Review: “Pandora” by Anne Rice (Novel)

Well, ever since I enjoyed Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Armand” several months ago, I’ve been meaning to read another novel in Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles” series. But, after finding a second-hand copy of a spin-off novel from 1998 called “Pandora” online, I decided to read this instead.

Interestingly, although this novel is a spin-off from a fairly large series, it works reasonably well as a stand-alone novel (thanks to a lot of recaps in the earlier and later parts and a reasonably self-contained main story). But, if you’ve read any of the main “Vampire Chronicles” novels before this one, then you’ll probably get a little more out of it.

So, let’s take a look at “Pandora”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1999 Arrow (UK) paperback edition of “Pandora” that I read.

The novel begins in Paris in 1997. An ancient vampire called Pandora is sitting in a cafe and writing her life story in a notebook given to her by a younger vampire called David Talbot, who is trying to collect a library of these accounts from his fellow vampires. She begins by recounting how he met her whilst she was drinking from the heart of a lonely wanderer on a bridge, and how he persuaded her to set her story down on paper.

The story then flashes back to Pandora’s youth in Rome in 15 B.C. As the daughter of a wealthy senator during the more liberal and benevolent rule of Augustus, she is highly educated and her early life is an idyllic mixture of rituals, poetry reading, interesting discussions, social events etc.. Over the years that follow, she briefly meets a fascinating man called Marius, has a couple of marriages and also joins a hedonistic Egyptian cult for a while. Life is good, until Augustus dies and is replaced by a more despotic and tyrannical emperor called Tiberius.

When Pandora, now in her thirties, returns home one day, she finds that almost everyone is gone. Her father tells her that he has just recieved news that Tiberius’ elite guards are planning to massacre the entire family on account of some perceived disloyalty. He has arranged for his friends to spirit her out of the city and orders that she leaves at once. And, as she hides in a nearby merchant’s cart, she witnesses both his death and that of the two soldiers sent to kill him.

After this, she travels out of Rome by sea – but, on the voyage to Antioch, she starts to be troubled by strange dreams about ancient Egypt. Dreams that involve drinking blood…

One of the first things that I will say is that this is a wonderfully atmospheric, well-written, intelligent, gothic and compelling vampire novel 🙂 Yes, Rice’s more formal writing style may take a little while to get used to and the novel takes a little while for the main story to really become dramatic, but it is well worth sticking with it 🙂 Seriously, if you enjoy either historical fiction and/or vampire fiction, then this one is well worth reading. Not to mention that the fact that this is a novel that opens with someone writing in a notebook in a cafe (something I used to do a lot about a decade or so ago) instantly piqued my interest too 🙂

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements. Although it is slightly more of a historical drama story than a horror story, it still contains some horror elements 🙂 These mostly consist of psychological horror, tragic horror, vampire horror, a subtle hint of cosmic/existential horror, some suspense and a few moments of gory horror. This adds some much-needed gothic darkness to the novel, which contrasts really well with the beautifully-rendered historical settings and the joyful parts of Pandora’s life, in addition to making some parts of the story even more compelling and dramatic too 🙂

Although I haven’t studied the history in enough depth to talk about how accurate it is, the novel’s historical settings are really atmospheric 🙂 Plus, it is always cool to see either ancient Rome and/or ancient Egypt appear in the horror genre (see Rebecca Levene’s awesome “Anno Mortis” or Guy N. Smith’s brilliantly creepy “Accursed” for non-vampire examples of this).

The novel makes these settings feel both realistic and stylised at the same time, is filled with historical references and also includes a few interesting touches too (eg: in the segments set in ancient Rome, Antioch etc.. the word “vampire” – a later term- is never used. Instead, the characters refer to vampires as “blood drinkers”).

In true Anne Rice fashion, these settings are lavishly and vividly described in a way that could easily rival or surpass even the most large-budget TV series (like HBO’s “Rome” etc…) and, in keeping with the “aristocratic vampire” thing, the novel also focuses more on the upper classes of the time too. This both gives the main characters a lot more rights, freedoms, education etc.. whilst also adding some subtle unease and/or moral ambiguity to the story (eg: Pandora’s unthinking/uncritical attitudes towards slavery, the whims and cruelty of emperors etc…) that contrasts brilliantly with the sumptuous escapist fantasy of being rich in Roman times. Seriously, I really loved the historical elements of this novel 🙂

Thematically, this novel is about both the staying power of cultures and the transience of religions, whilst also exploring both the meaning of life and the limits of “reason” too. Like with Rice’s “The Vampire Armand”, this novel has a fairly spiritual quality to it (even including some vision/dream-based scenes that are both beautiful and horrifying) – but, unlike that novel, the ultimate message of “Pandora” is either an existentialist or a nihilist one, where even science and logic are presented as silly constructions in the face of the nothingness of death/eternity – with the only way to stay sane being to find one’s own meaning in life.

