The Mysteries of Last Week…

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the week after vacation will be stressful! The events at work once again proved the very obvious theory accurate and to say I was glad that the week passed is an understatement. After 16 hrs day at work, I could not summon the courage to read Daniel Deronda or The March of Folly; great books but hardly something to lessen the exhaustion! Casting around for something easy to read, which gave a break from work reality, I found GoodReads hosting The Thriller & Mysteries week and among the various activities, they had planned, they also had listed the most popular Mysteries/Thrillers per Reader ratings! Reading through I found, Book#3 was apparently sitting in my many unread collection and this seemed a good time to get started. I finished that and wanted something more and found Book # 28 which I recollect my father had really liked and was part of his collection, so naturally, my selection for the second read became Book#28!  Now at the beginning of the brand new week, I present two mini reviews of my reads of Book#2 and Book#28!

Book#3 was A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George, published in 1988 and winner of Anthony Award. The book is the first in series of now famous Inspector Lynley series and the reader is introduced to Inspector Thomas Lynley, Eton/Ozford educted Peer of the Relm, who is also one the best inspector of CID. He is drawn from the wedding of his best friend, by Sargent Barbara Havers, the infant terrible of the police department, who has finally been paired with Lanley in the last hope of having her investigative mind brought to the fore, instead of her aggressive, belligerent attitude, which got her suspended from CID and back in uniform 8 months back! Lanley and Havers make their way to Keladale, in North Yorkshire, where the body of William Teys, honorable member of the Church, devoted father and successful farmer is found, decapitated, with his daughter, the 19 year old Roberta Teys, sitting on an upturned bucket, with an aze on her lap and with the only words spoken “I did it, I am not sorry!”. It seems like an open and shut case, ezcept there are parts to tale which does not fit in, including a cousin who gets the farm on the event of William Tey’s death, a finance, a artist and the daughter of William Teys who ran away, years ago! As Lanley and Havers dig for the truth, they discover all kinds of unholy secrets, that the quiet village of Keladale holds, which not only challenges them professionally, but also confront their personal demons, to find the killer!

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Book# 28 was Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, published in 1981. This book like the previous one is the first in the series of Arkady Renko, the Chief Investigator of Moscow’s homicide squad. The novel introduces us to Arkady Renko, one of the finest and most honest investigator’s in Moscow’s Prosecutor’s office. He is the son, of a decorated War General and grew up in the privileged circles of Moscow, attending the best schools, University and Law School. The novel opens on a cold day in April in Soviet Russia, in the northern end of Gork Park, the amusement Park of Moscovites, where the militiamen, have discovered three dead bodies, now that the snow is thawing, and Arkady has been called into investigate the corpses. Two men and one woman lay dead and  their faces have been mutilated and ends of the thumbs chopped off to ensure, there is no identification whatsoever! Arkady Renko  sets off on a trail to find the identity of his victims as well as their killers and as he slowly unravels the mysteries, he confronts, the KGB, an American Business man, a New York City Cop and happenings much closer to home, and the chase for the killer will take him to the exiled land of Shatura and then America until he finds the very truth, that lay hidden among the obvious!

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Some 100 pages into The Great Deliverance, I realized that at some point, I had read this novel and I began to vaguely recollect the end, though I hung on because of the hows and simply because it was written very well. The taut plot of the novel, is the strength of The Great Deliverance. I did not much care for the main characters – the absolutely perfect Lanley and the constantly snotty Havers (I wanted to throw a book at her), but the ensemble cast made up for the insipidity of the protagonists, who were much more life like, confronting confusion, trauma and much more, and still chalking out better lives for themselves! The ending was kind of cliched but my guess is in 1988, when such things were still not so much in the open, it must have created quite a stir and again based on the fast paced and through narration, the book must have been one  thrilling read!

Gorky Park was much more to my taste! Firstly, it is set in Russia, which predisposes me to like it. The plot, unlike The Great Deliverance was not of sensationalist nature, but ran with with an equally tight narrative, which made the reading, as interesting and kept one hooked on. In Arkady Renko, the author had created a wonderful hero, who with all his flaws, comes through as someone, you would want as a hero of a novel. Wikipedia states that Renko has been called a Bryonic Hero and he may be, but I really liked the character that was capable of great intuitive thinking but at the same time having blind spots that enables them to fall and then rise again! The book was banned in Soviet Union after its initial release and I can quite understand why; the author captures the tense, suspicious atmosphere of the last years of Socialisim beautifully. Despite the change of regime and new laws, to guarantee freedom of rights and liberty, the citizens till live in the fear of losing jobs, of suddenly being denounced as dissidents and landing up in Siberia or worse dead, for as simple case of being religious. Even if you do your job and keep your head down, you may still fall under the scanner and your promotions thwarted because, you are not an “active” party member. The dull, grey lives of the Soviet citizens is wonderfully captured which brings out the psychological as well as economic deprivation succinctly!  What really set this novel apart, from other books set in similar settings is lack of the chest thumping glory of Capitalism; Soviet Russia is bad, but the glorious land of free is no better. So called Radicals are put under surveillance, racism exists and there equal amount of incompetence in the institutions! Well crafted, with meticulous attention to detail and a believable cast ensemble, this book was a great read, through and through! I am so impressed that I went and bought Book#2 of the series, Polar Star!

To end, let just say, the both the book, not so good and very good, helped me make it to a stressful week and to that end, they fulfilled their aim of taking me away from reality!

The End of March….

Well, winter is officially over and the mild spring is about to end, and soon we will have the onset of the horrible Indian Summer. But for what it’s worth, March turned out slightly better than the first two months of the year; this was the first hospital free month for my father and though he is far from fully recovered atleast the litany of hospitals, tests, surgery is over and we are now in what seems like recuperating phase! Here’s hoping things continue in the same directions. This turn of events gave me more time to read and in fact, I was able to sneak away for a quick road trip to the mountains for a much needed break. Therefore, the end of March, needless to say, seems more peaceful than her predecessors and fingers crossed it should stay that way!

Now for my March wrap up post, which as you all now by now is a combination of combining from Helen’s monthly post of Commonplace Book post   and O’s ideas of  Wordless Wednesday . Here goes –

From My Date with History by Suman Chattopadhyay

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Such was my initiation to Kolkata ’71, which was neither just a city nor just a year, but a vivacious culture that bore within it everything that represented Bengal in an era which seems almost fantastic today!”

