Friday, January 18, 2013

Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Today, we're pleased to welcome Colin Falconer as a guest reviewer who is a fan of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall (Wolf Hall, #1)

It’s rare these days to find an historical novelist who hasn’t written about the Tudors. The story of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I is rich with intrigue, heaving bosoms, treachery, huge codpieces, starched ruffs, and pale, ambitious, doomed women. Desperate Housewives meets the Rack. You would think that with the number of words - and furlongs of celluloid - dedicated to their story, even just over the last two decades, that the harvest was in, the cellar empty, the bottle dry.
So it was with no little reserve that I approached Hilary Mantels’ WOLF HALL. What else was there to say about the Tudors? Well, quite a lot, apparently.

The novel’s back drop is a defining moment in British history, when Henry wrested power away from the Catholic Church and allowed Britain to worship - and think – for itself. But Bluff King Hal was not motivated by great religious purpose; he was simply in love with a younger woman and wanted a son and heir. He was, as Mantel paints him, a man terrified for his immortal soul but not so concerned that he was going to let anyone – even God - stand in his way.

WOLF HALL follows the contest between Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon; between the Pope and the King; between Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. But this isn’t the story; this is just the plot. The world to which we are allowed entry is not that of Henry VIII, or the Boleyns, but the much maligned Thomas Cromwell.

We follow his rise from a Putney blacksmith’s son to the second most powerful man in England and if that was all the narrative, it would have made an adequate Jeffrey Archer novel. In Mantel’s hands it becomes something else.

I was prepared for a long and tedious beginning. After all, didn’t this win the Man Booker Prize in 2009? The cast list of the characters reads like the telephone listing of a small town. When I picked it up, my heart sank.
I expected the opening paragraph to be a long description of a vase. Instead, on the first page, we meet Thomas Cromwell as a teenager, being kicked unconscious on the cobblestones by his father. Hard not to cheer for him; stay down, son, stay down. If you try and get up again, the next boot will kill you.

His married sister dresses his injuries and he escapes on a boat to France. The next time we encounter him he is chief counsel to the king’s chief counsellor, Cardinal Wolsey. It's a long way from the mud and blood of the Putney yard, but Cromwell isn’t done yet. He is the ultimate fixer, the man who gets things done. “He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury." He also knows the New Testament by heart. While Wolsey and More crumble under the press of the king’s tantrums and whimsies, Cromwell endures and prevails. When Cromwell falls sick the king pays a personal visit to his home to see him well again. Even his bitterest enemies come to rely on him.

Much of Cromwell's history is told in quicksilver flashbacks. They beg more questions than they answer and add to his allure, allowing the reader to recreate the man in their own mind. We expect a monster with a heart like an abacus; instead Mantel shows us an enforcer who champions tolerance, a free-thinker who still ensures that the king has his way. His affection for his family, his ward - even his enemies - disarms. In finding charity in one of history’s villains, she has found the unseen aspect of Henry’s story and rendered it utterly fresh.

In fact she relegates the king and all those wives as well as the religious future of England to an afterword; it’s Cromwell’s fate that captivates. We never do go to Wolf Hall though we sense that is where his fortunes will finally turn

This is a beautiful and surprisingly tender book, not so much a novel as a portrait, the artist capturing a great man in his moment of pre-eminent glory just before tragedy overtakes him. “Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon, says Thomas More, and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.” It is the sense of doom unforeseen that lends brilliance to the artist’s precise brushwork.

If you are looking for a bodice ripper or a Ken Follett saga, this is not for you. Mantel’s overuse of the personal pronoun may also drive you to distraction. Who said what? But the Booker judges got it exactly right. Cromwell may well charm you in the same way he seduced Henry’s court. When the book ends it is like saying goodbye to an old friend.

Colin was recently interviewed by HNS Sydney about a few of his favourite things. You can read the interview here. Colin also blogs at Looking for Mr Goodstory. His novel, Stigmata, is available at Amazon UK.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Happy 15th Birthday, HNS!

The Society celebrates 15 years
It seems fitting to compile our 15th anniversary feature just after our largest and most successful UK conference ever. (Hearty congratulations to Jenny Barden and her on-the-ground organizing team!) The Society has grown in leaps and bounds since Richard Lee had the brilliant idea to create it in 1997. My own entrĂ©e into the HNS began with one of Richard’s early publicity posts to an online forum… an international money order for membership was mailed out to Devon a day later.
Our revamped website (, Facebook groups, awards, and local chapters have helped us increase our range and presence; today we number almost 1100 members worldwide. However, our enthusiasm for novels set in the past has remained unchanged since the early days. To illustrate this, we’ve invited a small number of our longtime members and staff – who hail from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia – to reflect on their experiences and what the HNS has meant to them.
Since magazine space is limited, I’d like to encourage everyone to contribute to the online version of this feature, which will become part of the website archive. How did you first hear about the Historical Novel Society, and what have you gained from membership? Please send your thoughts to me at for inclusion.
Happy birthday, HNS, and thanks to all our members for helping make the Society the large, thriving, and prominent global organization that it is today.
It wasn’t until recently that I realised I was one of the first UK members of the Historical Novel Society. Really, I had no idea I was so old. Not long after I joined I remember hearing Richard Lee describe historical fiction as “the genre that dare not speak its name” (a title since claimed by science fiction/fantasy and romance). Well, that’s not true now, and I like to think that our Society played its part in exploding the misconception that historical fiction is a poor cousin of “real” fiction and an illegitimate offspring of “proper” history. Through the Society, I’ve learned a lot, gained valuable experience and a few free books by writing articles and reviews, had the chance to interview some of my writing heroes, found some great books to read in the 
Historical Novels Review, and made some good friends. I hope the HNS and I trundle on together for another fifteen years!

