The Monmouth Summer by Tim Vicary

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.

You can pick up Tim Vicay’s novel from Amazon UK and Amazon US for kindle.

Review: The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir (historical fiction)

Recently I’ve been delving into the world of historical fiction, reading books such as Alison Weir’s “Innocent Traitor” and Ken Follet’s “Pillars of the Earth”. Historical fiction can be great, if it is written and researched well but more often than not it ends up being an inaccurate, awful thing to read. Very rarely do I come across historical fiction that pulls me in enough so that I can read it in a couple of days, the only ones that I have read lately are “Pillars of the Earth” and “Mistress of the Art of Death” although there have been others throughout the years.
I wanted to write today about the latest historical fiction book I’ve read, and literally finished a couple of days ago. It was a copy of Alison Weir’s “The Lady Elizabeth”, and I was looking forward to reading it. I am a huge fan of a lot of Weir’s non fiction work, and have found a lot of it to be well written and well researched, but with this novel I was sorely disappointed.
The book itself is the story of Elizabeth I’s early life, as she grows up through the execution of her mother, her father’s countless wives, her bastard status, living in fear as her sister Mary ascended the throne and she spent time in the Tower. Don’t get me wrong, it’s well written and I loved how Weir wrote how Elizabeth was feeling at certain points in her life, how she cried when she found out about her mother, and how the execution of Katherine Howard made her sure she never wanted to marry. We also see the incident that happened between Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour when she was staying with Katherine Parr, the sexual tension between the young Elizabeth and the much older Seymour, how they were caught in a passionate embrace which made Katherine send Elizabeth away…
It was at this stage I almost put the book down. It seems that Weir thought it would be a good idea to write about the rumours that Elizabeth bore Thomas’ child as if it were true. This was never proven and I’m sure that had their been more to the rumours then as historians we would know more. However these days we can deduce that this did not happen, as the rumours came from the anti-protestant factions at court. Now I understand that this is historical fiction and readers like a bit of scandal but this was going too far for me – Elizabeth, later known as The Virgin Queen, pregnant with Thomas Seymour’s child, a child that was miscarried and thrown into the fire as soon as it was born? I don’t think so. The problem with this is that if someone does not understand the time period, and read this in a novel written by a respected historian, they will believe it and yet again inaccuracies will be placed in the public mindset. Look at the vilification of Anne Boleyn, and the publication of Phillipa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl” – people already believed Anne to be a whore who slept with countless men, believed her to be a witch (which we of course know she wasn’t, and that she was innocent of all charges) but when TOBG came out, people started believing it. I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard people say Anne must have slept with her brother and given birth to a deformed foetus and it must be true because TOBG says so. It makes me want to bash my head against a brick wall. As I said above, it’s fiction, a story made up by the author and readers like a bit of scandal, but completely changing history in that sense? It’s just awful.
However I carried on, however grudgingly, and made it to the end of the book. Weir’s writing was good, and flowed nicely, and I have to say she did tell the story well especially the rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth after Mary took the throne, and I felt Elizabeth’s fear as she was taken to the tower, felt how scared she was that she would follow the Lady Jane Grey to the block. There aren’t many authors that can do that to their readers, and for that reason I’ll be marking this book a little higher than I would have done.
This book is a quick read, and a good one to read if you just want to escape into the past for a little while. I do recommend it to those interested in Tudor historical fiction, although I would say go into with an open mind and take the rather huge inaccuracy with a pinch of salt. But if you’d prefer a more accurate portrayal of Elizabeth then I would go for a non fiction book about her, “Elizabeth” by David Starkey or even Weir’s non fiction “Elizabeth the Queen”.
I think it’s time for me to head back to the non-fiction shelves…