Wayward Voyage by Anna M Holmes – a vibrant tale of a female pirate in life on the edge

Wayward Voyage by Anna M Holmes

Anne Bonny never got over a voyage to the new world as a child. A wild child who longed to climb the highest mask, fight with any weapon, live for the moment, she was never meant to be a lady of refinement. In this substantial historical novel Holmes gives us a version of one of the most famous female pirates of all time. Set in the early years of the eighteenth century, Anne is first seen as a child on board the William and Mary, a ship taking her and her parents to a new life in a settlement called Charles Town. This is the excitement she longs for, seemingly heedless of danger and not much concerned with those around her, it sets the scene for a life of trying to out ride, out fight men and generally press the boundaries of freedom. In a settled predictable setting she does not do well, when she is endangered she fights back, and those around her are shocked at her ways.

This book brings to life the struggles of colonies to become established, the casual acceptance of slavery, the sheer brutality of a life on the edge. After the death of her mother Anne is forced to accept that life is unpredictable, and can be perilous especially for women, so she decides to live it to the full. Holmes has created a character that has her faults and who can let down those who she loves, but who is full of life. Other characters, especially ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, take risks alongside her, as well as a soldier turned sailor with a secret to hide. Dedicated “To all women who are adventurous at heart and in deed”, this is a vividly written novel of life on shore and at sea as colonial life emerges in the Americas. Intense and powerful, it is a description of life and death at the extremes. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this intriguing novel.

Anne grows up with her father and younger brother in rural isolation, with slaves to work the land, hired hands and passing traders for company. The only other child of her age in the area is Richard, son of slightly more prosperous settlers, and who allows her to practice fighting with him until they grow into self conscious teenagers. She is obsessed with her horse Shotek, and soon becomes aware of the perils that lie outside her father’s settlement. When she decides to escape she finds herself in a disorderly colony dominated by pirates, both active and temporarily reformed, and realizes that there is more than one way to live, even when she is condemned by other women. The attractions of the brave and charming Jack soon make her doubt her established way of life, and then her adventures become even more dangerous for her and those around her.

This book is obviously the product of immense research and presents a realistic picture on life in a ramshackle colony and aboard various ships. Not that there are dry descriptions of the setting; but rather the talk and actions of the characters bring to vibrant existence the slender hold on life of those on land, and the discomfort and trials of living on board the ships of the day.  Anne is a fantastic character, courageous and reckless, dissatisfied with the role allotted to women of the time, determined to make the most of life. Holmes has recreated a world of uncertainty and danger, excitement and adventure, and this book is infused with the sense of a vibrant character determined to take on that world.     

To the Fair Land by Lucienne Boyce – a book, a mysterious author and dangerous surprises in this fast paced historical novel.

To The Fair Land by Lucienne Boyce

A historical novel that shows the excitement of selling a book that everyone wants a copy of in the late 1700s was always going to grab my attention, and this book certainly did right from the beginning. There are various reasons that people are desperate to get their hands on this book, the fantastic illustrations, the poetic writing, the mysterious author that no one can identify, but mainly because it describes a magical country of people so very different from the British, with fantastic natural resources. This is an age of European countries trying to grab new space, new colonies, and the promise of a spacious previously undiscovered island and potentially more at the edge of the world cannot be ignored. Ben Dearlove is a struggling writer given an opportunity to make his fortune in London, who soon realizes that this book could change his life, if he can only find the author and obtain the publishing of a second volume for his friend Mr Dowling. While he feels that he may have a few extra clues to help in his search, he has no idea that tracking down the truth will be fraught with so many dangers and challenges.

This is a well-paced novel which has some marvelous set pieces, as not only Ben’s quest is recalled but also stories of families and voyages that shock and surprise. Boyce brings in some fascinating characters that reveal their stories in great detail, against a background of secrecy and danger. The research is so impressive in the details as well as the narrative as a whole, but it never slows the action down. This is a well written book which I greatly enjoyed, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

The book actually opens with a performance representing “ The Life and Death of Captain Cook”. While Ben and the rest of the audience finds it fascinating, his neighbour, a young woman, keeps muttering about it in a negative way, calling Captain Cook’s discoveries “A fool’s discoveries”. The rest of the audience, much affected by the play and the tragic death of the hero, attack the strange woman. Ben saves her and sees her home, only to spot one or two interesting aspects of her life. When Dowling is overwhelmed by demand for “An Account of a Voyage to the Fair Land” “Who would have thought that book lovers could be so warlike?”, Ben realizes that there may be clues as to the much sought after author’s identity, and determines to track them down, despite his friend Campbell’s doubts. When this seems to involve journeys and real risk, even Ben begins to wonder why he is being followed by two men, and how it will affect those around him.

