Riddle Of The Runes – Janina Ramirez

Riddle Of The RunesI first saw Dr Janina Ramirez on TV a few years ago presenting a documentary called Treasures Of The Anglo-Saxons, telling the bigger pictures behind Beowulf, the Gundestrup Cauldron, the Sutton Hoo treasures and many other works of art in a new and engaging way. Since then she’s become a successful author of several nonfiction historical books and presenter of TV programmes ranging from the Hundred Years War and Julian of Norwich, to the Vikings. In addition she runs an active twitter account and a series of Art Detective podcasts. And in between all this she somehow manages to be a course director for the History of Art at Oxford University! It’s fair to say the woman seems tireless, and it’s also fair to say her striking goth look means I have a bit of a crush on her (although hopefully not one that will result in restraining orders).

Riddle Of The Runes is Janina’s first foray into children’s fiction, and it’s wonderful. Set in Viking era Norway around the time of the Lindisfarne raids, this is the start of a series centred on a young heroine Alva Gutharson and her family. Alva is a great character – in this book about 12 years old, intelligent, reckless, brave and foolhardy in equal measures. Alva’s passion is finding out the truth and investigating mysteries, and around her is a cast of characters that alternatively help and frustrate her, her loyal mother Brianna,  the wise, calming influence of Uncle Magnus (my favourite) and her trusty pet wolf, Fenrir.

When a monk from Lindisfarne appears suddenly in her home of Kilsgard babbling of a casket covered in mysterious runes, and a tale of his warrior companion kidnapped in the mountains, the peace of the village is shattered and Alva is filled with purpose – the runes and the casket are a series of clues to a promised treasure and Alva must follow them, keeping ahead of the adults of the village who spend more time debating in the longhouse then getting out there and getting on with it…!

Riddle Of The Runes is a lovely tale of mystery, family, warmth and companionship for children (including grown up children), rooted deeply in Janina’s knowledge and love of this period of history. The whole Viking world of Kilsgard is brought vividly to life, David Wyatt’s atmospheric illustrations complement the story beautifully and as one who spend several happy weekends at Danelaw Viking Village in York drinking mead in the longhouse, tending fires and spit-roasting pigs I felt at times I was back there! I look forward to where Alva goes next.

Rob Glover

Riddle of the Runes – a Viking Mystery by Janina Ramirez with illustrations by David Wyatt
Oxford 241pp


The Burning Chambers – Kate Mosse

I’m sure I’ve mentioned previously that I enjoy reading books set in areas I travel to and also that, when I visited Carcassonne, I read Labyrinth by Kate Mosse as part of my exploration of the Cathar history of the region. I really enjoyed Mosse’s take on this period of extreme religious conflict (combined with a bit of romance and lots of adventure) so I was interested to see that she had returned to that part of France with her latest novel.

36660443Many things about this novel seem familiar after reading Labyrinth – the setting, the ongoing wars of religion, there is even a character called Alis – but it is also a thrilling story in its own right. Minou Joubert live in Carcassonne with her father, a bookseller who deals with books from all sides of the religious divides, and her younger siblings. Apart from the death of her mother her life has been happy enough but things are becoming difficult: her father has changed, refusing to leave the house and leaving Minou to deal with the shop, the ongoing wars of religion between the Catholic establishment and French protestants, known as Huguenots, are coming closer to the city and she receives a mysterious letter saying just ‘She knows that you live’. When she meets Piet Reydon, a young Huguenot on a mysterious mission, both their lives become more complicated. Their lives begin to intertwine with each other’s and with that of Valentin, a priest who was once a close friend of Piet’s, and Blanche, the chatelaine of Puivert. Danger follows them from Carcassonne, to Toulouse and, finally, to Puivert itself where many questions about Minou’s past are answered.

Kate Mosse has, once again, given us a fascinating insight into the past – I’d heard of the Huguenots but knew very little beyond the fact they were protestants – combined with an exciting story blending romance and adventure. Her historical research is meticulous and her storytelling gripping, her female characters are strong (I particularly liked some of the supporting cast – Alis, the younger sister, Madame Boussay and Blanche de Bruyère) and I’m looking forward to seeing how the story moves on as promised to Amsterdam and South Africa in the rest of the trilogy. Of course, I may need a return visit to the Midi, the Netherlands or even a first trip to Franschhoek to read them…



Stories of Mary and Jane (or how to become a Queen in two difficult lessons)

