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.

Today, I’m excited to welcome Anne O’Brien to the blog on tour with her fabulous book The Queen’s Rival

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Anne O’Brien to the blog to talk about her fantastic book, The Queen’s Rival, a real favourite of mine. (Find my review here).

I have read Queen’s Rival and I found it riveting. Yet, it is deliciously complex, and there’s a huge amount of both primary and secondary material available for study. Can you explain your research process to me, and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring the historical characters to life? 

The complexity of the Wars of the Roses within the story of Cecily Neville was daunting when I first took it on.  Where to start, where to end.  Should I consolidate into one book, or write a sequel?  While I thought about it, all became clear to me.  Because I write about medieval women and form their point of view, many of the political events and battles must dealt with lightly, made only relevant when they had a bearing on Cecily’s experience, and then rarely in grat detail.  To begin: the day that she became a force in her own right – the events at Ludlow after the debacle at Ludford Bridge when she was left to face the rampaging mob of the Lancastrian army, alone with her three younger children.  To end: with the crowning of Richard III when Cecily must come to terms with the political forces that had removed her grandson Edward V from the throne.  

Who to include in Cecily’s story?

Some major figures would have to be short-changed because they did not develop the plot that was Cecily’s life, but were merely people on the periphery of Cecily’s story.  These included such notable characters as Margaret Beaufort,  Anne Neville,  Henry Tudor.  Even Margaret of Anjou might have demanded a more dynamic role although she is not entirely absent.  This may disappoint some readers but these are characters for another book.  There is a finite length to a novel as my editor is keen to tell me; Cecily and her family must take pre-eminence.

Cecily was the youngest of a large family.  To include all her brothers and sisters would definitely be a bad plan.  I deliberately made a choice of those who would be most useful to me   Her brother Richard of Salisbury of course and his son the Earl Warwick.  Two of her sisters, the eldest and the one closest to her in age.  The rest would sadly have to remain anonymous.

Why write in letter format?  I chose to do this to develop the family aspect of the Wars of the Roses.  These were real people who suffered and rejoiced within their families.  I decided that letters would make this a very personal account for Cecily, and thus make the emotion of her losses and achievements even stronger when faced with scandal and treachery.

Mostly when researching I refer to secondary sources.  I do not always find the need to return to primary sources.  For me this would be like re-inventing the wheel since the history of the Wars of the Roses has been magnificently researched by a number of historians, although I admit to being picky over whom I might use. I find myself returning to the works of  Matthew Lewis, Ian Mortimer, Nigel Saul, Anthony Goodman and Michael Jones.  For Cecily herself , when I was was half way through writing, a new long-awaited biography of Cecily was published:  Cecily Duchess of York by J L Laynesmith which proved endlessly useful for tying up a number of loose ends for me.

For primary sources, the chroniclers of the day are fascinating and encouraged me to write my own version of a Chronicle to help the plot to progress in The Queen’s Rival.  Accounts of Cecily’s pious lifestyle in her later years and the vast detail of her will were both excellent.

Taking the facts, together with the reactions of those who knew Cecily, it is then a matter of historical imagination to create an interpretation of her life as accurately as possible.

Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it?

I don’t have a ‘go to’ book when writing because my medieval women span a number of reigns, but one I find myself referring to frequently is The Senses in Late Medieval England by C M Woolgar.  It opens up the medieval world and life in aristocratic households beautifully, from every possible angle.  I also have quite a collection of books on medieval armour and costume – an essential part of my research, as well as medieval poetry and chivalric tales.  And then there  are the general history reference books …  Altogether my bookshelves are groaning from the weight of medieval history books.

Thank you so much for sharing your process with me. It’s fascinating and I’m in awe of how you managed to fit so much into one novel!

(Isn’t the cover beautiful).

Here’s the blurb;

England, 1459. 

One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

The Wars of the Roses storm through the country, and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, plots to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne.

But when the Yorkists are defeated at the battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Stripped of her lands and imprisoned in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit. One that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV.

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Meet the author

Sunday Times Bestselling author Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history.

Today she has sold over 700,000 copies of her books medieval history novels in the UK and internationally. She lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire. The area provides endless inspiration for her novels which breathe life into the forgotten women of medieval history.

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on The Queen’s Rival blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club.

Book Review – The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

England, 1459: Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, is embroiled in a plot to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne. But when the Yorkists are defeated at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Cecily can only watch as her lands are torn apart and divided up by the ruthless Queen Marguerite. From the towers of her prison in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit – one that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV.

