Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Bonus Review: The Devil’s Mistress by David Barclay

California based David Barclay’s novella The Devil’s Mistress is a quick and involving read that left with me with a ton of questions I need answering, the most relevant one being: Is that it? Yes, I know it’s a novella, but there is so much mythos to explore in the story’s setting that I hope the author comes back for more.

The year is 1705, the town is Blackfriar, Virginia, in a country that has yet to shake off its British colonizers and puritanical roots. Isabella Ashcroft is in fear for her father’s life and when the story begins she’s making a dangerous late-night dash to the legendary and feared Lady of the Hill. The Lady offers to help Isabelle with her problem, but there will be a price–there’s always a price to pay when you deal with forces you can’t even begin to understand, and when words have more than one meaning.

Isabelle’s worries are not just confined to her father’s failing health, but she’s also betrothed to a man with such callous disregard for human life. Don’t forget, this is a time when rich white people had slaves and treated them abominably. For me, this is and will always be the real horror. Thomas Huxley and his mother, Marianne, are characters that are without redemption and will deserve their fate when it arrives. But I digress.

Events overtake Isabelle and she finds herself accused not only of murder but of witchcraft. The novella then races towards its grisly and brutal climax. Barclay finely balances his writing, mixing historical accuracy with the necessary components of a horror/revenge story. Overall I liked it, but for me, I would like to see a deeper exploration of the themes. Particularly in the story behind the story: there is so much to written and characters to be developed even before The Devil’s Mistress begins. In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the novella is what we don’t yet know. I ask David Barclay to give us more.

The Devil’s Mistress was published on March 16, 2021, by Silver Shamrock Publishing, and I thank them for providing me with a copy to review here.

David Barclay

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

One of the best things about signing up to a NetGalley account is knowing you have a better than even chance of coming across a book that, while it is yet to be published, you can read it before most other people, and then tell the world how great it is, knowing somehow you’ve done your part to boost its success in the eyes of its authors, publishers, and future readers. All this to say, I’ve just finished reading The Kingdoms by British writer Natasha Pulley and you should at this very moment stop what you’re doing and order it from whatever online service works for you. This book is a heart-breaking but life-affirming masterpiece, all wrapped up in a plot that is complex and poignant.

The Kingdoms is initially set in the year 1898, where Natasha Pulley imagines an alternate history in which England lost the Battle of Trafalgar to France, resulting in the French invading London and installing itself as the ruling power and households now have English people as slaves. There is resistance from Scotland, where a group known as the Saints fight back when and where they can. Joe Tournier steps off a train in London having travelled from Edinburgh and finds that his hold on reality is vanishing rapidly. An enforced stay at a psychiatric hospital reveals he suffers from a type of amnesia brought on by epileptic episodes. Eventually he is identified and returned to a family that has enslaved him. He has a wife he doesn’t recognise and life he’s not familiar with, but he gets by because it’s what’s expected of him. His world is further turned upside down when he receives a postcard from someone called ‘M’, dated nearly 100 years in the past. Through a series of events and choices, Joe makes his way to Edinburgh, to the lighthouse pictured on the postcard, and soon he’s in another time and place.

Joe is the character through which we experience this new world, but he’s not the only person we connect to. Missouri Kite is a Spanish pirate who has joined the English resistance and using the portal near the lighthouse though which ships can travel from one time to another, he kidnaps Joe hoping to use the man’s knowledge of future technology to reshape the past and restore balance and history. But with every action in the past, the future itself becomes uncertain. Joe is afraid that if he helps Missouri and his sister Agatha then he will lose his own place in time and his daughter may very well fade into non-existence. But he feels a profound connection to the Spaniard, and there’s almost a symbiotic relationship between the two. There is more going on between then than meets the eye.

Natasha Pulley (via author’s website)

Two things must be real for me to enjoy a book, particularly one from the genre of speculative fiction and fantasy. The world-building while complex must ring true, and the characters have to jump out of the page and hold you until their story is done, leaving you to pick up the pieces of your life when the book is finished. I read the last two or three chapters of The Kingdoms twice, not because I needed to fully understand what was happening to the world, but because I wanted to feel my feelings again. The ending is beautiful. If I say anything more, I could end up spoiling the book. If you have read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, then you’ll know what to expect from The Kingdoms. I haven’t, but now I want to.

The Kingdoms is historical speculative fiction at its finest. I fell in love with Joe and Missouri. I sympathised and empathised with their plights. My heart broke more than once for Agatha. The battle scenes are butal and history, whichever one it ends up being, never felt more vibrant and fluid. I thank NetGalley and the book’s publishers for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. I also wish to thank Natasha Pulley for writing such a beautiful and thrilling novel. I will look out for more of her work in the future.

The Count of Monte Cristo: Chapters 13-17

Read the previous instalment here.

These next four chapters lay the trail for Edmond Dantes eventual escape from the Chateau d’If. This is an important section for the book because, away from the political to-and-fro of early 19th century French history, we get to spend a decent amount of time with Dantes and his new-found friend and spiritual adviser, the Abbe Faria, the ‘Learned Italian’.

Napoleon has been banished once more, and Louis XVIII has been restored to the throne. No better time for the inspector-general of prisons to do his rounds and see how things are with the inmates of the lonely island Dantes calls home. Dantes spies an opportunity to appeal to the man who, in all fairness, sees no reason why Dantes should even be in prison. Having listened to his pleas, the inspector-general promises the innocent man that he will look into his case. Dantes feels hope at last, thinking that de Villefort’s notes will save him. However, the opposite happens. Conspiracy runs deep and the prosecutor’s lies, and his desire to hide his own relationship with Noirtier further damn Dantes’ claim to be released. There is nothing the inspector-general can do.

