The Conversos by V E H Masters – the second novel of life in the divided and dangerous Europe of the mid 1500s

The Conversos by V.E.H. Masters

Historical fiction at its best should pull the reader in by the small details as well as the large observations, and in this intense and powerful novel Masters grabbed my attention at the start and kept it to the end. Following the strong first book in the series, The Castilians, this book continues to follow the progress of sister and brother Bethia and Will as they to survive and negotiate the difficult times of 1547. They are not royal, not even aristocratic, and their tales are far away from the turbulence of the Tudor court. It is, however, a story of religion, politics, family life and much more. They are put in settings that are so realistically described that they jump from the page and are surrounded by others, some of whom are real and well-known people, but everyone is realistically established. This is a novel of the houses and streets of Antwerp, the small businesses, the atmosphere of a city on the edge. It also features the grim reality of life on a ship in the most terrible circumstances. The research into the life and times of multiple characters and the small details of where and how they lived is brilliant, and never interrupts the flow of the narrative which I found engaging and compulsively readable. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this impressive book.

The first book in the series introduced Bethia and Will. Despite their young age, they have both experienced enormous trials for the sake of their beliefs and the desire to help and even save their family. As this book begins Bethia is travelling to Antwerp with her new husband Mainard, having left her home and family in St Andrews, Scotland. Religious controversy and the aggression of the English forces have made her home a dangerous place for many, and it seems there is security to be found in the Dutch city. When she arrives, she discovers that it is not only one language she must cope with and learn, as within Mainard’s family various languages are spoken. The unwritten rules of life in this wealthy household are difficult to negotiate, where there is some disappointment that Mainard has returned with a wife, as various other local women had been under consideration. The suspicion and hostility with which Bethia is greeted makes her confused and wary, especially when it is combined with the reality of her relationship with her new husband, rules about how she can leave the house and with whom, even what she should wear as a married woman. There are also secrets around a family where their existence is precarious in this city of exiles and religious suspicion.

Meanwhile Will has been captured and forced to work as a galley slave or forsare on a French ship. The conditions are appalling, as he is chained into place and forced to undertake the work of rowing side by side with others, subject to the plans and whims of unsympathetic overseers. Surrounded by loud and continual expressions of the Catholic faith which has rejected, he is transfixed by the loud and dominating of another forsare, John Knox, the famous Protestant preacher and opponent of the Catholic persuasion in all its forms. Will is realistic about his chances, though is almost brought low by the realisation that he is near to the home he misses on more than one occasion.

This is a novel which I found profound and supremely atmospheric. It was possible to enjoy without a detailed knowledge of life at the time due to the consistency of the writing. There are some grim episodes, but the challenges which the two characters face is tempered by their strengths and abilities. I recommend this novel and its predecessor, and consequently the sequel which has recently been published.  

The Castilians by V.E.H Masters – a story of history, siege and loyalty

The Castilians: A story of the siege of St Andrews Castle: 1 (The Seton  Chronicles): Amazon.co.uk: Masters, VEH, Masters, VEH: 9781838251505: Books

The Castilians by V.E.H Masters

This is a vivid and impressive debut which succeeds in making a significant event in Scottish history come alive, as a family is divided by forces that they do not truly understand. Historical novels are probably at their best when they concentrate on the story of one or two characters, what happened to them and why, and during the reign of Henry VIII those characters are usually royal. This book looks at events in far off St. Andrews in Scotland, the clash between the interpretations of faith, a siege of a strategically important castle. The events that follow from a single death in 1546 are seen through the experiences of two young people, bright and thoughtful Bethia, so much more than a compassionate girl, and her brother Will, determined to argue and fight for the new way of following God. Loyalty, trust and love dictates their actions, and makes them doubt their motives. The daughter and eldest son of a prosperous merchant, they are not an influential or titled family, but all strong willed enough to make a difference. The life on the streets of the town, the activities of a port, the shadow of a castle is beautifully realised. This is a book which shows evidence of a huge amount of research into the elements of life from the most basic through to the theological arguments on both sides, but it never interrupts or upsets the narrative. It creates an atmosphere of real life how it would have been lived in the houses, ale houses and the Castle itself. It does not shy away from the dirt and basics of life, but describes them in detail to forward the story. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special book which kept me enthralled throughout.

The book opens with Bethia sitting and reading, translating from a huge book. She is an unusual girl, keen to learn, unwilling to enter into the usual domestic or fashionable life of the town, willing to get involved in the family business rather than follow her mother’s obsessions. Her first action is to try and find her much loved younger brother in a crowd which could quickly become dangerous.  The crowd is there to witness the execution by burning of George Wishart who has spoken against the established church, of which the grasping, ambitious Cardinal Beaton is the corrupt embodiment. When certain factions decide that something must be done, it involves many young people of the town and area. What Will witnesses from inside the castle where there is brutality and jockeying for position, and what Bethia has to face as she tries to preserve all manner of secrets and safety makes for a gripping story as people are caught up in a siege and a fight which has vast political implications as well as personal consequences for all those involved.

This is a personal book of the strength and resilience of individuals when faced with difficult circumstances. It is also about the love and loyalty between members of a family and friends which overcomes divisions and class. The character of Bethia is a strong and well drawn one, as she tries to cope with pressures to fulfil her parents’ wishes as well as her own wishes. Will grows from an argumentative boy to someone who must make decisions. I found this book very engaging and would recommend it to all those who enjoy discovering the personal and social implications of history.