Alexandra Walsh – The Catherine Howard Conspiracy

Title: The Catherine Howard Conspiracy
Author: Alexandra Walsh
Series: The Marquess House #1
Publication Date: March 28th 2019

Whitehall Palace, England, 1539

When Catherine Howard arrives at the court of King Henry VIII to be a maid of honour in the household of the new queen, Anne of Cleves, she has no idea of the fate that awaits her.

Catching the king’s fancy, she finds herself caught up in her uncle’s ambition to get a Howard heir to the throne. Terrified by the ageing king after the fate that befell her cousin, Anne Boleyn, Catherine begins to fear for her life…

Pembrokeshire, Wales, 2018

Dr Perdita Rivers receives news of the death of her estranged grandmother, renowned Tudor historian Mary Fitzroy. Mary inexplicably cut all contact with Perdita and her twin sister, Piper, but she has left them Marquess House, her vast estate in Pembrokeshire.

Perdita sets out to unravel their grandmother’s motives for abandoning them, and is drawn into the mystery of an ancient document in the archives of Marquess House, a collection of letters and diaries claiming the records of Catherine Howard’s execution were falsified…

What truths are hiding in Marquess House? What really happened to Catherine Howard? And how was Perdita’s grandmother connected to it all?

Rating: No reason to behead anyone…(just for a lot of eye-rolling)

There’s two things I need to say about this book:

  1. I started it Sunday morning and was then glued to the pages for most of the day, until I finished shortly after midnight
  2. While being glued to the pages, I also rolled my eyes a lot.

Because this book is essentially The Da Vinci Code with the Tudors. Admittedly, with less awkward prose and without Browns weird well-meaning but utterly condescending sexism. But it’s still a book about an awesome academic who discovers that the story we’ve been told about a historic figure is wrong and then she is hunted by a shady organisation who wants to stop her from making that knowledge public. Only it’s not about Jesus but Catherine Howard.

And that’s where things fall apart somewhat because while an organisation of Vatican assassins who hunt people that found out that Jesus was actually married and had children is stupid, it also has some internal logic. Jesus is pretty important for a lot of people. And so is the image of him as an unmarried man. If we are in parallel conspiracy universe, I can buy that people would kill to keep that a secret.

The Catherine Howard Conspiracy posits that the fact that she wasn’t executed has to be kept a secret because…people would get upset if the Divorced, Beheaded and Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived-rhyme didn’t work anymore? The argument they make is that history is important to people and (national) identity and finding out that history isn’t what everybody thought it is would cause an uproar. And the example they give is Richard III and how everybody thought he was an evil hunchback but then they found his bones, discovered his spine wasn’t deformed and then everybody also went back on the evil bit and accepted that Richard was actually one of the good guys. Which is not what happened. As this clip from a kids TV-show that was broadcast about a year before they found Richard’s bones, shows:

Arguments about how many of the bad stories about Richard are true and how many are made up by people who were paid by the Tudors has been discussed by historians for a long time. Granted, finding the bones has probably brought that to the attention of a lot of people whose entire knowledge about him had come from the Shakespeare play but I seriously doubt that these people were so upset by that revelation that they then voted for Brexit. Or whatever it was the book was trying to convince me off.

There are so many historic figures and events that historians argue about. Because there is no such thing as an unbiased source. We get descriptions from people who have their own reasons for making someone look good or bad, from people who couldn’t believe that women might have an agency of their own or that gay people existed. Or perhaps they even tried to be neutral but wrote about someone who deliberately tried to appear different from how they actually were. And the further back you go, the harder it gets to find a person where historians agree on all aspects of his or her life. Of course, some of these controversies are more well known than others but building a whole book on History is a fixed thing and must never be changed is so ridiculous that I cannot buy at all, not even if it’s just the premise for a light entertainment read.

And that’s a shame because, I really enjoyed the book at first, since I did not look very closely at the cover and it wasn’t immediately obvious that this was a “gripping conspiracy thriller”. There was just Catherine’s story – starting with her time at Henry’s court – and Perdita’s story – who inherits Marquess house and finds papers there that make her doubt the official story. Admittedly, Catherine’s story was a bit too much. Too much making sure the reader really likes her. She’s not the semi-illiterate woman who’s stupid enough to screw around while being married to a guy who already beheaded one wife for infidelity. Instead, she’s incredibly clever, sends complex coded messages, makes sure that she’s not even alone with her own brother once it becomes clear that Henry intends to marry her and is so incredibly kind-hearted that she’s even trying to help the people who’ve been plotting against her. And to make sure we really like her and feel sorry for her, there are several quite graphic scenes where Henry rapes her…have I mentioned that she’s 15/16 at the time of the story?