I have a sister called Mary. When we were children we would come home from school and go to our granddad’s until Mum finished work. Quite often we would drop into a shop or two on the way – the cake shop if we’d managed to talk Mum out of some pocket-money (I think our record was to negotiate about two months payment in advance) but almost always the pet shop. We were fascinated by all the animals, obviously, but particularly the fish. There were cold water fish, like plain old goldfish, but also plenty of more exotic specimens – we looked at the guppies, the Siamese Fighting fish and the catfish – but mostly we liked to point out the dead ones to the pet shop man. The only thing we didn’t like about the pet shop was the fact that the owner could never get our names right. I have always been taller than Mary (she is truly my ‘little’ sister), she was blond where I had dark hair, she has the Skudder nose and I, well, don’t, but he always got confused and called us both Mary-Jane. As a child this was very confusing – as an adult I get it – but even now I love anything with both names in. Could this have been the start of my love of the history of Tudor women? In the last week or so I managed to read books about queens called both Mary and Jane…

Lady Mary – Lucy Worsley

9781408869444The Mary in question here is Mary Tudor but not as a queen but as a Princess. This book is written for younger readers so Mary’s age reflects this – at the beginning she is nine years old and knew herself to be beloved by both her parents. We then see the efforts of Henry VIII to end his marriage to Mary’s mother, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, the religious changes and deadly politics of the period from the point of view of a young girl. This is shown well – Mary is frequently afraid and feels abandoned by both her parents at some point, she has an understanding of the politics of power (she has been taught by the example of both Henry and Katherine) but not of the more adult passions. I did sometimes feel that she was shown as being younger than her age – she is, after all, over 20 when Anne Boleyn dies – but her whole girlhood is extremely sheltered. It is also increasing harsh as her father and step-mother gradually take away all those privileges she enjoyed as a Princess. Even, as the title of the book suggests, the name of Princess.

The book is a way to tell younger readers about the life of a famous woman from history. I’m not entirely sure what age group I would aim this at – there is no graphic content which would make it totally unsuitable for a child of nine who had an interest in the subject (I’m so thinking of me at that age…) but the emotional toll on Mary is not negligible. Like many books which span the 9-12 to teen ranges it is more about the emotional maturity of a child rather than their reading ability – and, of course, because Lucy Worsley is a historian the facts are sound (and the speculation, because there are always huge gaps in the historical record, is justified in the afterword). Of course, if you are reading it as an adult who can’t get enough well-written historical fiction then the latter stages of the book – looking at Mary’s relationship with her second step-mother, Jane Seymour – lead you inexorably on to the next book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series…

Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen – Alison Weir

9781472227676I’ve been loving this series about the overlapping lives of the women who were Henry VIII’s queens. It is the overlaps which have been most fascinating – you see Katherine’s view of Anne Boleyn and vice versa – because you can then develop a more rounded impression of their personalities. Katherine was so much more fierce than I can recall her appearing in other histories, even Anne’s view of her is as a formidable enemy, and Anne so much more vulnerable – these books have made these women so much more real for me. I was hopeful, therefore, that Weir would be able to convince me that Jane Seymour was far more interesting than I had previously believed. To be honest, I just thought she was a bit wet…

Jane Seymour does become a much more interesting character than I had previously found her to be. In many ways she is fighting against a lot – Katherine of Aragon was the daughter of royalty herself, a strong figure, and Anne Boleyn is almost a pantomime villain, even the later queens have more of a hook to hang their lives on – and this has made her appear a little pale. Interestingly Weir doesn’t try to deny this paleness – it is the view of her that most of the court has – but does give us a glimpse of the woman which has a little more colour. She portrays a girl with firm religious beliefs, reinforced during her time as a maid-of-honour to Katherine of Aragon, and a strong sense of duty to her family. It is this family, and her ambitious brothers in particular, who encourage her not to reject the King’s advances. She also shows her to be a passionate woman who is eager to marry and have a family and who genuinely loves Henry. She also works hard to promote the interests of Mary Tudor and, in her heart, always thinks of Katherine as the true queen (which doesn’t make her popular when she is part of Anne Boleyn’s court…). These are, I think, factors which come from first-hand reports of her conduct – the things which Weir adds are additional, failed, pregnancies other than the one which led to the birth of the long-awaited son, including one which suggested she didn’t even wait for her betrothal before giving in to the King and, towards the end of the book, the fact that she felt haunted by guilt at the fate of Queen Anne. This was the least successful part for me – it appeared so late in the book that it felt a little forced – but wasn’t totally off-putting. I guess, like me, Weir thought that ‘the slightly wet Queen’ was a poor subtitle to use in this otherwise excellent series.


The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin

I’m a big fan, as you may have noticed, of historical fiction. My Mum started me off with Jean Plaidy which took me from the Norman Conquest up to the Victorian era, I got a taste for Anya Seton when I was at secondary school (Katherine and Devil Water were my favourites) and then joined Mum in a bid to read every Georgette Heyer regency romance. After 34 novels set between 1752 and 1825 I’d say that the Regency period is now one of my favourites for historical fiction. But, apart from romances, it is not a period which I find much in historical fiction – the Victorians seem to have taken over somewhat. Now I do enjoy a bit of Victoriana but it was refreshing to find the late Georgian/Regency period covered in Laura Carlin’s debut novel, The Wicked Cometh.