I attended my first HNS conference in 2009, taking advantage of the Agent Pitch Sessions which resulted in two requests for my manuscript about an early medieval queen. Once that ordeal was behind me, I relaxed and focused on the many remarkable people, both published and yet-to-be, who crossed my path. I returned home with new insights, armloads of books, and the conviction that I had been warmly welcomed into a sympathetic community of writers. As it turned out, I had also found an agent who believed in my book. Would we have discovered each other if not for that conference? I think it unlikely, and I am grateful and honored to be part of an organization whose members so generously offer each other opportunity, support, and friendship. That manuscript I pitched in 2009 will soon be published as 
Shadow on the Crown – a Cinderella story for sure, with HNS playing fairy godmother!


LUCINDA BYATT, Reviewer and Features Co-ordinator, HNR:
Claire Morris was editor when I joined the 
Solander team in 2005, years when that magazine was in its heyday. Some of the most memorable interviews were those I did in person: chatting to Helen Dunmore in a noisy marquee at the Edinburgh Book Festival; interviewing Alison Weir while she was finishing breakfast (for the record, a full Scottish one!) in her hotel; or discussing research with Margaret Elphinstone at the National Library of Scotland. I also had the privilege of meeting Ismail Kadare after he won the first ever International Man Booker Prize. Following the merger of the two magazines, we’ve had a few publishing coups for Historical Novels Review, too: Hilary Mantel’s interview appeared just days after publication in May 2012 (although we had to sign a heavy-handed press embargo to achieve it). While the Society’s online presence is a massive new development, I hope the printed magazine will continue to interest and entertain members – I’ve certainly enjoyed my small part in it!

ANN CHAMBERLIN, Author, Reviewer, and Conference Organizer:
Frustrated for years by trying to fit in with other genre organizations when history was always my favorite for reading and writing, I found the Historical Novel Society through an internet search. I remember going down to the bank for an international money order to buy my membership when you couldn’t use dollars or credit cards.  Must have been about fifteen years ago. Happy Birthday!
I don’t have the personality or the cash for a lot of publicity, but I find I can do things like reviewing new titles (although I’m probably too fierce a critiquer) and working to make the North American conferences great – from the first one that was in Salt Lake because I volunteered to run it. We thought we’d be lucky to get thirty attendees for a start – we got ten times that. I could have been overwhelmed, but the support was wonderful.
ANDREA CONNELL, Managing Editor, HNR Indie Reviews:
I didn’t have a “label” for my favorite genre until I found the HNS in 2000. All I knew was I loved stories set in times past through which I could be learn and be entertained. Through membership, I found I wasn’t alone in my “obsession” and was ecstatic to have located an incredible resource that breathed life (and sank too many dollars!) into this fanatical “hobby” of mine. I volunteered in 2003, and never looked back – from reviewing to copyediting the print publications to becoming Indie Reviews Editor (in the days before the deluge of self-published books…). The HNS has given me the opportunity to learn a tremendous amount about the publishing industry, but the best part of being involved is helping to keep the genre alive, thriving, and in the forefront of the publishing industry’s view. Everything I do for the HNS is for that reason. Happy 15th anniversary, HNS!

I have a complaint about The 
Historical Novels Review: it’s expensive. I virtually never read an issue without immediately buying several books. The reviews, I find, are exceptional – short and to-the-point – and I love the way they are organized by century. (I also love how I can now search out reviews on the new HNS website.) Through theReview, I’ve been introduced to many fine authors: Andrew Miller, Regina O’Melveny, Erin Morgenstern, Sheri Holman. The first review I read of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt was in the HNR, and I bought it immediately. In fact, I just came across the May 2001 issue of the Review with Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks highlighted – and “ordered” written beside it. The review, by Janet Mary Tomson, states: “This is a gem of a book.” No kidding!

DOUG KEMP, UK Reviews Editor:
I joined the HNS around 2000, though I have no clear recall of how I first found out about this splendid society. I started reviewing for the 
HNR in 2001 and then joined the UK Reviews Editor team in 2007. In addition to the immense benefits of being closely associated with a community of historical experts, enthusiasts and aficionados who have both satisfied and further stoked my interest in historical fiction, there have been many other highly positive aspects to my involvement with the HNS. Reviewing has allowed me to read and reflect upon a range of books and authors which otherwise I would most probably not have come across. As a Reviews Editor, it has been, let us say, instructive, as well as absorbing, to work with a range of publicity and press officers from the publishing industry – many of whom have been helpful and appreciative of what we are trying to achieve in the HNS, others rather to my occasional perplexity, perhaps less so!

