Where the Dead Lie (Sebastian St. Cyr #12) by C.S. Harris (audiobook) – Narrated by Davina Porter

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

London, 1813. Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is no stranger to the dark side of the city, but he’s never seen anything like this: the brutalized body of a 15-year-old boy dumped into a makeshift grave on the grounds of an abandoned factory. One of London’s many homeless children, Benji Thatcher was abducted and tortured before his murder – and his younger sister is still missing. Few in authority care about a street urchin’s fate, but Sebastian refuses to let this killer go unpunished.

Uncovering a disturbing pattern of missing children, Sebastian is drawn into a shadowy, sadistic world. As he follows a grim trail that leads from the writings of the debauched Marquis de Sade to the city’s most notorious brothels, he comes to a horrifying realization: Someone from society’s upper echelon is preying upon the city’s most vulnerable. And though dark, powerful forces are moving against him, Sebastian will risk his reputation and his life to keep more innocents from harm….

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A

It’s the rare author who can reach the twelfth book in a long-running series and still keep coming up with fresh ideas and interesting developments, but C.S. Harris manages to do both those things and more in her latest Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery, Where the Dead Lie. In this new instalment, our aristocratic sleuth becomes involved in the search for the perpetrators of the most horrible crimes upon the weakest, most vulnerable members of society – London’s street children. It’s a disturbing listen at times – as it should be, given the subject matter – and Ms. Harris doesn’t pull her punches when describing the plight of these often very young children who have been left parentless and homeless through no fault of their own, and how they are repeatedly betrayed by those privileged few who should be helping rather than taking advantage of them.

This is one of those series where the books really need to be listened to in order, and I would imagine it’s difficult to just pop in and out, reading some books and not others. Each of the mysteries is self-contained and reaches a satisfying ending, but just as compelling as those individual tales is the overarching story of Sebastian’s search for the truth about his birth and what happened to his errant mother, his difficult relationship with his father, the Earl of Hendon, and the intense animosity lying between Sebastian and his father-in-law, Lord Jarvis, cousin to the Regent and the power behind the throne.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Fair, Bright and Terrible (Welsh Blades #2) by Elizabeth Kingston (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Wales is conquered, and Eluned has lost everything: her country, her husband, her hope. All that remains is vengeance, and she will stop at nothing to have it.

When Robert de Lascaux is asked to marry the woman he has loved for eighteen years, he never hesitates. No wealth has ever mattered to him as much as Eluned has. But she, it seems, does not want him at all. Trapped in a web of intrigue, revenge, and desire, they cannot forget their past – but can they dare to share a future?

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A-

Fair, Bright, and Terrible is the sequel to Elizabeth Kingston’s The King’s Man, and is, like its predecessor, set in and around the final years of the Welsh struggle for independence against the military might of England under King Edward I. The book is an engrossing mix of historical romance and historical fiction; the author has obviously and extensively researched the political and military history of the time and the second-chance love story between two older and wiser protagonists – they’re both in their forties – is expertly woven throughout. But make no mistake – this is a gritty and angsty story about a proud, scheming woman who is so entirely focussed on revenge that she is prepared to sacrifice her happiness and her life if need be in order to obtain it; and her almost fanatical desire for vengeance to the exclusion of all else makes her difficult to like.

Eluned of Ruardean was not a popular character in The King’s Man, in large part thanks to the way in which she had so sternly controlled her daughter’s – Gwenllian’s – life and insisted on training her to be the saviour of the Welsh people, without really considering that Gwenllian was entitled to a say in her own life. She is still not the most sympathetic of women, but she’s a fascinating character nonetheless; driven, uncompromising and self-aware, and by the end of the book I was won over and seriously impressed by the author’s ability to have made such a flawed character both admirable and likeable.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

This title may be purchased from Amazon

England, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. They are not what they seem, but colleagues from a technologically advanced future, posing as a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team of time travelers, their mission is the most audacious yet: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen.

Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common except their extraordinary circumstances. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.

But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile her true self with the constrictions of 19th century society. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history as they found it…however heartbreaking that proves.