This is a novel that manages to maintain suspense to the end, as well as surprising the reader with some unexpected twists. For a relatively short novel it includes many twists and turns that took me by surprise, as well as some lyrical passages of descriptions of a different way of life. The author conveys the harsh realities of life on board ship, as well as the political interest in a different land. I would thoroughly recommend this book as being full of historical mysteries, fascinating characters and peril. It is not a long read, but packs in so much as Ben tries to establish the reality behind a popular book at the risk of so much.   

The Drowned City by K.J. Maitland – The after effects of the Gunpowder Plot rage through England.

The Drowned City by K.J.Maitland

In a time of social and religious upheaval, when a new royal house has come to rule England as well as Scotland, in the wake of a plot which threatened to destroy the government as well as the king, no one can be trusted. Bristol suffers a terrible event one year exactly after men are executed for their alleged part in the Gunpowder Plot; a huge, tsunami- like wave washes into the city and drowns hundreds of people. This novel is a tense historical thriller featuring a man who goes by the name of Daniel Pursglove, a magician, a man with a past. Acting under threats from the highest level, he feels obliged to investigate if another Catholic plot is brewing, and specifically if a certain Catholic leader is working in the ruined city of Bristol. The atmosphere of a town which is beyond ruined, with little food, full of unclaimed bodies and destroyed lives is incredibly well described in this novel. In a place almost unbelievable in its destruction, threat to the vulnerable and terror, Daniel finds himself with a nearly impossible task. As facts emerge about his past life he has to react as danger seems to threaten from every side. Incidents from the court of James I and the actions of Cecil, his chief adviser in some respects appear throughout the novel, not narrated by Daniel, but with a theme of the king’s unusual behaviour. In a time of suspicion over religion and the beliefs of every person in the kingdom, Daniel and others must watch their every step, as guilty or innocent there is the threat of betrayal and a painful ending. 

This is an intense novel of second guessing over situations of life threatening importance, where death and destruction are daily occurrences. In setting, plot and characters, this is a mature and skilfully written book with immense impact. I found it to be a compelling read with much to recommend it as a work of historical fiction and suspense. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel.  

A Prologue describes the lull that is observed in Bristol, as a busy day continues as normal. Within seconds of a man remarking on the withdrawal of the water from the port, a towering wave thunders through the city and beyond, into the countryside, picking up and drowning or brutally injuring untold numbers in its wake. Animals, workshops,homes, houses and supplies are all destroyed. As the bodys of the dead and recently living are mutilated and torn away by the sea, no one knows who will be left. Daniel is then described as being in a prison, arrested on vague charges, hoping to survive in a place of suffering. Dramatically given the option of freedom if he will go to Bristol  and try to discover the whereabouts of a potential Catholic leader, he soon finds himself in a still functioning inn on a mission with few clues and significant danger. As a ruined city tries to survive in the face of loss, a desperate and lawless people are suspicious of shadows and strangers, especially when Daniel asks questions of those who are trying to snatch a living by any means. 

Maitland is a writer so confident of her material that she handles several convoluted themes of religion, power and threat with a dark edge, including graphic descriptions of the torments of torture on slight suspicions. The near total destruction of Bristol is also unsparingly described, as well as the after effects of food shortages and the growth of crime as people try to survive. The character of Daniel emerges brilliantly from his own account of his progress and challenges, his theories about what may be going on as everything seems dark and uncertain. I believe that this is the first novel in a series; I will be keen to discover what happens next for the resourceful Daniel.  

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner – Women separated by time but all with life changing motives

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

Life can be dangerous for women, whether that is in 1791 or the present day. Both have to struggle to make their mark, leave a legacy behind. Nella is an apothecary who offers cures only to women from her cramped hidden quarters in London, recording their names in her ledger. Caroline is discovering in the present day that an American life of stability is not all that it seems, and that maybe she has to look for the inconsistencies to find a way through her dilemmas. As the vivid narrative swings between two time periods, it seems that women must act together in order to make discoveries that can change lives and leave the mark of their trials. As Nella makes her way round a place which encloses her in secrets of the past as she deals with women who want the ultimate solution to their troubles, she is confronted by a surprising girl who is eager to learn. Caroline has travelled to London to consider a betrayal, and discovers secrets of the past which leap forward into the present day. This is a book of research on several levels, as Eliza must learn how to help with secrets, Caroline wants to reveal the tantalizing story behind an inconspicuous vial, and the author has completed a huge amount of research in order to find the age old secrets of poisons and the uses of natural ingredients. It is a powerful book of what women choose to do, and the possible effects of their actions. I found it an exciting and entrancing novel, and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

