Tag Archives: book reviews

A Case of Blackmail in Belgravia

By Clara Benson.

When Ticky Maltravers drops dead outside Cynthia Pilkington-Soames’ front door, her son, Freddy, a feckless journalist with the Clarion, is forced to move the body and then investigate the incident. It’s not an easy job because all of Maltravers’ acquaintances had good reason to murder him – he was blackmailing them. His man, Weaver, decides to continue his master’s business and gets stabbed in the back.

In spite of his general lack of diligence or competence, Freddy manages to find Maltravers’ collection of incriminating evidence and return the offending items to the victims before also working out who the real killer is, revealing all to the police, and nearly getting stabbed in the process.

Freddy is a likable, personable neutral sort of character, being from his mother’s world, but not closely involved with it. His mother, Cynthia, indifferently leaves it to her son to try and deal with the aftermath of Maltravers’ death while keeping her own vice – gambling – from Freddy’s remotely located father. The mysterious Valentina Sangiacomo and the less mysterious Amelia Drinkwater are both forthright modern girls who will jolly well do as they please in spite of any reservations Freddy might have about their involvement.

The book is very much a collection of comical clichés. Freddy is another Bertie Wooster sort of character (although he lacks a Jeeves to guide him), and his mother and her social circle are all suitably snooty, snobbish and judgemental. However, the obvious elements of the story don’t detract from the entertaining quality of the writing which evokes the style of the age.

Overall, the book is fun, light reading, with Freddy Pilkington-Soames being a mixture of Bertie Wooster (mainly) and Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. We’ll see what happens in coming instalments of the series.



Darien: Empire of Salt

By Conn Iggulden.

In Darien: Empire of Salt, General Justan tries to overthrow the government in a coup d’etat.

That’s about the entire story.

The main characters play their parts in this drama. The clairvoyant hunter, Elias Post, is blackmailed into using his skill to assassinate King Johannes. Nancy discovers that she doesn’t neutralise magic, but absorbs it, and converts it to heat, which she can use to devastating effect. Tellius, the Fagin of Darien, finds that Arthur is not a child, but an ancient child-sized golem, who becomes the king’s bodyguard, and is then made king by Lady Sallet (who is a prominent member of one of the city’s ruling families).

Unlike Elias, I couldn’t see how this one was going to end. I thought the main characters might form some sort of league, but that never happened so that the story ended up being about a bunch of random people with special powers mostly acting randomly. While Elias was forced to help the gunfighter, Vic Deeds, assassinate the king, Nancy murdered Lord Albus, the king’s uncle, in revenge for her father’s death at the hands of Albus’s men, and then promptly turned round to defend the city against General Justan and his army. Arthur, aided by other boys under Tellius’s wing, decided to close the gates of the city even though he had little obvious motivation to do so.

Like Sir Richard Ashbury in Dan Davis’s series Vampier Knight/Outlaw, Elias was constantly being pushed to his limits, and he somehow rather improbably survived, which was suspending my disbelief just a little too far.

The world of Darien is magical, but there are also guns, although these are rare and the tech seems to be beyond the weapons of the 17th century. The Sallet Greens, who are Lady Sallet’s elite warriors, wear magic-powered armour reminiscent of mechas in anime. Indeed, the overall feel is a bit like the anime series Last Exile.

It may be that the overall story will become clearer as the trilogy progresses, but far from appearing to led to an obvious second book, Darien: Empire of Salt is self-contained.

The story is a decent read, but does seem to be a little aimless.


Vampire Crusader

By Dan Davis.

In Vampire Outlaw, Sir Richard of Ashbury embarks on his windiest adventure yet. His brother, William de Ferrers, wants to lure him to Sherwood Forest where he will use his brother’s blood to create new vampire minions because he’s fed up with doing it all himself. Instead, on the order of Richard’s liege lord, the Archbishop of York, he heads to the Weald. And then he heads back towards Sherwood. And then back to the Weald in what appears to be some sort of odd medieval tennis match. And some of the time, he’s dragging around the evil Friar Tuck because he needs to torture him for information about de Ferrers, but in the end, he abandons that idea, and if he had the slightest inkling of what was going to happen, he wouldn’t have bothered because ultimately he finds William in Sherwood without getting information out of anyone. But it takes some time before Richard deposits Marian and Eva (who is both the archbishop’s daughter and his bodyguard) at a priory from which they are abducted to lure our hero and his company into the forest.