ILYSA MAGNUS, US Reviews Editor:
Browsing around on eBay one day twelve years ago, I found a few books being offered for sale by a woman named Sarah. I bought a book or two – merely by chance – and we began to trade emails. At some point early on, Sarah asked me whether I’d like to become a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society. That reviewing gig soon evolved into an editorship. Over time, the number of books we review has increased exponentially. Since the HNS has become more visible, publicists seem increasingly more anxious to get us books to review – not quite like pulling teeth as it was back in the day.
I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to review some unbelievable novels I might not have picked up in the first instance. It has been a gift working with the editorial team on both sides of the Pond – all of whom are passionate about historical fiction and respect each other’s contributions. It’s also been a blessing to have had the opportunity to develop relationships with some amazingly talented authors. Where else would I, a matrimonial attorney in Manhattan, have had that chance?
JAMES VELLA-BARDON, Co-Founder, HNS Sydney Chapter:
I joined the HNS after I moved to Sydney in 2007 and discovered the Society on the internet. No similar society existed locally, and I wasn’t sure what to expect when I paid the membership online. But when I received my first copy of the 
Historical Novels ReviewI was completely blown away by the market news and interviews with authors which I think helped me to understand myself better. Its reviews also helped me to discover great works like Captain Alatriste, amongst others. Through the Society I’ve been able to identify and approach agents who have sold work that is similar to my current work in progress, and a few have generously provided some very useful feedback. This underlines how crucial the HNS is to aspiring authors, and last year I started an HNS Sydney chapter ( with the wonderful novelist Elisabeth Storrs which keeps growing in momentum.

About the contributor: Sarah Johnson, Book Review Editor of HNR, is a librarian, readers’ advisor, and author of reference books. She reviews for BooklistCHOICE and Canada’sGlobe and Mail and blogs about historical novels at Her latest book is Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre.

Published in 
Historical Novels Review   |   Issue 62, November 2012

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Emperor's Conspiracy (Novel Review)

When Michelle Diener contacted me to offer a review copy of this book, I was interested, but mainly because Michelle lives in Australia  and therefore I could count this book for several challenges. And then I noticed that Amy from Historical Fiction Virtual Tours was running a tour for the book. I volunteered because then not only would I intend to read it, I would actually read it and in a timely fashion! The thing is though, by the time I finished the book, I was happy to have read the book, not because of challenges or impetus to read, but because in the end this was a really good read!

The book opens with a scene that is quite unusual. A London lady finds herself with a chimney sweep stuck up her chimney because the sweep had grown too large, and the sweep is abandoned by her master because if the sweeps can't work, then he can't afford to feed them.

Fast forward a number of years, and we are introduced to Charlotte Raven. She is a young lady who is mostly at ease in the glamorous world of the ton but equally at home in the rougher parts of London. She is something of an oddity in the ton, because she is ward to a well respected lady who took her into her home and introduced her into the rarefied ways of the ton. She is also unusual in the stews because she is one of the lucky ones, one of the people who climbed out of a life of poverty. Charlotte is acutely aware of her own good fortune and does her best to help others get a start on a better life if they are prepared to make the necessary changes.

There are two main male characters in the book, both representing the two different parts of Charlotte's life. On one hand, Charlotte's childhood protector and love, Luke, is now running a crime ring. He rules the streets of his area which are filled with hardship and deprivation and more. On the other, Lord Edward Durnham. He is aloof, rarely seen in society but has a complicated secret life. When the two worlds collide, thanks predominantly to Charlotte's own actions, she is the one who has the power to control their fates. And yet, it is her own fate which may be the most difficult to decide given that she doesn't really fit in her new world but she certainly doesn't fit in the old world either.

Central to the drama between the characters is a plot which seems highly improbable, until you realise that it was taken straight from the pages of the history books! This plot is what gives the book it's title. I must confess that for the first parts of the book I was wondering precisely where the title fitted in, but it all became clear in due course. The only clue I am going to give you is that the book is set during the Napoleonic wars. 

The thing about this book is that it doesn't really fit neatly into any sub-genre. There are times when you might think that what you are reading is building up to a historical romance story... but it's not only that. You may think that you are reading a historical mystery, and you are, but not in the sense that the heroine decides that she wants to be an amateur sleuth and sets out to solve a crime. Rather Charlotte is trying to find, or keep, her place -trying to keep one foot in both her past world and her present world.

I may have mentioned once or ten times now that I am currently reading Les Miserables. Whilst I am enjoying that book, it is a book that I am having to work hard at reading. By contrast, this book was a completed breeze to read and I closed the book already wondering if we were going to see more of these characters. As I look back with the added distance of a couple of days, there are probably a couple of plot holes, and there probably could have been a bit more in the way of character development, but in terms of the actually reading experience I had, it was perfect for me at the time. Just what I needed.

This was the first time I have read this author, and I will definitely be looking for more from her in the future, especially if there is a follow up book to this one.

Rating 4/5