This is a story of heartbreak, ambition and treachery, of one woman’s quest to claim the throne during the violence and tragedy of the Wars of the Roses.”

The Queen’s Rival is a stunning look at the ‘later’ life of Cecily Neville from 1459 until 1483. This is not a ‘quiet’ period of history and to cover the tumultuous events, the author adopts the technique of recording the letters of the main protagonists, either from the pen of Cecily or from those who write to her.

It does take a little while to get used to the technique, but the reader is quickly drawn into the story, not perhaps by the events taking place, but rather by the relationship between Cecily and her two sisters, Anne, Duchess of Buckingham and Katherine, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The words they share with each other are just what sisters might well say to each other, especially when they’re not likely to see each other soon.

More importantly, the sisters, while fiercely loyal to their Neville inheritance, are not of one mind about who should rule England, and who has the right to rule England. It highlights just how destructive the War of the Roses was, and is a genius way of quickly ensuring the reader appreciates that families were ripped apart by the protracted war.

This is the story of the women of the later 15th century. It’s their voices that we hear, as they try and come to terms with the rises and falls all of them experience. There are moments when the narrative is hard to read, either because you know what’s going to happen, or just because you really feel for Cecily and don’t want her to experience the tribulations than she does.

I am a huge fan of Anne O’Brien and the ‘forgotten’ women of the medieval period in England. While the author may stress that Cecily is not really a forgotten woman, I was not really aware of her before reading this book. The mother of two kings, the grandmother of future kings, and yet she could also have been queen herself. What an interesting life she led.

I highly recommend this book. And you can find my review here for A Tapestry of Treason.

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

The Queen’s Rival is released in ebook and hardbook on 3rd September 2020. (What a stunning cover.) It is released in paperback today, 15th April 2021.

A Writing Year in Review – 2020

It’s been a funny old year, I think we can all agree on that. While, at times, I’ve really struggled to focus to write, I’ve also been lucky to chance upon a good number of characters that I really enjoy writing about – Coelwulf and his comrades – not that it makes it easy, but it makes it enjoyable, sometimes in a sick and twisted way. So here goes, a review of just what I’ve been up to during the weirdest year in living memory.

For the first time with any great degree of consistency, I’ve tried to track what I’m doing on a day to day basis. It’s been intriguing, but only lasted for about a third of the year, you’ll see why as we go.

I finished A Conspiracy of Kings, the sequel to The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter in January, ready for release in February. I’m really pleased I returned to Lady Ælfwynn because it moved my mind onto the project I’d been considering writing for a few years – about King Coelwulf of Mercia. I think that if I’d not written A Conspiracy of Kings, Coelwulf might still be waiting for me to start his story. But luckily, I did start to write about him in January, with a scene that has still to make it into any of the books, and in February I started with how I hoped to begin the story. Looking at my notes for the year, once I’d started writing the first book, it was all a bit of a whirlwind and a first draft was completed by the end of the month. One day I wrote 10,000 words. It seems he was really in my head. Those two years of thinking about writing about him, had paid off with a great character just waiting to come out of my imagination.

I’ve said elsewhere that there were quite a few influences on The Last King, the film, The Gentlemen directed by Guy Ritchie, the one that really made me think I should do anything I wanted with the storyline – make it bloody, make it brutal, make it sweary, and give it the ‘hook’ at the very beginning of the book. Another influence was the idea of a sportsperson at the height of their game – someone so good that they don’t really consider it anymore, and in fact, are a bit surprised that others aren’t there with them – that was the sort of warrior I wanted Coelwulf to be – already fully-formed with no backstory to wade through before getting on with the story of ‘right now.’

After finishing The Last King, I immediately pressed on with the follow-up, which became The Last Warrior. By now, it was March, and my part-time job as an exam invigilator was about to be suspended for the rest of the year – and of course, we were about to be plunged into Lockdown Part One. I had Coelwulf and pals to keep me going – and keep me going they did. By 8th April, my diary states that the first draft of The Last Warrior was complete, and I’d placed The Last King on Netgalley because I was really curious to see what people thought about it. I’d also reached out to a few people and given them advanced copies to read. The response was overwhelmingly positive as reviews started to trickle in throughout April. But now I turned my mind to Lady Estrid, and the eleventh century in Denmark.

Map of England in the 870s – a compilation of roads, rivers and places – and a nightmare to research and put together in one place.