All the while, the chapters are long, the fights seem longer (and often repetitious), and although things happen such as raids on camps of French soldiers and an attack on Lincoln, the whole story feels like a prolonged bout of literary inertia which would’ve benefited from brutal editing by getting Richard straight to Sherwood for his big fight instead of having him scurry from one end of England to the other.

The whole Friar Tuck episode is a case in point. Richard even goes so far as to capture some villainous nobleman for Tuck to tuck into, but when it doesn’t have the desired effect, Richard decides to kill the friar and his snack. It’s only at the very end that Tuck reveals some plot to poison King John, which Richard vainly attempts to thwart. But as far as getting Richard to Sherwood to confront de Ferrers goes, he should’ve killed Friar Tuck as soon as possible, or sometime before that. In truth, the complete excision of this part of the story would be no great loss.

The length of the chapters doesn’t help the ponderous nature of the story. Even the internal breaks within chapters often come less infrequently than I’d like because the waffly prose is fatiguing.

Davis still can’t tell the difference between “lie” and “lay”, and “taught” for “taut” slipped through along with a couple of nonsensical errors which I couldn’t decipher. There were a few instances of “for” as a conjunction, which is at best dated. As I said in my previous review of Davis’s work, It’s not literary or elegant. I’m not sure how much effort gets put into revision, but there were occasions where the author got stuck on his new favourite word. Such instances of novel vocabulary tend to be obvious, and are all right, but not if the word is used again in a page or two when a thesaurus should’ve been consulted. The same goes for a certain amount of repetitiousness when Richard eventually meets de Ferrers and keeps declaring him to be a raving loon.

“Would you care for a cup of blood?” asked William as if he was serving afternoon tea.
”You’re a raving loon,” said Richard.
“Nice weather we’ve been having.”
“You’re a raving loon.”
“I see the West Indies are 35 for 2 after 20 overs.”
“You’re a raving loon.”

There is, as I feared, a third book on the way, but I shan’t be reading it.

Vampire Crusader

By Dan Davis.

Richard of Ashbury arrives home to find his brother and his entire household have been brutally slaughtered. His dying sister-in-law, Isabella, extracts a promise from him that he’ll avenge their deaths. And off he goes after William de Ferrers, who has a retinue of six exceptionally monstrous men.

Richard travels to Marseilles where he encounters one of de Ferrers’ men, Rollo, and defeats him before he sails for the Holy Land. There he espies Alice de Frenenterre, Richard the Lionheart’s girlfriend, and eventually manages to start a somewhat fraught relationship with her.

Meanwhile, there’s the little matter of liberating the cities of the Levant from their rightful owners, and in the course of the fighting, Richard distinguishes himself and win plaudits from King Richard. Now that he’s a big noise, he marries Alice.

It doesn’t last. William and his men attack Richard’s home, kill Alice, and abduct the children. Richard the Lionheart offers assistance from his vassal, Henry, the King of Jerusalem, but the latter refuses money and arms, and sends Richard to the archbishop, who has a priest who knows where de Ferrers and his band are hiding.

There’s an ambush, but Richard manages to kill his attackers before entering a cave system where he confronts de Ferrers after killing the rest of his retinue. However, his archenemy resorts to the old trope of giving Richard the choice between killing him or rescuing the prisoners, and being a Good Bloke™, he rescues the prisoners among which are his stepchildren. Nonetheless, in spite of certain revelations, Richard is still determined to have his revenge.

It becomes clear during the course of the story that Richard is a little odd, and initially, it does seem strange that he doesn’t account for it or know how he got that way. It’s only later in the story that he learns the truth, but by then it’s clear that he’s a sort of vampire-like creature. Curiously enough, even if no one knows that the man is some sort of blood-drinking creature, a lot of people seem to know about his true background, though he is unaware of it.