Likewise, the novel talks about how some elements of ancient Rome still survive in modern culture whilst also focusing on how personal revelation/experience/thought is a path to spiritual understanding (with all organised religions in the novel shown to either be short-lived cults, empty traditions, confidence tricks and/or authoritarian structures more interested in power than spirituality).

In terms of the characters, they are really well-written 🙂 Pandora gets the bulk of the novel’s characterisation and she comes across as a very realistic, interesting, morally-ambiguous, complex and intelligent character who also develops and changes over the course of the novel too. Likewise, a lot of the novel’s drama also comes from the characters too (eg: the way that Marius and Pandora’s contrasting views about the meaning of life gradually drive them apart, how Pandora uses rhetoric to defeat an enemy etc…) – which really helps to keep everything really compelling 🙂

As for the writing, it is superb 🙂 Although this novel’s first-person narration is written in a rather formal and/or old-fashioned style that might take a while to get used to, this not only allows Rice to add a lot of extra atmosphere, depth, vividness and personality to the novel – but it is also an absolutely perfect fit for the narrator (eg: a 2000+ year old aristocratic vampire), which really helps to cement the impression that you are actually reading a notebook that a vampire is casually writing in a cafe. Something further enhanced by the occasional well-placed fourth-wall break and/or Pandora’s asides about various things.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good 🙂 At 406 pages, with relatively large type, this novel is refreshingly concise compared to other novels I’ve seen by the author. Likewise, whilst this novel isn’t exactly fast-paced (and the recaps at the beginning can slow things down a bit), it remains compelling throughout – with the use of atmosphere, personality and/or suspense keeping even the more “uneventful” parts of the story interesting to read. Although some later parts of the story feel a bit rushed in comparison to the rest of the story, this kind of mirrors how memory works and also fits in well with the idea that Pandora is only spending two nights or so writing her life story.

As for how well this twenty-two year old novel has aged, it has aged fairly well 🙂 Not only do the historical segments give the story a more “timeless” feel, but the early scenes set in 1990s Paris have a wonderfully “90s” atmosphere too. Yes, the writing style is deliberately old-fashioned and some elements of the story (eg: the class politics of Roman society, the slavery of the time etc…) would probably be written about in a more explicitly critical way in a modern novel (plus, a brief segment about a transgender character late in the novel would probably be written slightly differently today too), but the story, atmosphere, characters etc… are still timelessly compelling.

All in all, this is a really brilliant vampire novel 🙂 It is atmospheric, intelligent and compelling, with some fascinating characters and brilliant writing. I probably haven’t done this book justice in this review, but it is one of those books that really shows off the power of the written word at its very best 🙂 If you love gothic fiction, vampires, ancient Egypt, ancient Rome/Antioch, writing in notebooks in cafes etc.. then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Seventh Heaven” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read an Alice Hoffman novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at the second-hand copy of Hoffman’s 1990 novel “Seventh Heaven” that I found online a few weeks earlier.

If I remember rightly, I chose this novel because the premise vaguely reminded me of a hilarious comedy movie from the 1980s called “Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark” and because I’m a fan of Hoffman’s writing style.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Seventh Heaven”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2003 Berkley (US) paperback edition of “Seventh Heaven” that I read.

The novel begins in the Long Island suburb of Hemlock Street in 1959. The street is an idyllic and perfectly ordered place until old Mr.Olivera dies and his wife moves out of town. Slowly, their empty house falls into disrepair- attracting a flock of crows and filling the vicinity with a strange stench. Eventually, a few of the local residents decide to fix up the house and convince Mrs. Olivera to put it up for sale.

The house is bought by Nora Silk, a recently-divorced mother of two. However, it soon becomes clear that she doesn’t quite fit into the prim and staid world of Hemlock Street. Meanwhile, local cop, Joe Hennessy. is feeling a sense of dissatisfaction with life after being promoted to detective and experiencing his first serious case. Local teenager Ace McCarthy learns that his brother Jackie is running some kind of scam involving their father’s garage.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a really atmospheric and well-written historical drama novel that is filled with excellent characters, I slightly preferred the other two Alice Hoffman novels that I’ve read (“Turtle Moon” and “The Ice Queen” ) to this one. Even so, it’s still a really good novel.

Unlike the other Hoffman novels I’ve read, this one is more of a diffuse “slice of life” drama novel than a story with a single clear plot. Although there are several interesting, dramatic, romantic, depressing, cheerful and/or poignant sub-plots, this novel almost feels more like a disguised short story collection at times.

