1685. King Charles II dies unexpectedly, and is succeeded by his brother James II, England’s first Catholic monarch since Bloody Mary. English Protestants feel threatened, and King Charles’s illegitimate son, the handsome young duke of Monmouth, rises against his uncle in armed rebellion. The rebellion turns young Ann Carter’s world upside down. Eighteen years old, she is betrothed to Tom Goodchild, a Protestant shoemaker; but secretly loves Robert Pole, an officer in King James’s army, who offers to take her to London as his mistress. Ann knows it is her duty to marry Tom, but does not love him; so when he marches away with the rebels, she imagines him being killed – which would set her free. But she knows such thoughts are wicked; her father is a rebel soldier too, like all the men of her village. So who should she pray for, when musket balls start to fly? What matters most – love or loyalty?
When I was asked to review this book, I jumped at the chance. As readers of this blog will know I have a bit of a thing for all things Seventeenth Century (despite having not really done much on it recently…), and a book set in the midst of the 1685 West Country Rebellion seemed like my perfect historical novel. Now I’ve said in before, and I’ll say it again – I’m not a big fan of historical fiction; but this turned out to be one book that was the exception to the rule. In a nutshell, I thought that this book was a masterpiece. My love of the Seventeenth Century includes pretty much everything from James I onwards, but I have a particular love of the English Civil Wars, Restoration and more recently, Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685. Over the past year or so I have been devouring non fiction books on James Duke of Monmouth and his rebellion; and it also helps having grown up near many of the towns featured in both the historical rebellion, and this novel. And from the get-go, I devoured this book.
Vicary’s writing style is second to none in this book. From the very first page, as we are introduced to the people of Colyton, and in particular the Carter family, the world in which the characters live in seems to burst from the page and come alive. Vicary weaves his prose together masterfully, and as I read I could quite clearly imagine the scenes being described. And as the story began to pick up pace, and the rebel armies of the Duke of Monmouth began to clash with the Royalist troops, it was as if I could hear the musket shots in my ears. It’s not often that a book does this to me, and when it happens it is a real breath of fresh air. As I was reading through however, I did notice a couple of odd grammar mistakes such as full stops in random places throughout the sentences, but I can overlook this as it wasn’t blindingly noticeable. As well as this, I really loved the way the Vicary made his characters speak. The town where the story is mainly set, Colyton, is a real town located in East Devon; and throughout the prose, the characters speak in a west country accent. And Vicary makes this clearer by having the characters actually speak as those in the West Country did (and still do for the most part!):
“Good day Mr Carter! Sorry ’bout Methuselah! Come here Methuselah, you stupid beast! You’m scarin’ they ‘orses!”
Almost all of the characters spoke like this throughout the story, and it really endeared many of them to me. It’s little things like this that can change a book from a good book, to an excellent one.
As I mentioned previously, the story follows the inhabitants of Colyton (a fun fact: known as the most rebellious town in Devon due to their part in the Monmouth rebellion) as they hear of King Charles II’s bastard son coming back from overseas to try and take the throne back from his Catholic uncle, James II. The main character of the story is Ann Carter, a young lady born to a good Puritan family, and she is betrothed to Tom Goodchild. The problem for Ann however is that she is secretly in love with Robert Pole, second son of the local Lord and a supporter of King James. Ann finds herself torn as the men of her village march off to war (including her father) and to fight for the Duke of Monmouth. She is betrothed to marry Tom, who she does not love; yet in love with a man who her father would likely end up meeting on the field of battle. The character of Ann is an interesting one and throughout the narrative you can really see how desperate she is to break free of the ties that bind her to the village and to see the bigger picture. So much so she finds herself highly tempted when Robert offers to take her to London as his mistress. And you can see this throughout the entire story – she fights to stay true to her family’s wishes, to marry Tom and remain true to her faith yet at the same time delights in escaping the village and travelling with the army. And yet despite this new found freedom she finds herself entangled in a life where she must face life or death decisions and finds out that the world is not one to be viewed through rose tinted glasses.
I was incredibly pleased also with the amount of research that went into this book. As a bit of a seventeenth century nut (who, to my shame, was in the Sealed Knot at one point as a musketeer), I was paying quite close attention to the description of the battles, and the musket drill. And it was spot on. And even though I was only ever in a pike block once in my time with the knot (and was rather drunk at the time, thanks for that Nantwich!), I couldn’t see any issues with the pike drill being described in the story either.
All in all, a fantastic story right from the get-go that includes some of the most names and faces of the Seventeenth Century – Prince Rupert, Judge Jeffries and the Battle of Sedgemoor. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Seventeenth Century and looking to read a well researched, action packed story of an incredibly famous rebellion in English history.