The book is not badly written, but it’s not well written, either. There’s quite a lot of repetition such as frequent comments in the fight scenes about how fast Richard’s opponents are or how fast he is or how large his opponents are. There’s quite a lot of grinning, and Richard often alienates others. The book needed to be revised to supply the necessary variation that the perceptive reader appreciates. Davis also has a bit an obsession, it seems, with everywhere being stinky one way or another, although that was quite possibly the Middle Ages all over.

The author clearly doesn’t understand the difference between “lie” (recline) and “lay” (place one thing on another), gratingly opting for the latter throughout. He also uses “for” as a causative conjunction and he uses it in that Greco-Latin usage at the start of a sentence, which is an entirely un-English construction. This is not posh or literary (at least it hasn’t been literary since 1913), and it’s not natural contemporary English. At least Davis is not as bad as Ann Swinfen when it comes to this.

The Alchemist of Netley Abbey

By Cassandra Clark.

As the gang rides home from Salisbury (in the wrong direction), some mercenaries attack them, causing Herbert de Courcy to break his leg. From there he’s ferried to Netley Abbey where a group of pilgrims is waiting to board the St Marie to continue on to their destination, and a somewhat batty Welsh monk, Hywel, is conducting somewhat batty experiments.

“All right,” said Hildegard, “where’s the body?”

It’s Brother Martin, who happened to be on the ship when it got struck by lightning, although that didn’t kill him, but rather poison did.

Meanwhile, the sluice running beneath the kitchen which the monks use to trap fish has got blocked.

“It’ll be a body,” said Hywel, and everyone else agreed, although they tried not to look at Hildegard in case they were next to meet with an untimely end.

Indeed it was. There’s no point in being coy about it.

Meanwhile, the sickly Mistress Beata makes it known that she has access to the book which Hywel has been waiting for, but she’s being as medieval version of ebay to screw money out of her husband, which she gives to the acrobatic Alaric so that he can become a monk.

And with that, the gang start sailing home.

I was hoping this would be the last in the series, but it isn’t. The relationship between Hildegard and Hubert hasn’t been resolved, but there’s plenty of sneaky snogging, and Hildegard is frequently naked (because of the unusually hot weather; honest). The story has a couple of twists to it with the vague possibility that the prostitute Delith might reappear in a future tale.

The spelling is all over the place at times, from the misspelling of “travelled” and “travelling” to mixed instances of “sceptical” in close proximity to each other, to the outright misspellings of “fiery” and “nothing”. “Militia” ([collective noun] “group of weapon-wielding yokels”) is often used for a single member of the group in the same way ignorant hacks use “forces” (uncountable; yes, I know that’s morphologically ironic) as if it means “soldiers” (countable entities) before the correct “militiamen” is employed. “HQ”? In the Middle Ages? I think not. “Pimp”? What is this? Some tacky American film from the 70s? O tempora, o lack of appropriate heroic diction!

I assume Clark is perhaps working on the next volume, but though she lacks George Martin’s flatulent verbosity, she should, I think, bring the whole thing to an end before Hildegard ends up being a one-woman plague, mowing down people from one end of England to another.

The Scandal of the Skulls

By Cassandra Clark.

‘I’m brilliant and everyone else is an arse,’ said the slogan on Hildegard’s T-shirt, and she meant it.

Hildegard, Hubert, and Hubert’s mates, a couple of ninja monks called Gregory and Egbert, return to England in the middle of a storm. Hildegard makes her way to Salisbury with Gregory where before she can say, “I’m the main character. Let me through!”, there’s a corpse dangling from a windlass up the cathedral spire and she’s already sticking her nose into everyone else’s business, but making little headway into the case.

She also discovers she’s being followed by a mysterious man called Sir John de Lincoln, who seems to know a lot about her, even her cool spy name, Mistress York. De Lincoln reveals that he was one of Thomas Swynford’s gang the night Rivera was lynched, but the killing disgusted him so much that he’s renounced his allegiance to his former master and his faction.

“I like Little Dick,” said de Lincoln.
“I prefer big dick myself,” said Hildegard.
“Who’s Big Dick?”
“Hubert de Courcy’s.”
De Lincoln looked puzzled.

While the nun is in Salisbury, she takes a detour to Clarendon to see her daughter, Ysabella, who is one of the Countess of Salisbury’s wards. The countess wants to arrange a suitable marriage for her, which turns out to be a union with de Lincoln, although the business is just part of his nefarious plot.