Rating: A

Confession time.  When I picked up The Jane Austen Project for review, I really didn’t expect it to be a book I couldn’t put down.  I thought the premise – two time travellers go back to 1815 to meet Jane Austen and secure a previously unpublished manuscript – was interesting (which was why I chose it) but also fraught with potential pitfalls in terms of tone and characterisation. I’m happy to admit that my scepticism was quickly laid to rest and to say that this is a thoroughly entertaining, compelling and unusual story that hooked me in from the first page and kept me glued to it throughout.

Doctor and Austen devotee Rachel Katzman and Professor Liam Finucane, an actor turned academic, were carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics for one particular mission – to go back in time to 1815, meet Jane Austen and locate the manuscript for The Watsons, a novel previously thought unfinished but which a newly discovered letter indicates was actually completed and subsequently destroyed by the author.  Rachel and Liam are charged with bringing back The Watsons and also more of Jane’s letters to her sister, Cassandra, documents which later proved incredibly valuable in piecing together details of the author’s life, and of which only a few survive.  If Rachel can also figure out what caused Jane’s premature death at the age of forty-one, well, that would be a bonus.

The pair arrives, bedraggled and disoriented in a field in Leatherhead, Surrey with a small fortune in forged money hidden under their clothes and a cover story that they are Doctor William Ravenswood and his spinster sister, Mary, recently returned from Jamaica where they have sold off the family coffee plantation.  Unable to secure rooms at the local inn owing to their having no luggage and looking somewhat suspicious besides, they instead hire a post chaise and head to London where they take up residence in a fashionable town house and formulate their plan to get to know Jane Austen’s brother, Henry, who is, at that time, a successful banker.

Posing as acquaintances of a distant Austen relative, they wrangle an introduction to Henry who is everything they expect from what they know of him: good-looking, charming and gregarious, it’s easy to see why Jane referred to him as her favourite brother.  Over the next few weeks, they become part of Henry’s intimate circle and eventually, as planned, are introduced to his sisters and other family members when they visit London.  Cassandra Austen is brusque and most definitely suspicious of her brother’s new acquaintances while Jane is quiet and circumspect, clearly not a woman who allows people to get to know her easily and who doesn’t rush headlong into friendships.  The portrayal of Jane Austen is one of those potential pitfalls I mentioned at the beginning, but I’m pleased to say that this is a very credible portrait of her in which she comes across exactly as I’m sure many of us imagine her to have been – intelligent, witty, considered and insightful.

Once the shock of finally meeting her idol has begun to wear off, and what had begun as a slightly uneasy relationship develops into a genuine friendship, Rachel is faced with a dilemma she hadn’t before envisaged.  Back in her own time, and in the early days of the mission, having to search Jane’s home for the manuscript and letters was just a job, and the idea of making a great literary discovery was thrilling.  But several months down the line, Rachel is faced with the prospect of stealing from someone who has become a close friend, which is a different matter entirely.

The other major concern on my initial list of potential pitfalls was to do with the characterisation of Rachel.  Would she be too obviously modern for 1815, continually asserting her rights and chafing against all the things she wasn’t allowed to do? The answer – fortunately – is no; Ms. Flynn gets it right, having Rachel know full well that there are things she simply cannot do.  She doesn’t like it, but accepts it’s necessary to conform in order to maintain her persona.  In her own time, she’s a doctor, but in this period, all she can be is William Ravenswood’s spinster sister, carefully coaching Liam to play the part of a doctor while she watches from the sidelines, sewing shirts and wondering how intelligent women of the time didn’t end up going round the bend.  Admittedly, she slips up from time to time, but is mostly able to explain it away because of her Mary’s non-traditional upbringing in Jamaica.

Time travel fiction is always going to have to address one big problem – how do people go back in time without somehow affecting their future? Here, Liam and Rachel are given specific instructions NOT to do anything which could have ramifications for their own time, but, as they soon come to realise, that was impossible from the moment they arrived, and they have probably altered things without even meaning to. And as they get to know Henry and Jane as real people rather than as historical figures they’ve only read about, they find it impossible not to want to help them in some way; by preventing Jane’s early death and the ruin of Henry’s business. It’s tempting – but dangerous. There comes a point where they both have to wonder if perhaps the tiniest thing they’ve done during their lengthy stay might have changed their own world/time out of all recognition and even to question if  they want to risk returning to it or stay in one that has, over the months, become more real to them than they could ever have thought possible.