 The book begins with Nella reading a letter requesting a poison, for a woman to kill her husband. The disturbing request is one thing, the fact that the person who comes to pick up the poisoned egg is a twelve year old girl is surprising. Nella has seen  to be shocked; she has spent her entire life in a cramped room, among the jars of ingredients, learning from her mother the combinations of herbs plants and even creatures that can heal women’s ailments. The difference is in the cures that she now offers, the poisons that can stop a man from living, from damaging further the lives of women and girls desperate enough to consult her. She dispenses help, receives money, records the women’s names in her book. Now it seems as if pain is being manifested in her body and mind, as she remembers why she went beyond her mother’s practice. Caroline is a young woman once deeply in love with the literature of another age, the history of thought in a time when women had fewer options. Not that she has explored many for herself; impressed by James at college, she falls in with his plans to marry and live a safe, predictable life, denying her interest and ability in research. It is only when she arrives in London, overwhelmed by a life changing discovery, that she is urged to look for the different, to be open to the possibility of more than what happens on the surface. As Eliza becomes involved in Nella’s work, Caroline feels compelled to discover more, even when it seems likely to upset everything.

This is a deeply atmospheric story of discovery and fear, of pushing against the bounds of roles and expectations, of determination and solidarity. I found it a brilliantly researched novel that that never slowed down the narrative to deliver no doubt hard won facts. There are even poisons and cures detailed at the back of the book, not to be confused! I found Caroline’s progress fascinating, and became involved in her hunt for the truth. Nella’s story reflects the desperate need to acknowledge women’s situations in the late eighteenth century and for much of history. This is a wonderful debut in historical and contemporary fiction, and I recommend it.

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd – a story of a woman fighting to follow her true destiny in a historical setting

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

This is a profound and intense book; on one level a love story, on another the account of a woman’s search to be herself. The author has used immense research to not only produce a novel of a first century woman’s life, but also to tackle an element of the story of the life of Jesus, giving a female view of his actions and fate. It covers a long period of time, from a girlhood in a divided home and the restless ambition to write, through the dangers of a woman’s life, to the mundane details of an existence in an extended family, through desire and danger. Running throughout is a theme of female collective strength, of a power that defies definition. It is a compelling read, as Ana recounts her story against a background of distinctive setting of historical urban life and desert fringes, of the dangers of proximity to power. The relationships that shape her life, with men who lift her or endanger her, with women who encourage her and convince her to hold fast to her convictions and ambitions. Ana fits herself into a story that has shaped much of the world, of Roman dominance and those who had ambitions within it, as well as those who challenged it.  Not that it is a fact filled book – it is written in a flowing natural style that links the adventures of Ada as a story of a life in all its elements. A book that draws you in and is memorable for all the right reasons, this is a book to tell others of, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable novel.

The book opens with Ada encountering her unusual aunt Yaltha, a keeper of secrets and an inspirer of dreams. She gives Ada a gift that will stay with her, a way of challenging the status quo and enshrining her rebellion. Ada’s parents are a bitter mother who has adopted a boy, Judas, orphaned by Roman cruelty, and an administrator for the cruel local ruler, Herod Anitpas. Wanting to gain material benefits and impress his employer, her father forcibly her arranges her betrothal to a hated older man who has power but no other redeeming features. While Ada has never been indulged, she has had the unusual benefit of an education which has meant she has been able to search the Jewish scriptures for the untold stories of women, which she has collected on precious scrolls. It is in seeking a hiding place for her writings that she encounters Jesus, a man seeking a place to pray and to reflect on his life. As Ada encounters women who reflect different possibilities, Tabitha and Phasaelis, she realizes that she is not the only woman suffering as a result of her family’s ambition. Her own destiny will require immense courage to follow; while it will contain love and hope, it will also involve some sacrifice and fear.

This book is a memorable read in so many ways. It reflects a life of significance but also secrecy, of the necessary fight for survival to achieve the deepest of longings. It has much to say in a vivid way of how women could be limited and confined, but also of how their own courage and strength could change their own life and those around them. It cleverly combines the known and the imagined in a positive way, providing a version of well known stories as well as maintaining the pace of Ada’s own progress. I thoroughly recommend this thought provoking book.

