The Winter Guest by W C Ryan. Book Review. Historical mystery. Highly recommended.

The drive leads past the gate house and through the trees towards the big house, visible through the winter-bared branches. Its windows stare down at Harkin and the sea beyond . . .

January 1921. Though the Great War is over, in Ireland a new, civil war is raging. The once-grand Kilcolgan House, a crumbling bastion shrouded in sea-mist, lies half empty and filled with ghosts – both real and imagined – the Prendevilles, the noble family within, co-existing only as the balance of their secrets is kept.

Then, when an IRA ambush goes terribly wrong, Maud Prendeville, eldest daughter of Lord Kilcolgan, is killed, leaving the family reeling. Yet the IRA column insist they left her alive, that someone else must have been responsible for her terrible fate. Captain Tom Harkin, an IRA intelligence officer and Maud’s former fiancé, is sent to investigate, becoming an unwelcome guest in this strange, gloomy household.

Working undercover, Harkin must delve into the house’s secrets – and discover where, in this fractured, embattled town, each family member’s allegiances truly lie. But Harkin too is haunted by the ghosts of the past and by his terrible experiences on the battlefields. Can he find out the truth about Maud’s death before the past – and his strange, unnerving surroundings – overwhelm him?

A haunting, atmospheric mystery set against the raw Irish landscape in a country divided, The Winter Guest is the perfect chilling read.

The Winter Guest is my first W C Ryan book, but it won’t be my last.

The Winter Guest is a little awkward to get into. The first chapter could perhaps be better placed elsewhere or left out altogether, but once past that point, and as the reader meets Harkin, we’re quickly drawn into his world. A man suffering from PTSD following the Great War and involving himself in the IRA, is a man on the edge, inhabiting a world filled with suspicion and shadows, where things that seem real, are simply not.

He is a sympathetic character and the reader feels. a great deal of empathy for him. 

The landscape he walks into is one bedevilled by atmospheric weather conditions – there is a great deal of attention spent on creating the image of a house on the cusp of ruin, a family in the midst of ruin and the weather conditions prevalent at the coastline. On occasion, it feels a little too much but the lack of electricity, the reliance on candles, ensures that the slightly other-worldly elements can never be forgotten. The flashback descriptions of life in the trenches of the Great War haunt the reader as well as Harkin,

You may have noticed that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I would put it on a par with last year’s The Glass Woman and The Quickening. A haunting story not to be missed. My thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy

The Only Living Lady Parachutist by Catherine Clarke Book Review – historical fiction

Today, I’m pleased to share my review for Catherine Clarke’s fabulous book, The Only Living Lady Parachutist. I was lucky enough to read this in beta with The History Quill and I absolutely loved it. I’m so pleased it’s now available for everyone to enjoy.

Here’s the blurb:

To test her courage, daredevil Lillian risks her life for fame and fortune by parachuting from a hot air balloon throughout Australia and New Zealand. But in the competitive 1890s era of charlatans, showmen, and theatrical hucksters, is she brave enough to confront the truth about her past? A story of courage and ambition, and the consequences of secrets and lies.

I really loved The Only Living Lady Parachutist. The author told a magnificent story that sucked me in, and I read it in three evenings. I was enthralled by the story of Lillian and her daredevil approach to life, and also by the wonderful reimagining of Australia and New Zealand at the time. (I’d not long finished watching The Luminaries so it tied it perfectly). The fact it’s based on ‘real’ people, as I discovered at the end, only added to my enjoyment of it, and I can appreciate how much fun the writer had in piecing together the story (and perhaps, how much heartache as well.)

The Only Living Lady Parachutist is available now on Kindle.

Connect with Catherine at her website or follow on twitter.

(this post contains some Amazon affiliate links).

Today, I’m delighted to share my review for Gods of Rome, the final book in the Rise of Emperors Trilogy by Gordon Doherty and Simon Turney

Cor, I’ve loved all three of these books. But before I get to the nitty gritty of the review for book 3, here’s the blurb:

For one to rule, the other must die.