Yes, there is sort of a main plot, but this novel feels more like an interesting window into a time and place than a traditional novel. Still, it’s a really interesting one that also takes a little bit more of a “realistic” approach to the plot (eg: some things are left unresolved, there isn’t really any “deus ex machina” morality etc..).

Still, this isn’t to say that the novel is without Hoffman’s traditional magic realist elements. Even so, these were a little bit more understated than I’d expected. Yes, there are a few psychic moments (which are just treated as ordinary) and a couple of moments invovling ghosts and/or magic, but these are more background elements than central parts of the story.

For the most part, this is a slightly more “realistic” drama novel and this is also reflected in the novel’s writing – which, whilst still expertly-written, doesn’t contain quite as many of Hoffman’s signature vividly magical descriptions as I’d expected.

The novel’s historical elements are really well-handled, and the novel contains a vividly atmospheric version of late 1950s/early 1960s America that almost feels real.

Like most historical novels about this period of history, it shows the tension between the idyllic popular image of the time and the problems (eg: abusive relationships, bullying, crime, ostracism/snobbishness and, briefly, racism) lurking beneath the stiflingly pristine and polite surface. Yet, unlike some more modern historical novels, the story makes it’s points subtly and credits the reader with enough intelligence to make their own moral decisions about what is happening and about the story’s characters.

Amongst other things, one theme in this novel is the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. The novel handles this in all sorts of interesting ways, such as setting the first half of the book in 1959 and the second half in 1960.

In the latter half of the book, many of the characters become a little bit more friendly towards Nora, loveless relationships begin to end, characters change gradually in other ways etc.. Even so, it is interesting how the segment set in the 1950s still contains a few subtle hints of the 1960s (eg: one of the teenage characters trying marijuana for the first time etc..). It shows historical change as a gradual thing, with the late 1950s and early 1960s being both similar and different.

Likewise, this is a novel about dissatisfaction. About how the pristine idyll of Hemlock Street is as much a prison as a sanctuary. How many of the characters dream of better lives, repress their feelings and/or hold secrets from each other. You really get the sense of tension between reality and fantasy when reading this novel and it is both poignant and fascinating.

In terms of the characters, this novel really excels 🙂 This is very much a character-based novel and, although Nora is possibly the main character, you’ll get to know many of the residents of Hemlock Street extremely well.

All of the characters come across as realistic people with quirks, flaws, hopes, feelings and dreams. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this novel highly enough. Although the story’s plot is a bit diffuse, the characters are one of the main things that will probably make you want to keep reading it.

This, of course, brings me on to the writing. Hoffman’s third-person narration here is as excellent as ever. This novel is written in the wonderfully flowing and vivid style that you’d expect from an Alice Hoffman novel. However, whilst this novel still contains the brilliantly imaginative, magical and evocative descriptions that you’d expect, the narration here can also often be a little bit more “mundane” or “down to earth” than you might expect.

Given that this story is a slightly more “realistic” drama, then this was probably a deliberate dramatic choice. Even so, the narration still flows really well and there are enough of Hoffman’s brilliant moments of description here to give the story the kind of atmosphere you’d expect (albeit in a slightly more understated way).

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 255 pages in length, the novel feels neither too long nor too short. Likewise, whilst the novel has a fairly “slow paced” kind of plot that focuses on everyday life and more small-scale drama, the story itself still moves at a reasonable pace thanks to Hoffman’s expert narration that just flows really, really well.

As for how this twenty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged excellently. Thanks to it’s historical setting and the very slightly more modern perspective on said setting, this novel feels like it could easily have been written any time within the past couple of decades. The characters are still as interesting as ever, the setting is still atmospheric and the writing is still really good.

All in all, although this isn’t the best Alice Hoffman novel I’ve read, it’s still a really good novel. If you want a story with an interesting historical setting, well-written characters and lots of atmosphere, then this one is certainly worth reading. Yes, it is slightly more of a “slice of life” drama than a traditional novel and there aren’t quite as many of the quirky magical realist elements as you may expect, but it is still a really well-written and interesting novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “England Expects” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from reading spin-off novels and take a look at a detective novel that I’d planned to read about two or three years ago. I am, of course, talking about Sara Sheridan’s 2014 novel “England Expects”. This was part of a boxset of the first three of Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” novels that I was given by a family member for Christmas in 2016.

At the time, I read the first two books (but only got round to reviewing the first one) and also ended up getting a copy of the fourth one . A couple of months ago, I ended up reading the fifth novel because I couldn’t find my copies of the third and fourth books at the time. Needless to say, they turned up shortly afterwards and I’ve been meaning to read them ever since.

Although “England Expects” is the third novel in a series, it can be enjoyed as a standalone novel. Yes, you’ll get slightly more out of it if you already know the characters from the first two books, but it tells a fairly self-contained detective story.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “England Expects”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) paperback edition of “England Expects” that I read.