Now I would like to throw a controversial opinion out there: it doesn’t matter if Catherine was stupid, couldn’t write her own name and screwed the entire court. She was also a teenager who had no choice but to marry Henry. She did not deserve to be murdered. There’s no need to portray her as an angelic creature who saves puppies in her free time to convince me of that.

On the other hand, life is depressing and especially female characters are rarely allowed to be sympathetic and unlikeable and who am I to judge the author for telling a story with more mass appeal?

So, if this had just been a story of angelic Catherine and Perdita who goes on a treasure hunt to discover the truth and the conflict and tension had come from something that wasn’t her being hunted by secret government agencies, I’d have enjoyed this book. (Though I would have still side-eyed all the on-page rape of a 15 year old very hard). But then the story turned into…well The Tudor Code and I could not buy that, not in the way it was presented.

ARC received from NetGalley

Curtis Craddock: A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery

Title: A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery
Author: Curtis Craddock
Series: Risen Kingdoms #2

Isabelle des Zephyrs has always been underestimated throughout her life, but after discovering the well of hidden magic within her, unveiling a centuries-long conspiracy, and stopping a war between rival nations, she has gained a newfound respect amongst the cutthroat court.

All that is quickly taken away when Isabelle is unfairly convicted of breaking the treaty she helped write and has her political rank and status taken away. Now bereft, she nevertheless finds herself drawn into mystery when her faithful musketeer Jean-Claude uncovers a series of gruesome murders by someone calling themselves the Harvest King.

As panic swells, the capital descends into chaos, when the emperor is usurped from the throne by a rival noble. Betrayed by their allies and hunted by assassins, Isabelle and Jean-Claude alone must thwart the coup, but not before it changes l’Empire forever.

Rating: An Abundance of Awesome

It’s not unusual for the second book in a (fantasy) series to go deeper into the worldbuilding and this book is no exception. For example, we learn more about the different kinds of magic that exist but compared to many other series, I don’t feel like I’ve learned that much more about the Risen Kingdoms. Instead, I got a lot of…emotional worldbuilding. Just saying backstory feels like not enough because while we do learn more about Jean-Claude’s past and meet old acquaintances of his, the book doesn’t just go “Here’s a person he met X years ago. They did this together.” Instead, the book focusses on the feelings they had for each other back then and the ones they have right now and that’s portrayed with nuance, I’ve rarely seen, especially when it comes to romance. Because Jean-Claude does meet two former lovers in this book and neither goes to the extremes fictional romance often goes to (it was the worst and everything was miserable or doomed one true love that could never be and now they’re both miserable). True, one of those relationships ended badly, and he’s still affected by it but then…they talk about it? And he deals with his feelings? And things between them get better?

Characters dealing with emotions in a healthy and mature way? How could that happen? Am I focusing an unreasonable amount on this minor part? Probably. But comparing it to other books I read close to it, made it really stand out just how well it was done here.

But, to quote a certain movie, this isn’t a kissing book. It’s more of a magical murder mystery but not quite of the golden age type where everybody meets in the library at the end. Not that I mind those, as you can probably tell from my other reading, but the climax does feature a few more explosions than the average Agatha Christie. And it’s awesome. Also because Craddock is really great at writing action scenes and make me care for the people involved in it (the former is already an achievement, but the latter is really rare). I got so engrossed in the story that I was even constantly worrying about Isabelle and Jean-Claude – despite being sure that they had to survive untill the next book.

What else is there to say? Perhaps the fact I should have opened with (and then left it there because it sums everything up perfectly). After I finished A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery I lost my reading-mojo for a while because, really, all I wanted was experience the awesomeness that is this book again, but nothing else could compare.

Mini Reviews February 2019

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Anna Waterhouse: Mycroft Holmes

This book wants to give us an origin story for Mycroft and show him before he turned into the man we know from the Sherlock Holmes stories but also wants to make sure that we recognise Mycroft as the man from the Sherlock Holmes stories. The result is sadly not a less extreme version of Mycroft but a character that acts like a lovesick teenie in one chapter and in the next fails to take anybody’s feelings into consideration and is such a genius that he can tell how much a body that was dropped into the water weighed, just from the sploshing-sound he heard. It felt like reading about two different characters.
Oh, and feminism makes you evil. I mean, I grant the author that he might have wanted to say something about White Feminism™ but to make that point clear he should have included more than one female character that was relevant to the plot.


