading seem to be without end.

I bought this book in hardback when it was published so it’s been sitting around for a while but the longer I’ve left it the more difficult it’s been to pick it up. It’s bad enough coming back to an action series when it’s been a year between books but the longer I left it the more daunting it seemed. I should have remembered that I would be swept up in the action!

The Burning Land is the fifth historical novel in The Saxon Stories which follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg and his quest to return to his ancestral home. Told in the first person and narrated as a memoir this book is set around 892 and the opening starts quite slowly as, acting on Alfred’s behalf, Uhtred is in Kent to pay off a Dane to get him to leave. The action ramps up quite quickly as he then turns his hand to finding a way to remove Jarl Harald Bloodhair from Wessex. I was surprised to realise, and wonder if it’s always been the case, that the battles are as much about Uhtred’s ingenuity as they are about brute force. The story is what you expect from Cornwell – action-packed, fast-paced, spanning the length and breadth of the country and so full of detail that you can almost see, hear and smell the place for yourself.

There is one thing which I really dislike about Cornwell’s writing and this is something I should complain about less as I get further behind but it’s the fact that as a ‘memoir’ you know that the narrator survives to tell the tale. So while there may be some tension about how events will unfold you can be pretty certain that the main character isn’t going to perish in the middle of a shield wall. But not content with this Cornwell drops in remarks like “never to see xyz again” or “that was a decision I would regret” which tells me more than I want to know. I appreciate this supports the memoir style but it’s not an aspect I like.

Anyway my worries about picking the series up after so long were unfounded, either there’s an explanation of who people are and what their connection is or it doesn’t really matter, the action swept me along and I’ve even picked up book 6 to read already.

Score – 4/5

The HWA Crowns 2018

Update: the shortlists have been confirmed and the shortlisted titles are highlighted in bold below.

The longlists for the three HWA (Historical Writing Association) Crowns – their annual awards – have been announced. It’s not clear what the shortlisting process or when a shortlist announcement will be but the winners will be announced in November.

What has surprised me is that as I’ve read two of the books which I think it’s more than I’ve read from any of the crime fiction award longlists.

HWA Debut Crown
This award is for the best historical novel by a first-time fiction author first published in the UK in English.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin – review here

Estoril by Dejan Tiago-Stankovic

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol

The Woolgrower’s Companion by Joy Rhoades

The Parentations by Kate Mayfield

Deposed by David Barbaree

The Optickal Illusion by Rachel Halliburton

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Bitter by Francesca Jakobi

The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister

The judges include Ayo Onatade who did a Q & A for me on the subject of judging awards.

HWA Sharpe Books Gold Crown
This award is for the best historical novel first published in the UK in English.

To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann, translated by Shaun Whiteside

Sugar Money by Jane Harris

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom

Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase

The Zoo by Christopher Wilson

Pilgrim’s War by Michael Jecks

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr

Blood’s Game by Angus Donald

The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements – review here 

The Tyrant’s Shadow by Antonia Senior

The Valentine House by Emma Henderson

HWA Non Fiction Crown
This award is for the best non-fiction work published in the UK in English.

Houses of Power: The Places that Shapes the Tudor World by Simon Thurley

White King: Charles I – Traitor, Martyr, Murderer by Leanda de Lisle

Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister by Nicholas Shakespeare

Napoleon: The Spirit of the Age by Michael Broers

The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us by Keith Lowe

The Women Who Flew for Hitler: A True Story of Soaring Ambition And Searing Rivalry by Clare Mulley

Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book: An Englishwoman’s Life During the Civil War by Lucy Moore

Black Tudors: The Untold Story Hardcover by Miranda Kaufmann

The Debatable Land: The Lost World Between Scotland and England by Graham Robb

Hearts And Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote by Jane Robinson

A History of Rome in Seven Sackings by Matthew Kneale

Pie and Mash Down the Roman Road by Melanie McGrath

Have you read many from these lists? What would be your tip for the winner(s)?