Back in Salisbury, another man is murdered, and the finger of blame points at Frank Atkinson, who vanishes as if he’s been swallowed up by a hole in the ground – where Hildegard eventually finds him. The evidence is suggesting that in spite of Atkinson’s apparent connection to both murders, he’s a red herring.

There’s also the matter of getting some gold to London to get the popular Sir Simon Burley, Ricard II’s tutor, out of the Tower. It’s all part of de Lincoln’s nefarious plot.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Hildegard receives a bunch of lavender, but when she reaches Clarendon, everyone’s gone. “Everyone’s gone, domina,” said the servant. What an idiot, thought Hildegard and ran around the house shouting, “Ysabella!” even though no one was there. When she does catch up with the countess, it’s clear de Lincoln has abducted Ysabella and her boyfriend, Ivo, and that they’ve gone into the marsh. Of course, de Lincoln falls in…

…and then he falls out because like Escrick Fitzjohn, the man is a human water bear. While Hildegard is wandering around the town, watching the May Day celebrations, de Lincoln appears out of nowhere and drags her up the steeple for the grand finale. It’s all part of de Lincoln’s nefarious plot.

Although The Scandal of the Skulls reaches a point where little progress has been made in identifying the murderer, it doesn’t fall into the same trap as The Butcher of Avignon with long passages in which Hildegard is going through a tedious process of elimination. In fact, the murders are ultimately less important than de Lincoln’s twisted schemes, and in the end, the former are no more than a distraction.

Hildegard’s character shifts at times as she morphs into one of those annoying people who thinks she alone is competent while deriding everyone else. Her trip to Clarendon is an egregious example of this, where she still goes about the place even though the remaining servant has informed her that no one’s in. She needs better motivation (beyond being the main character) to investigate matters that are no concern of hers. Perhaps she could set up shop as a PI, say, The No. 1 Nun’s Detective Agency. Ysabella comes across as an annoying 14-year-old Guardian reader who thinks that by sounding huffy about something, her wishes will be effected. Overall, there are more Guardian-like comments in this volume. De Lincoln appears to be unhinged with his empty dark eyes that are dark and empty. Brother Gregory is repeatedly described as having sun-bleached hair as if the reader has forgotten within a few paragraphs that he was in the Middle East for many years.

Overall, the story is well plotted. Even if the identification of the killer comes late in the day and is of no real relevance, Clark brings everything cleverly together.

There are a few typos in the Kindle edition, including the repetition of a long passage early on. This sort of thing shouldn’t be happening in the first place regardless of the source. There’s also the matter of the title, which has nothing to do with the the content. There’s no scandal and even fewer skulls.

The Butcher of Avignon

By Cassandra Clark.

With a major political crisis building back home, Hildegard’s prioress has dispatched her to the seat of the antipope, Clement, in Avignon to have a look round. “What about the bridge?” said Hildegard. Of course, replied the prioress. I hear que on y danse. And watch out for sexy abbots.

Hildegard has barely been in Avignon ten minutes when one of Cardinal Grizac’s acolytes is found murdered in Pope Clement’s treasury, clutching a jewelled dagger, which subsequently goes missing. But everyone’s favourite monastic ’tec is on the case, aided by a plucky band of English pages in the service of Sir John Fitzjohn, one of John of Gaunt’s many bastard sons, who is in Avignon to swap a couple of miners for a certain jewelled dagger which happens to contain some undetectable poison. Hubert de Courcy is also in town, but appears to belong to the enemy camp, being considered for the post of one of Clement’s cardinal. What’s a girl to do when her studly nighttime fantasy may be on the other side; or is he? What about Athanasius? Exactly who is this elderly monk with all his power? What’s Cardinal Grizac up to? Or Cardinal Fondi and his hot, fiery girlfriend, the steamy Carlotta? And whose familiar voice did Hildegard hear on the bridge?

At times the story gets bogged down. When Hildegard can make no progress in her investigation of Maurice’s death, the story stagnates. Then after the murder of one of Taillefer, one of the French pages, sur le pont d’Avignon (“He should’ve gone for the dancing,” said Hildegard sadly), the story stagnates again as our Cistercian Sherlock Holmes tries to work out who the killer might be from what facts she has.