312 AD is a year of horrific and brutal warfare. Constantine’s northern army is a small force, plagued by religious rivalries, but seemingly unstoppable as they invade Maxentius’ Italian heartlands. These relentless clashes, incidents of treachery and twists of fortune see Maxentius’ armies driven back to Rome. 

Constantine has his prize in sight, yet his army is diminished and on the verge of revolt. Maxentius meanwhile works to calm a restive and dissenting Roman populace. When the two forces clash in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, there are factors at work beyond their control and soon they are left with carnage. 

There is only one way Constantine and Maxentius’ rivalry will end. With one on a bloodied sword and the other the sole ruler of Rome . . .

Gods of Rome is a stunning climax to the Rise of Emperors trilogy. The reader has followed the lives of Maxentius and Constantine in the two previous books, through their childhood friendship and adult rivalries, which have resulted in them being firm enemies. In this non-stop and thrilling climax, there is all to play for, and don’t Doherty and Turney manage to ramp up the tension to unbearable heights.

I’m no expert on Roman history, and certainly not on the period leading up to AD312, but the authors manage to convey the chaos of the ruling elite without ever getting bogged down in the minutiae of all the internal power struggles. It’s a light touch that I certainly appreciate. The focus is on Constantine and Maxentius, and the men and women who stand at their side. And this is a particular strength of the book. It would be quite easy to forget about the men’s wives as the book focuses so much on warfare but Fausta and Valeria are given their own storylines, standing firm beside their men, even if they don’t always approve of what they’re doing, and not above some treachery themselves.

Maxentius and Constantine are two very different characters, grappling for the same thing, and the reader never tires of their internal monologues as they goad themselves onwards.

From about 50% through the book, I had to force myself not to turn to the back to read the historical notes, and to find out what ‘truth’ this story was based on.

I have adored this trilogy of books. It is my type of historical fiction – people who lived and breathed, brought to life and made to live their lives as opposed to authors focusing on the inevitability of what would happen, and presenting it as a fait accompli.

I can only hope that Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty are able to collaborate once more. After all, they have a lot of Roman era history they could delve into. (Hint, hint, nudge, nudge).

About the authors

Simon Turney is the author of the Marius’ Mules and Praetorian series, as well as The Damned Emperor series for Orion and Tales of the Empire series for Canelo. He is based in Yorkshire. 

Gordon Doherty is the author of the Legionary and Strategos series, and wrote the Assassin’s Creed tie-in novel Odyssey. He is based in Scotland.

Purchase link

Amazon: https://amzn.to/3EtqBgF

Follow Simon

Twitter: @SJATurney

Instagram: @simonturney_aka_sjaturney

Website: http://simonturney.com/

Follow Gordon

Twitter: @GordonDoherty

Instagram: @gordon.doherty

Website: https://www.gordondoherty.co.uk/

Follow Aries

Twitter: @AriesFiction

Facebook: Aries Fiction

Website: http://www.headofzeus.com

Extract from Gods of Rome

1
CONSTANTINE
The Cottian Alpes, 27th January 312 ad

We moved through the mountains like winter wolves. The ferocious blizzard sped southwards with us, carried on the famous bora winds, singing a dire song. For days we marched through that driving snow, seeing nothing but great white-clad peaks either side of us; rugged, inhospitable highlands which in these frozen months soldiers were not meant to cross. All around me the gale screamed, boots crunched endlessly through the successively deeper drifts of white, men’s teeth chattered violently, mules brayed, exhausted. It felt at times as if we were wandering, snow-blind, to our deaths, but I knew what lay ahead… so close now.

I called upon my chosen men and a handful of their best soldiers – a group of thirty – and we roved ahead of the army like advance scouts. The blizzard raked through my bear cloak, the snow rattling like slingshot against my gemmed ridge helm and bronze scales as I scoured the valley route. Yet I refused to blink. When the speeding hail of white slowed and the murky grey ahead thinned a little, I saw them: a pair of stone and timber watchtowers, northern faces plastered in snow. Gateposts watching this passage between two realms. I dropped to my haunches behind the brow of a snowdrift and my chosen men hunkered down with me. I gazed over the drift’s brow, regarding the narrow gap between the towers and the valley route beyond, on through the winter-veined mountains. Thinking of the land that lay beyond these heights, my frozen lips moved soundlessly.

