“A Conspiracy of Violence” by Susanna Gregory – review

When you read a book you love AND it’s the first of a long series, it’s a double-whammy of reading joy.  I’m very late to the party with the Thomas Chaloner series (of which this novel marks the beginning) but better late than never.  Of course, being a latecomer to a literary saga brings with it the benefit of having a number of books already written, so you can instantly feed your new obsession by reading several instalments in a row – which I might just be doing in this case.  I can’t take any credit for this discovery myself, however, as it was recommended to me by author and fellow blogger Bernadette Keeling, who’s read some of my reviews and therefore knows my taste pretty well!

It’s set in one of my favourite periods of history, the seventeenth century, not long after the monarchy has been restored to power with the accession of Charles II.  Forget the Tudors – this has got to be one of the most fascinating tines in our nation’s past.  Many who had supported Cromwell and his puritan leanings were dismayed to see a return to licentious behaviour as demonstrated by the new king and his flamboyant court; others were delighted to see the back of the Parliamentarian zealots who had manufactured Charles I’s death.  And some, like a number of characters in this story, were people who were just trying to survive, and who were prepared to bury old allegiances for the sake of staying on the right side of the victors.  The novel’s hero, Thomas Chaloner, is used to leading a double, or at times even a triple, life; when the story begins he has just returned from the Netherlands where he’s been working as a spy.  Political changes mean his role is no longer needed, but coming from a family that included a regicide (in the shape of his uncle) is rather a large stumbling block to employment in Restoration England.  Luckily for him there’s more than one ex-spymaster kicking his heels in 1660s London, and before too long Thomas’ caseload is mounting up, including an intriguing mission on behalf of the Earl of Clarendon to find a cache of gold supposedly hidden inside the Tower of London but never yet found.

When I start reading any new historical crime series my first instinct is to compare it to C J Sansom’s magnificent Shardlake books.  If you’re going to write a series of stories featuring a recurring central character then they need to be something special, and the characterisation in those novels is extraordinary.  If similar books in that genre fall down, it’s often I think because the protagonist, although perfectly likeable, just isn’t captivating enough.  At first I feared that might be the case with Thomas Chaloner, as it took me quite a while to really feel I knew him.  My relationship with him undoubtedly deepened as the book went on however, and by the end I was interested in his personal story as well as the outcomes of the various mysteries, and that’s a definite big tick in the book’s favour.  In fact, considering just how many key characters there are in this story I was really impressed by how well Susanna Gregory managed to flesh them out and create genuine interest in their often complex backstories.  I particularly loved Metje, Thomas’ fiery yet vulnerable Dutch mistress, who finds life increasingly difficult in a city where paranoid xenophobia is on the rise every day.  John Thurloe too is intriguing from first introduction, being Cromwell’s former Spymaster General who is now working for… underground Parliamentarians? The resurgent Royalists?  Or maybe both?  In this novel as in life, very few people wear their heart unequivocally on their sleeve, and most keep us in the dark about their true loyalties and motivations until the final pages.

The main difficulty for me came in the first two or three chapters; the political situation is so complex, the characters so numerous and their allegiances so complicated that to start with there’s quite a lot of exposition that results in some clunky and contrived dialogue.  I also struggled to remember who was working for whom in this world of subterfuge and had to do a fair bit of flicking back to read certain paragraphs again as a reminder.  After this slightly ropey early section though the plot started to take care of itself without constant explanation and the book really took off.  More than anything else, what stayed with me was what an incredibly lonely place England could be at that time.  Families and individuals whose political beliefs meant they were in the ascendancy only a few years earlier suddenly found themselves at best shunned and at worst in danger following the abrupt switch in regime.  As I said earlier in the review, I find this one of the most absorbing periods in history, and it’s to her great credit that the author really digs deep into not only political but social history, enabling us to appreciate the infinite nuances of this time of great upheaval as it would have played out in the lives of ordinary people.

I’m really looking forward to reading more of this series (at the time of writing I believe there are eight instalments, hooray!) and adding another historical fiction writer to my bookshelves.  And now that I’ve clambered back onto the reading treadmill after a bit of a hiatus, I hope to have more reviews for you very soon.