There’s a lot to enjoy in The Jane Austen Project, not least of which is the sweet, sexy romance that develops between Liam and Rachel in which Rachel – in the manner of all Austen’s heroines – comes to examine her own thoughts and feelings and to draw some new and unexpected conclusions about herself.  Ms. Flynn carefully crafts a realistic portrait of life as led by the middle class during the Regency period, and there’s a terrific sense of time and place throughout. Having two fish-out-of-water protagonists act as the reader’s window into that world works extremely well to bring home the emphasis placed on the importance of correct behaviour and propriety, the position of women in nineteenth century society and the great inequalities and hardship that existed between the different social strata.

The Jane Austen Project is a creative and entertaining novel that addresses some interesting ideas while at the same time telling a cracking good story.  My only criticism really is that the ending is a bit abrupt and inconclusive. While I understand the book is not categorised as a romance, I won’t deny that I’d have liked things to have been more obviously settled at the end, which maybe – just – sort of – points towards a HEA somewhere along the line (if you squint). But that aside, this is an impressive début novel, a terrific read and a book I’d definitely recommend to anyone who enjoys something a bit out of the ordinary, whether they’re an Austen fan or not.

A Drop of Ink by Megan Chance (audiobook) – Narrated by Taylor Ann Krahn and Tim Campbell

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Penniless and disgraced, Adelaide Wentworth is feeling rather desperate. With nothing left to lose, she and her sister, Louisa, flee to Lake Geneva with Adelaide’s lover, the infamous poet Julian Estes. There, Louisa hopes to persuade Bayard Sonnier—celebrated writer and her former lover—to advance Julian’s career. He is their last hope for salvation.

At the Villa Diodati—the place that inspired the writing of Frankenstein sixty years earlier—Louisa plots to rekindle her affair with Bayard, while Adelaide hopes to restore her fading love for Julian by being the muse he needs.

But soon, secrets are revealed, passions ignited, and hidden talents discovered. Adelaide begins to imagine a different life. Confused, she turns to Giovanni Calina—Bayard’s assistant and a man with his own secrets and deep resentments—and the two form a dangerous alliance. No one leaves unscathed in this richly imagined, emotionally nuanced tale of passion, ambition, inspiration, and redemption.

Rating: Narration – C/B; Content – B+

In 1816, a group of five writers lived for a few months at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. One night, during a particularly virulent storm, they sat around telling each other ghost stories, and then one of their number issued a challenge that they should all write one … and the rest is history because one of those stories was eventually published as Frankenstein. The writers were, of course, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and his wife, Mary, her step-sister Claire (and Shelley’s some-time lover) and Byron’s friend and physician, Dr. John Polidori, whose own effort, The Vampyre, was written several decades before Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In A Drop of Ink, Megan Chance re-imagines this story some sixty years later, in 1876. Author Bayard Sonnier is as famous for his romantic liaisons as for his writing, and, as was the case with Byron, he’s the equivalent of a rock star in terms of his fame and the interest that is generated by anything and everything he does. Following the ending of his most recent, scandalous, love affair, Bayard has left England in the attempt to find some anonymity and time to work on his next book, which is already overdue. He is accompanied by his secretary, Giovanni Calina who, in spite of his Italianate name, hails from Bethnal Green in the East End of London. The son of a cobbler, Giovanni – usually referred to in the book as ‘Vanni’ – has been well educated and managed to land the job as Bayard’s secretary, in part because of his skill with languages – a definite plus, given Bayard’s intention to travel. Vanni is also an aspiring writer, and hopes that perhaps he will be able to learn something about the craft by working closely with the renowned author.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.”

Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth–but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew’s soul.

There is a new darkness in the town, too–frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice’s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he’s become, Alice is desperate to intervene–and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew’s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.
Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother’s brutal mission–and is drawn into the Hopkins family’s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils–before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.

Rating: B-

I’ll admit right out of the gate that one of the reasons I picked up The Witchfinder’s Sister for review is because the real-life events that play out in the novel took place in the area in which I now live – North East Essex and South Suffolk.  Matthew Hopkins is a well-known historical figure in the UK; the self-styled Witchfinder General – a title he was never officially granted – lived in the small Essex town of Manningtree, but his influence was felt across all of East Anglia.  Between 1644 and 1647, Hopkins and his associates were responsible for the executions for witchcraft of over three hundred women.