Italia…

Land of Roman forefathers. Home of the man I had once considered my friend… but that territory was rightfully mine. Mine! My surging anger scattered when I spotted movement atop one of the two towers: a freezing Maxentian scout blowing into his hands, oblivious to our presence. Then the blizzard fell treacherously slack, and the speeding veil of white cleared for a trice. I saw his ice-crusted eyebrows rise as he leaned forward, peering into the momentary clarity, right at us. His eyes bulged, mouth agog.

‘He is here!’ he screamed to be heard over the sudden return of the storm’s wrath. ‘Constantine is h—’

With a wet punch, an arrow whacked into the man’s chest and shuddered there. He spasmed then folded over the edge of the timber parapet and fell like a sack of gravel, crunching into a pillowy snowdrift at the turret’s foot. I glanced to my right, seeing my archer nock and draw again, shifting his bow to the heights of the other tower, his eyes narrowing within the shadow of his helm brow. He loosed, but the dark-skinned sentry up there ducked behind the parapet, screaming and tolling a warning bell. At once, three more Maxentians spilled from the door at the base of that rightmost tower, rushing south towards a simple, snow-topped stable twenty paces away, in the lee of a rocky overhang. This was one of the few gateways through the mountains – albeit the least favoured and most treacherous – and it was guarded by just five men? Instantly, suspicion and elation clashed like swords in my mind. We had no time to rake over the facts. These watchmen could not be allowed to ride south and warn the legions of Italia. They had to die.

Book Review – The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman – Mystery

Here’s the blurb;

It’s the following Thursday.

Elizabeth has received a letter from an old colleague, a man with whom she has a long history. He’s made a big mistake, and he needs her help. His story involves stolen diamonds, a violent mobster, and a very real threat to his life.

As bodies start piling up, Elizabeth enlists Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron in the hunt for a ruthless murderer. And if they find the diamonds too? Well, wouldn’t that be a bonus?

But this time they are up against an enemy who wouldn’t bat an eyelid at knocking off four septuagenarians. Can the Thursday Murder Club find the killer (and the diamonds) before the killer finds them?

First things first, I’ve not read book 1, but I was curious to see what all the hype was about. It didn’t disappoint, but I did struggle to ‘get into’ the book. There’s some funny tenses and I don’t like books that haven’t decided what tense to write in:) I did get used to it, eventually, but I am curious to know if anyone else felt the same way I did.

The Man Who Died Twice is a well-told modern-day mystery featuring four friends in their 70s as they try and solve three interlinked mysteries surrounding some missing diamonds.

It is a good tale with characters that are well-drawn, although, on occasion, it is the ‘bit’ part players that speak more to the reader. (This may be because it’s a second book and everyone already knows them from book 1).

It is filled with twists and turns, although the reader does get to a part of the mystery long before the characters do, but with a nice little twist at the end.

An engaging story, which I read very quickly

Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for my review copy.

The Man Who Died Twice is out now in hardback, audio and ebook. You will enjoy it if you like a modern day, light hearted mystery.

Book Review – The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien – historical fiction. Highly recommended.

Here’s the blurb;

The inspirational story of the Pastons, a family who rose from obscurity to the very heart of Court politics and intrigue during the Wars of the Roses.

England, 1444. Three women challenge the course of history…

King Henry VI’s grip on the crown hangs by a thread as the Wars of the Roses starts to tear England apart. And from the ashes of war, the House of Paston begins its rise to power.

Led by three visionary women, the Pastons are a family from humble peasant beginnings who rely upon cunning, raw ambition, and good fortune in order to survive.

Their ability to plot and scheme sees them overcome imprisonment, violence and betrayal, to eventually secure for their family a castle and a place at the heart of the Yorkist Court. But success breeds jealousy and brings them dangerous enemies…

An inspirational story of courage and resilience, The Royal Game charts the rise of three remarkable women from obscurity to the very heart of Court politics and intrigue.