Nor is there anything he can do with the other prisoner he visits, the seemingly mad Italian Abbe Faria, who promises the inspector-general untold wealth if his release can be secured. Faria has a treasure buried somewhere and he’s willing to part with most of it if his pleas are met. The governor and inspector-general think him mad and leave him to rot away. Prisoners 27 (Faria) and 27 (Dantes) are left to fend for themselves.

Dantes falls into deep despair, at one point threatening to starve himself to death, such is his plight. His prayers to God go unheeded; and he’s oblivious to the fact that other people who were close to him put him where he is now. But when he hears a noise coming from the other side of his cell, he tricks his jailer into leaving his dinner pot behind and starts scratching away at the sound. Then he hears a voice. After some time and much scraping away at the wall, he meets his neighbour, who turns out to be the Abbe Faria, who comes into Dantes’ cell.

Far from being mad, as his jailers deem him to be, Faria is a resourceful man. Imprisoned because of his belief in a unified Italy, Faria is a polymath who becomes Dantes’ tutor in the years they spend together. He teached Dantes other languages and soon enough Dantes, an intelligent if naive man, quickly learns the basics in Italian and English. Faria also proves to Dantes that Caderousse, Fernand, and Danglars were the men behind his captivity. Dantes swears revenge. Together they hatch a plan to escape. Faria, much to his own despair, works out that he’s been digging in the wrong direction. So, between planning another route, and learning mathematics and philosophy, the two men bond over a mutual need for freedom.

Before their plan can come to fruition, though, the abbe has an epileptic fit. The man knows he’s on limited time, with an arm and a leg becoming paralyzed. Dantes swears to not leave his friend while he’s alive.

The Count of Monte Cristo: Chapters 1-4

Greetings, dear reader. I wrote in a previous blog that it was my plan to read Alexandre Dumas pere‘s classic adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo over the course of the next couple of months, taking it three or four chapters at a time. Well, the time has come. Today, I will focus on the opening four chapters of this mammoth 118 chapter long novel. As stated earler, the edition I’m reading from Canterbury Classics, and was published in 2013. I picked it up from Amazon before Christmas for about $15. It has a soft faux-leather cover, and it’s pretty.

The story begins on the morning of February 24, 1815. The date itself is important for historical reasons, but it’s not yet apparent to the characters we meet in these initial chapters why this is. Edmond Dantes disembarks the merchant ship Pharaon at Marseilles. He’s had an eventful journey which took in unscheduled stops at the islands of Monte Cristo and, more importantly for the story, Elba, where a certain former emperor of France lies in exile. Dantes lands there because his fatally ill captain, Leclere, wishes to deliver a package to Napoleon’s marshall. In return he is to take a letter to Paris. Dantes, out of fealty to his captain, agrees to continue this mission when Leclere passes away from a brain fever. Dantes is a good man, but he doesn’t ask the obvious question, and this lands him in huge trouble on home soil.

In double quick time, we meet the Conspirators, and their individual reasons for wanting Dantes out of their lives. Because Dantes acquitted himself well when his captain died (he’s the ship’s mate when we’re introduced to him), his employer wants to make him captain. For one so young (Dantes is barely in his twenties), this is a dream come true. M. Danglars, the supercargo (representative of the owner on board the Pharaon), took a dislike to Dantes from the off and is none too pleased about this rapid promotion. When Dantes goes to see his elderly father, he is horrified to find out that the money he left with his dad to take care of himself while Dantes was at sea, was given instead to their neighbour Caderousse, a drunkard, because of a debt he and Dantes had. The elder Dantes was forced to live on 60 francs for three months. There’s not even a bottle of wine in the house. When Caderousse finds out that Edmond is back, he sees another opportunity to squeeze the man and his father for more money.

Edmond is still unaware of how his return to land and his apparent rise up the ranks sits badly with some of the men around him. No sooner has he said hi to his dad, he’s away to Catalan to meet up with the love of his life, Mercedes Herrera. Unfortunately for Edmond, he has a rival for the young woman’s affections, her cousin Fernand Mondego. He urges Mercedes not to marry outside her Catalan community, but she’s not having it. She practically falls into Edmond’s arms when he interrupts their awkward conversation. Mercedes expects the two men to become fast friends, but neither men like the cut of the other’s jib (and that’s putting it mildly).

As Edmond and Mercedes look at each other all doe-eyed and begin planning a quick wedding, Fernand, Caderousse, and Danglars drown their collective sorrows over several bottles of wine at a nearby tavern. So how do they solve a problem like Dantes? Simple: they plan to set him up. They realise killing him is out of the question because Mercedes implies that if anything were to happen to Edmond, she would take her own life. Danglars forges a letter to the king’s attorney, telling of Edmond’s planned trip to Paris to deliver a letter on behalf of the usurped emperor. Fernand takes the letter and heads off to the capital, ready to accuse the young man of treason.

So we’re off to a flying start, and we’re only 28 pages in. Dumas wastes very little time in setting up his tale of adventure, betrayal, and revenge. We know Edmond is in for a boat-load of trouble, and we’re unable to warn him and Mercedes. The plot is afoot, and the next few chapters await us.