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My April reading pile

I got a bit optimistic the other day and decided that since the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky then it must be warm enough to sit and read outside.  Not quite unfortunately; more a case of April doing that sneaky thing it does where it lures you into believing it’s summer a few weeks prematurely.  Whether I end up indoors or out though, there are some interesting books on the reading pile this month.  I realised (again) how much I love my job a week or so ago when I got given a proof copy of “Into the Water”, which I’m sure I don’t need to tell you is the next novel by “The Girl on the Train” author Paula Hawkins.  By rights it shouldn’t be featuring in a blog post about April TBRs as I’ve actually finished it already – but I couldn’t not mention it as it will surely be one of the biggest novels of this year.  I’ll save my thoughts for the review, which I’ll probably post nearer to publication time, but if you manage to get anywhere near a copy then grab it and don’t let go.  I’m super-excited about “In the Name of the Family” by Sarah Dunant, the next in her series of novels about the Borgias (I say series but I have no idea whether there will at some point be a third!) as I thought the first, Blood and Beauty, was pretty much everything you could want from a work of historical fiction.  I’ve also just started “4 3 2 1”, the Paul Auster doorstop, and I have to confess, although I very much enjoyed the opening chapters I haven’t as yet got much further.  This isn’t a reflection on the book I don’t think, more the fact that it’s quite a hefty thing that I suspect is going to require a reasonable amount of concentration and I haven’t really been in the headspace for something like that for a while.  Last up, because I always like to have some non-fiction on the go as well, is an intriguing book I came across completely by chance in a local bookshop.  “Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed: Sixteen writers on the decision not to have kids” is a collection of essays on, well, exactly what the title says.  I’ve always found it interesting that conversations around childlessness are still something of a taboo, even in our increasingly open society.  Well, that’s not quite true: potentially hurtful comments directed towards a woman without children about her lack of mother-status don’t seem to be taboo at all, but for a woman to respond and discuss the reasons for it is still, in my experience, looked upon with surprise, lack of comprehension and often, sadly, unfair judgement.  I was interested to see that this book existed at all, and am very much looking forward to reading a variety of opinions on the issue.

As ever there will be more reviews up on Girl, Reading soon, but in the meantime enjoy the sunshine and enjoy whatever you’re reading!

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“Passion” by Jude Morgan – review

There will be very few of us who haven’t been there at some point in our lives: utterly engulfed in a passion that ruthlessly eradicates reason, rationality and sometimes even morality.  To conjure up the memory of that feeling is easy; to put it adequately into words infinitely less so.  On the cover of this book there’s a quote by Tracy Chevalier calling it her “book of the year”, excessive praise you might think for a novel that looks at first glance from the jacket and title as if it’s going to be a romping and perhaps sensationalistic period romance.  I can tell you though, she’s not wrong.  The main reason why?  Because the incredibly talented Jude Morgan knows – and most importantly can convincingly describe – down to the last heartbeat what it’s like to be consumed and even obsessed by passion for another person.

“Passion” is based on real events, specifically the lives of four women who were at one time the partners or lovers of Byron, Shelley and Keats.  Caroline Lamb was a very high status aristocrat who fell under Byron’s spell, and became emotionally and socially ruined as a result.  The chalk to her cheese, Augusta Leigh, was unassuming and gentle-spirited, going through life almost unnoticed until her relationship with Byron turned her world upside down, the looming spectre of incest haunting her for evermore.  Mary Shelley possessed a fiercely astute mind that captivated Shelley the poet, but even she ultimately failed to intellectualise the turbulent and unconventional relationship that she and the bohemian Shelley shared.  Finally there was Fanny Brawne, whose love for John Keats was probably the least tainted of the four, but whose happiness (as I’m sure you know but spoiler alert anyway!) was cut short by the poet’s early death from consumption.

One of the reasons I adored this book so much was the fact that although, with the possible exception of Mary Shelley, the women in question were all far less well-known than the men they loved, this whole story is truly about them.  We follow all four from their early childhood and watch as nature and nurture shape them into the adults they become; Byron, Shelley and Keats move in and out of their lives but it’s the lives of the female characters that frame the novel.  The text jumps between first and third person narration (the first person used particularly effectively later in the book as Caroline’s mental state starts to unravel) but it’s always the women’s voices we hear.