In spite of his notoriety, very little is known about Hopkins’ personal life, but author Beth Underdown has painted an intriguing and menacing picture of the man and the events he set in train as seen through the eyes of his (fictional) sister, Alice, who, we learn at the beginning, has been imprisoned – we don’t know why or by whom – and who is using her time to record the full history of my brother, what he has done. 

In 1645, Alice returns to Manningtree following the tragic death of her husband in an accident.  She is apprehensive; her Mother (who is actually her stepmother, her father’s second wife) has recently died, and Alice is not sure if she will be welcomed back at home.  She is closest in age to her younger brother Matthew – the only child of her father’s second marriage – and they were close as children, but he did not approve of her marriage to the son of a family servant and they have not been on good terms ever since.  Yet Alice has nowhere else to go, and is relieved, on reaching the Thorn Inn – now owned by Matthew – that he is willing to let her stay with him.

It’s not long before she starts to hear odd rumours about her brother and to realise that he’s a very different man from the one she’d left when she got married and went to London.  In the intervening years, it seems that Matthew has become a man of some influence in the area, but Alice soon begins to hear some very disturbing things about his involvement in the accusations of witchcraft levelled at several local women.  At first, she is reluctant to believe it, but when she discovers that he is making lists of women suspected and accused, collecting evidence and convening trials, Alice reluctantly has to accept that her brother is a dangerous and unpredictable man.

One of the things the author does very well is to chart the very uneasy relationship between Alice and Matthew; there’s a real sense that Alice is permanently treading on eggshells around him, expecting at any moment for him to look at her and work out that she is defying him in small ways, by visiting her mother-in-law, whom he has forbidden her to see, or in trying to help the women who are being accused.  She paints an intriguing picture of Matthew through Alice’s eyes, as Alice recalls various incidents from their childhood, remembers the boy he was and then, in an attempt to understand his motivations, begins to delve into long-buried family secrets which could threaten her own life and liberty.

There is definitely an air of subtle menace pervading the book, which is as it should be, given the subject matter.  But while I enjoyed reading it, it was slow to start and Alice’s frequent reminiscences in the first half tended to interrupt the flow of the present day story being told.  These passages do help to build a picture of Matthew as Alice had known him, and also to give some insight as to the actions and events that have made him into the man he is, but there’s no denying that their positioning affects the pacing of the novel in an adverse way.

But with that said, there’s no doubt that Ms. Underdown’s research into the period and her subject matter has clearly been extensive, because her descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of 17thcentury England are very evocative, enabling the reader to really put themselves in the middle of those muddy streets and swirling mists or sniff the smells of roasting meat and hoppy ale.  She does a splendid job of creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty as the accusations spread and shows just how dangerous it was to be a woman in those times, when the most innocent look or word could be deliberately misinterpreted by someone who wished you ill; and the scenes and descriptions of some of the ‘tests’ the accused women are put through are harrowing in their matter-of-factness.

I enjoyed the story, but there were times I wanted just a bit… more.  I found it quite difficult to get a handle on either Matthew or Alice, and this is, I suspect, in part due to the fact that Alice is mostly a passive narrator, a witness to events or on the periphery of them, which creates a degree of emotional distance between the characters and the reader.  I felt for Alice and what she went through and admired her determination to do something to help those she believed were unjustly accused. She’s the counterbalance to Matthew’s obsessive piety, but she’s also a woman alone with no-one to turn to and faces some very difficult choices.  Her decisions aren’t always the best, but they are human and it’s easy to understand why she makes them.

The last part of the book is the strongest, as this is where Alice finally – and unwillingly – starts to take part in the events she describes.  This brings an immediacy to the narrative which was lacking before, and serves to ramp up the tension and to thicken the all-pervasive atmosphere of oppression.  The ending is suitably shocking – and I give substantial props to the author for the last line, which is an absolute zinger.

This is Ms. Underdown’s début novel and is, all in all, a well-researched piece of historical fiction told in an engaging way.  It wasn’t a book I found difficult to put down, but the subject matter is intriguing and the author has constructed a perfectly plausible account of Hopkins’ life given the paucity of available material.  I’m going to give The Witchfinder’s Sister a qualified recommendation; if you’re not familiar with this particularly dark period of English history and are interested in learning more, it’s not a bad place to start.