The New Mrs Clifton – Elizabeth Buchan

Title – The New Mrs Clifton

Author – Elizabeth Buchan

Published – June 2017 (paperback)

Genre – Historical fiction

As we get closer to the end of the year I thought I would try to tackle some of the books I’ve started but struggled to finish. At the beginning of the week, according to Goodreads, I was ‘currently reading’ 10 books and I’m now down to 8 – woohoo!

This book I started in October of last year but put it down when I was about 100 pages in and it just wasn’t holding my attention. I  picked it up where I’d left off and remembered enough to press on without needing to go back.

The setting is London in post-war 1945 and the main characters are a trio of women – which reminded me a little of Wake by Anna Hope. Gus, who works for the British Government, returns from Berlin after the end of the war and surprises the two sisters with whom he lives by bringing with him his new German bride, Krista. The early part of the book (and where it lost me) was setting the scene of the initial reactions of the three women living under the same roof as well as providing some backstory. The point at which I picked it back up saw Gus and Krista sent back to Berlin in order to work together on an interrogation. This introduced a different dynamic that helped lift the characters for me, I would have enjoyed more of this aspect.

As the relationships develop over the first few months in Clapham, dull and dreary in the post-war period, the author also provided glimpses of the harrowing situations that Krista suffered with fragments of her backstory, beginning to explain her relationship with Gus. There are lots of other threads in the story including how the two sisters find their own ways of dealing with the losses that they both suffered in the war. It is also beautifully written and very evocative of the period.

As it happens, when I finished I looked back and re-read the first chapter which felt a bit like a prologue. It was set in 1974 and set the reader up to look for a specific situation arising. Having read the bulk of the book without this in mind I’m pleased that I had forgotten it, I would have enjoyed the whole of the book a lot less if I had been looking for the inevitable conclusion.

In the end this was an enjoyable read despite the dark setting and it took some twists and turns that I wasn’t anticipating.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

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In the Month of the Midnight Sun – Cecilia Ekbäck

Title – In the Month of the Midnight Sun

Author – Cecilia Ekbäck

Published – June 2016

Genre – Historical crime fiction

I was so taken with Wolf Winter that I treated myself to In the Month of the Midnight Sun when it came out in June last year (which shows you how far behind I am!).

Similar to some of the books by Anita Shreve, using the same location for a story in different times, Ekbäck returns to Blackåsen Mountain.  In this case we move from 1717 in Wolf Winter to 1856. On the mountain a Sami woman has left her tribe following the death of her husband, while the local settlers are puzzled by this but they have bigger worries as a Sami man has carried out a fatal attack in their rectory.

In Stockholm The State Minister of Justice instructs geologist Magnus to head to the area to investigate the attack. The Minster’s interest is purely bureaucratic, concerned that the sale of land in the area may be jeopardised. Magnus has some personal issues which he should deal with but perhaps prefers to avoid these by agreeing to the trip. The Minister is also Magnus’s adoptive father, so when at the last minute he is forced to have his sister-in-law, Lovisa, accompany him he is unable to argue against it. The two travellers set out for the long journey to Lulea with Lovisa withdrawn and uncommunicative and unprepared for what lies ahead.

The journey sees the relationship thaw a little and we find out more of the backstory of the two characters, and as the story switches between points of view (in the first person so you need to pay attention) we also learn more about those living in the shadow of the mountain. When eventually they reach Lulea and Magnus meets the man accused of the murders he doesn’t believe  he is the killer and knows that the only answer is to travel onwards to the Blackåsen Mountain.

Despite the broad, sweeping landscapes and the midnight sun this has a very claustrophobic feel and a very varied cast of characters with some unique voices. There is a hint of the supernatural in the lives of the Sami and the same battle with the elements that those in Wolf Winter faced. But essentially the story is about the people.

If you appreciate beautifully written, atmospheric crime fiction with a literary style then you really should try these books.