From The Rose of Tibet by Lionel Davidson

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I tell you, everything is melting. The Sun is shining, I swear it! The sun indeed shining, the track wet; the world running with glittering slushy water, and himself evidently, tramping through it, boots turning an endless treadmill, some inevitable burden at his back, constant arching light in his eyes!”

From The Dairy of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

IMG_20180311_171526482_HDR“Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.”

Scenes of Clerical Life by George Elliot 

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“The daylight changes the aspect of misery to us, as of everything else. In the night it presses on our imagination—the forms it takes are false, fitful, exaggerated; in broad day it sickens our sense with the dreary persistence of definite measurable reality”

From The Provincial Lady in London by  E.M. Delafield

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Pamela, very splendid, announces that I am writer and very literary, statement that has the usual effect of sending all the gentlemen right to the remotest corner of the room, from where they look at me over their shoulders with expressions of the purest horror

From The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

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You don’t know what it’s like trying to eat enough to live on and at the same time avoid fats and carbohydrates.”

From The Secret Books by Marcel Theroux

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“There seemed to be nothing special any more about the enchantments of fiction. On the contrary, in every area of human life, someone was trying to tell a story. Sports commentators, politicians, revolutionaries, religious leaders, business people, accountants, advertisers, actors – all were peddling selective and self-serving interpretations of the world.”

That is all for the month of March! Here’s wishing everyone Happy and peaceful April!

The Parish of Milby

Despite years of long and extensive reading, there are some authors, with whom I could not become friends. I have no idea why, because they write about subjects and settings that immensely interest me and are often much loved by many whose tastes and opinions I admire. But for whatever reasons things simply do not come together and they simply do not work for me! George Elliot is one such author. My grandmother, whose bookish tastes, my family says I have inherited loved, all her works. Many of my friends, both from the bloggish and non blogish world have often pointed out to the nuanced writing that her books brought forth. But I remained,  unmoved. Mill on Floss, made me want to throw the book at something and I gave up on Middlemarch, like 100 pages into the book. I was not meant to appreciate Ms. Elliot and there was not much I can do about it. Then last week, casting around for something Trollopian to read, but not Trollope, GoodReads threw up a suggestion of Scenes of Clerical Life by George Elliot. I was about to pass on and then for some reason, decided to give it a shot. It seemed like a short novel; only 200 pages (My error; I misread the 404 pages!) so it was not like I would lose much. Thus I began my journey around the Parish of Milby, the first ever novel by Ms. Elliot!

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Set in the last 20 years of 18th century, the book, which consists of 3 separate novellas, interwoven through the time and place and common characters, takes the reader through many different ideas of Church, Local Politics, Spirituality, and Domestic Abuse. The first narrative called “The Sad Fortunes of Reverend Amos Barton” tells the tale of an ordinary Curate in the parish church of Stepperton, near the the village of Milby. Amos Barton, has lofty ideals but neither posses brilliance of oratory or a commanding personality to morph his ideas and to make them palatable to his Parishoners and develop a following among them. He is married to a wonderful and devoted woman, Milly, who has borne him 6 children and their circumstances are strained due to the ever increasing family and the small stipend derived from the Curacy. However, Reverend Amos Barton, goes about his work with much zeal as he is convinced that he has an obligation to imbue his congregation with what he believes to be the Orthodox Church views! More troubles are however fated for the Bartons as their worldly and pretentious friend Countess Caroline Czerlaski takes up residence with them after quarreling with her brother, making the financial situation even more difficult and hurting Milly’s health as the latter is stressed physically and mentally in trying to make everyone around her comfortable, culminating in an terrible tragedy for the family! The second novella, “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story” begins with the death of the much loved  Maynard Gilfil, who was the Vicar of Shepperton many years before Mr. Barton. Mr. Gilfil however unlike his successor was much loved and much mourned on his death. He had lead an admirable life fulfilling his duties and sometimes, going beyond it, never afraid to laugh and find amusement at whimsical nonsense, always concealing a deep personal tragedy that marked his life, at a very young age. Around 1788, when he was a young Chaplin at the Cheverel Manor, he fell in love with the Caterina Sarti, an Italian orphan brought up by Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel, who took her into their care following the death of her father. Tina, as she was called, while having a very affectionate regard for Mr. Gilfil, was however in love with Captain Anthony Wybrow, nephew and heir of Sir Christopher Cheverel. Captain Wybrow, was a man of selfish principles, whose only aim was to secure Sir Christopher’s good humor and consequently his wealth and had no qualms, in abandoning his “feelings” for Tina, when Sir Christopher, unbeknownst of the feelings of Tina, directed Captain’s Wybrow’s attention and hence approval to a suitable match. This engagement, broods no good and leaves behind a slew of tragedies, destroying the happiness of all directly and indirectly involved. The third and final novella, “Janet’s Repentance” is set in the town of Milby.  The first chapter advises the reader, of the brewing storm between the people of Milby, who are divided in two fractions – one supporting the traditional teachings of Mr. Crewe and the others, supporting the newly appointed Curate at Paddingford Common, Mr. Edgar Tryan, who is an Evangalican preacher and whose opponents view him as a dissenter. The strongest opponent of Mr. Tryan is Richard Dempster, a shrewd, strong tempered lawyer, who in companionship with others comes up with schemes to destroy Mr. Tryan’s  plans. Mr. Dempster is supported by his wife Janet, who however opposes Mr. Tryan out of her affection for Mr. and Mrs. Crew who have been her oldest and kindest friend. Beautiful and kind Janet has not had a easy life, especially after marrying Dempster, who turns out to be an alcoholic with a violent temper, who has been subjecting Janet to domestic violence for 15 years of their marriage. Deprived of children and constantly subject to severe physical violence, with no support system except an old mother, Janet, herself turns into an alcoholic to numb herself of the mental and physical degradation. As things, take a turn for worse for Janet and she falls further into the abyss, rescue, comes in the most unexpected manner, giving her back, hope and spiritual sustenance.