Where the Dead Lie (Sebastian St. Cyr #12) by C.S. Harris

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London, 1813.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is no stranger to the dark side of the city, but he’s never seen anything like this: the brutalized body of a 15-year-old boy dumped into a makeshift grave on the grounds of an abandoned factory. One of London’s many homeless children, Benji Thatcher was abducted and tortured before his murder—and his younger sister is still missing. Few in authority care about a street urchin’s fate, but Sebastian refuses to let this killer go unpunished. Uncovering a disturbing pattern of missing children, Sebastian is drawn into a shadowy, sadistic world. As he follows a grim trail that leads from the writings of the debauched Marquis de Sade to the city’s most notorious brothels, he comes to a horrifying realization: Someone from society’s upper echelon is preying upon the city’s most vulnerable. And though dark, powerful forces are moving against him, Sebastian will risk his reputation and his life to keep more innocents from harm.

Rating: A

When it comes to C.S. Harris’ long-running series of historical mysteries featuring the aristocratic sleuth, Sebastian St. Cyr, I arrived rather late to the party. With eleven books already available, I wasn’t going to be able to catch up on them all in print, so, as I often do in such cases, I turned to the audiobook editions instead, and have been catching up with Sebastian’s adventures that way, and enjoying them hugely. I couldn’t resist the temptation of picking up book twelve, Where the Dead Lie, when it came up for review, and was completely hooked, right from the first page.

As I said, this is the twelfth book in the series (so there may be spoilers for the others in this review) and Ms. Harris shows no sign of running out of steam – or of ideas. As fans will know, the main mystery plot in each book is self-contained (although occasionally, some elements do turn out to have a bearing on a future story), and there’s no doubt that the author is a master of her craft when it comes to constructing a tightly plotted, gripping and atmospheric tale in which all the pieces are laid out and skilfully drawn together as the book hurtles towards a nail-biting finish. But what draws me back to the books over and over is the overarching storyline concerning Sebastian himself, as he continues to make discoveries about his own past and gradually, over the course of the series, has come to realise that many of the things he has believed about himself are untrue. He is having to adjust his perceptions about himself and those around him, and the revelations he uncovers and the way he handles them over time are just as engrossing as the individual mysteries.

In the three years since he investigated his first murder, Sebastian’s life has undergone significant change. Most recently, he has become a father, and even though he continues to be haunted by some of the things he experienced when he was a soldier fighting on the continent, he is a much more settled individual than when we first met him, and is enjoying a passionately happy marriage with Hero, the daughter of the powerful Lord Jarvis… who just happens to be Sebastian’s deadliest enemy.

When the body of a teenaged boy is discovered in a shallow pit on the grounds of a disused factory in Clerkenwell, the local magistrate sees it as just one more death of a worthless street-child, taking no account of the fact that the body bears the marks of whips, knives and ligatures – which indicate the boy had also been horribly tortured. When an enterprising constable has the body sent to Paul Gibson, surgeon, anatomist and long-time friend and colleague of Sebastian’s, it’s a only a matter of time before Sebastian interests himself in the case and determines to root out the person responsible for such a depraved, gruesome act of violence.

In the course of his enquiries, Sebastian uncovers a pattern of disappearances among the poorest, most vulnerable of those who eke out an existence on London’s grimy streets – orphans and the dispossessed children of parents who have been transported, imprisoned or executed.  As always, Ms. Harris does a terrific job of painting a realistic picture of what life must have been like for the large underclass of the city’s denizens who lived in utter squalor, their lives a daily struggle with no hope of anything better and nothing to look forward to but an early, probably undignified, death.  The level of disgust and horror Sebastian feels for the perpetrators of the crime and for those who simply brush off the deaths of children is so strongly evoked as to be an almost tangible thing; there’s no doubt that he is being deeply affected by the things he sees, hears and learns, and yet he is not going to give up.  Even when he comes up against dead end after dead end, he perseveres, intent on getting justice for the most helpless and voiceless members of society.

