The Unbinding of Mary Reade: Miriam McNamara

★★★

Well, hoist the mainsail, stock up on rum and run up the Jolly Roger: it’s time for a swashbuckling tale of piratical adventure! And, this time, the boys don’t have all the fun. Miriam McNamara introduces us to Mary Reade, who runs away to sea in 1717 disguised as a man, and who finds a new lease of life when the Dutch ship on which she serves is taken by pirates. Mary is impressed by the elegant pirate captain, ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham, but even more taken with the red-headed woman who fights in a red velvet gown at his side. This is Anne Bonny who, along with Mary, is one of the very few known female pirates. McNamara’s story plays a little fast and loose with the ‘facts’, though there are few enough of those, but she conjures up an engaging read with a very modern take on gender identity, which does justice to the spirit of Mary’s extraordinary story.

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Gentlemen of the Road: Michael Chabon

★★★★★

First of all, a very Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday and that the new year brings you all sorts of splendid things. For my own part, 2018 has arrived hand-in-hand with well-meaning resolutions, such as easing off on book-buying. I have such a treasure-trove of things to read that I could quite happily spend the entire year reading books I already own, and that’s doubly true because I received some fabulous things for Christmas. The best presents, as always, are those you don’t expect and this lovely little book, a gift from J, displayed a startling understanding of my psyche: here is adventure, derring-do, disguise, intrigue, sardonic wit and rich, luscious prose, all bundled together in 200 pages of 10th-century adventure on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

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Honour and the Sword: A.L. Berridge

★★★★★

Chevalier: Book I

Very occasionally, as a reader, you have the wonderful sensation of finding a book that might have been written especially for you. It feels as though the author has looked into your head, seen all your favourite things and put pen to paper with an indulgent sigh of, ‘Oh, go on then’. And this book did that for me. It’s a rip-roaring old-fashioned adventure story set in France in the early 17th century, full of courage, loyalty, duels, romance, dastardly Spaniards, impossible odds, hair’s-breadth escapes, skirmishes, secrets and, of course, honour. And, at its heart, there’s an irresistible young hero: a fierce little firebrand with his head full of chivalry, a sword at his side and vengeance in his heart. Even better, it’s the first of a projected series. I want more. Right now.

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Among Thieves: Douglas Hulick

★★★★

A Tale of the Kin: Book I

I hadn’t heard of either the author or the series when I stumbled across this book, but I just couldn’t resist the cover. It’s designed by Larry Rostant, an artist whose work is often informed by some form of historical costume, and which always catches my eye. A brief flick through the novel convinced me it was worth a punt. And it’s been such a delight to read. Full of spies, crime lords, twisted emperors and swashbucklers, it takes you deep into the seething heart of the city of Ildrecca: the kind of place you might come across Locke Lamora having a drink with Don Corleone, Captain Alatriste and Sam Vimes. Best described as historical urban fantasy, it’s a tale of deals and double-crossing, spiced with the smallest hint of magic, and it’s enormous fun.

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Traitor’s Blade: Sebastien De Castell

★★★½

The Greatcoats: Book I

I’ve been saving this book as a treat, because I felt sure it was going to be a sparkler and, while I’m not exactly disappointed, it didn’t turn out to be quite what I was expecting. In many ways it ticks all the boxes of a fantasy-tinged swashbuckler, featuring dashing blades, impossible odds and dastardly nobles. These are all very, very good things. There are times, however, when it seems to lose its way: it shoehorns in a vague quest element and too often uses magic as a convenient way to achieve something, or to get out of a tight spot, rather than an integral part of the world. I can’t help feeling it’d be much more successful without its fantasy elements, as a simple character-driven adventure.

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The Swashbuckling Life of the Chevalier d’Eon

The Chevalier d'Eon

I mentioned in my post on Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman that I’d been asked to give a lecture in my professional capacity about the Chevalier d’Eon. I’m pleased to say that it went very well and feedback suggests that the Chevalier’s story exerts just as much fascination today as it did back in the 18th century. Since there’s a lot of misleading information about the Chevalier online, and since this remarkable story deserves to be known more widely, I decided to turn my lecture into a blog post. What follows is, therefore, considerably longer than my usual posts but is amply illustrated. The British Museum has almost sixty prints and other documents relating to the Chevalier’s life in London, many of which I reproduce here. So let’s delve in to a tale of espionage, secrecy, swashbuckling and remarkable self-fashioning.

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The Red Sphinx: Alexandre Dumas

★★★★

Now that Christmas is almost upon us, we can start planning reading lists for the New Year. For those who love derring-do, intrigue and swashbuckling, there’s a treat coming up in January: a fresh new translation of a little-known sequel to The Three Musketeers. Although the musketeers themselves don’t appear, there’s a handsome young hero, a beautiful heroine, battles, plots and, bestriding everything like a colossus, the Red Sphinx himself: the shrewd Cardinal Richelieu.

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Goddess: Kelly Gardiner

★★★ ½

Occasionally history renders fiction almost unnecessary. This was especially true in the case of Julie d’Aubigny, who blazed her way through Parisian society in the final years of the 17th century. She was a striking, swashbuckling, cross-dressing contralto; a lover of handsome men and beautiful women; a formidable duellist; and the toast of the Paris Opéra, where she was better known under her husband’s surname as Mademoiselle de Maupin.

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Rupert of Hentzau: Anthony Hope

★★★

It has been three years since the events of The Prisoner of Zenda and, although Black Michael has been defeated, a threat still hangs over the heads of our Ruritanian friends Colonel Sapt, Fritz von Tarlenheim, King Rudolf and the beautiful Queen Flavia. Michael’s nephew, the disgraced and devil-may-care scoundrel Rupert of Hentzau, is still at large somewhere in Europe. More to the point, he is one of the few people who knows about Rudolf Rassendyll’s impersonation of Rudolf I while the king was imprisoned at the castle of Zenda. Armed with this information, Rupert skulks in exile and waits for his chance to turn his knowledge to his advantage, but a greater secret soon falls into his lap.

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Prince of Foxes: Samuel Shellabarger

★★★★½

Shortly after I finished the excellent Blood & Beauty, this historical novel about Renaissance Italy popped up in my automatic recommendations. The author and title were both unfamiliar and, when I realised that it was again about the Borgias, I was tempted to pass: I had no plans to read another novel on the subject so soon. However, as the reviews were glowing, I persuaded myself to give it a chance; and I can honestly say that I’ve loved every minute of it.

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