The novel begins in Brighton in 1953. It is a bright summer day and Express reporter Joey Gillingham has just arrived in the city to investigate a story. But, since he has a bit of time to spare, he decides to stop off at a local barbershop for a shave and a haircut. Whilst the barber goes into the backroom to get some tea for Joey, a mysterious man strides into the shop and slashes Joey’s throat.

Needless to say, ex-military intelligence officer turned debt collector and unofficial detective Mirabelle Bevan is intrigued when she hears about the murder. Her friend and colleague, Vesta, has other things on her mind though. Her partner Charlie has proposed to her and she isn’t sure whether to accept or not, because she worries that it might affect her job with Mirabelle. So, the case provides a welcome distraction for her too.

Not only that, the lead detective on the investigation (McGregor) is shocked to hear that one of his detectives has moved Joey’s body before he had a chance to examine it and that Joey’s notebook is missing. And, after someone dies in suspicious circumstances at the local masonic lodge, it soon becomes clear to all concerned that the case is more complex than it first seemed….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a fairly compelling detective thriller novel, which is a little bit like a blend of classic Agatha Christie, modern historical fiction and a hardboiled detective novel. Even though it has a couple of small flaws, the novel has a fairly good historical atmosphere and a plot that becomes more thrilling as the story progresses.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re fairly good. There is the usual thing about seemingly separate crimes turning out to be part of the same case, and the investigation includes a really good mixture of Agatha Christie-style questioning scenes, some suspenseful sneaking around, a couple of red herrings, a few Sherlock Holmes-like deductions and a few elements that wouldn’t be out of place in an old hardboiled crime novel. These elements work really well and it’s really cool to see an Agatha Christie-style mystery, but with a slightly grittier and more hardboiled edge to it 🙂

The novel’s thriller elements, which mostly consist of suspenseful spy-like snooping and a couple of more dramatic moments, appear more prominently in the later parts of the story and help to keep things fairly gripping. Likewise, one of the major themes of this novel is secret societies, which helps to add a bit of extra suspense and drama too – even if this topic is handled in a rather cheesy and/or stylised way during some parts of the story.

In terms of the novel’s historical elements, the novel has a really impressive historical atmosphere and, like in many of Sheridan’s other novels, is also critical of the problems and narrow-minded attitudes lurking behind the twee respectability of 1950s Britain. Although this element of the story is mostly handled well, a couple of moments would probably have worked better if they had been handled in a more subtle way.

The novel also includes some rather amusing satire – such as in the opening scene involving the Express reporter (who, for example, wants a conservative military haircut). Not to mention that, if you’ve ever visited the modern version of Brighton, it’s fascinating to see what the city would have looked like during the 1950s (with, for example, the Royal Pavillion being in a state of disrepair etc..) too.

In terms of the characters, they’re really good. In addition to seeing a few familiar characters from other novels in the series, the characters all seem like fairly realistic (if mildly stylised) people with realistic motivations, imperfections and personalities. The characters really help to add a lot of drama and historical atmosphere to the story and are probably one of the best parts of the novel.

As for the writing, it’s really good too. This novel’s third-person narration is formal and descriptive enough to add some historical atmosphere to the story, whilst also being “matter of fact” enough to be fairly readable and relaxing too.

Likewise, the novel’s length and pacing are really good. At an efficient 271 pages in length, the novel never feels bloated. Likewise, although some of the earlier parts of the story are closer to a slower-paced traditional detective story, the story gradually becomes more thrilling and fast-paced as it progresses in a way reminiscent of classic vintage thriller novels like Agatha Christie’s “N or M?” and classic hardboiled detective fiction.

All in all, this is a compelling historical detective thriller. It’s an atmospheric and intriguing blend of traditional Agatha Christie-style fiction and more hardboiled fiction that combines it’s detective and thriller elements really well. Yes, there are some small flaws, but it is still a good novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Review: “Operation Goodwood” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I read one of Sara Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” historical detective novels. Although I read the first two books in 2017 (but only got round to reviewing the first one), I didn’t get round to reading any more of them, since I was going through a phase of not reading much back then.

When I remembered the series, I looked for my copies of the third and fourth books, but couldn’t remember where I’d put them (Edit: I finally found them shortly after finishing the first draft of this review). So, instead, I ended up buying a cheap second-hand hardback copy of the fifth novel “Operation Goodwood” (2016) online. And, since this is a series where each novel tells a self-contained story, I thought that I’d read it next.

So, let’s take a look at “Operation Goodwood”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) hardback edition of “Operation Goodwood” that I read.

The novel begins in summer 1955 at Goodwood. Debt collector and ex-SOE agent Mirabelle Bevan is watching a motor race with her partner Superintendent McGregor. After catching a pickpocket sneaking through the crowd, Mirabelle returns the stolen money just in time to see a racer called Dougie Beaumont beat Stirling Moss to the finish line.