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HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown 2016

The HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown is a literary award for debut historical fiction awarded by the Historical Writers’ Association. With a prize of £1,000 the HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown for new Historical Fiction will be awarded to the what is, in the judges’ estimation, the best debut historical novel first published in the United Kingdom in the year in question

The shortlist for the award was announced by Andrew Taylor and comprises:

Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis, published by Jonathan Cape

The judges said: “A splendidly ambitious and tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the Victorian novel: The Pickwick Papers will never be the same again.”

Eden Gardens by Louise Brown, published by Headline

The judges said: “White trash in British India: a poignant mother-and-daughter story provides an unexpected perspective on the Raj.”

The Hoarse Oaths of Fife by Chris Moore, published by Uniform Press

The judges said: “From Fife in the 1960s to Loos in World War I: a wry and moving novel about fathers and sons that also meditates on war and race.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea, published by Scribe

The judges said: “The private lives of Marx and Engels are revealed as never before in this brilliant act of literary ventriloquism.”
Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye, published by Orion

Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye, published by Orion

The judges said: “A powerful and accomplished novel of love and loss that focuses on the plight of unwanted veterans and Florida’s disastrous 1935 hurricane.”

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck, published by Hodder

The judges said: “Finnish settlers are immersed in a powerful, beautifully written gothic murder mystery in a remote area of eighteenth-century Lapland.”

The winner will be announced at the Harrogate History Festival which takes place between 21 & 23 October.

I have only read one of these (Wolf Winter, which I loved) so I’m not in much of a position to pick a winner. How’s your reading going, have you read more – do you have a tip for this year’s winner?

The British Lion – Tony Schumacher

51IFW16kA0LTitle – The British Lion

Author – Tony Schumacher

Published – 2015

Genre – Alternative history / thriller

I had been intrigued by the premise of this book and when I saw the glowing review from Kate (stay here with my review for now!) I swiftly moved it to the top of the TBR pile.

The place is London, the year is 1946, and the Nazis are in charge as Germany has been victorious in the war. With little explanation of the circumstances that led to the rather unexpected turn of events the reader is introduced to detective John Rossett and Major Koehler of the SS. There are obviously some loose ends being tied up from the debut (The Darkest Hour) which preceded this book and it quickly becomes clear that there is some animosity between the two characters. We learn that Koehler is disillusioned with the situation in London and has been hoping to return to Germany and to his family but the powers that be aren’t so amenable to the suggestion. Rossett is also disillusioned, he is more of the typical damaged character but he’s decided to make amends for some of the abhorrent acts he has been involved in. Whilst he would like to return to the police force his work with the Nazis has made him unpopular.

The one thing the two men are certain about, however, is that they intend to go their separate ways. Their plans are thwarted when Koehler’s wife and young daughter, who are on a visit to London from Berlin, are caught up in a kidnapping. The kidnappers objective is to use the hostages to demand access to a jewish scientist working in Cambridge. As Koehler is occupied in dealing with the investigation into his wife’s disappearance he has to (reluctantly) rely on Rossett to meet the demands of the kidnappers.

One of the things I enjoyed about this book was how much action there was – as well as the two men making their own efforts to thwart the kidnappers we also have Koehler’s daughter making her own attempts to escape. I really got swept along with these scenes but there are some pretty tense moments to give a change of pace. I liked the freedom that the alternate reality gave the author and as someone who read a lot of fiction set in the First and Second World Wars it was interesting to see the action taking place on English soil.

The political situation and the circumstances that led to the Nazi’s success are dealt with in an understated way which I felt was a bit of a tease – I wanted to know more about how they had won the war and the turning point that led to to this reality. There are some interesting interpretations of how post-war relationships might have developed in the wake of a German victory.

The atmosphere is skilfully written and it’s easy to picture the dark, depressing times and the deprivation and fear of the people living under Nazi occupation in a miserable British winter. Koehler and Rossett are great characters with an unusual relationship and their story reflects the conflicts of people put in extraordinary circumstances. A chilling, thrilling read.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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