Again, Estrid was a character I’d considered writing about for some time. She was a bit part character in my Earls of Mercia books, but she seemed to me the perfect vehicle for writing about comparable events in Denmark, as opposed to England, in the eleventh century.

I am fascinated by all of the Scandinavian countries in the ‘Viking’ Age, and beyond. But, I’m certainly no expert on what was happening.

My diary says I started writing the book on April 9th, but I know I’d written about 5000 words in February (to enter a competition that I didn’t win:)). I gave myself about two weeks of working on Lady Estrid, a breather as it were, and then went back to the edit for The Last Warrior. I know some people wait months between a finished draft and an edit, but I don’t like to wait quite that long, although I do think even a little bit of ‘distance’ can help the process. At this point, with very little else to do due to Lockdown, my notes become really detailed about editing and words added, but I won’t bore with those little details. Suffice to say, I’m normally someone that adds words rather than deletes them throughout the first edit – I tracked the words added, but not deleted, and how many pages I edited in a day.

At this point, I was also hoping to do a quick edit, and finish off my NaNoWriMo project from the previous November. Throne of Ash is a historical fantasy, and goodness me, it has bedevilled my year. So much so that I have it to thank for the number of books I’ve written about Coelwulf. At the moment, it just doesn’t ‘work’ and I know it just doesn’t ‘work’ and I still can’t quite work out how to make it ‘work’ but it will. Eventually. Or it won’t, and it will just continue to drive me a bit bonkers. But hey, I’ll share a mock-up cover all the same. (I like to have the cover designed before I start a book.)

The Last King was released on 23rd April. The next day, I began work on book 3 – which at the time I was calling The Last Lord, which quickly changed to The Last Sword, and then became The Last Horse. Throne of Ash was pushed aside, and so too was Lady Estrid. The women in my life, (Throne of Ash’s main character is a woman) were giving me grief. Coelwulf, Rudolf, Edward, Pybba and Haden were much easier going – the banter, the fighting, the ‘scenario’ – it all just fit what I was able to write at that time.

I know what you’re thinking – I was slightly over-achieving at this point – don’t worry, it’s all about to come to an abrupt stop because Lockdown was about to change. I’d had a month where not much had been any different, (I’m a writer, I write, I spend most of my time at home anyway) but now my other-half was furloughed and now began the great ‘walk,’ which I’ve also spent much of the year doing (a walk almost everyday building up to the point where I now go for my walk, rain or shine, sleet or snow.) Now my routine really suffered, and would continue to do so for months. It’s not a complaint, but I’m aware that I need my routine to accomplish all the tasks I set myself. I was still trying to write every day but my word count was down to 1000-2000. But, at least the story still wanted to be told.

By the middle of June I was doing a final edit on The Last Warrior, and the book was released on 25th June, just as The Last Sword had become known as The Last Horse, and I was happy that the first draft was complete. By 1st July, I’d noted in my diary that The Last Horse was ‘completed.’

People were really enjoying The Last King, and by the time The Last Warrior was released at the end of June I had three times as many preorders as I’d had for my ‘new’ series.

By now, some of the restrictions had been removed because Lockdown had ‘allegedly’ come to an end, but I remained local, although this was when my weekly, and now twice-weekly, walks at Cragside began. This was also when I attended (virtually) the International Medieval Congress hosted by Leeds University. I spent an enjoyable week attending so many talks and really reconnecting with my love of academic history. I purchased many, many books on my time period, and really hope they do the same next year, as it meant I could keep up with my almost daily walks.

I was also back to Lady Estrid, and editing The Last Horse, both must have been finished in August, but there’s a note on 11th August saying that Lady Estrid was ‘finished.’ (It wasn’t, but that’s a story for later on – I thought it was finished.) I turned my mind back to the next book about Coelwulf.

But, big things were happening for The Last King throughout the summer months. I’d managed to get an international BookBub deal for it and I’d taken the book on tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club (check here for details of the posts) and was also running a promotion on The History Quill in August.

The Last Horse was released on 27th August, and now I’d had more than double the preorders that I’d had for The Last Warrior, which had been triple the preorders I’d had for The Last King. I think my readers liked Coelwulf – and so did I.

By now I’m into September, and I had to have day-surgery to remove half of my thyroid, so again, things slowed down a bit – although I used the experience when writing The Last Enemy. And I was also into Tier 3 restrictions. By now, my notes have become really sporadic and I can’t track what I was doing to any degree of accuracy as earlier in the year. I think everything was coming off the rails a little bit – two difficult books, surgery, which knocked me more than I thought it would, and Lockdown. It wasn’t easy going with the writing and it was started to frustrate me – I needed my routine back but it was to be a few more months before it returned.