Several weeks later, Mirabelle wakes up in the middle of the night in her flat in Brighton. The flat is on fire! After a narrow escape from the burning building, she watches the fire service stretcher a dead body out of the flat above. To her shock, the body is none other than Dougie Beaumont. Although the injuries on his neck suggest that he took his own life, something doesn’t quite add up about this. So, Mirabelle decides to investigate…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a fairly solid historical detective novel. Although it didn’t have quite the same gloomy “film noir”-like atmosphere as the earlier books in the series that I’ve read, it is still a rather compelling mystery that is kind of a bit like a cross between a formal Agatha Christie-style detective story and a more modern/gritty historical detective novel.

The novel’s detective elements are reasonably good, with the story taking more of an Agatha Christie-style emphasis on interviewing people and finding out the motive for the crime (as opposed to Sherlock Holmes-style deductions from physical evidence). Even so, there’s a fair amount of hidden clues, red herrings, sneaking around and clever ruses here too.

As you would expect from a detective story, there is also a second murder that is linked to the first one. But, whilst this second murder is solved, the culprit for the first one isn’t explicitly stated. However, the novel gives enough background information, hints etc… for astute readers to guess who was probably responsible for it. Given the motive, this implied conclusion seems somewhat realistic and also helps to add a slightly chilling tone to this part of the story.

In terms of the historical setting, it is reasonably well written. In addition to a good variety of locations (eg: Brighton, Goodwood, London, Chichester, Tangmere etc..), the novel also does the usual thing of contrasting the genteel popular image of 1950s Britain with all of the stifling repression, prejudices, conservatism etc.. that lurked beneath the surface of it.

There are also quite a few references to major events and historical figures of the time, with some major elements of the plot also revolving around a less well-known (and very disturbing) part of 1950s history. But, if you’ve read about these colonial atrocities before, then the fact that references to them are somewhat understated during the early-middle parts of the novel might tip you off about the ending though. Even so, the novel does use the reader’s knowledge of 1950s history to plant a few clever red herrings too.

In terms of the characters, they are fairly well-written. In addition to a few familiar faces from earlier books in the series (eg: Vesta, Charlie etc..), Mirabelle is the same confident, realistic and resourceful detective as usual too. McGregor is, in the classic fashion, an official detective who is always a few steps behind Mirabelle (in addition to being the source of a few scenes of relationship-based drama too). Most of the other characters are either ordinary people who help Mirabelle or aristocrats who have secrets and/or possible motives for murder.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third person narration is formal and descriptive enough to emphasise the 1950s setting, but “matter of fact” enough to seem both modern and easily-readable. As you would expect from a classic-style detective story, the third-person narrator always follows Mirabelle and she is present during pretty much every scene of the novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At a fairly efficient 272 pages in length (plus several pages of historical notes, reading group questions etc..), this novel never really feels bloated or over-extended. Likewise, whilst the story moves along at a fairly moderate pace, it is compelling enough for it not to seem too slow-paced.

All in all, this is a reasonably good detective novel. Whilst it doesn’t really have the same gloomy atmosphere as the earlier books in the series, and the focus on aristocratic characters/suspects gives the novel a slightly old-school Agatha Christie-like tone which means that it doesn’t stand out from the crowd as much as I’d have liked, it is still a fairly solid detective story.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get about a four.

Review: “Heresy” By S. J. Parris (Novel)

Well, it has been quite a while since I last read a historical novel. And, after seeing the name Giordano Bruno mentioned in the previous novel I read, I remembered a really brilliant historical thriller I read a couple of months earlier called “Sacrilege” by S. J. Parris.

A few weeks after I’d read that novel, I ended up returning to the charity shop in Petersfield where I bought it and found two other Parris novels there. So, I thought that it was finally time to take a look at one of them – Parris’ 2010 novel “Heresy”.

So, let’s take a look at “Heresy”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “Heresy” that I read.

The novel begins with a short scene set in Naples in 1576. A monk called Giordano Bruno is reading a banned manuscript in the monastery’s privy when he is interrupted by the suspicious abbot. Barely having time to flush the manuscript, Bruno is placed under suspicion and ordered to wait for the inquisition. Luckily for Bruno, his room-mate gives him a dagger and tells him to flee out of the window before it is too late.

The story then flashes forwards to London in 1583. By now, Bruno is a friend of Sir Philip Sidney – nephew of Sir Francis Walshingham, the Queen’s spymaster. Sidney is about to take a trip to Oxford University to entertain an obnoxious nobleman from Poland and Bruno is invited too. Although Bruno originally plans to attend a debate and look for a lost Greek manuscript in Oxford, Walshingham orders Bruno to be on the look out for religious plots too.