There’s some special argument time with Hubert – they kiss, they fight, they kiss, they fight – except there’s not much kissing. But it tends to be a bit contrived as Hildegard flies off the handle for the sake of the genre rather than any concrete reason.

From nowhere, right at the end of the story, Hildegard’s old bungling nemesis, Escrick Fitzjohn, another of John of Gaunt’s little bastards, appears, accompanied by the usual smells and menaces. As usual, Hildegard manages to evade him, and with Hubert’s help (of course he’s one of the good guys), she legs it from Avignon. Even Cardinal Fondi and Carlotta are working for Pope Urban in Rome. However, Hildegard was unable to recover the poison, which Athanasius had already found in her room, and having opened the phial, had succumbed to the contents.

The Kindle edition of the book has a few typos, and possibly some jargon which I may have mistaken for typos. At one point the word “appeal” gets repeated several times over, but possibly this is medieval legal jargon where we’d say “accuse”. Indeed, there are a few times when Clark’s language is noticeably repetitious where some proofreading and rewriting would eliminate Favourite-word-of-the-chapter Syndrome.

And speaking of chapters, there are none. The entire book is marked by section breaks, but there are times where there’s a big jump where a chapter heading would’ve signalled a significant change of scene.

The Dragon of Handale

By Cassandra Clark.

Hildegard is back from her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, but doesn’t even have the time to unpack before her prioress packs her off to Handale where she can think about her future. Will she be a randy, friar-shagging widow or a randy, friar-shagging nun?

To welcome Hildegard to Handale, the podgy prioress, Basilda, has been nice enough to arrange the murder of one of the masons who has been working on a new extension to the nunnery. “Too kind,” murmured Hildegard. “I’m on the case.” And she starts to barge into every room like the seasoned fic’ ’tec she is.

It’s grim oop north, with Handale essentially being an S&M prison for recalcitrant nuns. “You know the sort of thing,” wheezed the prioress flabbily. “The ones who go round bonking hunky friars.” Hildegard blushed in shock at such behaviour. “Let me introduce you to out benefactor, Mr. Fulke.”

Fulke has a little secret in a tower in the woods, which is guarded by the dragon of Handale. “Dragon, my arse,” said Hildegard promptly charging off to the tower to find out what was being stored there. But there’s also a locked room she hasn’t been able to enter.

Meanwhile, Hildegard is also busy thwarting Fulke’s other line of business – selling off nuns –, and as luck would have it, Ulf’s castle is a sanctuary just up the road.

The action shifts away from Handale to Kilton Castle where the Earl of Northumberland is expected for a meeting which coincides with a crisis for King Richard. The earl’s arrival also coincides with Hildegard’s rescue of another damsel in distress, who is about to be married off to the Earl of Morcar as he attempts to re-establish his power base.

But a couple of questions remain – who murdered the priest at Handale (I know; Hildegard turns up somewhere and people die; a coincidence?), what happened to Mariana’s baby, and what’s Desiderata’s story? Fortunately, Hildegard is on the case.

Ulf, who is unhappily married, but still gagging for a former nun of his acquaintance, invites her to his castle for Christmas (probably so she can check out his battering ram), but is, it seems, thwarted by a messenger from the other great love of Hildegard’s life, man-babe Hubert de Courcy. But instead of scurrying back to Meaux, she follows Ulf, much to his delight.

Perhaps Clark found the story about dire doings in Handale couldn’t be sustained for a sufficient length because about halfway through the book, that particular plot has more or less been done, and the action turns to Kilton Castle instead before the tale is polished off with a return to Handale.

This is also a very nonstop story, with Hildegard charging from one close call to another, frequently through blizzards. The book might actually make a halfway decent, low-budget flick.

There are several typos in the Kindle edition, including problems with punctuation, and a good chance I didn’t spot a lot of them. There was also an abrupt change of scene at one point where Hildegard was suddenly back with the masons, but there was nothing to bridge the gap between this and what preceded it. I don’t think anything was missing, but the lacuna was awkward. In addition to this, chapter breaks occur all over the place. The formatting needs work.

