The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor – review

The Ashes of London kicked off my love affair with this series, and it’s been going strong ever since. I thought book three, The King’s Evil, was the pinnacle – until I read this one, after which I could only doff my hat to Andrew Taylor for topping his previous installment once again. For those of you who haven’t come across them before, the books are set in Restoration London and feature the exploits of civil servant James Marwood, who finds himself drawn reluctantly into the machinations of Whitehall and the King’s court. Over the course of the series he develops an enigmatic relationship with Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide, whose family history forms an ever-present cloud over her prospects and security. On the surface they are acquaintances who every now and then are useful to one another, yet we can see quite clearly there’s something more to their relationship than that: something unspoken and not entirely understood by either of them. They are not lovers, not even friends necessarily, but there’s no denying they each instinctively need what the other provides.

The Last Protector of the title is the name given to Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, who has been in exile on the continent since the monarchy returned to power and has made no attempt to cause trouble for Charles II’s regime – until now. Intimately connected with the conspiracy theories, rumour and unrest filtering through London is the flamboyant but dangerous Duke of Buckingham, whose dandyish attire and theatrical manner belies his power and ruthlessness. With the King, Buckingham and the mysterious figure of the Protector forming three sides of a devious and manipulative triangle, James Marwood faces double dealing and betrayal on all sides as he tries to unmask the instigators of the political violence spreading through the capital.

This is a period of history I love and find absolutely fascinating, so there’s an immediate appeal to be found in the setting alone. However, sound historical research doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with enjoyable historical fiction – and this is where Andrew Taylor gets it so right. The recreation of mid seventeenth-century London feels authentic without being a vehicle for gratuitous fact-dropping, and the author manages to give his readers an understanding of the political climate of the time without using dialogue as clumsy exposition. Most important of all, the characters feel as relatable as if they were alive today, and having followed Marwood through four books now, I feel as attached to him as I did to Shardlake in C J Sansom’s magnificent series. The political setting means there are inevitably swathes of male characters, but the author seems to go out of his way to redress the balance by involving some terrific women in the story, taking care to draw them in as much detail as his male lead. There’s a surprising amount of historical fiction out there that’s pretty lazy with its female cast (the bawdy innkeeper’s wife! the homely peasant! the generic Tudor princess!), often relegating them to the role of sexual victim or plot accessory, but what this series gets right is the way in which it treats women as individuals whilst acknowledging the reality of their lives in a society that was more overtly patriarchal than the one we live in today.

The Last Protector is a compulsive page-turner, an intriguing thriller, an escape into the past and also a touching story of the cruel chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots. I have my fingers crossed for many more books to come – it’s clear that James Marwood’s story is very far from over.

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My week in books – wrapped up

*I’m a bookseller again!*

The bookshop where I work opened its doors to the public on Monday after many long weeks of lockdown. It’s been an incredible and surreal experience; on the one hand I’m now talking to my regulars through a Perspex screen, which takes some getting used to, but on the other, the beautiful comments we’ve had from customers who are over the moon to have their local bookshop back have been overwhelming. It’s easy to forget how much of an impact books can have on people’s lives, and this week I’ve felt honoured to play a small part in that.

All this has meant it’s been an unusually lean week for reading and writing – after over two months of being furloughed returning to a full-time job has proved to be quite draining, and my evenings have mostly been about cobbling together some dinner, pulling on my pyjamas and being dead to the world before it’s even completely dark. However, there have been a couple of bookish highlights!

*Book purchases*

I’ve limited myself to just two this week:

  • Bone China by Laura Purcell – I’ve never read any of her novels before, but she’s a name that keeps popping up across a number of book blogs I follow, and I decided it was time to give her a try. I’ve been in the mood for a bit of creepiness lately (see my recent posts on M R James and Melmoth) and this continues the theme.
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – honestly, I’ve seen sooooo many good reviews of this one! I loved the synopsis and whereas it usually takes a lot to tempt me into splurging on a hardback, this was one temptation I couldn’t resist.

*Mission accomplished (otherwise known as books finished this week)*

Just the one book finished this week, but it’s a good ‘un: The Last Protector by the always fabulous Andrew Taylor. If you’re a fan of C J Sansom, S J Parris or similar historical crime authors then this is one series you have to try. Review will be up on the blog shortly!

I promise I will try my best to up the blogging again next week, but in the meantime, thanks for reading and see you back on This Girl’s Book Room soon!

“Fireside Gothic” by Andrew Taylor – review

Before I’d even opened this book I’d fallen in love with the title: it’s just so evocative of dark winter evenings curled up under a blanket with a creepy book, and I couldn’t wait to grab a cup of hot chocolate and get stuck in.  I wasn’t disappointed – you’d be hard pushed to find a better January read.

