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Wednesday 15 August 2018

Blasts from the past

There's something about the autumn that makes me want to read historical fiction…

He had me at 'Tudor': this is Gortner's third instalment in a costume drama, thriller/mystery series set in the times of Elizabeth I, and he does an extraordinarily good job with it.

Not the least of which is allowing a reader into his world without fuss, even if she hasn't been there before. It is as excellent a handling of 'bringing a reader up to speed' as I've come across. Literally, within pages, we've got all the facts we need on all the relationships between all the characters.

The way in which we are informed as to the past of Brendan Prescott, a somewhat reluctant spy-master who is yet utterly devoted to the new Queen, is admirable, and slightly astonishing.

If I'm harping on that, it's because it is so, so difficult to engage a reader new to a series without alienating the existing fan base. Anyone who had read the first two (The Tudor Secret and The Tudor Conspiracy) won't be put off by the catch-up, and no one who loves this time period will find anything to criticise.

Scene-setting is done with just the correct amount of attention to detail; the tale itself, kicking off in the uncertain early days of Elizabeth's reign following the bloody tenure of her half-sister Mary, is enthralling.

Brendan sets off from his Queen's court, thinking he's on one sort of mission, and it turns out it is something else - something infinitely more complicated entirely.

This is the perfect mix of historical rigour and fictional satisfaction: it's imagination with a good, sturdy academic foundation. Fans of this genre will be thoroughly satisfied with this - and presumably the first two, as well to which I may treat myself in due course.

FALLEN

By Lia Mills Penguin €15.99 HHHII

A deep sense of foreboding is present, right from the off: Katie Crilly returns home on a blistering summer's day to find her beloved twin brother Liam in uniform, heading off to fight the Germans in the Great War.

There have been a surfeit of volumes produced in this centenary year, but here, Mills is framing this event - and its inevitable twin, the Easter Rising - from an educated female character's point of view.

It feels crude to say that it is the middle-class version of O'Casey's tenement plays, but the contrast between Katie, and say, Bessie Burgess, or even Nora Clitheroe, has to be remarked upon. They may inhabit the same side of the bridge, but this is a different view.

Well, it starts out that way, in any case. The ensuing violence and rebellion soon act as a great leveller, with all Dubliners quickly reduced to adopting a siege mentality. Katie first wanders the streets with freedom as she deals with the grief of losing her brother, then furtively scurries about as the rebels gets stuck in around the city

It becomes somewhat opportunistic, on the author's part, as Katie keeps finding herself in areas she shouldn't be without much fallout; despite this independent trait being a hallmark of her character, it seems one time too many that Katie gets away with it.

The prose passages have a lovely poetry to them, even when we are in the depths of the Rising. But many of the exchanges towards the end of the novel are weighted with expository responsibility, and don't fare as well.

There is a feeling in Katie, though, that represents the need of an entire nation to change, to move forward, to advance. It makes all the strictures against her own growth seem petty. One hopes, at the end of the novel, that she chooses her own way forward well.

TURNING THE STONES

By Debra Daley Heron Books €20.85 HHHII

Set in Georgian England, Em Smith is a foundling who has been raised alongside the daughter of a wealthy family, albeit as little more than a servant.

When the family falls on hard times, it is her job to make sure she marries well and rescue them from ruin.

If this seems implausible to you, it's only one of several eyebrow-raisers that crop up throughout the story.

The storyline incorporates romance, mystery and paranormal themes, which don't always mesh, either.

It took me ages and ages to get into this, but I did eventually get into the rhythm of it. Daley writes convincingly in an 18th century style, but it does take some getting used to.

LILA

By Marilynne Robinson Virago (2014) €15.99 HHHHH

The tone of this takes some getting used to as well, but once you pick up the rhythms that Robinson has laid down - those of small town mid-western America - you'll find yourself breathing in the cadence of her gorgeous prose. Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, and the then-Orange Prize for Home, both of which are precursors to this. Lila, in fact, takes place before both of those books; I want to be a purist about it and urge you to read those and then come back to this one, but I'm not sure that it really matters. It may, in fact, be an essence of Robinson's project, rather that stories - family stories in particular - are more circular than linear, and that time itself doesn't go in a straight line.

Lila is an abandoned child who has been raised by a woman whom her later husband, the minister John Ames, might say is bound for hell fire. While there is a religious bent to the story, it transcends dogma; it is too raw for such temporal boundaries.

Robinson investigates issues of belonging and loneliness in such a way as goes straight from your brain to your heart.

Anyone looking for a new literary author won't go wrong here.

IN LOVE AND WAR

By Alex Preston Faber & Faber (2014) €22.35 HHHHI

Esmond Lowndes is sent away to Italy following an affair with another chap at Cambridge; it's 1937, and his sexual leanings, added to his artistic dreams, don't mix with his father's ambitions for Esmond.

Frankly, it's like a dream come true for the lad, until he is faced with having to reconcile the politics he learned at his father's knee with the life that he truly wishes to pursue: that of an author who is, funnily enough, writing a novel called In Love And War.

Preston mixes many approaches, including epistolary and diary, which in lesser hands might have been very jarring indeed.

Forster-esque in its treatment of Florence, this is a must for enthusiasts of the time period.

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