The Sealwoman’s Gift: Sally Magnusson

★★★★

For those who judge books on their covers, this is a stunner. Just look at that beautiful design: the stylised waves and breakers; the woman’s face emerging eerily from curls of foam on the front; and the galleon surging towards a precipitous white city on the back. Based on historical fact and informed by an account written by one of its main characters, this remarkably assured debut novel tells the story of a group of Icelandic hostages kidnapped by Turkish corsairs in 1627. Carried off to exotic slavery in Ottoman Algiers, the captives must decide whether to cling to a dream of home, or adapt in order to prosper. How should one choose to live, when you’re never sure if you will ever see your family again? Which chances should be taken? How precious is faith? And what should one do when the charms of captivity threaten to eclipse the lure of home?

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The Aviary Gate: Katie Hickman

★★★

The Pindar Trilogy: Book I

This appealed for two reasons. You may remember that some months ago I read the third book in this trilogy, The House at Bishopsgate (not realising at the time that it was a third book). Impressed by its quality, I was keen to read the earlier novels. Secondly, Hickman’s insight into the world of 16th-century Constantinople promised to reveal the answer to a question that intrigues me. What exactly happens in a harem? Yes, that, obviously, but what about the rest of the time? Surely it can’t be all about lying on a chaise longue while eunuchs fan you and feed you grapes? Well, according to this book, it’s also about poison, vaunting ambition, intrigue and the gradual erosion of everything you know beyond the walls of the ironically-named House of Felicity.

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Now I Rise: Kiersten White

★★★ ½

The Conqueror’s Trilogy: Book II

When looking for a book to read on Halloween, I chanced upon And I Darken, the first novel in this alternative-history trilogy. It was a fitting choice, as the series follows the fortunes of the fierce Lada Draculesti. In our own universe, her male alter ego would go on to make an indelible impact on history and Gothic legend; and Lada looks set to make similar waves in her own world. I discovered the second novel in the series at London Film and Comic Con and devoured it during the course of a quiet afternoon.

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By Blood Divided: James Heneage

★★★

The Mistra Chronicles (Rise of Empires): Book IV

A word of warning before I get into my flow: this is marketed as a potential stand-alone, but will make much more sense if you’ve read the previous three books in the Mistra Chronicles (Rise of Empires) series. I have not read these and consequently found myself floundering at first. Once I found my feet, however, I thought there was much to enjoy in this novel which takes us into rarely-mined historical fiction territory. Books set in the 15th century rarely make it further east than Venice and, indeed, we do spend some time in Venice here. But much of the story unfolds at Monemvasia and Mistra in the Peloponnese: two tiny outposts of the fading Byzantine Empire, standing proud against the looming armies of the Ottoman Turks. The true decline and fall of the Roman Empire is at hand, and it will be bound up with the story of two courageous men and the woman who is loved by both of them.

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Four Princes: John Julius Norwich

★★★★

Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe

Over the years I’ve assembled a variety of John Julius Norwich’s history books, because he conveniently writes on precisely the topics that fascinate me: Byzantium; Sicily; the Normans in Italy; and so forth. However, although I’ve dipped into all of these books, I’ve rather shamefully never finished any of them, having been distracted for various reasons from savouring Norwich’s sublimely elegant prose. This new history, shorter than the others and full of a delightful liveliness, has the honour of being the first Norwich that I’ve read cover to cover. Taking the unusual format of a group biography, it focuses on the dazzling first half of the 16th century, when four men between them bestrode Europe like colossi. It’s an extremely accessible introduction to the period and the men in question.

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And I Darken: Kiersten White

★★★½

The Conqueror’s Trilogy: Book I

Finding myself without a book to read on Halloween, I tracked down something with appropriately dark credentials. This recent novel, set in 15th-century Wallachia and the Ottoman capital Edirne, promised to do the trick. Aimed at a young-adult audience, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable alternative history, full of harem intrigue, scheming pashas and unspoken desires. And, at its heart, is a plain, vengeful, vicious girl named Ladislav or Lada Dragwlya. In another universe (our own), where Lada was born a boy, she was named after her father Vlad and grew up to become known as the Impaler and to spawn a whole genre of blood-soaked legends. Based on this first novel in a planned trilogy, Lada herself looks set to make an equally indelible impression.

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