And as I mentioned before, they are such authentic voices.  Time and again throughout the novel there are perfect gems of sentences so pin-point accurate in their depiction of love, grief or heartbreak that you stop and think, this author has been here; he knows first-hand how this feels.   I know as well there’s absolutely no reason a male writer shouldn’t be able to inhabit a female character’s head convincingly if he’s talented enough, but the skill with which he does so still took me by surprise as I can’t think of a male author I’ve read for a very long time who writes in this way.

Despite its focus on female characters though, the men who feature in the book are equally well-rounded and believable.  In fact, the cast is pretty numerous, but everyone is drawn with immense care, and there are actually some cracking smaller characters who may only appear every now and then but who fill the novel with glorious colour.  Jude Morgan, rather like Dickens, excels at creating characters which are both comical and loathsome at the same time.  Mrs. Clairmont, Mary’s screeching, hollering and frequently hysterical stepmother was one of my particular favourites, as was Annabella, Byron’s wife, whose obsessively saintly attempts to save incestuous Augusta’s soul perch somewhere on a fine line between laughable and sinister.

It’s a very sad novel in some ways – to say the course of true love doesn’t run smooth for these women would be an understatement – but its sadness lies not so much in the momentous tragic events that pepper the story but rather in the sense that, as an ageing Coleridge puts it in the final chapter, “There is a great secret, and it is this: that human life is intolerable.”

Without wishing to end on too bleak a note, this is the kind of love story I like: the one which acknowledges that the vast majority of relationships don’t end happily, that one partner is often going to value a relationship more than the other, and that sometimes the people we want to be with we can never have.  If you like your romance and your historical fiction treated with sharp intelligence then this is the book for you.

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“Morality Play” by Barry Unsworth – review

This was one of those unobtrusive little novels that sat quietly on the bottom shelf of the bookcase for some years, its diminutive size and understated spine neither demanding nor receiving any attention.  There was only one reason I finally picked it up a few days ago: I wanted to put another review up on my blog and I needed something short that I could get through quickly.  Having now finished it, I’m struck by a slightly bizarre sense of guilt that I wasn’t drawn to it by any potential merit other than its length, as it turned out to be the very epitome of the hidden gem.  As recompense for passing over it for so long, my aim now is to give it a moment in the sun.

I know there are millions of people out there who love historical fiction.  I’ll put money on the fact though that there aren’t quite as many medieval drama nerds; but if you are one (as I’m afraid I am!) then this is one of a tiny number of novels that scratch that particularly niche itch.  The story follows a fourteenth century cleric, Nicholas Barber, who tires of a life transcribing interminably dull texts and runs away from his order.  We join him as he comes across a troupe of travelling players gathered around one of their number who has just that moment died; a stroke of luck for Nicholas as a dead actor means a vacancy in the company that needs to be filled.  Despite some initial suspicions the players take him in and continue their journey until they reach a small town, where they decide to stop and earn some money with a few performances.  As per tradition, the play they first present to their audience is a morality play, a type of drama familiar to all watching, with its instantly recognisable characters and orthodox religious message.  However, word soon reaches the new arrivals of a brutal murder recently committed in the town and that gives Martin, the troupe’s unofficial but tacitly accepted leader, a dangerous idea: to write and perform a play telling the story of the crime.  At first the events leading up to the murder seem straightforward enough; a local woman was arrested within hours of the body being discovered and the motive of robbery an obvious explanation for the attack.  As far as the majority of the townspeople are concerned, a guilty sentence for the accused is a foregone conclusion.  Anxious to make the play as authentic and accurate as possible, Martin sends the players out into the community to listen to the gossip and do a bit of surreptitious investigating – but what comes back starts to cast some serious doubt on the official story.  All of a sudden, the play is no longer looking like a representation of events as already believed by the local people, but a shocking exposé of a potential miscarriage of justice.

The mystery of the murder, and the danger in which the players find themselves, drive the plot, but in many ways the book isn’t really about those things.  “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” a certain playwright once wrote, and that I think is the crux of this novel.  Time and again assumptions are made about people’s character – and their guilt or innocence – based on the clothes they wear, the office they hold, their position in the social hierarchy.  But in reality the robe of the cleric or the livery of a knight is merely a costume that helps him play out the role his audience expects, and it tells us absolutely nothing about the substance of the man underneath.  When the travelling players perform their morality dramas they use stock characters and universally recognised masks and mimed gestures; the figures presented are ones with which everyone in the audience will be familiar since they always behave in the same way.  That is why, when Martin suggests that for the first time in their lives the actors take on the roles of real people there is an outcry from his troupe.  The stage is for representing the two-dimensional figures of good and evil, wisdom and folly – people want to remain in the safety and comfort provided by the mask and costume, just as they want to admire the colourful shields and shining armour of the jousting knight without questioning the chivalry of the man beneath.  It’s not insignificant that towards the end of the book it begins to look as if acting in their well-worn roles might turn out to be the very thing that saves the players.  Perhaps if we didn’t stick to our pre-determined roles then society would crumble and anarchy would ensue.