George Elliot finally weaved her magic on me and I am still reeling from her talent, her insightfulnes and her ability to write prose as if she was painting a picture through words! I have no idea, if and when I will read her other works, but for now this first novel of her’s has rendered me speechless. I do not like reading tragedies, but her tragedies, are woven in hope and the rejuvenating spirit of love, that sustains us, even when we lose the loved ones! The first novella, requires patience as it is one of her less confident works and does not do much to keep your interest from wandering. However, it is a short novella and by the second one, you are for sure hooked. The brilliance of Ms. Elliot  I think lies in the characters she drew – in short novellas, where there is only limited ability to bring out the protagonists, she not only brings them to life, but she makes us feel that we have known them, and known them well for a very long time. Another thing that really really impressed me was her prose, her wonderful description of gardens, and chapels and homes! Here’s a sample of what I mean – the castellated house of grey-tinted stone, with the flickering sunbeams sending dashes of golden light across the many-shaped panes in the mullioned windows, and a great beech leaning athwart one of the flanking towers, and breaking, with its dark flattened boughs, the too formal symmetry of the front; the broad gravel-walk winding on the right, by a row of tall pines, alongside the pool—on the left branching out among swelling grassy mounds, surmounted by clumps of trees, where the red t of the Scotch fir glows in the descending sunlight against the bright green of limes and acacias; the great pool, where a pair of swans are swimming lazily with one leg tucked under a wing, and where the open water-lilies lie calmly accepting the kisses of the fluttering light-sparkles; the lawn, with its smooth emerald greenness, sloping down to the rougher and browner herbage of the park, from which it is invisibly fenced by a little stream that winds away from the pool, and disappears under a wooden bridge in the distant pleasure-ground; and on this lawn our two ladies, whose part in the landscape the painter, standing at a favourable point of view in the park, would represent with a few little dabs of red and white and blue.  Despite the somber subjects, Ms. Elliot also carefully manages to add in humor and satire at the then society and its follies – “What a resource it is under fatigue and irritation to have your drawing-room well supplied with small mats, which would always be ready if you ever wanted to set anything on them!” Most importantly, Ms. Elliot seemed to have been blessed with a deep understanding of man’s heart and the ability to express it to the T – “Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside itself—it only requires opportunity“. There is so much I can say about this book and so many things I can quote and  in spite of all my enthusiasm, I know these works are not perfect – there are some cliched events and convenient deaths and sometimes, things get too much descriptive. Yet such is the power of the writing of Ms. Elliot, that you only want and only will remember the brilliant parts, making you feel, that this is a work of absolute marvel!

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Murder and Mayhem in London

Many many moons ago, when I was wee little kid (comparatively speaking, as in I was about 20 years old) I was wondering through the shelves of the local British Council library for something interesting to read. I picked up a murder mystery set in 13th century England; I recollect I really enjoyed it. I recollect that the main protagonists were a Priest and a Knight and that is all I had to go on,  for I do not recall the character’s name, I do not recall the series name and worst, I do not recall the author’s name! Cut to the present, I am browsing NetGalley for a a good historical fiction to read during the holidays and I come across a Brother Athelstan’s mystery set in 1300’s England called The Mansions of Murders by Paul Doherty and considering the genre, I immediately request for it, and as I start reading, I suddenly find, what I had been looking for since last 15 years!!

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The novel is set in 1381 England, John of Gaunt is the Regent and with young Richard II as the King; the Great Revolt has been completely crushed and the Lords of the land, like Beaumont, Arundel and John of Gaunt rule with an iron fist. London is completely under the sway of underworld gangs, the riflers who ran the law around the slums of Thames, who were in turn used by Lords, in keeping control of London. The most powerful of these gangs are the Sycamores, led by Simon Makepeace aka, The Flesher. They are vilest, cruelest, and the most influential gang of London, running a host of businesses, from taverns to murder for hire to prostitution. They manage a Mansion of Murder, as is commonly known; a former Church now owned by The Flesher, with high walls and brutal dogs, let loose on people who become a problem for the former. In this background, where no one dares to raise their voice against The Flesher, a crime is committed against him – his mother’s who had recently died and whose body was kept in the Church for mourning, prior to the burial, is snatched away with demand for ransom. Furthermore,  Parson Reynaud of the same Church and Daventry, Arundel’s go between, are both found murdered inside the church! Meanwhile, Fat Margo, the embalmer in Brother Athelstan’s parish, dies, bequeathing all her possessions to the Parish. However, Brother Athelstan soon discovers, that the possession includes the unexpected but well preserved body of Margo’s husband and son, who were believed to have died in a battle 18 years ago. Thus, Brother Athelstan and Sir Jack Cranston, the Lord High Corner for London, try to solve for two unrelated mysteries, and find truths, closer home!

As I read through the novel, I remembered why I wanted to find this series again – simply because it is such a good thriller. 14th century London comes alive in Mr. Doherty’s hands, with its slums, and gangs and dirt. You can feel the stink, the sweat and the ugliness of London as it rises, very different from its current modern avatar! The history is impeccably researched and all details and nuances of 14th century, wonderfully crafted in the main narrative of the novel. The characters are all well rounded and without getting into too much off background, the motivations and actions of all, both primary and secondary easily understood and come across as extremely plausible. The plot moves along smoothly, though sometimes, Brother Athelstan’s mediations seems to slow down the narrative a bit, it does not really hamper the overall flow. The end was, while not wholly surprising was presented in a very innovative manner and tied in all the lose ends, extremely well! The only thing, which left me a bit bemused was the title of the novel, as the actual Mansion, has very little to do with the actual mystery and seems in hindsight, a bit sensational, which may take away, the actual good solid storytelling of the book! To end, this is a very enjoyable, thoroughly gripping book, well written and a good read for all Historical Fiction cum Murder Mystery aficionados!

Thanks to Severn House and NetGalley for providing a copy of this book for review.

About Chevron

As everyone is aware, I am very very susceptible to temptation, especially of the bookish variety! I read a good review, and then I want to read that book as soon as possible. Fortunately for me, in all my bookish adventures, I have had excellent guides and I have in last 5 years (i.e. number of years I have had the blog) read many books which I would have never touched with a 6 ft barge, had it not been for these guides turned friends! Jane is one of those guides and with her I discovered some brilliant authors including Margaret Kennedy and Margery Sharp. It was therefore only natural that after reading her excellent review on The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West, I would begin to wonder in earnest about reading this novel, which had been in lying in my TBR forever! This also happened to be one of my Grandmother’s favorite go-to books and she always said, that I would enjoy it once I get started. However, work these days is a serious impediment to my reading life and it was not until this weekend, I was actually able to make any headway into this work!