The discovery of a number of other graves leads to the realisation that is a monster out there, hiding in plain sight; and as the number of suspects quickly narrows, Sebastian recognises that he is up against more than a single killer.  Whoever is responsible has powerful friends and protectors, and without irrefutable proof of guilt, it is going to be next to impossible to ensure that justice is done and the murderer pays for his crimes.  But somebody has to at the very least try; and even though the deeper he delves, the more he risks his own safety, Sebastian can’t stand idly by and do nothing while there is someone at large who thinks nothing of raping, mutilating and murdering children.

The book is marvellously well-paced, with the story immediately hitting its stride.  The author builds the tension skilfully and it never dissipates, even when she slacks off a little to focus on Sebastian’s domestic life and his relationships with Hero and his father, Lord Hendon.  Sebastian and his father have not seen eye to eye since Hendon acted, years earlier,  to prevent his son marrying the young actress with whom he had fallen in love, and whom, more recently, Hendon had revealed was his natural daughter.  Allowing Sebastian to believe himself to have indulged in an incestuous relationship – he had not, as was revealed shortly afterwards – is difficult to forgive, but even moreso is the fact that his father had concealed the truth surrounding his (Sebastian’s) birth for almost thirty years.  Things between them have been very strained over the last few books, but there are signs of a rapprochement here, and it’s beautifully done.

Sebastian’s wife – sharply intelligent, independently minded Hero – is the perfect foil for him.  Her reformist sympathies annoy her powerful father, but match with Sebastian’s views, and as her latest project is one in which she is looking into the situation of London’s street-children, she is able to provide some information which proves useful in her husband’s enquiries.  Their relationship began in difficult circumstances, but over the last few books, it’s become clear that theirs is a strong, loving marriage built on mutual respect and affection.

I said at the outset that the mysteries in these books are self-contained, and this one does reach a satisfactory resolution.  But Ms. Harris has left a few loose ends which I really hope are going to be picked up in the next book.  There’s a subplot brewing concerning Hero’s twice-widowed cousin, Mrs. Hart-Davis, and while one of the killers gets his just desserts at the end, one remains at large.   Sebastian is sure he knows his identity, but has no evidence or proof and is going to have to bide his time.  I’m sure Ms. Harris isn’t going to leave it at that, and I can’t wait to read how this particular plotline is going to play out.

There are lots of historical mysteries out there and while I can’t claim to have read even a fraction of them, I’m sure the Sebastian St. Cyr books must be among the cream of the crop and I’ve found every single one of them to be completely compelling. Because of the long-running plot threads concerning Sebastian himself, the books really do need to be experienced in order, although I expect readers could dip in and out if they are prepared to do a bit of homework and read synopses and reviews for the other books.

Where the Dead Lie is easily one of the best of the series, showcasing an author at the top of her game.  The mystery is complex and well-plotted, all the characters are strongly drawn and there’s a pervasive atmosphere of dread and malevolence that keeps the reader glued to the story, even as we’re revolted along with our hero at the horrors wreaked on the weakest members of society.  It’s a must-read for fans of the series, and for those who haven’t yet read any of the books, pick up a copy of book one, What Angels Fear. It won’t be long before you’re as hooked as the rest of us.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London, September 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer and reluctant government informer.

In the aftermath of the fire, a semi-mummified body is discovered in the ashes of St. Paul’s, in a tomb that should have been empty. The man’s body has been mutilated, and his thumbs have been tied behind his back. Under orders from the government, Marwood is tasked with hunting down the killer across the devastated city. But at a time of dangerous internal dissent and the threat of foreign invasion, Marwood finds his investigation leads him into treacherous waters – and across the path of a determined, beautiful and vengeful young woman.

Rating: B+

The Ashes of London is an absorbing, intricately plotted historical mystery set in Restoration London in the aftermath of the Great Fire; indeed the book opens with one of the main characters – lowly clerk, James Marwood  – standing amid the crowds one night in early September 1666 watching in horror as St. Paul’s Cathedral is burned almost to the ground.  He saves the life of a boy by dragging him away from the flames, only to discover that “he” is a “she” when she struggles, bites his hand and then makes off with his cloak.  It’s a seemingly innocuous encounter, but one that will very soon start to assume importance for Marwood as it becomes clear that the young woman may somehow be linked to a series of murders.