Tyler Whitesides: The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn

This book lost itself in too many (repeated) explanations. There are no mages and non-mages in the world of this book, everybody can do magic – provided they have the right grit – powder harvested from dragon dung (yup) – and know how to use it. And the “how” gets explained everytime a character uses some (and they do so very often). In great detail. In very great detail. Now, I vastly prefer fantasy novels that do a bit more explaining than necessary to those that just throw you in the middle without any explanation and by the time you figure out how everything works, you’re halfway through the book. But this isn’t just “a bit more”. This 800-page doorstopper could have been a 600-page doorstopper and I’d still have understood how the magical system works. And another 100 pages could have been knocked off if the narration had replaced the repeated assurances that the character’s feelings had changed, with a few scenes that showed us that.

I also read Without Pretense and you can read my full review over at Love in Panels.

And don’t worry: I still read good books. In fact I recently read a book that was so good, that I’m still trying to figure out how to write a review that isn’t just full of capslock and gifs of cute animals.

Mini Reviews January 2019

Charles Kingston – Murder in Piccadilly

This book is too full of unlikeable characters to enjoy it. There’s Bobby, who’s a weakling and only mopes about not having any money but is too lazy to do any actual work. There’s his mother who has spoilt him all his life and now refuses to see that he could do any wrong. His uncle who is so miserly that he won’t even give his brother’s widow enough money to live as semi-decent life. Bobby’s girlfriend Nancy who is a caricature of the greedy gold-digging woman. There’s also Nancy’s ex Billy and her boss Nosey Ruslin. The latter is supposed to be a clever and cold-blooded criminal but reacts like a deer in the headlight when questioned by the inspector and Billy even faints. It’s over the top but not in a humorous way, it’s just boring.

Much like David Mitchell, I cared zero about any of the characters in the book

John Bude – The Cheltenham Square Murder

Another painting-by-numbers mystery. A murder. A suspect. He has an alibi. A clue. Another suspect. Another alibi. Another clue. Rinse repeat. I still liked it more than The Lake District Murder because it was at least a traditional mystery without faceless crime-syndicates but it also gave me the impression that Bude didn’t have a high opinion of women because every single one that appears in this book is extremely stupid.

Gif from The Hour. Bel saying "You're so right. And those things called novels. Impossible! So many words."

Miles Burton – Death in the Tunnel

When I read The Secret of High Eldersham, another book by Burton, I had no idea why it was included in the Crime Classic series. It was simply idiotic and I found it hard to believe that anybody could enjoy it. Death in the Tunnel isn’t that bad. It even has quite a decent locked room mystery as a base. But then the author tried too hard and kept adding more mystery and more deception and more twists and it ended up being ridiculous more than anything.

And while you expect over the top ridiculousness at Eurovision, it doesn’t work well in a mystery that wants to be taken seriously

Lois Austen-Leigh: The Incredible Crime

Author: Lois Austen-Leigh
Title: The Incredible Crime

Prince’s College, Cambridge, is a peaceful and scholarly community, enlivened by Prudence Pinsent, the Master’s daughter. Spirited, beautiful, and thoroughly unconventional, Prudence is a remarkable young woman.

One fine morning she sets out for Suffolk to join her cousin Lord Wellende for a few days’ hunting. On the way, Prudence encounters Captain Studde of the coastguard – who is pursuing a quarry of his own.

Studde is on the trail of a drug smuggling ring that connects Wellende Hall with the cloistered world of Cambridge. It falls to Prudence to unravel the identity of the smugglers – who may be forced to kill, to protect their secret.

Rating: Jane Austen disapproves

Note: I’m not going to spoil concrete events or the whole solution to this book. But to explain what I didn’t like about this book I have to give away a bit more than I usually do, so read at your own risk.

Austen-Leigh was the great-great niece of Jane Austen, at one point the inspector quotes from Northanger Abbey and at the beginning, I thought The Incredible Crime would end up being “Northanger Abbey but instead of Gothic novels it’s with crime fiction.”

For everybody whose memory of Austen’s novels is a bit patchy: The heroine Catherine loves gothic novels. Her designated love interest invites her to stay with him and his father General Tilney and their home looks like it came right out of a gothic novel. When then people act a bit oddly around Catherine, her imagination runs wild and she’s convinced that General Tilney killed his first wife and is now after her. Of course, in the end, it turns out that things were very different.

At the beginning of The Incredible Crime, Prudence reads a crime novel, laughs, tosses it away and complains about how these novels are always full of people getting murdered in country houses and this never happens in real life. Not much later she visits her cousin – in a country house – and strange things start happening. But are matters really as serious as they seem?

