Tag Archives: political intrigue

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

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Now I have to get my hands on Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel weaves spells with her novels about Thomas Cromwell and the bombastic, bloody reign of Henry VIII. Bring Up the Bodies ensnares you–and it is unusual, dense with names and tricky to follow unless you are paying close attention. I thought it was absolutely great.

Bring Up the Bodies follows on from Wolf Hall, chronicling the months and weeks leading up to the beheading of Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London. Cromwell is wiley, strategically brilliant, flexible of principle and self-protective in this account. He is also dedicated to the king, vulnerable to reflections on the losses in his life and his harsh childhood, witty, and smooth in his dealings with the treacherous operators in and around the court. Mantel’s Cromwell is at once a despicable and likeable character and tremendously sympathetic. Anne Boleyn doesn’t come off quite so well but there are no complete villains in this book, and certainly no saints.

The matter of a suitable heir to the kingdom looms large but not so large that the king’s disaffection, his roving eye, and the headstrong and imperious personality of the queen are as much to credit for the rush to the Tower and the executioner’s sword. Many people lose their heads on the block when Henry loses his in pursuit of Jane Seymour.  Jane doesn’t seem entirely competitive with the colorful Boleyn but she is surprisingly astute. So is Cromwell as he goes about  changing history–again–in the name of honor and love. Or maybe just lust.

It’s very intelligent–reads like a contemporary reign or campaign, actually, with really sharp people in many of the lead roles. The point of view is interesting–I think an intense third person subjective with Cromwell’s thoughts and dialog reported and himself referred to as “he” frequently with no attribution. That POV required some work on my part, due to the wealth of characters, locations and events, but the effort was a pleasure. You are in capable hands in this book–Mantel is a master and Cromwell is a surprisingly worthy subject for her meticulous attentions. I’m looking forward to the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, the prequel to Bringing Up the Bodies, to track how Cromwell helped Henry to dispose of Katherine of Aragon to pave the way for wife #2 and Henry’s historic role as a royal serial killer.  

Bring Up the Bodies  Hilary Mantel | Henry Holt and Company   2012

Dorchester Terrace – Anne Perry

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Thomas Pitt has been promoted to head of the Special Branch and there are some questions—a few in his own mind—about whether he is up to the task. Pitt is a brilliant detective but his new role as Commander requires diplomacy, tact, social graces and an instinct for intrigue. In addition, he will hold the fate of many people in his hands—his decisions will be life and death in circumstances that are often ambiguous.

When he learns of suspicious questions about train crossings from Dover to London and then discovers that a Habsburg is scheduled to take that route on a visit to Kensington Palace, he may or may not be onto the early stages of a disastrous political plot. The Foreign Secretary is contemptuous and other complications create awkward situations that frustrate Pitt and may endanger scores of innocent civilians.

Add to this stew a once fabulous elderly revolutionary, a woman whose valiant and colorful exploits were matched only by the roster of her illustrious lovers during a time of unrest and rebellion in the Austrian Empire. Serafina Montserrat was legendary but now she is frail and forgetful, terrified that her ramblings may reveal secrets that can still incite murder and international mayhem. Serafina lives on Dorchester Terrace, confined to bed and the ministrations of a resentful niece, a faithful servant and visits from old friends and acquaintances—until she dies of a massive overdose of laudanum.

Anne Perry’s Dorchester Terrace reignited my interest in Thomas and Charlotte Pitt. The elevated venue in which the Pitts now solve mysteries is more interesting than the former more mundane puzzles I’ve read with the two sleuths. So I suppose I will once again pull this Anne Perry series off the shelf when I come across a few—Perry is a convincing writer with an obsessive tendency to weave detailed history in and out of her stories. The history in this book, a fictional foreshadowing of the events that triggered World War I, is fascinating and at least as interesting as the plot.    

Dorchester Terrace: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt Novel   Anne Perry | Ballantine  2012

A River in the Sky – Elizabeth Peters

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The Emerson family, the brightest and bossiest collection of human beings to grace early 1900s archaeology, has been unleashed on another artifact-rich region. This time the delightful and troublesome Ramses is a young man—he’s an admirable young man but I love him as the hell-on-wheels six-year-old in older Egyptian adventures—and there is an adopted daughter, Nefret, whose acquisition must have been the fascinating topic of another book.