Anne O’Brien is one of my favourite authors. Every year, I wait with high anticipation to read her newest book and to see which ‘new’ unknown woman of history she’s brought to life for her readers.

With The Royal Game, Anne O’Brien has chosen not a powerful royal/noblewoman but instead three women who hunger to be considered as such. The majority of the story is told from the viewpoint of Margaret Paston, wife to John Paston, as property disputes amongst their landed estates escalate and are resolved only to escalate once more. This might sound a bit boring, but believe me, it’s not. I was shocked, genuinely shocked, by the level of violence that could be brought to bear against rival claimants and the state of lawlessness in East Anglia at the time is flabbergasting. It acts as a perfect way of showing just what the uncertainty of the Wars of the Roses brought about for those lower ‘noble’ families with the ebb and flow of prestige and royal denouncement as in the background, great battles are won and lost, and rival kings fall and rise.

Margaret is a wonderfully independently minded woman, and yet constrained by her position in life, and her sex so she can only do so much when trouble strikes, but she will do it to her upmost.

Alongside Margaret, we meet her sister in law, Eliza, who struggles to find a husband and emerge from beneath her mother’s less than motherly love. She manages to do just that only to find herself facing a life as beset with lawsuits as her brother and sister by marriage.

Our third Paston woman is Anne Haute, a cousin to Elizabeth Woodville. Her voice is that of a noblewoman without the dowry needed to hook herself a wonderful marriage, but who can tout her family connections to gain one.

This book is a stunning read – and more, an easy read – despite the vast number of Johns in it (I’ll leave that for you to discover because wow – that’s a weird thing to have done). I had to force myself to slow down and stop reading because I didn’t want it to be over. Now I have to wait for next year to read the second part of the story.

I highly recommend this book. If you know about the Wars of the Roses, all the better, but if you don’t, it will not lessen your enjoyment of the story of the three Paston women and their troublesome, and litigious family at a time of intense political unrest.

Thank you to Netgalley and the Publisher for my review copy. I loved it:)

The Royal Game is released in ebook, hardback and audio today, 16th September 2021.

Connect with Anne via her website or Twitter.

Book Review – Cecily by Annie Garthwaite – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb:

Rebellion?’
The word is a spark. They can start a fire with it, or smother it in their fingertips.
She chooses to start a fire.

You are born high, but marry a traitor’s son. You bear him twelve children, carry his cause and bury his past.

You play the game, against enemies who wish you ashes. Slowly, you rise.

You are Cecily.

But when the king who governs you proves unfit, what then?

Loyalty or treason – death may follow both. The board is set. Time to make your first move.

Cecily, the story of Cecily Neville up to, and including 1461, is a wonderful retelling of her story.

Having read Anne O’Brien’s The Queen’s Rival (see the review) last year, which offers Cecily’s story from the late 1450s onwards, I feel that this unknown woman has now been brought to life in wonderful detail. (If you have only read one of these two books then do please try the other one – you won’t be disappointed.)

Cecily is told from Cecily’s point of view, as such, there are some things that she can’t know or witness, and the author manages this incredibly skillfully. We know what Cecily does, and we know other events when she knows them. It’s a perfect way to ensure the reader, even if they know the history of the time period, doesn’t get ahead of themselves. 

Cecily is an engaging and headstrong woman. The author gives her a voice that we can understand, reflecting a quick intelligence and an ability to piece together events skillfully. Some scenes may feel rushed, and there is a refusal to dwell on the royal splendour of the court, but I think this added to the story. It is the interaction of the king, queen and the courtiers that’s important, not who was wearing what and eating what. This is absolutely my sort of historical fiction book.

I only wish I’d read it sooner.

Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for my review copy.

Cecily is available now as an ebook, audiobook and hardback and you can purchase it here.