I am not a big fan of Northanger Abbey, due to it parodying Gothic novels and me having read a grand total of one Gothic novel but I think I would have loved an actual NA-with-crime-fiction with a main character who sees dead bodies under every creaking floorboard. But that’s not what The Incredible Crime turned out to be. Before Prudence visits her cousin, she was already approached by an inspector who raised some suspicions about one of the other houseguests. Once she arrives, one of the servants also has some worrying news and finally, Prudence herself witnesses things that go far beyond “people acting a bit odd”. And she isn’t the only one who’s suspicious; apart from the servant who confided in Prudence there’s also the Scotland Yard detective who is quite sure he knows what’s happening, he just needs a final bit of evidence. So, when in the end, things turn out to be very different from what everybody thought, as a reader, I didn’t go “Haha! How stupid of them to jump to conclusions.” but rather “They made perfectly reasonable deductions based on what they knew and saw and it was a one in a million chance that things weren’t what they thought they were.” which doesn’t make for the most satisfying reading experience. To come back to Northanger Abbey: It would be like having a scene in which Catherine sees Tilney with a dagger bent over a lifeless woman and later found out that he’d only given her a thoracotomy.

All of that is polished with an extremely unsatisfactory romance for Prudence. I wasn’t expecting Jane Austen (or Dorothy Sayers) but I had hoped for something better than one that concludes with “And once the woman learned her place she was happy.”

Raymond Postgate: Somebody at the Door

Title: Somebody at the Door
Author: Raymond Postgate

One bleak Friday evening in January, 1942, Councillor Henry Grayling boards an overcrowded train with £120 in cash wages to be paid out the next day to the workers of Barrow and Furness Chemistry and Drugs Company. When Councillor Grayling finally finds the only available seat in a third-class carriage, he realises to his annoyance that he will be sharing it with some of his disliked acquaintances: George Ransom, with whom he had a quarrel; Charles Evetts, who is one of his not-so-trusted employees; a German refugee whom Grayling has denounced; and Hugh Rolandson, whom Grayling suspects of having an affair with his wife. 

The train journey passes uneventfully in awkward silence but later that evening Grayling dies of what looks like mustard gas poisoning and the suitcase of cash is nowhere to be found. Inspector Holly has a tough time trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, for the unpopular Councillor had many enemies who would be happy to see him go, and most of them could do with the cash he was carrying. But Inspector Holly is persistent and digs deep into the past of all the suspects for a solution, starting with Grayling’s travelling companions. 

Rating: 5/5 red herrings

The setup of this story is not that that unusual: George Ransom, a not particularly liked man, shares his train carriage with a handful of people who either have a good reason to want him dead (like the man his wife is having an affair with) or who simply don’t like him much but could very much do with the £120 he was carrying. Not long after he has left the train he’s dead and the money gone.

The way it continues is then not quite as typical. We see very little of the police doing any investigating for most of the book. Instead, each chapter focusses on one of Ransom’s travelling companions and tells us how they got to the point where they are a viable suspect in great detail. For example, the chapter on the German refugee begins with a group of students who discover by chance that somebody is taking money from German Jews who want to leave the country and promises to help them escape but actually betrays them to the Gestapo. They also acquire a list of names and discover that one of the men hasn’t yet attempted to flee and one of the students sets out to save him. We then witness their escape, including several near-misses that had me biting my nails, even though I knew that the man had to be the German that was in the train and therefore had to survive. It was brilliantly written but I also wondered if all of this was really necessary. Red herrings are of course one thing, but each chapter contained so many things that couldn’t even be called red herrings. The above-mentioned students had nothing to do with the murder – and it was almost immediately obvious that they couldn’t have – yet half the chapter was just about them.

Only at the end of the chapter, we see the police discussing the suspect in question and from their conversation, we can see that their investigation has led them to a rough idea of the motive this person has for killing Grayling. But usually, they don’t know as many details as the reader does. At the same time, they’re also trying to figure out how Grayling was murdered which is also far from obvious but then maybe once they have figured that out, the who follows automatically.

In the end, I can see how this book isn’t for everybody. Especially people who expect a more traditional mystery, where the police uncover clue after about the suspect’s past will likely end up disappointed. But I enjoyed the different stories too much to really care about not getting what I expected. Now not all of them are as nail-biting as the refugee-story (and some of them are a bit heavy-handed where the moral is concerned) but they’re still great and that makes the whole book an enjoyable read.