The novel opens at Chevron, the seat of Duke of Chevron, 19 year old Sebastian and there is a house party, his mother, the Duchess is hosting. It is 1905 and the Duchess, Lucy and her set, considered “fast” by many of the older members of the English society, are infact the cream who interact socially with the King and help him stave off boredom. They are fun loving, gossipy bunch, who are part of the illusive circle by virtue of their birth or their riches, leading a frivolous, hedonistic life with no depth and little understanding of greater matters of mankind! Sebastian is torn between the worlds that he seems to exist in – on one side, as the Squire Sebastian, he loves  Chevron and all its dependent details and taking care of his tenants and the land and its associated work, that makes him truly and genuinely happy. However he is in constant conflict with the “social” Sebastian; he does not like interacting with “Society” though he goes along for the appearance of it. He feels the duplicity and lack of honesty in those relations and thinks himself confined by them. His sister Viola is 16, intelligent and sensitive, sees through all the hypocrasy of the society and scorns the inheritance of “Lady Viola”.  It is at this house party, they meet, Anquetil, an explorer who is the current hero on England, which is the reason why he is invited to the party. Born to poor parents, who made his life through his intelligence and education, he finds the “society” at once amusing and pitiable and despite his rough manners, he is humane enough to understand how things stand in places like this. It is Anquetil who open Sebastian and Viola to another world and shows them how different life can be if they chose to make it, but it is the beginning of coming of age for both Sebastian and Viola as they discover what really means to live!

Now that I have read the book, I keep wondering, why did I not read this sooner! I absolutely loved it! The narrative is an easy and flowing prose, and plot, despite some jumps in the time, moves along well and keeps the reader engaged. I did feel the last chapter was a bit hurried, lying Ms. Sackville West had a lot to say and not enough pages or time to say it, but it does not impact the narrative and takes nothing away from the plot. However it is the characters that the author has sketched that brings this novel to life! In the character of Sebastian and Viola we see the first generations of 20th century who are realizing that the days of feudal landholding and Squiredom are over and life and people ought to be treated with equality.  Both brother and sister come to their realization in their own unique way and though I cannot say I really warmed upto  Sebastian’s methods, and therefore could not like him completely, it did bring an interesting perspective of the many means of reaching self realization. The supporting cast from Therese to the Dowger Duchess to Lady Roehampton provide a very interesting insight into the variety of belief and mores that existed in Edwardian England and how despite social and economic divides, the belief that appearances need to be kept up triumphed above all. I really wanted to read more about Viola, in whom the author had created a wonderful, likable rebel and Anquetil, the true man of the world, instead of brief tantalizing appereance through the life of the narrative!

To end, it is a great read and while it is perhaps not one of the “classics”, it is nevertheless an wonderful sojourn into a world long gone by and a complete entertainment!

What The July Showers Bring

Finally July…Fall is only 3 months away and I survived yet another horrid Indian Summer. Actually, there are 3 more months to go, but these are technically the Monsoon months, where it rains and floods and while it is quite pleasant when it rains, immediately after that the humidity soars and the baking heat now with high humidity, makes life, well miserable to say the very least!! But like my oft repeated motto, as long as there are books, life will always look up!

Whats in my July book bag then? A very eclectic collection! I am slowly and by slowly, I mean barely crawling through Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War as part of the The Well Educated Mind Reading Challenge – Reading The Histories! And I cannot say, like Herodotus’s The Histories, I am enjoying it! In addition there is OMG-I-CANNOT-BELIEVE-HOW-PONDEROUS-IT-IS reading of The City of God by Saint Augustine, again part of the same project. History, the subject I love has never seemed such an uphill task! To continue my interest in the subject, it is extremely important, that I spice things up and I go to other end of the spectrum to read The Raj at War – A People’s History of India’s Second World War by Yasmin Khan. I have heard some amazing things about the book and am really looking forward to it! Now for Fiction, I have everything from 19th century Russia to 19th century England and finally, 19th century India. I should complete Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. I also continue with The Pickwick Paper Read Along and finally, I am hosting The Shadow of the Moon Read Along, for which the plan is to finish reading this month! I also have on my Kindle, The Red House Mystery by A.A.Milne (of Winnie The Pooh fame and yes, he wrote a adult mysteries as well!) and Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy; his first book which is considered to very different from his Wessex Rural novels.

All in all and exciting (I think!) and somewhat exasperating Reading month! I leave you all with a video that I think capture the very essence of Indian monsoons!

Happy Reading!

The Shadow Of The Moon Read Along – The Landscape Of The Mutiny

I know this post is kind of late, but let me just say that work, which I really wish to keep at minimal and as an alternate, often become main stream; way more often than I like. Anyhow, in my previous essay I had shared some insights into what were the key triggers of the revolt. Today, I want to give an overview of how it spread, the key actors and how it was finally brought to an end, so that you are able to follow the landscape of the novel more easily.

On March 29 1857 at Barrackpore, a military cantonment in East India, a sepoy or solder called Mangal Pandey, angry at the inability of his commanders to resolve the issue of greased cartridges, declared he is revolting and open fired at his Sargent Major, who on being informed of Pandey’s behavior, went to speak to him. He tried to incite his fellow soldiers to rebel and though, the latter did not join him, they also did not try and restrain him when their General ordered them to do the same. On failing to recruit the support of his comrades, he tried to take his own life with his own rifle. He failed, was brought down, arrested and sentenced to be hanged. The soldiers who had refused the General’s order were also hanged. The regiment was disbanded and stripped of its uniforms because the senior officials felt that this would serve as a lesson for those regiments, like this one that they felt harbored ill-feelings towards its superiors. Sepoys in the other regiment felt this was harsh and watched their fellow comrades being stripped of their dignity and became even more disgruntled with the English officers.

Several unrest, following this broke out in the cities of Agra, Allahabad and Ambala, the latter a large military cantonment; not of military revolt but rather cases of civilian arson attacks. Finally, on April 24th, in Meerut, another large military cantonment in North East India, of the unsympathetic and prejudiced Lieutenant Colonel George Carmichael- Smith ordered his men to parade and perform the firing drill, that would require the sepoys to tear of the cartridge, smeared with fat from cows or pigs, unacceptable to both Hindus and Muslims.  All except five of the men on parade refused to accept their cartridges of the total of 90 and all of the 85 were court martialled by 9th May and most were sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. The entire garrison was paraded and watched as the condemned men were stripped of their uniforms and placed in shackles. As they were marched off to jail, the condemned soldiers berated their comrades for failing to support them. The next day was a Sunday and some of the off duty Indian Sepoys warned the sympathetic junior English officers that there will be an attempt to free the condemned 85; however the senior officials took no notice or action. There was trouble in the city of Meerut as well, where the civilians berated the other sepoys for not supporting their comrades and some buildings were set on fire. By evening, the Indian troops, led by the 3rd Cavalry, broke into revolt and freed the 85 held in prison. European officers who attempted to quell the first outbreaks were killed by the rebels. Both military and civilians’ quarters were attacked, and four civilian men, eight women and eight children were killed. Crowds in the bazaar attacked the off-duty soldiers there. About 50 Indian civilians, some officers’ servants who tried to defend or conceal their employers, were also killed by the sepoys.