The Duke’s Runaway Bride by Jenni Fletcher – a special romantic Regency Belles of Bath novel

The Duke’s Runaway Bride by Jenni Fletcher

When a Duke’s new bride runs away on her wedding day, it makes for a tricky start to any marriage. The Bride has turned up in a biscuit shop in Bath, and those who have read the other books in Jenni Fletcher’s series about the “Regency Belles of Bath” will know that surely romance will be in the air. Not that it is necessary to read the other books in this series to enjoy this book; it is a book very much about Beatrix, Duchess of Howden and her relationship with her new husband, Quinton Roxbury. Not that he comes unencumbered; he has a family who in their various ways are almost as challenging as his concerns about his absent wife. This is a book of romance, but also some memorable characters whose reactions to Beatrix are very entertaining, as well as a heroine whose newly found independence challenges every assumption. With humour and a keen understanding of the power of scandal in a world of secrets, this book revels in the setting of a large if shabby house for the discovery of a genuine relationship that could change lives, if both Beatrix and Quinton can understand it. Will the lure of her friends in a fashionable bakery and the attractions of being truly independent for the first time in her life triumph over her relationship with the husband she has barely met? I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special, well written book.

As the book begins, Quinton is struggling to cope with his difficult family. His mother is an angry woman, unforgiving of her late husband who she hated. His sister Antigone is almost as disagreeable, his two brothers unreachable and his youngest sister silent and hiding. Into the middle of his problems appears a letter from his missing wife. She is living as Belinda Carr, who lives and works with her friend Nancy running Belles in Bath. The fierce Nancy MacQueen is rather anti-men, so when Quinton turns up, wanting to talk to Beatrix, she does not encourage a speedy reconciliation. When the married couple do discuss matters, they reveal some of the reasons why their wedding day ended so badly. Beatrix knows that he only proposed marriage on their first meeting because he wanted her money as she is an orphaned heiress, and her uncle had negotiated for her hand as he wanted the connection with his title. Quinton explains that he had been estranged from his late father and had until recently been in France: “But there was a war!” exclaims Beatrix. “That probably explains why they gave me a sword and a pistol” replies Quinton “I was a Major”. Partly as a result of the revelations, they agree to give their marriage a chance, and Beatrix is to return to Howden, his family house, and live at there as Duchess for six weeks, but she is convinced that at the end of the time she will still want a divorce. The story of those six weeks takes up the bulk of the novel, as they both discover much more about exactly who they have married.

I really enjoyed this novel, especially the developing relationship between Beatrix and Quinton. The family that she encounters is so well described, and a surprising character acts as the catalyst for change. Dealing with Quinton’s mother is especially challenging, as the older woman is stubborn and difficult. Beatrix’s progress is well described, as is Quinton’s emotional revelations. This is a very special book that I recommend to anyone who enjoys romantic historical fiction.  

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell – a Victorian novel of darkness, memory and shadows

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

A woman cuts silhouettes, almost uncontrollably, hoping to make a living. A girl glows and seems possessed at small seances. The streets of Bath appear to be a dark and dangerous place to be in a Victorian novel of mystery, deception, darkness and shadows. Laura Purcell’s latest book is full of unexplained events, twists and turns, as Agnes Darken tries to make enough money to care for her nephew Cedric and her mother in an old house. She has one friend, a local doctor Simon Carfax, who seems very concerned with her health. Pearl is eleven and being organised by her older sister Myrtle who has great faith in exploiting the power of the spirit world. This is a fiercely atmospheric novel of darkness and murder, as unexplained discoveries and events threaten to overwhelm Agnes, and the narrative snakes through the streets of a Bath which is shabby and desperate. I found this a compelling read which has enormous depth and a complex plot, even though it mainly takes place in domestic settings. The feeling of fear and dread permeates every line of this book, and as Agnes feels compelled to investigate what is really going on she is visited by memories. This is a strong and impressive novel which I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review. 