I’d spent my time pummelling Lady Estrid into submission. It had taken a great deal of time to edit, and I’d also written many more words from when I’d so confidently stated it was ‘finished’ in August. The ending was changed, the beginning was changed and I added to many more of my characters. I think in the edit I added about 15k words, and removed some of the elements that were giving me bother.

At some point, I finished The Last Enemy, and was back to editing it, and Lady Estrid, making use of Netgalley and The History Quill, was about to be released to a mixture of feedback – a bit of a Marmite book but one I was really pleased with. It had been a hard slog, over six months of thinking and writing about it, and with a bit of inspiration from Anne O’Brien’s The Queen’s Rival, I hoped I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do – a history of Denmark from the 1020s to 1050 – through the eyes of Lady Estrid, and her large, and extremely influential, far-flung family.

And then to November and NaNoWriMo once more. Did I think about finishing last year’s abandoned project? I didn’t, not at all, but instead took myself to the 1940s for a project I’m calling The Custard Corpses, and also a return to the Earls of Mercia books. Throughout November, I got my ‘routine’ back. I remembered all the restrictions I needed to place on myself to achieve what I wanted to achieve, the fact I prefer to write in the morning, and the knowledge that I can easily write at least 2000 words a day, even when I don’t really want. (I take part in NaNoWriMo every November and have done since 2013. I can’t stress how good it is for reinforcing all the things I know, but often forget, and because I always allow myself to step aside from my usual writing projects, how freeing it can be.)

At 50k, I put The Custard Corpses to one side, and powered through The English King – another story that took a while to find its way – but which did with enough ‘routine.’ The Last Enemy was released at the end of November, and the number of preorders continued to exceed my expectations, as did the number of people reading and reviewing and rating. Thank you to you all.

And to top the year off, I’ve also had the copyright restored to me for the second Earls of Mercia book. It’s a long and tedious story, but suffice to say, it was all reedited and rewritten during 2019 but I only had the paperback rights, and now I can release it in ebook as well. So, The Danish King’s Enemy is mine once more – a new name, a big section rewritten, a new cover, but still the same old Ealdorman Leofwine. If you’ve read one of the previous incarnations, please consider popping a review on the new one. It would be a huge help. And if not, it is in Kindle Unlimited, and it’ll be on special offer at the end of January 2021 too.

I can’t say I’m unhappy with what I’ve written in 2020, but it has been a challenge – not just because of events in the wider-world but also because my characters didn’t always behave – I’m looking at you Lady Estrid, and Throne of Ash.

But, 2020 has been fantastic in terms of the readers and reviewers that I’ve met along the way. I couldn’t have done it without them encouraging me on – demanding to know ‘what next’ for Coelwulf. I’m grateful to have been able to interact with them, and it’s shown me how powerful Netgalley can be, if the book finds a willing audience. I’ve also discovered a huge array of non-fiction books that I’ve been using to help me with my works in progress – and for that I’m grateful to the VIMC in Leeds. Without that my passion wouldn’t have been reignited and without that, I wouldn’t have powered myself through Lady Estrid, and she might well be mouldering in a corner, like other, abandoned projects.

For those thinking that I’ve written too much this year, remember, it has been Lockdown for nearly nine months, in my head, if not in others. I’ve only had my characters to distract me from the wider world. As a comparison, I released seven books in 2019, two of which were largely written in 2018. In 2020 I released six books, one of which was written in 2019, and another book which is ready for January 2021. I’ve managed about the same workload – I have suffered with my routine, and my motivation, but have taken great joy in the response my books have received.

And so to 2021. I have three books to edit and finish, and then I’ll return to the world of Coelwulf. I hope you, as my readers, will stay with me, but if not, thank you for spending 2020 with me. I hope I’ve managed to distract you from events outside our own front doors, and I will continue to try and do so. If you want to follow me, I have a newsletter which can be joined here.

Stay safe, people. I hope 2021 will be ‘better’, although I think for many of us ‘better’ is not quite what we once thought it would be.

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A Fiction Reading Year in Review – 2020

I know I won’t have been the only one to have struggled to find books engaging throughout 2020but there are two trends that have mainly characterised my reading throughout the year. I’ve either found myself in Early England (before 1066), or in the loving embrace of cosy 1920s murder mysteries. I don’t think it’s possible to get further apart.