Of course, a couple of days after Bruno arrives at the university, there is a brutal murder in the grounds and he is tasked with investigating it….

One of the first things I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a bit more slow-paced than Parris’ “Sacrilege”, it’s a very atmospheric and compelling detective story that could easily rival some of C. J. Sansom’s earlier “Shardlake” novels. In addition to the traditional detective story thing of setting most of the story in one claustrophobic location (eg: Oxford), this novel also includes some suspsenful and gripping spy thriller elements too. Even so, this is slightly more of a detective story than a thriller.

The novel’s detective elements are pretty interesting too, with Bruno finding himself on the trail of a serial killer who kills their victims in ways reminiscent of the famous religious martyrs of the time. The investigation itself remains a fairly constant thing throughout the novel and, although some of the clues that Bruno finds seem a little bit contrived, there is usually a logical explanation for them and they help to keep the story moving at a fairly decent pace. Plus, of course, the gloomy, rainy spires of Oxford are the perfect setting for a detective story too 🙂

Likewise, whilst the novel’s spy thriller elements aren’t emphasised to the same extent that they are in Parris’ “Sacrilege”, they still help to add a bit of thrillingly suspenseful drama to the story. In addition to a few secret codes, clandestine meetings and suspenseful scenes of snooping, there are also some quite literal “cloak and dagger” moments later in the story that really help to keep the denouement fairly gripping. Even so, this novel is more of a detective story than a thriller.

Like in a lot of novels set in Elizabethan times, the fractious religious politics of the time play a rather large part in this story and also help to add a rather ominous atmosphere to the story too. In a genius move, Parris ensures that Bruno doesn’t really take too much of a side in these religious disputes, which allows for both of the major Christian denominations of the time to be depicted in an equally critical way.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Not only is Bruno a fairly interesting protagonist, but he often finds himself in situations where he is unsure of who he can trust, which helps to add suspense to the story. The novel’s cast of background characters all come across as reasonably realistic people, who almost all have some kind of tragedy or secret in their lives. This really helps to emphasise the harsh nature of the time the story is set in, in addition to adding a bit of extra mystery to the story too.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s first-person narration is very well-written. Like in C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels, most of the story’s narration is kept fairly “timeless”, with only a few olde-worlde phrases added occasionally to give the story flavour. This allows the story to remain readable and move at a decent pace. Plus, like with a lot of historical novels, there’s also a fair amount of emphasis on atmospheric descriptions and dialogue too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. Although, at 474 pages long, it could have possibly been trimmed a bit, it never really felt too long. Likewise, although the story remains fairly moderately-paced until some of the more fast-paced scenes later in the story, the story’s underlying mystery and the general atmosphere of the story really help to keep these slower parts of the story compelling.

All in all, this is a really intriguing and atmospheric detective novel. Yes, it isn’t as fast-paced as Parris’ “Sacrilege”, but it is still a reasonably compelling historical mystery story that fans of C.J.Sansom will probably enjoy 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four.

Review: “Bring Up The Bodies” By Hilary Mantel (Novel)

Well, although I had slightly mixed feelings about Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel “Wolf Hall“, I was still in the mood for historical fiction. So, I thought that I’d check out the novel’s 2012 sequel – “Bring Up The Bodies”.

Like with “Wolf Hall”, I found a second-hand copy of this novel in a charity shop in Petersfield (the same shop, no less) last year.

Although this novel is a sequel to “Wolf Hall”, it can theoretically be read as a stand-alone novel. However, it is worth reading “Wolf Hall” first – both in order to learn more about the characters and, more importantly, to get used to Mantel’s unusual writing style too.

So, let’s take a look at “Bring Up The Bodies”. Needless to say, this review contains SPOILERS. But, if you have a fairly basic knowledge of Tudor history, then you’ll already know how this novel will end.

This is the 2013 Fourth Estate (UK) paperback edition of “Bring Up The Bodies” that I read.

The novel begins in Wiltshire in 1535. King Henry VIII is on holiday, taking a tour of the many stately houses of England, accompanied by his faithful advisor Thomas Cromwell. During this holiday, Henry begins to take a liking to Jane Seymour, whilst his relationship with his wife Anne Boleyn grows ever more distant and acrimonious.

And, after a complex series of events, the King wishes to end his marriage to Anne so that he can wed Jane instead. And, of course, there is only one person that the king can entrust with this devious task… Thomas Cromwell.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that whilst it is still a character study of Thomas Cromwell, there is more focus on intrigue and plotting than in “Wolf Hall”. As such, it’s kind of like a more realistic version of “Game Of Thrones”.