I think that the author leaves it very much up to us to decide whether or not this would be a bad thing.  Although he revels in the medieval setting – the language and style of the narrator leave us in no doubt that this is the voice of a fourteenth-century man – it could just as easily be a novel for our time, or indeed any time.  I enjoyed the setting as a passionate medievalist; I enjoyed its concepts and philosophies as a twenty-first century human.  My summary?  A lot more than meets the eye and a hidden gem indeed.

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“The Virgin Blue” by Tracy Chevalier – review

I read “Remarkable Creatures” by the same author a few years ago and absolutely loved it, yet somehow had never got round to reading any of her other books until now.  “The Virgin Blue” is one of those novels that have a historical and a modern day storyline running side by side, but it was – as it usually is for me – the historical element that drew me to it.  This strand of the novel tells the story of Isabelle du Moulin, a young woman living in rural France in the last decades of the sixteenth century.  Times are changing: Calvinist beliefs are starting to spread through France and other parts of Europe, overturning the Catholicism that has until now been the foundation of mainstream society.  When the new religion, “The Truth”, arrives in her village, Isabelle finds herself regarded with suspicion – nicknamed La Rousse as a child because of her likeness to the painting of the Virgin Mary above the door of the parish church, her association with the Madonna suddenly becomes a potentially dangerous one.  Calvinist doctrine sees the Catholic devotion to Mary as an impediment to the worship of God, and Isabelle is now a tainted woman in the midst of the reformist frenzy surrounding her.  The Catholic forces, however, are not far away, and Isabelle eventually flees with her husband’s family, followers of the new religion themselves, to a place they hope will bring them shelter from persecution at the hands of those who would enforce the old religious ways.  Unfortunately for Isabelle, her troubles are only just beginning.

In the present day, American Ella has just moved to France with her husband Rick, a move that was meant to see them attaining the idyllic French country lifestyle that so many crave.  However, Ella soon starts to be plagued by a mysterious recurring nightmare that haunts her waking hours as well as her sleep.  She is at a loss to interpret its meaning, and is only able to articulate the overwhelming sense of oppression and anxiety with which it leaves her.  Most inexplicable of all is the vivid colour she sees again and again: a rich, multi-layered shade of blue.  Life in the small French town is not quite what she hoped for either, with a community suspicious of outsiders and days that seem increasingly lonely as her husband immerses himself in a new job.  To distract herself from her unhappiness, Ella starts to research her family history, spurred on by the knowledge that she has cousins in nearby Switzerland, and before long she finds herself engrossed not only in her family’s turbulent past but also Jean-Paul, the town librarian.

Out of the two stories, I have to admit I preferred the historical one, but that’s personal taste rather than any shortcoming of storytelling.  I’ve always found Europe’s religious reformation to be a fascinating time in history, and I felt the author really captured a sense of what an immense upheaval the emergence of Calvinism would have been to a society and individuals.  On the one hand, the saying that there’s no-one as zealot as a convert holds true; and yet there are elements of the old religion that are still so ingrained in people’s hearts and minds that it’s almost impossible for them to be erased completely.  Isabelle may be living as the dutiful wife with her fiercely pro-reform in-laws, but secretly she finds comfort in the old, familiar rituals and in particular the reassuring image of the Virgin that she finds in her place of exile in the local church, but dares not be caught looking at.  Hers is an incredibly sad story, persecuted as she is from all sides – though it must be said the distant threat of Catholic forces bearing down on her pales in comparison to the abuse of her thuggish husband – and at times I found her tale quite difficult to read.  In the twenty-first century Ella has her own troubles to be sure, but sad though some of them are I never feared for her happy ending the way I feared for Isabelle’s.  What I did really enjoy was the subtle sense of mysticism linking the past and present.  It was never overblown, but there’s something enticing and magical about the idea that we are all somehow connected across the centuries to those who have gone before us.  It’s not giving too much away to say that many of Ella’s unexplained feelings and visions are a reflection of those of the woman who walked in her footsteps four hundred years before; I found a warming sense of reassurance that whatever befell Isabelle, her life, her loves and her tragedies would not become insignificant casualties of the passage of time, but would live on in the hopes and dreams of another woman many centuries later.