Thereafter, some of the revolting sepoys made for Delhi, the honorary capital of Mughal India, where at the age of 82, the once brilliant Bahadur Shah Zafar II ruled under the honorary title as the Emperor of India, but really nothing but a puppet in the hands of the East India Company, whose goodwill and beneficence, allowed this once brilliant court to still sustain in some form, but still revered and loved by all subjects, both Hindu and Muslims. The sepoys reached Delhi on May 11th and standing below the windows of the apartment of Bahadur Shah Zafar, they acknowledged him as their Emperor and asked him to join their cause. The 82 year old Emperor at this point took no action, but the sepoys within the Red Fort, where he resided soon joined the revolt and Delhi was soon under the siege of the Sepoys. Several Europeans were killed and the Delhi Arsenal, that held one of the largest arms dumps for East India Company was blown up rather than letting it fall in the hands of the rebels.The surviving Europeans made their way to the Ridge Forest, hoping for a rescue battalion from Meerut, but after two days of starvation and scorching heat, it became apparent, that no relief was coming from Meerut and slowly made their way to Karnal, further north. Some were helped on by the local populace while others killed. On May 16th, the Emperor held his first court in decades and though uncomfortable with the ruthlessness of the speoys, he nevertheless agreed to support the rebellion.

The revolt now spread to other parts of India and Bahadur Shah Zafar was proclaimed the Emperor of the whole of India, though most Historians agree that he was coerced by the sepoys, his advisers and especially his chief wife Zeenat Mahal who wanted to see her son ascend the Delhi Throne.  Revered by all subjects pan India, across religion, caste and creed, the popularity of the Emperor shook the British to the core, who had long ago dismissed the Mughal Emperors as anything but an expensive annoyance. Mufti Nizamuddin, a renowned Muslim cleric and scholar of Lahore, issued a Fatwa against the British forces and called upon the local population to support the forces of the Hindu leader Rao Tula Ram. In Kanpur, again, north eastern India, one of most vicious battles began to play out. In June, sepoys under General Wheeler in Kanpur rebelled and besieged the European entrenchment. Wheeler was not only a veteran and respected soldier but also married to a high-caste Indian lady. He had relied on his own prestige, and his cordial relations with the Nana Sahib to thwart rebellion, and took comparatively few measures to prepare fortifications and lay in supplies and ammunition. However Nana Sahib the mild mannered and cultured, adopted son of the Peshwa was not recognized as the ruler under Dalhousies’s Doctrine of Lapse and he found himself beggared, exempted by what was rightfully his own, violating the traditions of his culture by a band of merchants. Nana Saheb was now part of the rebel forces and his actions would smear the good name of gentle Indians forever. On 25 June Nana Sahib made an offer of safe passage to the Europeans to Allahabad. With barely three days’ food rations remaining, the British agreed provided they could keep their small arms and that the evacuation should take place in daylight on the morning of the 27th. However once near the boats, which were supposed to carry them to safety, the men were mercilessly hacked to death and then the women and children taken hostage to a small bunglow called the Bibigarh, where in a few weeks they too would be butchered to death though, the Sepoys refused to kill them, and couple of mercernaries were hired to complete the vicious act. This action led a lot of Indians and pro Indians Europeans to abandon the cause; no Indian could justify such an act of violence and many voluntarily withdrew from the rebellion. The English became even more brutal; instances include Lieutenant Colonel James George Smith Neill, ordered all villages beside the Grand Trunk Road to be burned and their inhabitants to be killed by hanging. When the British retook Cawnpore, the soldiers took their sepoy prisoners to the Bibighar and forced them to lick the bloodstains from the walls and floor and were then either hanged to death or “blew from the cannon”, the traditional Mughal punishment for mutiny, though they not taken any part in the Bibigarh massacre

Awadh was another center of brutal warfare. Annexed by under the Docterine of Lapse again, the Awadh nobility as well as the sepoys had several causes of anger against the English, with whom they had always acted with fairness and loyalty. However with the disposal of the beloved ruler Wajid Ali, the city of Lucknow, capital of Awadh became a hotbed of dissent and anger and even the Residency of the great Henry Lawrence could not contain the city’s wrath. The British Commissioner resident at Lucknow, Sir Henry Lawrence, had enough time to fortify his position inside the Residency compound. The Company forces numbered some 1700 men, including loyal sepoys. The rebels’ assaults were unsuccessful, and so they began a barrage of artillery and musket fire into the compound. Lawrence was one of the first casualties and would die as a result of that. The siege of the residency continued for 4 months, before relief came with Sir Henry Havelock who fought their way from Kanpur to Lucknow, defeating the rebels in both the cities.

The final and key theater of war was Jhansi; yet another victim of the Doctrine of Lapse. The East India Company refused the Queen of Jhansi’s request to recognize her adopted son as the ruler, whom she had adopted after the death of natural born son, followed by her husband. Jhansi like Awadh had been a loyal state, supporting the British and this was a sever blow to the warrior queen’s faith in them. Under the influence of Nana Saheb, her childhood playmate and best friend, she and her people gave themselves upto the cause of driving the European’s out of India.  In September and October 1857, the Rani led the successful defense of Jhansi against the invading armies of the neighboring rajas of Datia and Orchha, both allies of English as well the British forces themselves. It was only in March of 1858 Sir Hugh Rose was able to lay siege on Jhansi and finally capture it. The Queen died in the battle near Gwalior fighting of the British till the very end.

The other states remained relatively calm; Punjab though recently annexed had been well managed in the brilliant hands of Henry Lawrence before he moved to Lucknow. Those who tried to rebel were instantly captured and punished by the legendry John Nicolson. Bengal and specifically Calcutta,  the very capital of British East India, in eastern India,  to the relief of English also remained relatively calm, as did the large state of Bihar, though there were isolated incidents of rebellion in both states, they were of nothing like the scale in Awadh or Delhi. Gujrat, in west India also remained in control and the Peshwa (ruler) of the largest principality of Gujrat, Baroda, infact joined the British forces to drive out all rebels from his state.