Plus, although this novel certainly isn’t a fast-paced thriller, it feels a lot more focused and dramatic than “Wolf Hall” does. In part, this is because I’ve got used to Mantel’s unusual writing style and, in part, it is because this novel tells a somewhat more linear story (with fewer flashbacks, time jumps etc..) than “Wolf Hall” does.

Like with “Wolf Hall”, one of this novel’s strengths lies in it’s atmosphere. The story is filled with all sorts of poetic descriptions of Tudor life, which really help to bring the story to life.

Whilst this story doesn’t go in the dystopian direction of something like S.J.Parris’ “Sacrilege“, it doesn’t present an entirely rose-tinted version of the Tudor age either. This is a novel set in a world where opulence and squalour sit side by side, where the king wields near-absolute power and everything revolves around the people who try to influence him.

This exploration of power is best seen in one scene where, after a jousting accident, Henry’s court fears that he is dead. Even if you know the basic history, this scene is still surprisingly suspenseful. In the brief moment where everyone fears Henry’s loss, you can really feel the instability and uncertainty that comes from having all authority reside within one man.

Then, in a moment of genius, this scene is brilliantly counterpointed by a moment where Henry publicly berates Cromwell for his ambitions – only to meekly speak to Cromwell later when he realises that, without Cromwell, his job as king would be much more difficult. It’s a scene which brilliantly shows that power, by it’s very nature, is not something that can be truly held by just one person.

This is also, as you may have guessed, a novel about death too. In addition to all of the events leading up to Anne’s execution, this novel focuses heavily on how the dead influence the living. Not only are many of the novel’s events set into motion after Catherine Of Aragon dies from natural causes, but Cromwell is also shown to be motivated by the memory of his time with Cardinal Wolsey etc…

Another one of this novel’s strengths lies in the characters – Cromwell in particular. Because both this novel and “Wolf Hall” focus so heavily on Cromwell, the scenes in the later parts of “Bring Up The Bodies” where he becomes much more of a morally-ambiguous character are so subtle and gradual that you might initially find yourself smirking along with him until you suddenly remember the gravity of what he is doing.

These scenes are combined with some brilliant moments of dark comedy (eg: Cromwell accidentally using Christmas decorations to scare a confession out of someone etc..) in such a way that Cromwell’s slow descent into evil is softened to the point of seeming even more chillingly realistic. He’s a loveable rogue… until the gavel falls on his enemies and they are taken to the scaffold.

Likewise, the novel’s portrayal of Henry VIII is fairly nuanced and complicated too – with the jovial and boisterous side of his character contrasted with his more emotional, sensitive and melancholic elements. Despite his bitter plot against his wife, he is also shown to be a surprisingly … noble… man, rather than the lecherous glutton of popular culture (although there are certainly hints of this side of him emerging…)

Anne Boleyn, on the other hand, is shown to be a much harsher and sharper character than she was in “Wolf Hall”. Although she still retains some dwindling power, her marriage to Henry has deteriorated since the events of “Wolf Hall” and, although she is shown to be uncertain about her grim fate until the very last drawn-out moment, this gaunt, harsh and embattled characterisation of her helps to ominously foreshadow the ending of the story.

The novel, of course, has lots of other interesting historical and fictional characters – but I would probably be here all day if I wrote about each one of them. But, in general, the characters in this novel are as good as ever.

As for the writing in this novel, it’s really good… once you get used to Mantel’s writing style. If you’ve already read “Wolf Hall”, then you’ll have no problem here. If you haven’t, then prepare to be confused. In addition to using the present tense, Mantel will also do things like referring to Cromwell as “he” without introducing him first. But, when you get used to all of Mantel’s stylistic quirks, this novel’s third-person narration has a poetry and beauty to it that really has to be seen to be believed.

In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is a relatively concise 482 pages in length – making it shorter and slightly more focused than “Wolf Hall” 🙂 Whilst “Bring Up The Bodies” tells a reasonably slow-paced story, it is probably at it’s most focused and gripping during the earlier and later parts of the story. Even so, the middle of the novel still contains the occasional moment of drama to keep the story flowing. Likewise, since this novel contains fewer flashbacks and time jumps than in “Wolf Hall”, the story’s pacing feels a lot more confident too. Still, expect a slow-paced story with some very long chapters.

All in all, this is a better novel than “Wolf Hall”. Yes, it’s still fairly slow-paced, but the plot feels a lot more focused, the characters gain some extra complexity and it is as wonderfully atmospheric as ever. Plus, once you’ve got used to Mantel’s writing style, then this is also one of those novels that is worth reading just for the writing alone. Yes, you’ll probably have to put a bit of effort into reading this novel, but it’s worth it.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “Sacrilege” By S. J. Parris (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read a historical detective novel. So, since I had a bit more time than I’ve had for the past three book reviews, I thought that I’d check out S. J. Parris’ 2012 novel “Sacrilege”.