I already have another Tracy Chevalier book on my shelf waiting to go; if the two I’ve now read are anything to go by it will be a very enjoyable read.  If you’re a fan of dual timeline novels – or any novel with an historical element come to that – do try “The Virgin Blue”.  I can’t promise there won’t be some heartbreak but I will guarantee a good read.

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“Anatomy of Murder” by Imogen Robertson – review

It’s always exciting when you discover a new author that you love, possibly even more so when they’ve already written several books as it means you can follow up your new-found passion immediately.  I’ve literally only just finished reading “Anatomy of Murder” within the last ten minutes, and have started beavering away at a review already as I’m so keen to share the love for what looks like being one of my new favourite historical crime series.  I’ve mentioned S J Parris and C J Sansom on the blog many times, and if you enjoy books of that ilk then you’ll adore this I guarantee.  One of the best historical novels I read lately was “The Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor (if you read my review you’ll know how highly I rated it) and this is most certainly on a par in terms of writing quality and a vivid sense of time and place.  I should point out though that “Anatomy of Murder” is in fact the second book in the series, something I didn’t realise when I bought it; it didn’t spoil my enjoyment in any way but there were very definite references to events of the previous book that obviously had a bearing on the current situation of the main characters, so if you want to give this author a try I would recommend reading book one, “Instruments of Darkness”, first.

The opening scenes take place aboard a Royal Navy ship as she engages with a French enemy vessel off the coast of Newfoundland.  The year is 1781, and there are frequent Anglo-French clashes out in the Atlantic following the French government’s recent treaty with the Americans.  In this instance, HMS Splendour is successful and her foe captured; events begin to unfold, however, which suggest this apparently ordinary French ship may be harbouring something particularly valuable.  Flash forward six months to London, and we meet Harriet Westerman and her friend Gabriel Crowther, who have been summoned by a local Justice to help investigate the murder of a man found tied up and dumped in the River Thames.  Harriet, it turns out, is the wife of the man who was Captain on HMS Splendour when it secured its much talked about victory all those months ago.  Sadly, however, his illustrious naval career has been cut short since then by an unfortunate accident on board that has left him with severe brain injuries.  Harriet, while not exactly a widow, has lost any meaningful relationship with her husband as he languishes in a residential home, subject to bouts of confusion and aggression.  It transpires, however, that the fight against the French has moved from the high seas to the drawing rooms of the capital, as the murdered man is suspected of being involved in international espionage; it is now Harriet’s turn to take up the patriotic cause where her husband left off.  Like many a good detective story, there’s also a second mystery running alongside the main plot strand.  This one features another tough and resourceful female investigator, Jocasta, who lives and works in the less desirable parts of the city, earning a very basic living by reading tarot cards.  Not someone to be easily spooked, she is unusually disturbed by the reading she gives to a frightened young woman who comes to her for guidance.  Plagued by the certainty that something terrible is going to befall the girl or her loved ones, she decides to take matters into her own hands and before long her worst fears are confirmed.

What I loved most about this novel, and what I think makes it so successful, is the totally authentic representation of life at both extremes of the social spectrum.  In quite a few of the historical novels I’ve read, the middle and upper class characters (often these are also the main characters) are nuanced and believable, but the lower classes – the servants, street urchins and the like – can come across as somewhat clichéd, as if the author hasn’t quite got a handle on their reality.  This author treats every single one of her creations with equal care: Jocasta and the occasionally questionable people who she gathers to help her have sentiments and motivations as complex as those caught up in the high-society espionage game.  As for that strand of the plot, the intrigue centres around one of London’s great opera houses, a fascinating setting that opens the door to a vibrant world of equally vibrant characters.  For a certain section of society, the European opera singers who came to England to perform were the celebrity stars of their day.  Much of the story hangs on the mass adoration and hysteria that these musical legends – and the composers who wrote for them – evoked throughout the city.  It was an area so well researched (and well-loved I suspect) by the author that you’re utterly transported, and that’s what you want almost more than anything else from a historical novel I think: to feel as if you’re actually there.