The hostilities were finally and officially came to an end in July 1859. The brutalities by both sides were significant. Several reports circulated of the killing of European woman, but hardly any documented the rape and violence the Indian women sustained in the hands of British soldiers. Bahadur Shah was exiled to Burma, after watching his beloved son’s brutally killed infront of his very eyes and Queen Victoria assumed the title of Empress of India. With this change, the governance of India passed from East India Company to the British Parliament. The states were assured that their local customs will not be violated and it was the kind and gentlemanly had of Lord Canning, the then Governor General of India that tried to control brutalities and vicious acts against Indians. The biggest lesson that the British took away besides strengthen their military presence, was to ensure that as long as they ruled, they should keep the Indian populace divided under the guise of religion because when a cause united Hindus and Muslims, the country became unstoppable. Acting on this principle, such dissent will be sown, that when India finally became independent, she paid it with her blood and a price of her disobedience more than 90 years ago, a large part of her territory and populace was divided to create a Muslim homeland for Indian Muslims – Pakistan.

As always, while I have not cited any specific source, all my knowledge stems from the following – Modern India by Dr. Sumit Sarkar, The Men Who Ruled India by Philp Mason, A History of India by Percival Spear, Awakening: The Story of Bengal Renaissance by Subrata Dasgupta, The Great Mutiny by Christopher Hibbert, The Last Mughal by William Darlymple, Wikipedia and once more, class notes during my Graduate School days from the lectures of Dr. Tanika Sarkar.

 

The Shadow of Moon Read Along – A Brief History of the “Company Raj”

The Indian History as I had mentioned in my The Home and the World Read Along Historical Overview is vast and it’s simply not possible to summarize all that has happened over 5000 years in 5 paragraphs.  However since I always chose to host books with historical significance, it behooves me to ensure that my friends who come along for the ride, get a better understanding of the complex dynamics at play, to better understand the nuances of the novel that we are reading! Hence I present to you, a snapshot of India in 1857.

To get a more detailed understanding of what happened to India before the British came, I would refer you to the post highlighted above from last year! If you are interested in more details, please reach out to me and I will be happy to share more information.  Now, to 18th century India.

The British company, The East India Company, got its charter or “firman” to trade in India,  after several rejections at the court of the Mughal Emperors, when a fluke chance enabled the East India Company Doctor to cure the then Emperor Jahangir’s son from a long suffering illness. As a mark of gratitude, Emperor Jahangir, granted the company the right to start a factory in Surat, in the Western coastland of India. This was the beginning of British presence in the country! The company soon acquired more rights and established factories in Madras (modern day Chennai) and Bombay, which was a Portuguese colony and was gifted to England as part of dowry for Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II and finally, Calcutta on the eastern banks of Ganga in Eastern India. At this, point, several companies, including the Dutch, French and Portuguese were all competition with the English to gain supremacy over trading rights in India and the British began to realize that they would have to quickly up their game to survive the trading rights.

Enter Robert Clive, an 18 year old clerk who had a vision which saw England triumph over all her peers. In 1757, through guile and much bribery, he defeated Nawab of Bengal, Sirj-ud-Dula in the infamous Battle of Plassey. Sirj-ud-Dula was an independent minded ruler who was unhappy with the East India Companies free for all trading rules and wanted to Company to pay taxes for its presence in Calcutta, Bengal. Using this as an opportunity to turn a financial enterprise into a military campaign to gain complete land control of East India, Clive bribed some of the Nawab’s closest aids to turn traitor and became the Governor of Bengal, giving Britain an absolute control, economic and political over one of the most economically rich areas of India. He soon followed it up with Battle of Buxar (1864), forcing the then Mughal Emperor to appoint East India Company as Diwan of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. A Diwan is a powerful position; the official revenue collector of the Mughal Court and by this means became the de facto rulers over the populous and rich areas of Easter Gangetic Plains. The Regulating Act further asserted the power of the company by making it the official representative of the British Crown in India. The act also set foundation of making Calcutta the capital of British India by asserting the supremacy  of the Presidency of Fort William in Calcutta (Bengal) over those of Fort St. George (Madras) and Bombay and made the then Governor-General (Warren Hastings)of Bengal, the Governor  General of all Company lands in India.

Over the next 70 odd years, the East India Company would use guile, wars, pretended mis-rule of the local ruler or blatant disregard of Indian customs to annex practically whole of India. The Anglo Mysore and Anglo Maratha Wars saw subjugation of Western and Southern India. Post this came, the outright and blatant annexation of centuries old kingdoms of Rohilakhand, Assam and eventually Punjab. The company also entered into alliances with other Princely states, under which the Indian rulers acknowledged the Company’s hegemony in return for limited internal autonomy; however this treaty was often negated and terms violated per the convenience of the British Company, as was the case in Jhansi and Satara.

The Company rule was a mixed bag, which tilted more towards negative than positive! The revenue system which had been in disarray because of the broken leadership across India for about a 100 years was systematized and put in order under the Permanent Settlement Act. It introduced a feudal-like structure in Bengal, often with Zamindars, the landed Gentry, who were placed in charge of the lands and had the right to extract taxes from the peasants and after keeping a share of it for themselves, turn the remaining over to the Company. If the Zamindars failed to pay the revenue on time, the Zamaindari right would be taken from them and because it was called permanent, as in the right of the land would exist with the Zamindar and his family for perpetuity, the taxes were fixed at a much higher rate, burdening the Zamindar and most importantly the poor landless peasant who had to starve to pay the gentry those taxes.  The modernization of the Indian Army also began under Warren Hastings, and began recruiting across Northern and Eastern India; most of these recruits were from the Hindu High Caste as well Muslims, and the Army adapted itself to ensure that the Hindu and Muslim practices and customs were not violated during their service! Soon the Sepoys, as in the Indian solider outnumbered the British officers by 10 to 1, the idea being one British solider could take on 10 Indian Sepoys. The Civil service was also reorganized on modern lines and various departments were created to manage affairs of customs, taxes, justice and general civic administration. It was under this new administration, that India was introduced to the modern marvels of Telegraph, Railways and most importantly education. Soon after taking over the administration of India, the British realized that they needed a body of clerks who albeit being Indians, would be educated in the English education system to support the growing multitudes of requirements of the Company Raj. This saw the founding of English style schools and then the universities – University of Madras (1855) and University of Calcutta and Bombay (1857).This was a significant move as it suddenly opened Indians to a world of Western education and Science and the works of Locke and Bentham as well as re-discovering their own Vedic philosophy that began to resonate with the middle class Indians. The education system which sought to provide clerks to help the company business, was suddenly producing thinkers and heralding a profound social movement termed as the Bengal Renaissance leading to abolition of such medieval practices like Sati (burning of widows on the pyre of the dead husband) and child marriage and was vociferous in its favor of education of girls and remarriage of widows.