Wolf at the Door by Sarah Hawkswood review and release day tour – historical mystery

Here’s the blurb:

1144. The body of Durand Wuduweard, the unpopular keeper of the King’s Forest of Feckenham, is discovered beside his hearth, his corpse rendered barely identifiable by sharp teeth. Hushed whispers of a man-wolf spread swiftly and Sheriff William de Beauchamp’s men, Bradecote and Catchpoll, have to find out who killed Durand and why, amidst superstitious villagers, raids upon manors and further grim deaths. Who commands the wolf, and where will its fangs strike next?

Wolf at the Door is my second Bradecote and Catchpoll book, and I was excited to receive an advanced copy of it. (I’m starting to collect the ‘back’ catalogue’ as well.)

This time, the pair, well the three of them including Wakelin, are sent to discover the truth about a particularly gruesome murder, where a wolf is suspected (hence the title). What follows is a tightly constructed story where the three follow leads, some dead ends, and interact with a deliciously mixed group of people living in Worcester and the environs in the 1100s.

I love the historical elements of the story, deeply rooted in the time, with King Stephen a spectre who could appear at any time, although he hasn’t, not yet. There is more from the Sheriff of Worcester, rather than the undersheriff than in the previous book I read, and he too is an excellent character. Hats off for the mixture of Old English and Norman names, aptly highlighting the split in society, and for deciding that ‘Foreign’ cursing isn’t quite as colourful as a bit of English cursing – (well, Catchpoll makes that observation).

An intriguing story, the mystery kept me intrigued and the ending was excellent. I look forward to the next in the series.

Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for my review copy. A firm 5/5 from me.

Wolf at the Door is released today, 19th August and can be purchased here. And the publisher are running a fantastic giveaway which can be entered here to win a set of signed Bradecote and Catchpoll books.

Book Review – Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood

Here’s the blurb:

Two sisters parted. Two women blamed. Two stories reclaimed.

‘Required reading for fans of Circe . . . a remarkable, thrilling debut’ – Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Lions of Fifth Avenue

‘Fluent and persuasive. I admire the ambition with which Heywood tackles the subject, to which she brings freshness and verve. I enjoyed it very much’ – Elizabeth Buchan, bestselling author of The Museum of Broken Promises

For millennia, two women have been blamed for the fall of a mighty civilisation – but now it’s time to hear their side of the story . . .

As princesses of Sparta, Helen and Klytemnestra have known nothing but luxury and plenty. With their high birth and unrivalled beauty, they are the envy of all of Greece.

Such privilege comes at a high price, though, and their destinies are not theirs to command. While still only girls they are separated and married off to legendary foreign kings Agamemnon and Menelaos, never to meet again. Their duty is now to give birth to the heirs society demands and be the meek, submissive queens their men expect.

But when the weight of their husbands’ neglect, cruelty and ambition becomes too heavy to bear, they must push against the constraints of their sex to carve new lives for themselves – and in doing so make waves that will ripple throughout the next three thousand years.

Daughters of Sparta is that most wonderful of books – one that draws you in from the very first pages and won’t let go of you until the end. I read it in just over a day. I didn’t want to put it down.

The storytelling is engaging, the characters of Helen and her sister, beautifully sketched while everyone around them, apart from their mother, stays very much in the background. This is their story.

At times the reader will hate either or both of the sisters, at other times, the reader will understand their pain, their desire to be more than their birthright.

A beautifully evocative story that speaks of the loneliness of royal marriage, of the heavy, and life-threatening expectations placed on young women to become mothers, and you will be swept along by a tale you think you know but might not.

5 stars from me.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

Daughters of Sparta is available now in ebook, hardback and audiobook.

Today, I’m delighted to host the review blog tour For Lord and Land by Matthew Harffy (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb;

Greed and ambition threaten to tear the north apart.

War rages between the two kingdoms of Northumbria. Kin is pitted against kin and friend becomes foe as ambitious kings vie for supremacy.

When Beobrand travels south into East Angeln to rescue a friend, he unwittingly tilts the balance of power in the north, setting in motion events that will lead to a climactic confrontation between Oswiu of Bernicia and Oswine of Deira.

While the lord of Ubbanford is entangled in the clash of kings, his most trusted warrior, Cynan, finds himself on his own quest, called to the aid of someone he thought never to see again. Riding into the mountainous region of Rheged, Cynan faces implacable enemies who would do anything to further their own ends.