It’s engaging from the word go, but the books really picks up to an incredible pace by the final act, to the point where I happily abandoned everything else in order to gallop through the closing chapters and find out how the story would end.  Without giving too much away, the conclusion was such that it made me quite interested to see where she takes the lead characters in her next book.  Imogen Robertson is definitely now a valued addition to my bookshelves, and I’d highly recommend you give this series a whirl.

“The Winter Palace” by Eva Stachniak – review

Snow blankets the ground for weeks on end; rivers become ice.  In the depths of Winter Russia can be an unforgiving place.  One might imagine that the Winter Palace, home to generations of Empresses and Tsars, would be a place of refuge, but as the orphaned Vavara discovers when she seeks shelter there following the death of her parents, it is anything but.  Through her eyes we see the unfolding story of the ruthless Empress Elizabeth, her feeble-minded and politically incompetent nephew the Grand Duke Peter, and most significant of all, the diminutive German princess who will eventually become the notorious Catherine the Great.  Vavara is singled out early on in her court life as a girl of unusual intellect with the potential to be of great use to those who are constantly trying to tip the balance of power and influence in their own favour – she is to become a “tongue”, a spy.  Employed first of all by the Russian Chancellor to look after his interests by winning the ear of the Empress, Vavara creates for herself the persona of a girl who needs no companionship, who is valuable to those who require her services and invisible to those who don’t.  In the precariously balanced world of the court, where loyalty can be bought and the most highly favoured can fall from grace in an instant, this seems like a sensible strategy of self-preservation; but human instincts inevitably prevail and under her tough exterior, Vavara really needs a friend.  The young Catherine seems at first to be the answer to her prayers, but to be the friend and confidante of someone so politically significant is fraught with danger.

This novel certainly doesn’t shy away from showing us just how dangerous the wrong alliances could be at this time.  I know next to nothing about Russian history in this period, but I can well believe that the extraordinary brutality depicted here is very close to the truth.  There is an element of physical brutality certainly, with public floggings as well as various deaths that occur conveniently out of sight so that state involvement can never be proved.  However, the most disturbing abuses committed by Elizabeth and her supporters are the emotional ones.  There are some upsetting moments here without a doubt, the worst of which I won’t reveal so as not to spoil a major plot development, but it’s enough to say that as a woman I found it almost unbearable.  The place of women in this world is a very interesting one; although there are a great many male characters there is always a sense that despite a great deal of male posturing women are the axis upon which every situation turns.  There is an immense paradox here: women are at once the all-powerful manipulators (the vile Empress and the clever, scheming Catherine are perfect examples) and yet at the same time they are incredibly vulnerable to the whims of others who seek to use them.  Sexual abuse and harassment of women and girls by the men of the court is so commonplace that nobody raises an eyebrow, and once they come of age any girl can be married off to a man of the Empress’ choosing.  Curiously though, this is never about being a battle of the sexes: the worst atrocities and betrayals on display here are those inflicted by women on other women.

Appropriately enough, the backdrop for all this torment is a very bleak place.  You might expect the Winter Palace itself to be sumptuous and luxurious, the epitome of soft living; you would be wrong.  The author takes great pains to ensure we see the peeling paint and dirty floors, and feel the cold draughts that whistle through broken windows – to see, in other words, this epicentre of power as it really is: harsh, cold and uncomfortable.  You couldn’t get a neater metaphor for the pitiless Russian ruling class than this crumbling building, magnificent when seen from the outside, but in reality rotten to its core.

I really relished the dark side of this novel.  What makes it bearable are the brief glimpses of humanity, the signs, albeit short-lived, that there can still be some hope for those people who want to do the right thing by their fellow men and women.  It’s pretty much a given that not everyone who deserves it is going to get a happy ending, and the author is honest enough never to seduce us with that possibility.  Yet we read on, groping for the faint light at the end of the tunnel, wanting to believe that the emotionally wounded heroine Vavara will finally find security and happiness.  It works both as a character study about the disturbing lengths people will go to in order to achieve power and control, and as a scintillating piece of history that makes you eager to go away and learn more.  It’s a thrilling read and an absolute must for all lovers of historical fiction.