This was one of a number of historical novels I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last year (the same one where I found my copy of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall) and, given how much I enjoyed other novels in this genre like C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels (eg: “Heartstone“, “Lamentation” etc…), Parris’ novel seemed like just the thing to get me back into reading books that aren’t based on films, TV shows, videogames etc…

So, let’s take a look at “Sacrilege”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2012 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “Sacrilege” that I read.

The novel begins in London in 1584. Giordano Bruno, an Italian exile who is working for both the French ambassador and Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, fears that he is being followed.

A short while later, Giordano catches his pursuer – only to find that she is his ex-lover Sophia in disguise. Sophia tells him that she has been falsely accused of murdering her cruel husband in Cantebury and has been a fugitive ever since. So, Giordano decides to travel to Cantebury in order to clear her name and catch the real killer….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is very gripping 🙂 On the day I started reading it, I’d planned to read about 180 pages -I got to 300 before reluctantly deciding to save the rest of the book for the following day. Imagine a C.J.Sansom novel, but with better pacing, more suspense, slightly more formal/modern-style narration and a slightly grittier tone. Seriously, this is one of the best Tudor detective novels I’ve read in a while.

Not only does this novel contain a series of intriguing mysteries, but this is kept extra thrilling thanks to the novel’s brilliant use of suspense. A lot of this comes from the precarious, dangerous world that Giordano finds himself in. Not only does Giordano have to worry about protecting Sophia from arrest, he also has to contend with some powerful enemies in Cantebury, a corrupt justice system and Tudor-era xenophobia too. Throughout the novel, he’s constantly in danger from someone or another, which really helps to keep things grippingly suspenseful.

Interestingly, Parris’ depiction of Tudor England is considerably grimmer, crueller and more hostile than in the fiction of C.J.Sansom or Hilary Mantel. In a lot of ways, it reminded me a bit of G.R.R Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels in terms of the atmosphere/emotional tone. This helps to add drama and suspense to the novel and, although a few moments of the story can be fairly depressing, this dystopian depiction of Tudor England fits the story really well.

Another interesting thing is how Parris’ “Sacrilege” presents Tudor England’s relationship with Europe in a different way to Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” too. In “Wolf Hall”, Tudor England is shown to be a resolutely European country – with many people speaking multiple languages, and people from across Europe living relatively harmoniously in London. On the other hand, “Sacrilege” mostly depicts Tudor England as a cruelly conservative dystopia that is teeming with narrow-minded xenophobia and general backwardness. I would say that this was a satire about Brexit… but this novel was published four years before the referendum.

In addition to all of this, “Sacrilege” is also a pretty good spy thriller too. Although the spy elements are something of a sub-plot, they help to add a little bit of extra intrigue and suspense to the story – especially since they often tend to involve classic-style spy stuff like coded messages, invisible ink, hidden doors, sneaking around etc… too.

Likewise, this sub-plot also allows for some exploration of the religious politics of Tudor England too – but, although this is an important element of the story, it isn’t quite as prominent as it is in novels like Sansom’s “Lamentation” and Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”.

The novel also includes a few interesting horror elements too – mostly consisting of some rather gothic moments that take place inside gloomy crypts and tunnels, in addition to some more traditional horror elements involving monstrous crimes of various types.

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly good – with most of the characters coming across as realistic flawed people with realistic motivations. Like in C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels, the sympathetic characters don’t really “fit in” with the world around them for one reason or another (with “Sacrilege” being a novel about exiles and fugitives). And, of course, the story’s villains are also suitably monstrous too. Likewise, just like C.J.Sansom, this novel also takes a fairly modern approach towards things like psychology, social ills etc.. too.

As for the writing, Parris’ first-person narration works really well. Like C.J.Sansom, Parris’ narration is modern enough to be easily readable, whilst also carrying a slight Tudor flavour too (albeit less than in a Sansom novel). However, since the narrator of “Sacrilege” (Giordano) is a well-travelled scientist/scholar and diplomat, the narration is slightly more on the formal and descriptive side of things – although it is still “matter of fact” enough to keep the story fast-paced and gripping.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Although, at 481 pages, this novel is a bit on the longer side of things – it never really feels bloated. Likewise, the pacing in this novel is excellent too 🙂 In other words, the story starts dramatically and remains consistently gripping throughout. Seriously, I cannot praise the pacing of this novel highly enough 🙂

All in all, this novel is a brilliantly gripping historical detective thriller novel. If you enjoy C. J. Sansom’s “Shardlake” books, then you might enjoy this book even more. It’s a bit like a Sansom novel, but with better pacing and more suspense. Likewise, if you want a novel that combines spy fiction, detective fiction and dystopian fiction, then this one might be worth looking at.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.