Forced to confront their pasts, and with death and betrayal at every turn, both Beobrand and Cynan have their loyalties tested to breaking point.

Who will survive the battle for a united Northumbria, and who will pay the ultimate price for lord and land?

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/3e45G97

Beobrand is back, and you might be pleased to know, as surly and grumpy as ever (at this point, I will say that even his gesithas are discussing it these days). Luckily, the reader is quickly introduced to young Cuthbert, someone to lighten the mood with his eagerness, and there’s also a split narrative that follows the story of Cynan.

For Lord and Land begins quickly, the warriors of Beobrand already on their way to the next problem in need of solving, in the kingdom of the East Angles. Penda of Mercia is on the war path once more, and Beobrand has no choice but to intervene, setting in motion a chain of events that brings more difficulties for him in the long run.

In the background, Cynan has his own conundrums to contend with, and both Beobrand and Cynan find themselves bedevilled by oaths given, and the implications of them. There’s a lovely juxtaposition between how the two of them combat their difficulties, and the story progresses at a fair old rate.

I had to smile when I realised who Cuthbert was going to turn out to be, but I’ll leave that one for you to discover.

This is a longer book than normal, the hardback is 463 pages long, and it needs to be to contain the dual storyline which neatly joins together much later in the story. (It’s really a triple storyline with Beobrand, Cynan and Cuthbert all sharing the point of view.)

Come the end of the book, I confess to being intrigued with the way Matthew Harffy has read his sources and devised the plot For Lord and Land. It feels incredibly complete, perhaps aided by the use of the two lighter characters of Cynan and Cuthbert and I eagerly await book 9, and look forward to seeing how Beobrand and Cynan handle the next problem presented to them.

For Lord and Land brings together many intertwining elements of previous books, and you know what, I think it is absolutely my favourite instalment of The Bernicia Chronicles. A firm 5/5 from me. Enjoy readers, enjoy.

About the author

Matthew Harffy grew up in Northumberland where the rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline had a huge impact on him. He now lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters. 

Follow Matthew

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy

Website: www.matthewharffy.com

Follow Aries

Twitter: @AriesFiction

Facebook: Aries Fiction

Website: http://www.headofzeus.com

New Release alert and book review – Death at the Mint by Christine Hancock – historical mystery (tenth century)

Today, I’m really excited to spotlight Death at the Mint by Christine Hancock. Christine writes the Byrhtnoth Chronicles set in the middle of the tenth century, but in Death at the Mint, she has taken one of our favourite characters and allowed him to solve an intriguing mystery.

Here’s the blurb:

“When Wulfstan swore revenge on his enemy, he expected to die. Now that man is dead.
Far to the south, another body is found in an Essex wood.
Abbot Dunstan of Glastonbury is concerned. The victim ran the mint. Is the king’s coinage in danger of corruption?
Dunstan sends Wulfstan to Maldon to investigate.
Can Wulfstan discover the truth? Is there a connection with his own past?
Having lost everything he held dear; can he learn to live again?”

“Finally, Wulfstan – my favourite character in the Byrhtnoth Chronicles – has been given his own story. Read and enjoy!”
Ruth Downie, author of the Gaius Petreius Ruso Mysteries.

(The cover is fantastic)

I was lucky enough to get to read an early draft of Death at the Mint, and also the finished product. Firstly, an assurance, yes, Wulfstan is a character from the previous books but if you haven’t read them (which you might want to do after this one) it won’t detract from your enjoyment. Not at all. This is an excellent standalone Saxon mystery.

Wulfstan, his hound and his horse, make an intriguing team and what I particularly enjoyed was the reimagining of life in a Saxon settlement. This is something I’ve always been a bit terrified of doing in my own books, and Christine Hancock does it incredibly well. Added to which, the mystery will really draw you in.

This was a wonderful book, the mystery has a satisfying ending, which I don’t think readers will guess.

Death at the Mint is released today, 1st July, in ebook, and it’s well worth a read if you enjoy the time period and a good old mystery.