While all this good was happening, there were other effects of this colonization. India was ravaged with famine after famines, with no support coming from the company to alleviate the conditions of the masses. If there were no famines, the heavy land-revenue assessment in some areas by the British resulted in many landowning families either losing their land or going into great debt to money lenders. Furthermore, fertile lands which were earlier used to grow crops to feed the families were forced to cultivate Indigo, which kills the soil and makes it unsuitable for growth of any food crop. Thousands and thousands of peasants were forced to abandon their farms where they had existed for generations and search for living in the big cities, barely eking out an existence. The indigenous industries were slowly being destroyed through competition from the Manchester Mills. For instance raw cotton was no longer plucked and woven in the guilds of Indian fabric merchant, but sent to Manchester to made into cloth, which was the sold at cheap rates back to Indians, who already on pecuniary existence , could no longer afford to buy the relatively more expensive indigenous guild products. With the coming of the English Memsahibs, the close bonding that existed between the English and Indians disappeared.  The improvement in ship enabled travels, led to many English women to traveling to India. They brought with them their English social mores and suddenly the ‘darkies’  were not fit companions anymore and were only good to be subjugated to a servant class. English men, who had married high born Indian women, suddenly became socially outcasts as were their children. Marrying an Indian was a taboo that not even the strictest Brahmin standards could compete with. Added to this was the missionary efforts of the various sections of the Churches – suddenly the Hindus and Muslims were being told that they were heathens and unless they convert, their afterlife would be spent in the fires of hell! Then came aggrandizing policies of Governor Generals who followed Warren Hastings; with an exception of William Bentinck, none understood India nor its people or its culture. The worst was Lord Dalhousie, who enacted the infamous Doctrine of Lapse that would directly contribute to the 1857 rebellion. Under this policy, any princely state or territory would automatically be annexed if the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir”. The latter clause especially violated the long-established right of an Indian sovereign without an heir to choose a successor, by adopting someone from his/her family. In addition, the British decided whether potential rulers were competent enough, making the Indian kings and Princes, puppets in their own country, expected to serve at the pleasure of The East India Company. Under this law, the much loved and respected monarchs of Oudh and Jhansi among others were deprived of their kingdoms. Finally came the grievances of the Army, the long pampered and loyal arm of the Company Raj! First, the Army was asked to cross the seas to fight wars for the British Empire; for the Hindus, the crossing of the sea was a grave religious sin that cannot be rescinded in any way or form. There were also grievances over the issue of promotions, based on seniority. Further more, the European officers were given precedence making promotion slow for the Indians who either never reached a commissioned rank or were too old to be effective. The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Enfield P-53 rifle.These rifles used paper cartridges that came pre-greased and to load the rifle, Sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder. The grease used on these cartridges included tallow derived from beef, which would be offensive to Hindus and pork, which would be offensive to Muslims. Despite knowing the reservations the English continued the production of these cartridges and court martialed any Indian solider refusing to use these rifles. The stage was thus beautifully set by the British  for the 1857 rebellion and the spark was ignited by a solider called Mangal Pandey, who refused to bite the bullet and was hanged infront of his peers under the judgement of the Army Court. The Rebellion had begun!

It was in this backdrop that the narrative of Shadow of the Moon evolves. Next week, I will share a high level road map of how the Mutiny happened, the lands that were impacted and its closure.  As always, while I have not cited any specific source, but all my knowledge stems from the following – Modern India by Dr. Sumit Sarkar, The Men Who Ruled India by Philp Mason, A History of India by Percival Spear, Awakening: The Story of Bengal Renaissance by Subrata Dasgupta, The Great Mutiny by Christopher Hibbert, The Last Mughal by William Darlymple, Wikipedia and once more, class notes during my Graduate School days from the lectures of Dr. Tanika Sarkar.

Cleo, Helen and Yvonne thank you for not only joining the Read Along but also reading through this 1700 word essay. As Cleo, knows, I do go overboard when it comes to History! But now that Cleo has the book, I think, we can officially commence the Read Along!!!

All About the Ladies from the Choir

Everybody and by that I mean EVERYBODY who reads my posts knows that I have a blind spot for Historical Fiction. And historical fiction that is set in the backdrop of a small English village, during the early years of World War II – well, there is no way I am going to pass up that book! Hence, I was supremely satisfied to find The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan, when one day browsing through bloggingforbooks.com.

Jennifer Ryan

The novel opens in March 1940, with England beginning it’s initial foray into World War II and the Ladies of Chilbury Choir realizing that their singing in the church has come to an end, since the men, so very necessary to produce the right balance in the choir have left to join the armed forces. Each member of the choir has her own thoughts and reservation about this ending of their Choir singing. There is Mrs. Tilling, a widow and a nurse and one the premier members of the troupe; her concerns are divided into the worry of her son leaving for the front, the horrors that war will bring and of course the demise of the beloved choir which brought much peace to her. Then there is Edwina Paltry, the village mid-wife, guilt ridden by her past conduct that robbed her sister and herself of a good life; she is now desperate for a fortune, to ensure she can get away from the village and re-posses her old home with her sister and whose only motive of joining the choir is to use it as a means to her ends. Kitty Winthrop, the talented and precocious 13 year old daughter of the local gentry Brigadier Winthrop, who dreams of becoming a famous singer and leading a happily ever after life with the much older Henry Brampton-Boyd, who in turn seems to be infatuated with her elder sister, Venetia. Venetia, yet another member of the choir is a willful, pampered and bereft of any worries, 18 year old, seeking adventures and entertainment. Finally, there is Sylvie, the 10 year old refugee form Czechoslovakia who is troubled from the memories of a Nazi occupied homeland and a constant yearning for her family. The ending of choir leaves all the members at lose ends, with a sense of loss of something comfortable, in absence of singing when the new Music Teacher in the town,  Miss Prim starts the  revolutionary idea of  a women’s only choir, forcing the members into life changing situations, forcing them to confront their long held believes and do things that they never quite thought possible. As they all try and grapple with these changes, the meet and are forced to shape their lives around strangers who pour into the village, like the mysterious painter Mr. Slater, Colonel Mallard and the London evacuee, Tom.