The story takes place over the few months following the fire, and is told through two different viewpoints.  We meet James Marwood first of all, a young man eking out a living as a clerk in the employ of Master Williamson, the editor and publisher of The London Gazette – a man of influence whose position gives him access to governmental circles.  Marwood is caring for his ailing father, a staunch supporter of Cromwell and the Commonwealth who refused the new king’s offer of clemency after the Restoration and was imprisoned as a result.  After several attempts, Marwood managed to have his father released – on condition that he lives quietly away from London.  Marwood senior is becoming ever more confused and subject to the wandering of his wits (we would probably today recognise this as dementia), making it sometimes very difficult for his son to make sure he adheres to the terms of his release.

The other narrator in the story is a young woman, Catherine Lovett, the niece of Henry Alderley, one of the wealthiest men in London.  Her name is tainted in the same way as Marwood’s; her father is a Regicide – one of the men who had been directly instrumental in the execution of King Charles I – and a wanted fugitive.  Catherine – Cat – is just seventeen and dreams of becoming a draughtsman or architect and is desperate to avoid the marriage her uncle has arranged for her with a man much older than herself.  It seems, however that there is no way out – until one night, her cousin Edward forces himself upon her, and, after attacking him with a knife, Cat flees the house with the help of her father’s most trusted old servant, Jem.

Not long after these events, Marwood is summoned by Williamson and taken to view a body that was discovered among the remains of St. Paul’s – but the death was not caused by the fire.  The corpse’s arms are bound at the back by the thumbs and the head pierced by a thin blade at the back of the neck – clearly this is murder, and when he realises that the dead man had worn the livery of a servant in the Alderley household, things begin to fall into place.  Henry Alderley is an alderman of the city as well as a goldsmith; reputed to be enormously wealthy, even the King himself is rumoured to be one of his principal debtors, and the murder of a member of Alderley’s household could lead to embarrassment for the crown.  When another body is found some days later, murdered in the same way and also in some way connected to the Alderleys, Marwood finds himself drawn further and further into a mystery that reaches far beyond the dead bodies themselves and stretches back to the reign of the previous king and his successor, Oliver Cromwell.

The Restoration is a fascinating period of English history, and Andrew Taylor brings it brilliantly to life, his descriptions of the burned out shell of the once-proud St. Paul’s and the city around it so vivid as to make it seem as though London itself is another character in the book.  His research into the period has obviously been extensive, but at no time was I subjected to info-dumps or large sections of exposition that felt like a history lesson; everything is smoothly woven through the story and the scholarship is never put on show.  I particularly enjoy historical fiction in which politics and intrigue play a large part, so I was captivated by the author’s explorations of the precarious political situation and of the still present religious divide which had, two decades earlier, set Englishman against Englishman in a bloody civil war.

Woven in, out and around the murder mystery are a couple of other plotlines; one relating to the King’s determination to find the remaining Regicides and the other to what becomes of Cat after she leaves her uncle’s house.  Mr. Taylor weaves these various stories together with great skill, bringing them inexorably closer together with Marwood narrating his side of the tale in the first person while the parts he doesn’t know about are filled in by Cat, whose narrative is in the third person.  It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but I found that it worked extremely well and was surprised how much I liked it.

The two central characters are intriguing, with Marwood probably being the more likeable of the two.  He’s a fairly young man and wants nothing more than to be able to live down the notoriety of his name, make his way in the world and better himself – but it seems he’s unable to free himself of the shadows of the past as he finds himself dragged back into the murky world of old scandal and political chicanery. His father can be somewhat of a trial to him, yet his love for the older man shines through in his patience and tender care of him, leading to some of the most touching moments in the book.

Cat, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to warm to, even though her actions are understandable given what happens to her at the beginning.  She’s unusual in her interest in draughtsmanship and architecture, which were, of course, not professions open to women, or even thought to be interests fitting for the fairer sex; but I really enjoyed that aspect of her character, and seeing her find an outlet for her particular talents.

The one real criticism I have of the book is that while these two characters are fairly-well drawn, I didn’t really feel as though I got to know either of them particularly well and I was left wanting to know a bit more about them. But this is billed as the first of a new series of books, so perhaps that was intentional and if, as I hope, we will see more of them in future novels, we will also get to know them better as the series progresses.

In spite of that, however, I was completely engrossed in the book from beginning to end, so I’m wholeheartedly recommending The Ashes of London to anyone who likes a gritty, strongly written, tightly-plotted historical mystery in which the historical aspect is of key importance to the story.