The novel begins with Agnes making a “Cut” or a portrait of a naval officer she sees by chance. It evokes memories for Agnes, but the weather forces her to turn for home, past such significant buildings as the Abbey. She arrives home to discover two men waiting for her, and she dreads the others in the house being alarmed. They want to ask her about the murder of a Mr Boyle, who was Agnes’ only customer for some time, and immediately it evokes memories and panics for her. A few streets away Pearl is discovering that the Gift of Mediumship is potentially lucrative, though uncomfortable and painful. Her strong minded sister explains that they need to hold a seance in order to become known, to exploit her gift. After dealing with her nephew and the horrid sight of a magpie devouring a baby bird, she makes her way to the murder victim’s house only to get a strange reaction. When she makes a chilling discovery she begins to think that she is a link between attacks, and becomes desperate to find out what is going on. Meanwhile, Pearl becomes more frightened and distressed by what she is being asked to do, and begins to fall into further despair.  Simon is anxious to help Agnes, but as she becomes more determined to find out what is going on she has to wrestle with memories and more.

This book reveals the benefits of huge amounts of research, yet it is never slowed down by too much information at the expense of the story. The art of cutting portraits of people is far more complex than I realised, involving basic machinery on occasion. Although stories concerning female mediums seem to be popular at the moment, this book is far more visceral and physical than others. The shadows and the darkness add to the atmosphere of this terrific book, which I found offered a lot of thought – provoking narrative and implications. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a well written historical novel with real depth.     

Circles of Deceit by Paul CW Beatty – a historical novel of social upheaval featuring the determined and independent Josiah Ainscough

Circles of Deceit by Paul CW Beatty

The second novel from the Josiah Ainscough casebook is a revealing historical novel of troubled times in the north of England in the 1840s, seen from the point of view of a young man who is involved in keeping the peace. Although not the first book which features Josiah, this book stands alone in terms of virtually all of the characters and setting. This is a fast paced book which tells some of the stories of the movements calling for reform in workers’ conditions. Not that it is a dry story; those fighting for the Chartist and other causes are given identities and back stories, and Josiah becomes involved in not only the police action to identify their activities, but also finds some sympathy with their cause. Josiah is involved with the newly formed police force in Stockport, but an unfortunate incident means that he is put on very different duties. This is not a long book, but the story it contains is detailed on the strikes or “turn outs” and some of the disturbances both fictional and real are vividly described. The links between people and places, events and disturbances are brought out in this well paced story. The character of Josiah’s particular friend Dianne, his need for full discovery, and much more keep this story as a real page turner, full of twists as not everyone is acting in the best interests of justice. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

The book begins with meetings in which support for the Chartist cause is being solicited from various people. The authorities are nervous of any upheaval in the mills and mines of the north of England- the Peterloo protest was within living memory, and apart from the economic loss represented by strikes and other industrial action, the revolutionary events of France was a source of genuine fear. As different factions clash and the authorities strive to keep control. Josiah finds himself in the midst of a battle in a meeting room, trying to protect some children and then a celebrity rebel. In the process he encounters the amazing Dianne and discovers that her involvement is not a one off, but part of a long term programme to actively protest against the poor pay and conditions experienced by workers. Josiah discovers something of a conspiracy exists, and there is a real danger to those he knows and admires. Experiencing attacks and difficulties, he moves around the area and meets many people of different conditions. With codes and dangers to deal with, Josiah must concentrate all his efforts to make a difference. The mills and other areas are well described, including some places that still exist.

I found that this book was really compelling, and kept me turning the pages as I was keen to find out what happens to Josiah and those he knows to a greater or lesser extent. I also enjoyed the side stories, at least one of which had much to say about the vulnerability of women which is still recognisable today. The character of Dianne is a real revelation, being a vivid character, full of independent thought and determination. I enjoyed the story of Josiah, intelligent understanding of what is really going on, doing the right thing even if that is not always the easiest path. This book is far less mystical than the previous adventure, and the historical research  is impressive though never slows the action. I recommend this to those who enjoy some social historical fiction, with the elements of a thriller and murder mystery featuring a memorable set of characters. 

Advent by Jane Fraser – a wonderful historical novel of women’s lives in Wales in the early twentieth century

Advent by Jane Fraser

This is a wonderful story of place, of time, but most of all, of a woman who understands all too well the real cost of choices. Ellen is a memorable character, once badly treated, now back in her family home in rural Wales. This is a powerful historical novel, personal in the main but much bigger in themes, of life in the early twentieth century.  Beautifully written throughout, this book contains real prose poetry in describing the kitchen, house and surrounding landscape, especially when snow changes everything. The characters live and breathe in the little expressions, movements and gestures, as well as the dialogue faithfully attributed to them – these are people who really come alive on the page. There is basic humour and details, but also an almost mystical hint of life and times in a rural setting. The characters contained in this novel, whether as part of the action or sort offstage, are cleverly delineated in a few words. The brothers, Jack and George, though twins, are very much written as separate characters, one down to earth, one more poetic, a lover of reading. The women are also varied, tied to a kitchen in the case of Eleanor, Ellen’s mother, or permanently on a settle like Elizabeth, the grandmother. All around Ellen are examples of the different stages of womanhood, such as a heavily pregnant sister, all giving Ellen views of what her life could be like. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read this book, which I greatly enjoyed.