But there are some books that have fallen outside of those two trends, and two of these books, have been my standout books of the year.

Anne O’Brien’s The Queen’s Rival was a true treat.

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy from Netgalley so didn’t have to wait until the summer to enjoy it.

Here’s the blurb:

One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

England, 1459: Cecily, Duchess of York, is embroiled in a plot to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne. But when the Yorkists are defeated at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Cecily can only watch as her lands are torn apart and divided up by the ruthless Queen Marguerite. From the towers of her prison in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit – one that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King of England.

This is a story of heartbreak, ambition and treachery, of one woman’s quest to claim the throne during the violence and tragedy of the Wars of the Roses.”

I loved this book, and more than that, O’Brien’s choice to tell her story almost exclusively through letters inspired me when I was struggling to write Lady Estrid, and gave me a means to tell a complex family story. But, even without that, I highly recommend this book. Anne O’Brien tells engaging and captivating stories of England’s forgotten women, and that is just the sort of book that appeals to me.

It’s available now in ebook, audiobook and hardback, and when I wrote this, the ebook was only 99p, an absolute steal.

Next up on my list of excellent reads is Camelot by Giles Kristian.

Here’s the blurb:

Britain is a land riven by anarchy, slaughter, famine, filth and darkness. Its armies are destroyed, its heroes dead, or missing. Arthur and Lancelot fell in the last great battle and Merlin has not been these past ten years. But in a small, isolated monastery in the west of England, a young boy is suddenly plucked from his simple existence by the ageing warrior, Gawain. It seems he must come to terms with his legacy and fate as the son of the most celebrated yet most infamous of Arthur’s warriors: Lancelot. For this is the story of Galahad, Lancelot’s son – the reluctant warrior who dared to keep the dream of Camelot alive 

Camelot had a wonderful feel to it, and while, I wasn’t quite as enamoured of it as I was Lancelot, the sort-of prequel, I still can’t recommend it enough. The way Kristian evoked the Arthurian legend was amazing. No matter how much I ‘knew’ what was going to happen, I still wanted the characters to triumph, and that, was a little piece of genius.

Camelot is available now in hardback, ebook and audio book.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I really didn’t read a lot of fantasy this year, which is strange for me. When I did read, I found solace in some tried and tested favourites, Mark Lawrence’s The Girl and the Stars, Katharine Kerr’s return to Deverry with the wonderful Sword of Fire and Terry Pratchett – I’ve been trying to listen to some audiobooks, and although I’m still not sure I like it, I have found the Terry Pratchett audiobooks to be great entertainment, especially as I’ve read all the books in the past. I have the last book in Peter Newman’s Deathless Trilogy to read as well, but I’ve been saving it up because it’s going to be a real treat.

(I’ve just noticed that Mark Lawrence wrote a review for Sword of Fire on the cover. How funny. But, I’ve been a fan of Katharine Kerr for well over twenty years – maybe that’s why I like Mark Lawrence as he clearly is as well.)

But to return to historical fiction, I have stepped, just once or twice, further back in time than the Early English period to the Romans and the Greeks.

Sons of Rome by Turney and Doherty was a fantastic read, each author taking the part of one of two characters, interchanging their lives in a format that worked so well. I have book 2 to read now and I’m excited about that. And also The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden was a stellar read, and I’m still quite cross about the ending! He better put that right if there’s a sequel. I’m also going to give an honourable mention to Derek Birk’s Britannia World’s End. I really, really loved the first book. The second book was not quite as stellar but was still a welcome return to the characters from Book 1.

I’ve also taken on some beta reading projects this year, and have been really impressed by the quality of fiction that people are writing. I’ve been taken to Australia and New Zealand at the time of the gold rush, to Ancient Egypt, to Tudor England, 17th century Paris, 19th century Italy and now I find myself in 19th Century America. I hope these books are released and then I can share my reviews. I read books listed on Netgalley and also on The History Quill. If you love getting your mitts on books before they’re released, I highly recommend both of them, and The History Quill especially if you’re after fresh new voices in historical fiction.

But finally, I will mention the books I’ve read from the Early English period. I’ve not read as widely as I might have liked, but it can be hard to read what you’re writing about at the same time. I’ve spent some time with Matthew Harffy’s creations with Fortress of Fury and A Time For Swords. I’ve also returned to the world of Christine Hancock’s Bright Helm and I can assure that she has a new book, hopefully next year, which readers are going to really, really enjoy – a slight diversion from Byrhtnoth but still very much mentioning him. I’ve been lucky to read a really early copy of it, and I love it already. Bring it on!