It’s a collection of short stories, a literary form of which I have to confess I’m not always a fan, but these are all long enough to be immensely satisfying; in fact, they’re almost long enough to be novellas rather than short stories.  It’d be misleading as well to refer to them simply as ghost stories since they’re much more complicated than that.  There are elements that could feasibly be supernatural but there’s a psychological aspect to all of them as well.  All three feature central characters who are at an emotionally tumultuous time in their lives and who find themselves in an environment that lends itself to paranoia, fear or a sense of isolation.

The first, “Broken Voices”, takes place in the early twentieth century and has the most conventionally “gothic” setting of the three: the house of an old schoolmaster that stands in the shadow of an imposing, eerie cathedral.  The schoolmaster is tasked with looking after two lonely boys from the cathedral boarding school who have no home or family to go to during the Christmas holiday; at first, none of the three are particularly keen on the arrangement, but after an evening of ghost stories by the fire the boys’ interest in their previously uninviting surroundings is piqued.  What is the truth about the demise of the unfortunate Mr. Goldsworthy, Master of Music at the cathedral, who fell to his death from the tower nearly two hundred years before -was it really an accident or was there a more sinister explanation?  And is there a connection between his tragic end and the shadowy figure and untraceable music that can be seen and heard within the cathedral walls?

I loved the traditional feel of this first story; it fulfils every obligation of a good ghost story, and there’s an element of comfort in revisiting the familiar ground of what you would consider the epitome of the spooky story to be.  Reading it was akin to putting on a pair of fluffy slippers and I was completely delighted by it.  You get the feeling that the author really relished following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and other such writers, and I would put money on the fact that Andrew Taylor has a genuine love for those writers who paved the way for this kind of story.

With the second tale, however, he changes tack completely.  We’re now back in the modern day and in the company of a man whose car has broken down as he drives home from his sister’s funeral.  He’s lost, alone and with no means of calling for help – but as luck would have it, he stumbles across an old cottage.  The enigmatic woman who answers the door directs him to a large, comfortable and welcoming house just a few minutes away, but try as he might he can’t get the woman out of his mind.  When he returns in the morning, however, he gets the shock of his life, and what follows throws everything we thought we knew completely out of the window.  It’s almost impossible to talk any more about the story itself without giving away a whole load of spoilers, so I’m not going to.  What I can say, though, is that I loved the way this tale suddenly spun off into head-messing territory.  Are we in the presence of some serious supernatural shenanigans or are we witnessing a grief-stricken man in the grip of psychological distress?  I got to the end and my mind was still reeling, but that’s exactly the way it should be.  If the first story was cosily creepy, this one was the total opposite: complex and quite unsettling.

The third and final story, “The Scratch”, was a very different one again.  Gerald and Clare live in the idyllic Forest of Dean, a comfortable life in a beautiful house.  Then Gerald’s nephew Jack comes into their life and everything begins to change.  Jack is ex-military and is suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of a horrifying experience he endured while on active service in the Middle East.  He has a curiously intense fear of the couple’s cat but also and unhealthy obsession with the idea that a giant, wild, cat-like creature is on the prowl in the forest.  And he has something else too: a bizarre scratch that never heals.  As it turns out, Jack isn’t the only one with an obsession.  Clare finds, to her horror, that she’s becoming increasingly attracted to the young man, and from this moment on things go from bad to worse for the family.  It seems that post-traumatic stress isn’t all that Jack has brought back with him; as events unfold it starts to look suspiciously like some kind of curse.

But, the author challenges us, do we really believe in things like that?  Is it possible that something otherworldly can exact revenge upon us for our transgressions or is it the burden of our own feelings of guilt that make us believe that the past is somehow haunting us?  I thought this story was very clever as it manages to create an unsettling mood without any of the usual ghost story tropes.  There are no gothic cathedrals and no dark, stormy nights, just warm spring days in the Forest of Dean, but it’s incredibly effective storytelling nonetheless.

The whole book was pitched just the right side of spooky for me.  It won’t give you sleepless nights (thank goodness!) but it will give you something much more rewarding: cleverly crafted, stylishly written tales that create a gently spine-tingling atmosphere and much to think about.

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“The Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor – review

September 1666.  In the unnatural darkness and oppressive heat of a London ablaze, a young man watches awestruck as St. Paul’s Cathedral, icon of the city and hitherto believed to be protected by divine influence, succumbs to the flames.  All of a sudden, a boy breaks away from the crowd and runs frantically towards the burning edifice.  Yet even the rats have deserted it, so who, or what, is he so desperate to reach inside that he’ll risk almost certain death?  So begins a marvellous mystery that grows and grows in complexity even as the flames are dying.