This is a wonderful and delightful tale told in the form of diary/journal entries and letters exchanged and the narrative is well woven among the characters and the historical backdrop. Ms. Ryan is able to deftly portray the impact of the war on a small village community, balancing it well, with the more immediate concerns of its inhabitants. The life and concerns of the small community is extremely well captured. She creates some wonderful characters in Mrs. Tilling and Miss Prim and Sylvie. The way her characters evolve as the war goes on is very well done, especially when the way she manages to convey the changing belief system of her characters, from denial to tolerance to respect.  The slow sense of empowerment that comes through to the women of the choir as they stand up like never before is very well captured! I loved the way the author was able to intersperse the whole book with hymns and songs that were so apt for the occasion! The only call out I had was some of the events, which I thought were cliched and could have been managed better – for eg. from the moment, Kitty mentions Mr. Slater, I knew what he was about, as well as the way it would finish off. Similarly, I knew how Colonel Mallard would end up in the narrative, from the very moment he was introduced. Some of the interactions depicted are kind of jerky and jump from one emotion to other without sufficient reasoning of why it was happening and how did  the change come about; like the one between Mr. Slater and Venetia. The end also seemed to suddenly tie up neatly in a package, leaving one wondering about where did that come from. However despite, some of these flaws, the book remains a good read – a perfect anecdote to a hectic day, in the accompaniment of some good tea!

I understand from her website that the novel was based on the experience of Ms. Ryan’s grandmother who lived through World War II and shared her stories with the family.  The author does a wonderful job of taking these real life stories and turning them into fiction with enough dash of reality to make it believable and readable!

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The Welsh Prince & The English King

Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman had been lying dormant in my Kindle for more than 3 years. I would start and stop, barely making it beyond the first 20 odd pages over 900 days, never really finding it gripping enough to pursue further; despite it being a work of Historical Fictions, which as all know is my especial weakness. Somehow, the work did not seem to settle with me  and it lay abandoned for years! However recently,  as work pressure kept increasing, I looked about for an easy but not particularly frivolous read, and Here Be Dragons again came up as I dug through my collection. An ever optimist, I thought I will give the novel yet another try, my umpteenth plus one attempt! And this time, surprise, surprise, I succeeded!

The novel is set in 13th century Wales and England, tracing the life of the foremost Prince of Wales, Llewelyn and his work in uniting the split kingdom of Wales into one united nation. The story begins with 10 year old Llewelyn who is trying adjust to the counties of England, homesick for the wildness of his native Wales and angry at the murder of his father by his uncles, in a bid to conquer Northern Wales, which was ruled by the  former. His mother had now remarried into the powerful Corbet clan and while he had a kindly step father, Llewelyn yearned for his homeland. Opportunity finally come by way of the death of his mother’s brother and which brings the family back to Wales and it is at this point the 14 year old Llewelyn begins his bid for his inheritance in Northern Wales with sights much higher of uniting and ruling one undivided Wales! Across the border, trouble is brewing in England. Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s sons are at conflict with each other, in the pursuit of the English crown. Death and wars, eliminate all Princes, until the contest is down to only two – the legendary Richard and John. John, the errant  young Prince knows he can never match up to the military genius of his brother, and instead intrigues and plots for the crown he desperately wants, often failing and seeking intervention of Eleanor’s for a pardon from his powerful brother. Among such changing political dynamics, John discovers he has an illegitimate daughter from a  Norman nobelwoman who is now dead and whose family refuses to take any accountability of the child. John brings this 5 year old girl, Joanne to his establishment and brings her up as his daughter, showering her with love and care, through his marriage to Isabelle, a girl barely two years older to Joanne and through his ascendancy to the throne of England when Richard dies during yet another battle for the Holy Crusade. Joanne, often neglected and berated by her mother, thrives in the affection that she now receives and her heart and loyalty to John brooks no hindrances to her father’s wishes even when the she receives the alarming news of her father having betrothed her to the Llewelyn, at the age of 14, exiling her to a land she does not know and a language she does not understand. As she ventures into this new life and land, she discovers, an extraordinary land and an extraordinary man, who now claims her affections and loyalty, by the sheer kindness and goodness as he helps her navigate through the intricacies of the Welsh court and culture. However as tension, increases between John and Llewelyn, Joanne will be forced to take sides, and make choices between the two men, who form the very pillars of her life!

I am so glad that I finally managed to read this novel. While the whole tagging of “historical romance” initially put me off, I realized as I read through the pages, that not only was this tagging incorrect but misleading! Ok, so there is romance between Llewelyn and Joanne, but it is just one of the many other elements of the book. Somewhere around page 200 or so, they get married and there is brief romance, but after that, the book is about the life they built together, the children and the dynamics between Joanne and Llewelyn’s step son and of course, the extremely volatile and constant changing politics in England, including the epoch making signing of Magna Carta and the recognition of Wales as a independent kingdom. Ms. Penman provides deep insight into history with details on who, what, where and why. She wonderfully crafts out the characters . with much sympathy and understanding. Her King John is both a wonderful father/husband and  a kind hearted liege lord and at the same time  he is also an intriguing distrustful autocratic ruler. The central character of Llewelyn is of course absolutely magnificent – a brilliant military leader, a great political mind, with incredible maturity and patience, whose of love of life sweeps away not only the fictional characters, but also the reader. The other supporting characters, including Isabella, Richard, the other illegitimate son of John, Rhys and Catherine are very well drawn out and support the main cast brilliantly. The only person I could not really understand was Joanne – while I sympathized with the orphan and I understood the divided loyalties of a 15 year old, her later actions, which I understand are actually a historical fact, left me completely cold. Ms. Penmen made much effort to do away such blemishes from her character and she succeeds to a great extent , but I guess I have a closed mind and some things to me are beyond understanding. The language is easy to read and the highlighting events of the era are all captured, wonderfully capsuled and presented in wonderful background. Often historical novels, become history books instead of works of fiction, because of the in-depth history, that the authors get into. Ms. Penman manages to find a happy balance between serious history and creative fiction, making this novel a wonderful read!

Its a 800 page chunkster, but I seriously recommend sticking to it till the end!