I have the last Uhtred book to read, War Lord, but I’ve been saving it up for the holidays.

But, the thing that has really got me through the year has been a vast selection of murder mystery books. The majority have been set in the 1920s in the UK, but I have just discovered E M Powell’s Stanton and Barling mysteries set in the 1100s. These are so entertaining, if quite gory, and what I enjoy most about them, is I’ve never yet guessed who actually committed the murders! The same could be said for the Posey Parker mystery books by L B Hathaway which elevate the 1920s murder mystery to a whole new level. The Verity Kent murder mysteries are also excellent, and have a theme that runs through them all.

So, what I can take away from this is that much of the year has been spent reading cosy murder mysteries, although not many of them have been that cosy. It seems that I need a good mystery to help me unwind and one that’s not too gritty, and one that’s certainly set in the past.

Thank you to the authors who’ve kept me entertained this year, and happy reading everyone. I’m looking forward to more in 2021.

(This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.)

Book Review – The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

England, 1459: Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, is embroiled in a plot to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne. But when the Yorkists are defeated at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Cecily can only watch as her lands are torn apart and divided up by the ruthless Queen Marguerite. From the towers of her prison in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit – one that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV.

This is a story of heartbreak, ambition and treachery, of one woman’s quest to claim the throne during the violence and tragedy of the Wars of the Roses.”

The Queen’s Rival is a stunning look at the ‘later’ life of Cecily Neville from 1459 until 1483. This is not a ‘quiet’ period of history and to cover the tumultuous events, the author adopts the technique of recording the letters of the main protagonists, either from the pen of Cecily or from those who write to her.

It does take a little while to get used to the technique, but the reader is quickly drawn into the story, not perhaps by the events taking place, but rather by the relationship between Cecily and her two sisters, Anne, Duchess of Buckingham and Katherine, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The words they share with each other are just what sisters might well say to each other, especially when they’re not likely to see each other soon.

More importantly, the sisters, while fiercely loyal to their Neville inheritance, are not of one mind about who should rule England, and who has the right to rule England. It highlights just how destructive the War of the Roses was, and is a genius way of quickly ensuring the reader appreciates that families were ripped apart by the protracted war.

This is the story of the women of the later 15th century. It’s their voices that we hear, as they try and come to terms with the rises and falls all of them experience. There are moments when the narrative is hard to read, either because you know what’s going to happen, or just because you really feel for Cecily and don’t want her to experience the tribulations than she does.

I am a huge fan of Anne O’Brien and the ‘forgotten’ women of the medieval period in England. While the author may stress that Cecily is not really a forgotten woman, I was not really aware of her before reading this book. The mother of two kings, the grandmother of future kings, and yet she could also have been queen herself. What an interesting life she led.

I highly recommend this book. And you can find my review here for A Tapestry of Treason.

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

The Queen’s Rival is released in ebook and hardbook on 3rd September 2020. (What a stunning cover.) It is released in paperback today, 15th April 2021.

Book Review – A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“Her actions could make history – but at what price?

1399: Constance of York, Lady Despenser, proves herself more than a mere observer in the devious intrigues of her magnificently dysfunctional family, The House of York.

Surrounded by power-hungry men, including her aggressively self-centred husband Thomas and ruthless siblings Edward and Richard, Constance places herself at the heart of two treasonous plots against King Henry IV.  Will it be possible for this Plantagenet family to safeguard its own political power by restoring either King Richard II to the throne, or the precarious Mortimer claimant?

Although the execution of these conspiracies will place them all in jeopardy, Constance is not deterred, even when the cost of her ambition threatens to overwhelm her.  Even when it endangers her new-found happiness.

With treason, tragedy, heartbreak and betrayal, this is the story of a woman ahead of her time, fighting for herself and what she believes to be right in a world of men.”

A Tapestry of Treason is a stunning novel. The character of Lady Constance is a revelation – she is perhaps the most complicated of Anne O’Brien’s historical ‘women’ to date, and the book delightfully fluctuates between the conspiracies and treasons that she’s involved in, even though she is, but a woman in a man’s world. How she survived the king’s wrath on so many occasions is a bit of a miracle.

In the end, I was completely hooked on the novel, and just read the last 40% or so in one sitting, in heightened anxiety from each high to each new low. Lady Constance certainly wins the heart of the reader, even if she herself would never admit to even having a heart.

