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 – Ravenspur by Conn Iggulden

Ravenspur, by Conn Iggulden, the fourth book in a series about the Rise of the Tudors, suffers, from the very beginning, with pacing issues, and an apparent unease from the author to actually tell the story of the battles of the War of the Roses, even though this novel ‘hooks’ itself onto the important battles of the period, ending with the Battle of Bosworth Field. The author goes to a great deal of trouble to set up each and every battle, and the reader is left wanting greater details of the battle, only for the author to almost gloss over the entire thing and move onto the next chapter in the long-running civil war.

Furthermore, the desire of the author to get to the Battle of Bosworth in this novel means that the novel is uneven – 80% of the novel takes place over the space of a single year, and to all intents and purposes, looks as though it will stop there, only for it to leap forward eleven or twelve years and continue telling its story. It would perhaps have been better to split this novel into two books and allow Richard III a little more time on the throne.

The characters of the period are told with little flare and with absolutely no sympathy for their plight. The main women in the story – Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville barely have any pages to themselves and when they do appear it is more often that not only as objects for the male characters of the story to complain about or belittle. And this continues with Richard III’s poor wife.

The male characters of the story are equally presented with little or no understanding of their characters and not a single one of them elicited any sort of emotional response. Edward IV is a swaggering idiot (and fat for quite a bit of it), Earl Warwick is indecisive and stupid, Richard III (or Gloucester) is a simpleton following his brother where ever he takes him and then turning into some sort of possessed maniac, and poor old Edward, son of Margaret of Anjou, just gets to look pretty and make a fool of himself in battle.

Overall, the story moves very slowly, and without any emotional connection with the characters, it is a slog to get to the end, which many will already know. And that’s another problem. With good historical fiction, even the inevitable conclusion is often presented as only one possible outcome, with this novel there is never any (apart from briefly before the Battle of Barnet) moment where I wondered if the author had managed to present a possible alternative, which would ultimately fail, but would still give a little bit of hope to the reader and the characters in the story both. Sadly, I was disappointed with such a drab retelling of the end of the War of the Roses.