A River in the Sky tracks Amelia Peabody Emerson, her blustery, adoring and brilliant Egyptologist husband, Nefret and a motley crew of friends, servants and hangers-on to Jerusalem where a bumbling amateur intends to dig for the Ark of the Covenant at one of the holiest sites in Palestine. Ramses is already in Palestine on another dig, getting himself perilously involved in a murderous intrigue. The Germans are planning a railroad and an eventual occupation of the region. Turkish soldiers of the Ottoman Empire don’t bother with niceties when keeping order. Weird characters abound and many of them might be spies or other nefarious villains.

As ever, Amelia is brusque, intelligent, competent, attracted to the most dangerous sites and the possibilities of a dig to clear up some historical mysteries. But this time an added complication is the apparent disappearance of Ramses who has failed to show up as directed and join his parents’ dig. The Crown has set the Emersons loose in Palestine to uncover a plot to destabilize the precarious peace among conflicting religions in the tinderbox of Jerusalem. Much more than the discovery of new artifacts is at stake. Things get complicated before the expedition sets one foot out of England.

Elizabeth Peters delivers her razor-sharp, contentious, funny and historically-lavish typical Amelia Peabody mystery. The repartee between the Emersons is quick and clever. The plots and subplots twist into a satisfying tangle. You can’t entirely guess at the resolution but you are happy to be led to it, enjoying the adventure along the way. There are no false notes in these stories. The times, the trickery and the players all make sense in a believable world. My only regret was the absence of De Cat Bastet and that wicked little boy who bedevils everyone and saves the day hilariously in earlier books.

A River in the Sky: An Amelia Peabody Novel of Suspense   Elizabeth Peters | HarperCollins   2010

The Coven’s Daughter – Lucy Jago

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Lucy Jago is a British writer of nonfiction and historical fiction. The Coven’s Daughter was apparently published first in England with the unsexy title Montacute House but the cover was tarted up a bit for the American audience with a new title and a sexy illustration. The Coven’s Daughter is more appealing and does capture something of what the book is about.

Cess Perryn is thirteen (so this is a YA book, although it reads well enough for a wider audience) on the day she finds a heavy gold locket in the hen house. She is the poultry girl for Montacute estate, a smelly but welcome job for a peasant who needs every penny to help keep her mother and herself fed. The locket holds a portrait of a grand lady and Cess slips it on and keeps it, although at times it seems to burn her skin. Almost immediately bad things start to happen—the blackened and scraped body of a boy is discovered; outspoken Cess challenges the lord’s imperious son; her friend William goes missing and it turns out a number of boys have disappeared from the surrounding area.

It’s 1596 and word spreads quickly that the disappearances may be witchcraft. Then Cess is accused of being a witch. She is a reluctant but tough and resourceful heroine who concocts a plan to find the missing William and discover what is happening. Her efforts are complicated by her precarious position. Cess and her mother are village outcasts, forced to live at the edge of the forest, impoverished because there is no steady work for them and family ties were severed by some event that happened before Cess was born. The fact that no one will tell her who her father is leaves her more vulnerable and a dark political plot begins to weave tendrils around the estate, the village, and Cess and her friends.

A book with “coven” in the title will obviously include more than a passing reference to witches and Cess is caught up in the healing and magickal world of her friend and mentor, a witch who reveals herself to Cess and importunes her to join the coven for her own safety. Several surprising characters have the gift of sight and strong intuitions drive some of the action. Jago creates a believable Elizabethan world full of colors, textures, smells, sounds and superstitions. The intrigues are Shakespearean; the secrets are deadly; the architecture is imposing, laced with hidden passages; the main characters are real enough; and the resolution is classic. The Coven’s Daughter isn’t “thriller-scary” but it holds your attention. I pulled it off the shelf because of the title so the “Americanization” seems to have been successful marketing.

It was a relief to find a small gem to offset the truly painfully written mysteries I was looking forward to escaping into until I opened them. Two perfectly promising murder mysteries set in a Maine fishing village with a retired Miami homicide detective as the amateur sleuth. Dreadful. Just really really awful writing. Could not finish even one. How do books like that find agents, publishers and print runs? They are already back at the library. Jago’s book, with its graceful prose, I would recommend.

The Coven’s Daughter   Lucy Jago | Disney-Hyperion  2010