I believe this is the best of Anne O’Brien’s books to date.

Thank you to the Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy. I would certainly have read it anyway – and I’m just delighted I got to read it so far in advance of being released.

A Tapestry of Treason is now available in paperback, and is available here.

Book Review – A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“Her actions could make history – but at what price?

1399: Constance of York, Lady Despenser, proves herself more than a mere observer in the devious intrigues of her magnificently dysfunctional family, The House of York.

Surrounded by power-hungry men, including her aggressively self-centred husband Thomas and ruthless siblings Edward and Richard, Constance places herself at the heart of two treasonous plots against King Henry IV.  Will it be possible for this Plantagenet family to safeguard its own political power by restoring either King Richard II to the throne, or the precarious Mortimer claimant?

Although the execution of these conspiracies will place them all in jeopardy, Constance is not deterred, even when the cost of her ambition threatens to overwhelm her.  Even when it endangers her new-found happiness.

With treason, tragedy, heartbreak and betrayal, this is the story of a woman ahead of her time, fighting for herself and what she believes to be right in a world of men.”

A Tapestry of Treason is a stunning novel. The character of Lady Constance is a revelation – she is perhaps the most complicated of Anne O’Brien’s historical ‘women’ to date, and the book delightfully fluctuates between the conspiracies and treasons that she’s involved in, even though she is, but a woman in a man’s world. How she survived the king’s wrath on so many occasions is a bit of a miracle.

In the end, I was completely hooked on the novel, and just read the last 40% or so in one sitting, in heightened anxiety from each high to each new low. Lady Constance certainly wins the heart of the reader, even if she herself would never admit to even having a heart.

I believe this is the best of Anne O’Brien’s books to date.

Thank you to the Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy. I would certainly have read it anyway – and I’m just delighted I got to read it so far in advance of being released.

A Tapestry of Treason is now available in paperback, and is available here.

Book Reviews from Netgalley – The First Queen of England by M J Porter – historical fiction

The First Queen of England has been available on Netgalley for the last month, and it’s garnered some fab reviews. I thought I’d bring them together here, both good and bad, as not all of them are over on Goodreads!

So, as with all book reviews, here’s the blurb;

“Before Anne Boleyn stole the heart of a king and demanded marriage, another woman strove to wed an already married king of England. This is the story of Elfrida, who would become the first crowned Queen of England.

England is united under Edgar, but twenty years of uncertainty and a dwindling royal nursery, have left the royal family vulnerable to extinction. Edgar, a king at only 15 years old, has an acknowledged daughter and wife, but the dying ealdorman, Æthelwald, has commanded his wife to seek out the king, now in his early twenties.

True to her husband’s wishes, Elfrida pursues the King, nervous of her husband’s intentions, but trusting them all the same. When the king tries to make her his concubine, Elfrida refuses and withdraws from the court, only to find herself dreaming of the King, desiring his touch and his presence.

When the King seeks her out once more, she willingly follows him back to his court and finds herself plunged into a world of politics and self-interest where her future happiness rests not only on the king loving her but also on the goodwill of others with much to play for at the King’s court.

Bringing alive the characters of tenth century England; its young king, Edgar; its Ealdormen, Byrhtnoth, Æthelwine, and Ælfhere; the great reforming religious figures of Archbishop Dunstan, Bishop Æthelwold and Oswald and the great women of the period, Lady Elfrida, Lady Æthelflæd and Lady Wulfthryn, The First Queen of England evokes tenth century England at its most enigmatic, shining a welcome light on England’s first crowned queen, a woman who would go on to accomplish much, but who must first steal the heart of an amorous King and earn her place at court, and overcome the obstacle of the outcome of not only the King’s second marriage, but also his first.

The Mercian Brexit can be read as an introduction to The First Queen of England – offering an account of the very early days of king Edgar’s reign form 955-957.

The First Queen of England Part 2 and Part 3 now available – telling the continuing story of Lady Elfrida in late tenth century England.

The King’s Mother is also now available, book 1 in a new trilogy continuing the story of Lady Elfrida.”

I’ll start with the 5/5 reviews, and there are four of them, which is fab!

“I received an ARC from NetGalley. I loved this book. Loved everything about it. Cant wait for part 2. I did get confused here and there because the character names are so similar but once I got that down, it was easy to follow. I love to read about history and a story where a woman is still valuable even after being married once before is even better. I will say I knew nothing about this King or Queen of England but i am glad to know them now.”