34812995Hester White lived her early life in Lincolnshire the daughter of a reasonably well-to-do parson. When her parents die, however, she is taken in by the family gardener and his wife and they end up living in London. Not the genteel end that we usually see in Regency romance but in the maze of dwelling places in the East End of London, surrounded by poverty, criminality and disease. What is even worse is that there seems to be a spate of mysterious disappearances – men, women and children vanishing without trace. Hester is desperate to get out of London so, when circumstances throw her into the path of Calder Brock, a young doctor, she grabs at the chance he offers her to travel to his family estate to get the education he assumes she lacks. Although Hester has, in fact, been fairly well-educated by the standards of the day she pretends to be an ignorant slum-dweller. When she reaches Waterford Hall, the Brock’s country house, she meets the doctor’s sister, Rebekah, a rather prickly, single woman who prefers logical reasoning to ballrooms, who is to be her teacher.

The action moves back to London and involves Hester and Rebekah with pawnbrokers, con-men, opium-eaters and killers. The two women become friends and fellow-investigators and, gradually, Hester falls in love. The battle to discover what happened to Agnes and Martha, two missing Brock servants, as well as all the others who have vanished becomes a race to discover all the Brock family secrets and to prevent the loss of all that the two women have come to hold dear. It takes a little while to get there but the ending is a thrilling answer to all the questions raised throughout the book. There are a dozen threads or so introduced – I lost track at one point – but they are all twisted together into a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. If you like your historical fiction dark and complicated, with a side order of unconventional romance then give this book a try.


Girl in the Tower – Katherine Arden (and The Bear & the Nightingale…)

As you can imagine my house contains an awful lot of books. There are bookcases in almost every room and even the rooms without actual shelves contain a small stack of reading material – it is hard to get bored here! However, this does result in the fact that I can lose track of what I’ve read and what is still waiting – especially if I’ve got a pile of goodies all at once and I have to squeeze them in to whatever shelf space is free. This also means that, sometimes, I forget to add books on to the right line of my spreadsheet (or even to add them at all). This is what I found had happened when I started reading Katherine Arden’s Girl in the Tower – about 20 pages in and I realised that I had the previous volume in the series (the first in fact) sitting in my living room, looking very lonely. Luckily it was good enough to be a very swift read so this will be a review of both…

33797941In the Bear and the Nightingale we meet Vasilisa, a young girl, and her family. They live on an estate at some distance from Moscow back in the early days of Rus’ (the forerunner of Russia), in the 14th Century. This is not so much a historical novel, although the settings are obviously very well researched and the rise of Christianity plays a very important role, but one of the battle between the old ways and the new. Vasilisa (or Vasya, as she is known in the traditional way of Russian naming) is a headstrong girl who resists the role she is expected to take up as a dutiful daughter. She has no interest in marriage or love, unlike her older sister Olga, but prefers to run wild with her brothers and to listen to the stories told by Dunya, the children’s nurse. These stories all revolve around various spirits and magical creatures – personifications of Frost, Death and the like and small household spirits who are connected to the hearth, home and stables – but Vasya, unlike her siblings, knows that these beings are real because she can see them. When their father remarries, their devout step-mother tries to quash the old ways (although she can also see the house spirits she believes them to be demons) and the consequences are felt by all. Vasya must fight to retain the old ways and to avoid her stepmother’s plan to either marry her off or incarcerate her in a nunnery. To make things worse dark powers, who were previously kept at bay by the household spirits, are stirring in the forest…

35004343In the second book, the Girl in the Tower, we move to Moscow – not yet the city it is today but still the home of the rulers of Rus’ and also of Vasya’s married sister, Olga. This is a vastly different world – women are confined to their luxurious homes, apart from visits to church, and politics and intrigue are at the front of everyone’s mind. Religion is of great importance – Olga is waiting for the return of her favourite brother, now a sort of warrior priest – and the old ways are nowhere to be seen. Into this world bursts Vasya who has run from her home, dressed as a boy, after tragic events have left her without most of her family and accused of witchcraft. Her actions against a group of bandits who are roaming the countryside, burning villages, stealing young girls and then vanishing, bring her to the attention of Dmitri – the Grand Prince of Moscow and, coincidently, her cousin. He assumes she is a boy, as does everyone else aside from Sasha (the warrior monk brother), and brings her back to Moscow as a reward. Sadly, dark forces once again follow Vasya and worse, she falls foul of Moscow’s strict gender rules when her true identity is discovered.