Before long a body is discovered – and it won’t be the last.  The murder has been carried out in a very precise way, and in an enigmatic twist the thumbs have been tied together behind the victim’s back.  Clearly the killer intends to send a message to whoever finds the body; unfortunately, no-one has any idea what he or she is trying to convey.  This being the seventeenth century almost everyone is driven by religious or political passions, some of which are more dangerous to wear on your sleeve than others.  The restoration of the monarchy may have returned the nation to something resembling normality after Cromwell’s rule, but subversive religious ideologies and treasonous political movements have simply disappeared underground, and it soon becomes clear there’s much more at stake than just bringing a murderer to justice.

The man charged with unravelling the mystery is the young gentleman we met right at the start as he witnessed St. Paul’s last moments.  His name is James Marwood, an unassuming man with a very junior administrative job at Whitehall, and it’s with some reluctance that he’s drawn into his employers’ investigations.  James’ nervousness is compounded by the fact that his father – still alive but elderly and in a fragile state both physically and mentally – was an ardent supporter of the movement that culminated in the execution of Charles I; although many Parliamentarian sympathisers have been shown a degree of clemency by the new King, those most closely involved with the regicide are still being hunted down.  As a result, Marwood is constantly walking a precarious path: to hide information from his Whitehall masters would call his own loyalty into question, but to uncover too much could place his father and his former friends in jeopardy.

While James struggles with the task at hand, we meet another character who it turns out is on a mission of her own.  Cat’s father, like Marwood’s, also has a dark political past, but he’s long since vanished and his daughter is desperate to find him.  She’s also in a sticky situation herself, being under the guardianship of a callous uncle who’s determined to marry her off to an effeminate weasel of a man whom she finds utterly repellent.  Forced into an impossible situation by her ghastly relations Cat becomes a fugitive just as her father did – and who is hired to track her down but James Marwood himself.

I had a hunch I was going to love this book and I wasn’t disappointed.  It’s a period of history that I find fascinating anyway, but this novel made me want to go and find out more about the religious complexities of this post-Civil War era.  A setting such as this, when people were living in hiding or under assumed names in order to disguise their political sensibilities, is the perfect backdrop for a crime story – the fun isn’t just about unmasking a murderer, it’s about who is going to turn out to be on whose side.  When it comes to creating heroes and villains, the author is incredibly skilful.  There are a few heart-in-mouth moments when the particularly vile characters seem to be gaining the upper hand, and you’ll be rooting for some of the other characters with equal fervour.  Yet it never becomes a pantomime: the nuanced characterisation is far too clever for that.  In many respects this reminded me of C J Sansom’s Shardlake series, which is a huge compliment as I absolutely love those books.  The quality of the writing, the pitch-perfect balance between history and mystery and above all the well-rounded characters put “The Ashes of London” right up there with the best historical fiction.  There is a tiny hint at the end of the novel (I think, although it could be wishful thinking!) that James Marwood may well be called upon to solve more crimes in the future.  I’m hoping that this is Andrew Taylor’s promise of further books in the series; I can certainly see myself devouring more quite happily.  It’s a massive thumbs up from me for this one!

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Rainy days are reading days!

Normally I’m overjoyed when a day off work coincides with some sunshine, but today I was actually quite relieved when I woke up to a solid blanket of cloud and steady rain.  It meant I could put off the less desirable tasks of the day (doing a supermarket shop, going for a run) and legitimately take up residence on the sofa with a good book or two.  The past week has been a slightly frustrating one reading-wise: I’m in the middle of one cracking novel and have another waiting eagerly in the wings, but I’ve also had an exhausting week spent largely behind the wheel of my car on a number of work excursions, and as a result have been too tired to even think about picking up a book in the evenings.  In fact, to my horror, I went to bed on Friday night and slept for thirteen hours straight; slightly ashamed when I eventually came to, but at least I was refreshed ready for an arduous day of, ahem, reading.  So what’s been sparking my imagination today?  First off, “The Winter Palace” by Eva Stachniak, a novel I picked up in a charity shop recently.  As the title suggests, it’s set in the cut-throat world of the Russian court and is unflinching in its depiction of the almost unbelievable emotional abuse inflicted during the power struggles of the Russian ruling class of the eighteenth century.  I also finally got to start the book I bought a few days ago, “The Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor.  I very rarely buy hardbacks but the combination of historical fiction and an amazing cover proved hard to resist, and thank goodness I succumbed!  I’m getting on for half way through already and so far it’s faultless.  Reviews of both books will hopefully be up on the blog over the next week, but in the meantime, happy reading to you all!