“This is the first time I have heard about Elfrida’s story so this as a pleasant surprise. This novel had romance, drama, and political intrigue! I’m definitely looking forward to purchasing the sequel!”

“Lady Elfrida has laid her husband to rest. He has died at a very young age. She also is widowed at a young age. Though they had been married for several years there are no living children. She is sent back to her fathers home. Just before her husband passed he had mentioned the King. She discovers that she was supposed to have married the king, but her husband was besotted with her and kept her for himself. It was a happy union. Now she discovers that the kings wife and small daughter are to go live in a nunnery. He will be without a wife. When she meets the king she is instantly beside herself with the strong attraction they feel for each other. She knows that to be Queen she will have to become his wife and not a concubine. With the help of strong ladies from the court, who will advise her on what needs to be done, she will do everything in her power to become the first Queen of England. Well written. Has actual persons in the storyline. Interesting!”

“A wonderful and very interesting story about King Edgar of England and his third wife, Elfrida. Highly enjoyable! I read it in one night. A must for Historical Fiction Fans! Will definitely be reading book two in this series. I received a copy of this book from Netgalley. Thank you, Netgalley! All opinions are my own.”

And then the 4/5 and 3/5 reviews.

“Extremely interesting and factual. Great insight to the culture that spawned the Tudor dynasty..  Will look forward to reading more by this author and will recommend.”

“I was disappointed in this book as I had thought it to be historical fiction…unfortunately, there was a lack of history. I feel King Edgar of England and Elfrida both hved stories of their own, but this book only centers on their passion, even that not very well. The writing felt uninspired, also. Only my opinion.”

The First Queen of England is still available on Netgalley for a few more days for anyone who fancies delving into tenth century England (until 25th May 2019), and I would like to thank all reviewers for reading and offering their opinions! I appreciate each and every one of them, (and yes, that does mean the not too enthused ones as well – not everyone can like everything –  I certainly don’t.)

The First Queen of England is available on Amazon now (and also Audible), along with Book 2 and Book 3, and the first part of a second series, The King’s Mother. Books 2 and 3 of the second trilogy will be published soon.

Book Review – Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“To those around her she was a loyal subject.

In her heart she was a traitor.

1399: England’s crown is under threat. King Richard II holds onto his power by an ever-weakening thread, with exiled Henry of Lancaster back to reclaim his place on the throne.

For Elizabeth Mortimer, there is only one rightful King – her eight-year-old nephew, Edmund. Only he can guarantee her fortunes, and protect her family’s rule over the precious Northern lands bordering Scotland.

But many, including Elizabeth’s husband, do not want another child-King. Elizabeth must hide her true ambitions in Court, and go against her husband’s wishes to help build a rebel army.

To question her loyalty to the King places Elizabeth in the shadow of the axe.

To concede would curdle her Plantagenet blood.

This is one woman’s quest to turn history on its head.”

Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien is an engaging novel. Elizabeth Percy is an intriguing character – in many ways just as headstrong as her husband – Harry Hotspur, and with a firm belief in the value of her own royal birthright.

The blurb for the book is, sadly, misleading. Much of Elizabeth Percy’s vitriol is not directed against Richard II, indeed she seems to really rather like him for the brief appearance he makes, but rather against the next king, Henry IV, who usurps the throne, with the support of the Earl of Northumberland and her husband, but who then fails to pay the desired blood price. It is Henry IV that she wishes to see removed from the throne of England, not Richard II, although it is her nephew that she wishes to replace him with. In this, her husband is very much in agreement.

There is a wonderful sense of impending doom throughout the first half of the novel, but I didn’t feel as though the second half succeeded with quite the same sense of drama. That said, Elizabeth is too interesting a character to not want to read about all of her life, and I enjoyed the character’s own journey to self-realisation that occurs by the final pages of the book.

All in all, a firm addition to Anne O’Brien’s cast of somewhat ‘unlikely’ heroic women of the Middle Ages who have sadly been overlooked by the joy that is popular history.

A firm 4/5 and my thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.

Queen of the North is released in paperback on 18th April 2019, and you can grab your copy here, although other retailers are available. (To all GOT fans, I dare you to say this title without a bit of Jon Snow – King of the North – ’cause I can’t.)

And, just to tease you, the next book in Anne O’Brien’s expanding collection, A Tapestry of Treason, due out in August 2019, is a wonderful and delightful book. Check it out as well.