At the beginning of the novel Ellen is shown returning to Wales from America, an exile caused by a rejection of her as a wife for a local farmer’s son. It would seem that when she has not become pregnant she was rejected as a potential wife for Richard. Being in America has given her new friends and more importantly a new view of the possibilities of life for women. She has made the long journey back because her father is ill, and it is coming up for Christmas. The end of the journey is described in detail, with small pictures such as the effect of steam on a passenger’s nose and Ellen’s determination to be independent in carrying her own luggage. When she reaches the family home, Mount Pleasant, she realises that not a lot has changed, that she easily slips back into the routine of life, but that in a way her father is diminished. The description of the build up to Christmas, the weather and the way the family behaves is beautifully and effectively described.

This is a moving,detailed and very effective novel that I really enjoyed. The picture of the women was particularly successful, with their continual presence in the kitchen, the idea that aprons almost held a woman together, that they were always seen working as cooking, cleaning and preparing for their menfolk to return. It is the small details that make this book special for me, such as the way some of the women hold a knife, always ready to cut a slice of bread. Ellen is an imaginative and successful creation, grimly realistic, powerfully determined, resourceful and thoughtful. It is a well paced, well plotted book which I thoroughly recommend as a very fine historical novel offering real insight into women’s lives in a particular time and place.  I would be very keen to read Jane Fraser’s other stories and writing. 

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry – a powerful novel of medicine, murder and more in Victorian Edinburgh

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

This is one of the most vivid and atmospheric historical novels I have ever read. Set in Edinburgh, 1949, it mainly concerns the progress, challenges and downright dangers of practicing medicine in a city where early death was frequent and often unavoidable. It continues the story of the real pioneer of medical chloroform, Doctor James Simpson, and his fictional assistants Doctor Will Raven and former housemaid, the determined Sarah Fisher. In a city where professional jealousy and uncertainty about medical breakthroughs are rife, even a brilliant discovery helps fuel suspicion of a doctor who does not conform to the rules. The book follows the brilliant “The Way of All Flesh” by the same writing team of writer Chris Brookmyre and anaesthetist Dr Marisa Haetzman, but it is written in a way to stand alone as a novel which brings to life the world of respectable people with their own agendas and the poor who struggle with the basics of life. Will Raven is a recently qualified doctor who has fought his way out of a difficult background and aspires to make a name for himself, but fights with a certain wildness and people who make dangerous demands on him. My favourite character is the impressive feminist Sarah, elevated from a purely domestic role to an undefined associate with a desperate desire to learn, despite being held back at every turn by her gender. Enveloped by the consequences of a decision made in Will’s absence, she has much to cope with, but her ambition still motivates her, along with her loyalty to her supporter, Dr Simpson. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special, vividly written book.

The novel begins with Raven and some of his friends fighting off a street attack in Berlin, where he has travelled as part of his tour of medical establishments. Typically he has to remove a bullet from his friend’s leg, but it is only later that he considers his other actions. He returns to Edinburgh to take up his new post with Dr Simpson, moving into his house and reintroducing himself to the rather chaotic household. Keen to begin his new role, he soon discovers the elements of his past will still seek to claim him. His greatest shock, however, is the change in Sarah’s condition which extend beyond her promotion from domestic servant. She maintains her ambition to be a doctor in her own right, but acknowledges that she will not be accepted for formal study. Inspired by a tragic patient, she nonetheless struggles with the knowledge that she may never be able to pursue her dreams. More immediately, she realizes that her mentor. Dr Simpson, is being unfairly blamed for a death within the medical world, and is keen to clear his name. Raven also wants to help in the investigation, but is distracted by thoughts of a new form of disease. As the narrative is interspersed with accounts of a woman with a unique history, it begins to be urgent to track down the truth at whatever the risk.

This is a powerful and effective novel which deserves to do well as its intensity lingers in the memory. It successfully evokes a setting and time of medical treatments which are not always effective despite the practitioner’s best efforts, and this book will be of great interest to those interested in the social history of medicine. The characters’ thoughts and fears are well recorded, and the world of Victorian Edinburgh vividly created in this memorable and powerful book.