Both of these books are an almost seamless blend of Russian history and folklore set in a world where both the magical and the grimly political are very real. The characters are all beautifully well-drawn (and you have to pay attention to them all – even the seemingly minor can reappear as major sources of danger and romance), and the plot is richly detailed. The love story, which began tentatively in Vasya’s childhood, grows with her and she faces both passion and peril with intelligence and fortitude. I’ve not been so gripped by a series for years – I really hope the final volume comes out as promised in August: I can’t wait to see how this story ends.



The Crow Garden – Alison Littlewood

I do love a bit of period drama. On tv, or film, I enjoy almost anything with a good costume department (although I do prefer it if they get the costumes mostly right – I don’t know how old I was when I first saw the 1940 version of Pride & Prejudice but I just knew the costumes were far too Victorian for a proper Jane Austen adaptation…) and in book terms I’m happy with fiction set in almost any period ( yes, starting with the ice age novels of Jean Auel and working through most of history since – I’m particularly fond of a Regency romance). Some historical settings work well with particular genres (Regency romance, as I already mentioned, or Medieval murder mystery – they don’t have to be alliterative but that’s all that springs to mind…) but nothing seems to suit stories of spookiness and the macabre like the Victorian era. And nobody seems to do the spooky and macabre like Alison Littlewood…

crow gardenNewly qualified Nathaniel Kerner leaves his widowed mother behind in London to work in windswept Yorkshire. His father’s suicide seems to have made it hard for him to find work but the director of Crakethorne Asylum is willing to take a chance on him. All seems positive until he meets Vita, Mrs Victoria Harleston, a beautiful young woman whose husband wants her cured. Her insanity appears to Kerner to be that she doesn’t wish to perform her ‘wifely duties’ and he plans to cure her with new-fangled talking therapies. Against a backdrop of superstition and dubious mental health care (all, sadly, ones used up until scarily recently…) he falls in love with his patient and, it seems, under her spell. They find themselves back in London, living with Kerner’s mother, and caught up in the world of psychics,  mesmerists and other fraudsters. Or, in the case of Vita Harleston, could these mysterious powers be true?

This is a superbly researched historical novel which brings to life the Victorian era but also a wonderfully creepy tale of the uncanny. A perfect read for Halloween – unless you live on a moor. In Yorkshire. Surrounded by crows…




The Last Tudor – Philippa Gregory

There seems to me to be two main sorts of historical novelist. For one sort the history is the star of the story – if historical research can’t support a character trait, an action or an event, it doesn’t go into the book. On the other side are novelists who base their stories – stories of passion, danger or love – on history but want the story itself to take centre stage. History for these authors is the frame on which they hang their plot and characters – if they have to reinterpret the sources to fit it with their plot, well, so be it… As far as I’m concerned both sorts of fiction are worth reading – although sometimes the first can sacrifice some of the excitement of fiction for historical truth and the second can seem like it is making things up as they go along. So long as you know which you are reading, it’s all good…Philippa Gregory has, according to a review in The Telegraph, never claimed to be in my first category of historical novelist. The fact that she is one of the most popular contemporary authors of historical romance fiction seems to suggest that quite a few people are quite happy to settle for my second.

large_903110711c55a1dad67a46b08a57f62cThe Last Tudor is the story of two sets of siblings – Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, the heirs of Henry VIII and Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey, granddaughters of Henry VIII’s sister. Each of the Grey sisters’ stories are told separately (although their tales obviously overlap) and while Jane’s is set during the reigns of Edward and Mary the other two are largely set in the Elizabethan period.  Jane’s fate is the best-known – married to Guildford Dudley, thrust onto the throne and then deposed nine days later by Mary Tudor – but her personality much less so. What I particularly enjoyed about this book (since I sort of knew how the plot would turn out…) was the way that each sister’s voice was different. Jane is serious and pious – you could even call her a bit sanctimonious and quick to judge others as falling below her own, high, standards – whereas Katherine is rather more flighty, thinking more of her appearance and her pets than her faith. Mary, the youngest sister who was, according to Gregory, a dwarf and who was certainly disregarded by the whole court and treated as a child even when she was old enough to be thought of as an adult, was the most interesting to me. Pragmatic, rather blunt and under no illusions about herself she seems the most modern of the three – and because she was the sister whose story I knew the least I really hoped she’d be the one with a happy ending…

This may not be the story that you think you know about Elizabeth and the Grey sisters. All of the sisters are adamant that Elizabeth Tudor is not the virgin Queen that history paints her as. I don’t think that Gregory is telling us, as a historian, that Elizabeth and Robert Dudley were definitely lovers – she is showing us, however, that the gossip of the day tended to believe they were. What does become very apparent is that Elizabeth ruled her court as well as her country with an iron fist. If she couldn’t find love, marry and produce an heir  – the last Tudor – for whatever reason, then she wasn’t going to let her court, and her Grey cousins in particular, do so in her stead. As Katherine Grey herself points out Elizabeth may have been a good Queen but she was a terrible person to have as a relative.