This volume’s noticeable Americanism was the use of “come” for “go” in a number of places. I can only be grateful that Clark appears to be able to tell the difference between “bring” and “take”, and can at least spell words correctly.

A Parliament of Spies

By Cassandra Clark.

“I’ve had a splendid idea,” said Archbishop Neville. “Why don’t we invite Hildegard to travel to London with us?”
“Excellent suggestion, your grace,” replied Edwin, but not in an excellent tone.
“What is it, lad? Don’t you like Hildegard? Not into sexy nuns, eh?”
“It’s not that. I mean, I like hot nuns as much as the next celibate priest, but, you see, every time she turns up, people die.”
“Surely you exaggerate.”
Two days later.
“How many dead so far, Edwin.”
“Six to half a dozen.”
“And how far have we travelled?”
“We haven’t actually left the palace.”

Yes, she’s back, and they’re dropping like flies as she travels with the archbishop’s entourage to London, where the king has summoned parliament. He also has to contend with his uncles and their machinations, not to mention his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, and Bolingbroke’s half brother, Thomas Swynford. And if this lot wasn’t enough, the French are on the verge of invading.

On top of this, an old acquaintance of Hildegard’s reappears, which throws her career in the church into a spin, and she falls in love until her rather dangerous liaison comes to a tragic end.

The story is connected to Sir Ralph Standish, whose murder of Wat Tyler was rewarded, but having failed to achieve his second aim, which was the assassination of King Richard, he was poisoned. The poisoner was rumbled by one of Archbishop Neville’s retainers, but there is also a connection to the king’s wife, Anne of Bohemia, having a miscarriage, deliberately induced to weaken Richard’s position.

A Parliament of Spies doesn’t have a particular narrative thread. The journey to London includes a murder and a maiming. In London, Hildegard is caught up in various intrigues and and affair, but overall, there’s a lack of focus. Unlike previous volumes which tend to have the climax of the main plot first, followed by the climaxes of the subplots in a drawn-out denouement, this book has a high point, the lynching, but it comes as a random event, a result of irrational mob violence.

In the end, Hildegard must renew her vows as a nun, but she gets permission to toddle off to Santiago de Compostela on a pilgrimage first (and there’s a cameo from Geoffrey Chaucer).

There’s not much to add apart from observations about the usual unnecessary Americanisms, the jargon (some of which is actually anachronistic), and Hildegard’s frequent appearances in the thick of the action.

“I’m the main character. Let me through.”

The Law of Angels

By Cassandra Clark.

When two stray girls, the traumatised Maud and talkative Petronilla, turn up at Hildegard’s remote establishment, trouble is sure to follow – and it does when some right villains turn up and give the place a thorough going-over. With her two new charges, the nun heads off to York, where she has business with a candlemaker, and Archbishop Neville with regard to the Cross of Constantine (uh-oh!) The town is preparing for the festival of Corpus Christi, but the Peasants’ Revolt and opposition to John of Gaunt form strong undercurrents in the area.

And before you can say “Sicut erat in principio”, Hildegard is busy running towards every danger that York has to offer. Fanatical, extremist nunnery? Tick that one off. Explosions and fires? Tick that one off. Midnight meetings with rebels and murderous battles? Tick that one off. Sneaking up to remote mills where hot babes are being held against their will? Tick that one off. Rescuing Maud from wicked knights, and escaping from a religious fanatic from the nunnery? Keep ticking those boxes. A medieval nun’s hair-raising adventures never end.

Clark once again opts for her multi-climactic style of storytelling, but like the first volume, seems to resolve the main plot a little too soon, leaving the B, C, D, etc. plots to be wrapped up in a long tail, which undermines the effectiveness of the narrative. Once the subplots had been concluded, the novel should really have finished with Maud and Petronilla narrowly escaping from the lecherous advances of Henry Bolingbroke or his dad, followed by a brief epilogue.

The book is still garnished with a smattering of inappropriate Americanisms, and there are strong arguments for the removal of various scenes and descriptions, especially of activity in York, which merely impede the progress of the actual narrative in this idealised, 21st-century portrayal of medieval skulduggery.